Graceland: Presley's Kingdom

Sun, Studio B and Graceland give an insight into America, not just Elvis, says Matthew Longhurst

Elvis Presley personified the American Dream. He was born in a two-room house in a Mississippi backwater and became one of the most recognisable figures ever to have lived. He also embodied an American nightmare: he died 35 years ago, slowed and smothered by his own success.

But whatever you think of The King, his was an extraordinary life. Though his image has become almost a cartoon, it is still possible to find evidence of the real Elvis – and to be reminded that he was a man who mattered. The proof can be found in three buildings in Tennessee.

In 1953 Elvis cut his first record, at his own expense, at Memphis Recording Service. He was driving a delivery truck by day and studying to be an electrician by night. The studio's boss, Sam Phillips, ran a label out of the same building: Sun. Phillips was sufficiently intrigued by Elvis to pair him up with a local band and, after a time, the future King recorded his first commercial record, with "That's All Right" on the A-side.

This important stage in Elvis's story is cleverly told in the original Sun Studio building in Memphis (706 Union Avenue; 001 800 441 6249; sunstudio.com).

Phillips himself held on to Elvis only until the following year, when he sold his contract to RCA for $35,000. He believed Elvis caused the sensation he did because he was "a white man who sang like a black man". That's become something of a cliché, but it's an important insight. In the 1950s USA, particularly in the South, most white Americans had no interest in black music. This was a time of segregation.

But the black Mississippi Delta field workers who, during the Forties and Fifties, were heading north to Chicago in great numbers, passed through Memphis on their way out of the Delta. And they had all the best tunes. Elvis Presley was in the right place, at the right time, to understand the power of the blues. After Elvis left Sun for RCA he recorded in Nashville, the epicentre of country music. This is important, because Elvis didn't just rework blues, he also borrowed from country. His first B-side was the bluegrass standard "Blue Moon of Kentucky".

At RCA Studio B, where he cut 200 records, most of them spectacular hits, Elvis refined his rock'*'roll sound. Like Sun, Studio B is open to visitors. It's operated by Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame (222 Fifth Avenue South; 001 615 416 2001; countrymusichalloffame.org) from where tours depart daily. The guides make excellent use of audio, as does Sun Studios.

If you visit Sun and Studio B you'll understand something of Elvis's cultural significance; how he was a product of a place and time, and brilliantly equipped to exploit the influences around him. You'll discover more about Elvis the man at Graceland (3734 Elvis Presley Boulevard; 001 901 332 3322; elvis.com/graceland), the Memphis home he bought in 1957. The tour here is remarkably poignant. Pilgrims come expecting to be moved, but many visitors are simply curious, and of those, a good few expect Graceland to be a little on the tacky side.

It's not. This was a man's home, one he shared with his parents and his own family, and it reveals that Elvis Presley cared a great deal for all of them, and for his wider circle of friends – the so-called Memphis Mafia – to whom he was extraordinarily generous.

Elvis Presley may in the end have been a victim of his own success – and certainly nobody at Sun, RCA Studio B or Graceland has any interest in revealing the darker side of his life – but the evidence presented in these three buildings proves Elvis to have been a truly extraordinary musician, and a fascinating man.

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