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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum