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All shook up

The Elvis industry survives by carefully preserving his legacy and protecting his brand. John Bishop makes the pilgrimage to Graceland, home of the musical icon and a thriving tourist attraction.

Elvis Presley, the enduring cultural icon of the 1950s through the 1970s, has now been dead just slightly longer than he was alive. Born on 8 January 1935, Elvis died aged 42 on 16 August 1977, a touch over 42 years ago.

Stars pay tribute to his influence: John Lennon said that ‘before Elvis there was nothing’, and Keith Richards credited Elvis with changing the world ‘from black and white to vivid colour’.

Another musical pioneer, Buddy Holly, declared that ‘without Elvis none of us would have made it.’  And modern country group the Pistol Annies have said, ‘no matter what kind of music we sing… gospel, rock, country, we all copy Elvis.’

The Graceland complex, incorporating Presley’s home, Graceland, is on Elvis Presley Boulevard. A short drive out of Memphis in Tennessee, it is the city and the state’s biggest attraction. Each year 600,000 visitors take up the invitation on the billboard at the entrance to ‘take a journey through his life and phenomenal career’.

Visitors start at the entrance hall and ticket booth, to explore various exhibitions, displays, attractions, and gift shops, and his aeroplanes, which occupy 9,000 sq metres out of a total of 22,000 sq metres.

Graceland, the house where Elvis and his family lived, is across the road and visitors are taken there in passenger vans to control access. Then they can wander the house at leisure, with a commentary on an iPad taking them through the rooms.

The house is a memorial to the life he lived: it’s a family home, but also where he hung out with the boys, rode horses, played pool, made music, and cooked southern food at bizarre hours. The decor is  bad taste meets lots of money.

In the pool room, 350 metres of multi-coloured fabric is draped like a cosmic nightmare. The Jungle Room was Elvis’s den, with its own indoor waterfall, stuffed animals and green shag pile carpet. Upstairs, the bedrooms are off limits.

The basement was a place for mayhem, his daughter Lisa Marie recalls in the commentary. That’s where Elvis and his friends hung out. Outside there are the stables and the pool.

The memorial garden where Elvis, his parents, and his brother are all buried has a gentile tranquillity. Visitors linger, weep, and remember.

Today it is easy to forget what a cultural icon Elvis was, and the scale of his career. He starred in 34 films and two worldwide television specials (the first being the biggest ever live international hook-up), and sold over a billion records.  In the hallway you can admire the film posters and walls of gold and platinum records.

Teenagers in the 1950s loved his style. They bought his records, saw his movies, and followed his every move. He set new standards for style and entertainment. Millions of people across the globe remember him, love him, and imitate him still.

When I visited back in 2014, some parts of the Graceland product were looking a little tired. Now a new-look Graceland gives a lot more space to the social and cultural impact of Elvis, in addition to details of his life. The house, which he bought in 1957 at the age if 22, is still the same, but millions of dollars have been spent on new exhibitions: Elvis in the Army, Elvis the cultural icon, Elvis in new photographic displays, and more. The State of Tennessee provided a tax subsidy to help the reinvestment programme, such is the importance of Graceland to the local economy.

Elvis’s father was Vernon Elvis Presley. A farmer and later a delivery driver,  he married Gladys Smith at age 17 in 1933. Their son Elvis arrived on June 8 1935. His twin was stillborn and he was to be their only child. The family were poor and life was a struggle.

Elvis promised his parents an easy comfortable life, and, at a remarkably early age, he delivered it. They lived with him in Graceland for the rest of their lives. His wife Priscilla said Elvis, as a young man from nowhere who made it to the top through talent and hard work, represented the American dream.

The Elvis complex is quite an industry, with entry starting at NZ$102; it can cost up to $160 for everything including a skip-the-line premium.

It’s US$35 to pose for a picture in front of the mansion, and there are also 13 options for posing with Elvis himself, some of them placing you in scenes from his movies, for US$36 to US$55. Elvis with his hand on your shoulder and Elvis shaking hands with you are the most popular, the photo operator told me.

And there’s no limit to what you could spend on T Shirts, posters, jackets and sweats, memorabilia, and ephemera. You can eat at themed cafes, even stay at a themed hotel on site.

Elvis embodied the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. For his young fans, it has been called ‘the sound of emotional freedom.’ His look was provocative and emphatically youthful. It did not reflect anything that the 50s teenagers’ parents had owned, liked, or respected. This music was their property, and they were the first generation ever to enjoy such a privilege.

Pop music changed fundamentally, big-voiced singers fronting 40-piece orchestras giving way to kids with guitars singing about love, dates, cars, and clothes.

Elvis recorded his first hit record, It’s alright Mama, at Sun Studios in Memphis in 1954. It was something he launched into during a break in a session that had not been going well. 

Sun’s owner Sam Phillips signed Elvis to a three-year recording deal, but, deeply in debt, sold him on to RCA Records 18 months later to save the studio.

The rest, they say, is history. At Graceland the story of the ultimate rock and roller of them all is well and faithfully told, in a controlled way without excessive emotion. There is no need. His story is enough; he was simply the King.

John Bishop visited Graceland with the help of Memphis Tourism.

First published in Capital issue #64
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