No kidding. The Graceland campground is located at the end of Lonely Street right behind the Heartbreak Hotel.
We anticipated an amusement park atmosphere. Instead, a trip down a regular city street — Elvis Presley Boulevard — led to the right turn down Lonely Street. EP Boulevard went on, but this was the beginning of the Graceland complex, a huge presence on the west side of the street and a smaller presence – the Mansion itself – on the east side. Before you can get to either the hotel or the campground, you’re grilled by a 24/7 guard who clears both you and your vehicle before awarding a dashboard tag.
It’s not that the place isn’t imposing, it just isn’t honky-tonk. The campground isn’t large – about 60 small, well-manicured sites, mostly pull-through. There’s a huge hillside for dog walking, and the community pavilion plays Elvis music softly and continuously from the Elvis Sirius channel. It’s always full, and except for the work campers who get to stay there, it turns over with stays averaging three days. We signed up originally for a week, but stayed for 11 days. Gates on the south side leads to the complex and is open until 7PM.
Just beyond Lonely Street is Graceland Crossing, a strip center dedicated to the King. It has a series of special interest shops, some of which have niche exhibits like fashions, recording studio mockups, etc. There is nowhere you can go in the complex without being tempted by goods for sale. And, of course, you exit every exhibit (except the Mansion) through its gift shop. Want real live replicas of some of his fancier jumpsuits? Yours for only $2100 to $3200. Want an Elvis spice rack or teapot? Much less, of course.
The main entrance is next, and the tails of Elvis’s two jet planes extend above the walls. Inside, one has an opportunity to spend up to $69 for the full tour. We took a simpler version at $30 for seniors. The tour includes the Mansion, its grounds, the airplanes, the automobile museum and a half-dozen related exhibits. And, of course, access to a couple dozen themed gift shops. Boarding of the buses that take you to the Mansion (a 200 yard trip) is preceded by a tempting picture session in front of a giant EP portrait.
The Mansion is extravagantly furnished, but it’s much smaller than one would expect. The Jungle Room on the lower level is the most “Elvis.” The main outbuilding includes an office for his dad, Vernon, in which is running a continuous showing of casual interviews with the King. The gravesite is tasteful. One surprise: the name inscribed on his grave cover is Elvis Aaron Presley. His birth certificate read Aron, as crossword puzzlers well know. By 1977, however, the family judgment was that the traditional spelling was intended.
The car collection included two Silver Clouds; a 1973 Stutz Bearcat; pink, purple, white and gold Caddys; a Blue Hawaii inspired Willys Jeep; and many other motorized vehicles and toys. The jets, a Convair 880 and Lockeed Jet Star, make you realize how much more technically exotic they would be today!
Our overall impression: Elvis becomes a better understood and more impressive person after a visit to his heartland. One recognizes the incredible contributions that the Tupelo Troubadour made to our musical scene.
Another special feature of the Graceland community is Lambert’s Restaurant, just a mile down the road. For absolutely nothing nil, nada, they will pick you up in a pink Cadillac limo and bring you to the restaurant and home again.
Okay, now for the real Memphis. Downtown was only fifteen minutes away, and we made multiple trips to multiple venues.
The Lorraine Hotel.
There it stood. We just drove up to it and parked across the side street. The hotel on one side and the boarding house on the other loom far less spectacularly than the alteration of history that was made by the bullet that crossed Mulberry Street forty-two years and one week earlier.
The hotel is now the National Civil Rights Museum. Parked in front are two cars identical to those parked there that fateful day. On the balcony in front of Room 306 is a giant wreath. There’s been one there since the day after the assassination.
You’re first exposed to an exhibit of the trials of African-American military forces. In story and artifacts, you learn about everything from dangerous segregation to heroic efforts. Next, you have an opportunity to view a movie of the 1968 events. And then you travel through a catacomb-like tunnel. There is no orientation to the inside of the hotel but simply a twisting path of continuous exhibits. The viewer is carried dramatically through many years and scenes of historic struggle. Included are a full sized lunch counter, a bus you can board that replicates Rosa Parks’s courageous stand, and a real city trash truck on a littered street surrounded by strikers bearing I AM A MAN signs.
And when you emerge from the catacombs, you are standing right next to Room 306 and looking out over its balcony. History comes racing back. Where was I? What did I do? What has the event personally meant to me?
A trip across the street reveals that the boarding house, now gutted chronicles the story of James Earl Ray’s deceptive life and the events leading up to April 4. Several rooms remain, including the one from which the shot was taken.
For us, the visit was a reality check — recognition of how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.
During our stay in Memphis, there were three significant deaths.
Dixie Carter died on April 10 at age 70. She was best known for her role as one of the distaff musketeers in Designing Women. She was born in McLemoresville, Tennessee – about half way between Memphis and Nashville — but she spent many of her early years in Memphis and made her professional stage debut in a Memphis production of Carousel.
Dr. Benjamin Hooks died on April 15 at age 85. A minister, businessman and lawyer, he was a native Memphian, consumptive fighter for civil rights and engineer of the renaissance of the NAACP in the 1980’s. Dr. Hooks served as one of the attorneys representing the Memphis Sanitation Workers who were on strike for better working conditions. Dr. King came to Memphis in April, 1968 to support those workers.
And, on that very same day, the owner of Dot’s heart, Willie Wonka Ferris, died at age 15½. Willie’s biography is available on our regular site — www.schipperhaven.org. He came to our house in May, 2007 after losing his owner. We were to transport him to his foster home, but he never made it, having captured our hearts overnight. During those three precious years, he brought untold joy to both of us. But he was Dot’s soul mate.
