Elvis Presley sites and experiences in Memphis: The home of the King puts Elvis into perspective

I'm in Memphis, at Lansky Bros, the "Clothier to the King", no less, and home of the iconic blue suede shoes. As I hesitantly try on an Elvis-style leather jacket the young female assistant tells me to "put the collar up – go for some attitude." 

I'll take it ($US295/$410) and I pay by card. In 1938, Elvis Presley's father Vernon went to jail for forging a cheque and the course of world history changed. The family were evicted and moved into a predominantly African- American neighbourhood where Elvis was exposed to black music. That musical melding created the phenomenon that is rock 'n' roll.

As Paul Simon sung in his 1986 hit Graceland, Elvis' home is a place of pilgrimage. The new Baz Luhrmann biopic Elvis, which will be released in Australia on June 23, adds to the sense of homage and is eagerly awaited in his home town.

While there's much more to Memphis from the active music scene of Beale Street, to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, it's difficult to resist the city's Elvis heritage which comes in many forms beyond Graceland.


To tour chronologically, the first day should be in Tupelo, Mississippi (tupelo.net) where Elvis was born. There are tours from Memphis or it's an easy 200 kilometre freeway drive each way.

The starting point, for Elvis and us, is the Elvis Presley Birthplace (elvispresleybirthplace.com) in East Tupelo. A tour of the house, museum and church costs $US20 ($28). The two-room house where he was born on January 8, 1935 is beyond modest – the family slept in one room and cooked and ate in the other. A walk through doesn't take long.

At noon his small First Assembly of God church has a clever recreation of a 1943 Pentecostal service that's rather like a piano singalong. Here a young Elvis (with glasses and brown hair) first performed Jesus Loves Me, with the preacher on guitar.

At Tupelo Hardware Co. (tupelo-hardware.myshopify.com) his mum bought six-year-old Elvis his first guitar. A bicycle was too expensive and he had a crying fit when refused a gun. To placate him, the owner gave him a Kay guitar that he reluctantly accepted. The shop hasn't changed much since Gladys and Elvis left but the world would never be the same.

Tupelo's Elvis Driving Tour brochure includes his swimming hole on the aptly-named Mud Creek. Johnnie's Drive-In that he frequented still serves doughburgers (a Great Depression creation) for $US1.40 ($US1.51 with lettuce and tomato).



Legend has it that Elvis came into Memphis Recording Service in 1954 to cut a birthday record for his mother. I once asked Sun's Sam Phillips if that was true. He said it wasn't, Elvis (a delivery driver) didn't have the nerve to simply ask for an audition: "I saw that Crown Electric truck every day for a month or two before he got up the courage to come in".

While it still functions as a recording studio, there are daytime tours for $US15. Elvis' first recording (My Happiness) sounds just like the Elvis we all know, and there's a broadcast of the DJ who first played Elvis' That's All Right on radio. Finally, you step into the hallowed ground: the studio where Sun stars including Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded the songs that are now part of our lives.

Across the road is the Edge Motor Museum (edgemotormuseum.com) that has a perfectly restored 1950 Oldsmobile Rocket 88, the muse for the first recorded rock 'n' roll song.

A bit further along is Sam Phillips Recording Studio (samphillipsrecording.com) now under the guidance of Sam's youngest son Jerry. It's not open for tours and still attracts a who's who of artists. I asked Jerry, a musician himself, what direction he'd like to see music go? He replied "back to basics: less run by marketing departments and less editing out of every tiny imperfection."


Located at 3764 Elvis Presley Boulevard, Graceland (graceland.com) has grown. Once it was simply the Colonial Revival home that Elvis had bought in 1957 for $US102,500 (deposit $US1000). Now the shopping centre across the road has been demolished to make way for Elvis's cars, planes, stage outfits, motorcycles and displays that take a day to explore.

Walk through the Lisa Marie, a Convair 880 jet that Elvis bought from Delta in 1975 and decorated in his own distinctive style.