Memphis and the Mississippi River
There is section of the Memphis waterfront called Mud Island. Actually a peninsula, most of it today is occupied by the Mississippi River Park, heralding the mighty River into which it extends. The park includes a 5,000 seat amphitheater that’s staged many notables, a promenade featuring a five-block long scale model of the river, and a museum. Access is by a long footbridge or a fun monorail ride (guess which one we did!). The museum traces the River’s history and contains many wonderful ship models. The last part of it is the pièce de résistance: a full size bow section of a riverboat, complete with wheelhouse, deck, cantilevered gangplank, slip with bollards, cleats and cotton bales . . . the works!
Memphis deserves a share of Nashville’s Music City nickname. So much music has its roots here that it rates equivalence. Nashville is the root of country and bluegrass, and New Orleans is the root of jazz. Memphis is clearly the root of rhythm and blues.
And Sun Studios clearly watered those roots. Sam Phillips opened the studio in 1950 and launched the Sun record label in 1952. He is credited with launching the careers of a few notables, such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, BB King, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins. With Elvis’s Hound Dog already on the airwaves, Sam made a big mistake: producing and releasing a recording by Rufus Thomas of a song named Bear Cat. The opening lyric is: You ain’t nothin’ but a bearcat/Been scratchin’ at my door. You can hum the tune along with me. The subsequent lawsuit was huge, and, in fact, it was a principal reason why Sam sold Elvis’s contract to RCA for $35,000 in 1955.
Our tour guide, Jamie, was not yet born when Elvis died. Yet her knowledge, stage presence and enthusiasm made the glory days of the studio come alive. We were first let upstairs to an exhibit hall, where she led us through the chronology of Sam’s and the Studio’s career. Then down a stairway to the other side of th first floor, where the studio not only existed but was set up to still be in operation. We got to feel the presence of the greats through Jamie’s story weave, including a demo of Sam’s invention of the tinny guitar sound on Cash’s I Walk The Line — inserting a dollar bill under the strings.
Perhaps the biggest miracle emanating from Sun was the night that Carl Perkins was recording and Jerry Lee Lewis was playing piano for the session. Elvis happened in, and Sam called Johnny Cash up to join them. Naturally, the mics were live, and that all-night jam gave birth to the Million Dollar Quartet.
Like The Lorraine, being there was ethereal.
Sidebar #1: Marion Keisker, Sam’s assistant for many years, was in the studio alone one day when a young man came in and asked to make a recording for his mother’s birthday. She assented and charged him $3.25. He recorded two songs: My Happiness and That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.
Sidebar #2: While serving on the board of the Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, I became strongly attached to our production of Smokey Joe’s Café, a revue featuring forty songs from the library of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Born three weeks apart, they met in L.A. at age 17 and formed their lifelong partnership. They wrote over 300 hit songs for artists ranging from The Coasters to Peggy Lee to Edith Piaf. Their first smash was a song written for and originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton. It was covered by a young, hip-swinging white guy, and it is appropriately the title of Jerry and Mike’s autobiography: Hound Dog.
On to Beale Street
Sun Studios sponsors free tours from the Graceland complex to downtown — if you spend an hour at the studio. We didn’t find an hour long enough!
Back on the bus, we proceeded to a museum at the head of Beale Street, the Memphis Rock and Soul Museum. Researched and developed by the Smithsonian, it is another overwhelming collection of history and artifacts from the decade that changed the musical world forever – and the roots that made it happen. After that, we strolled down Beale Street. Sounds emanated from many cafes, even in the middle of a weekday, and a group serenaded us from an outdoor stage. It was an opportunity to hear live what we had spent so much of the past several days immersed in the history of. (Couldn’t avoid ending that sentence with a preposition!)
The Pink Palace
We actually did all of the above touring before we lost Willie. After that dreadful morning, we made arrangements to stay on a few extra days. In due time, we took in one last Memphis attraction: The Pink Palace.
The dream of Clarence Saunders, founder of Piggly Wiggly, the world’s first supermarket, it was started in 1922 but fell unfinished into the hands of creditors when Saunders lost his fortune in an epic battle with the New York Stock Exchange. The company buying the mansion from the bankruptcy court donated it to the City of Memphis, and it opened as a museum in 1930. Not a museum but a family of museums. The site includes an IMAX theater, planetarium, nature center, science center and more.
We took in IMAX and the exhibits in the Palace itself. IMAX had two offerings: The Alps and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. We opted for the latter and learned more about it that we ever did in school. Since we’ll be traveling part of their route on real roads over the next two years, it was all the more fascinating to see how they made it through the wilderness. And we marveled at the detailed records they kept.
We toured through multiple, well-developed exhibits. There was a full size mock-up of an original Piggly Wiggly. There was an extensive presentation on the history of chocolate – at one time worth the price of gold! A series of tableaux showed home, home industry, office and medical facility rooms in the nineteenth century.
But neatest of all was the Clyde Parke Circus. It is a miniature rendition, covering an area of about 300 square feet and consisting of a five-ring big top and numerous side shows. It is surrounded by a circus parade. But here’s the best: it’s animated! Trapeze artists swing, animals move, the parade constantly circles the show . . . it’s truly a delight for all ages. Mr. Parke began its construction in 1930 and estimated that he spent over 60,000 hours carving, painting, building and mechanizing the exhibit. Donated to the museum in 1970, it eventually fell into operational disrepair, and a five member volunteer team from the University of Memphis re-engineered it about five years ago.
The Pink Palace gave us temporary respite from our sadness and gave us the energy to push on with one empty crate.