Unless you opt for the Ultimate VIP Tour ($US196) your guide to Graceland itself will be an iPad ($US77). As in Elvis' days, no-one is allowed upstairs. Against expectations and rather disappointingly, the ground floor is stylishly furnished, if your taste runs to 1960s ostentation. The mirrored stairway leading to the forbidden top floor is spectacular.

The basement is what we want and expect. The poolroom with its mind-boggling pleated fabric ceiling and walls is mesmerising in its excess. And then there's the Jungle Room that looks like the furniture was built by Paul Bunyan on acid. The Tiki styled furniture sat on the floor of a local furniture company unsold for ages before Elvis came in and bought the lot.

Beyond the house lies the stables, father Vernon's office and the netball court with lounge area where Elvis spent his last evening in 1977, aged just 42. Most poignant is the Meditation Garden, designed for Elvis and where he and the rest of his family are buried.


Before the decorated white jumpsuits of Vegas, Elvis Presley really did change men's fashion, freeing it from conservative post-war style. Much of this is due to Lansky Bros. (lanskybros.com) that extended credit to the young man and continued their relationship throughout his life.

The store within the famous Peabody Hotel (peabodymemphis.com) retains its own distinct style (and walls of famous gifted guitars). Several articles feature Elvis' favourite bubblegum pink that, along with his jewellery and makeup, led men out of a monochromatic past. No wonder Graceland has stained glass peacocks.

The ideal time for a visit is 11am when, in a charming ritual, the Peabody ducks are marched down from their rooftop palace to spend the day in the hotel's indoor fountain. Elvis had his senior prom at the Peabody.


If your pilgrimage isn't complete, visit the Arcade Diner, Memphis' oldest café (arcaderestaurant.com), where Elvis had a favourite booth. Or eat at Priscilla's hairdresser, now a fashionable restaurant with retro decor (thebeautyshoprestaurant.com).

The Presley family lived at apartment 328/185 Winchester Ave in Lauderdale Courts (now Uptown Square) between 1949 and 1952. With the profits from his first #1 hit Heartbreak Hotel he bought 1034 Audubon Drive for the family. Elvis went to Humes High School between 1948 and 1953.

He gave his first paid concert in the Overton Park Shell three weeks after recording "-That's All Right. And of course, there's an Elvis statue on Beale Street.

A week of Elvis immersion in Memphis puts this remarkable man in perspective. Too often remembered for his sequinned jumpsuits and outrageous diet, he was a true innovator who changed music, fashion and performance style forever. His exceptional good looks, curled lip attitude, remarkable film career and a voice and range of singing styles from gospel to ballads to hard rock remains unsurpassed. The King indeed.



On 14 January 1973 Elvis' Aloha from Hawaii concert was the first by a single artist to use satellite technology to be broadcast internationally. There's a commemorative statue of Elvis outside the Neal Blaisdell Center, Honolulu.

Parkes, NSW

Since 1993, Parkes holds an annual Elvis Festival in January to celebrate his birthday. See parkeselvisfestival.com.au

Bendigo, Vic

Until 17 July, Bendigo hosts Elvis: Direct From Graceland at the Art Gallery and a series of events across the region. See bendigoregion.com.au

Tupelo, Mississippi

Tupelo has a summer Elvis Festival each year. In 2022 it's June 8 to 12. See tupeloelvisfestival.com

Memphis, Tennessee

Graceland has an annual Elvis week – August 9 to 17, 2022.



Delta flies to Memphis from around $2000 return via LAX (based on fares in September 2022) www.delta.com


There are several Memphis hotels within walking distance of Beale Street. The chic Arrive Hotel (arrivehotels.com/memphis) has rooms from $US170 or the Hyatt Centric on Beale Street (hyatt.com/en-US/hotel/tennessee/hyatt-centric-beale-street-memphis/memct) from $US164. For the ultimate Elvis experience stay at the 4-star Guest House at Graceland, (guesthousegraceland.com) from $US329.


Many Memphis attractions are within walking distance and taxis and Ubers are plentiful. An all-day ticket to ride the trolley cars and buses is just $US2.





David McGonigal travelled as a guest of Memphis Travel and Delta Air Lines.