The king is dead, long live the king

Twenty years ago today, Elvis Presley died at his home in Memphis. Anne Perret makes a pilgrimage to America's musical heartland

The sign on the hotel desk read: "Welcome Harley riders! Please don't use guest towels to polish your motorcycles." Our spirits sank. "This Harley convention sure makes me glad I'm not sleeping here tonight," the desk clerk chuckled. "Memphis is crawling with Hogs!" We shlepped our bags to our room. The traveller's hell loomed - a night spent tossing and turning, kept awake by rowdy revving from the parking lot and poolside partying. But first, dinner.

Corky's on Poplar Avenue is a Memphis institution: an old-style pit barbecue. Fragrant hickory smoke coils above the restaurant building. Inside, the decor is vintage down-home; nothing fancy, but the narrow corridor leading to the loos is covered floor to ceiling with awards.

We ate a rack of slowly grilled wet ribs set up for two, costing $16.99, and washed it down with Memphis Goldcrest 61 beer. The ribs were the most delicious I have tasted anywhere. Corky's is hugely popular, so if you go there, be prepared to wait.

Afterwards, we went to Beale Street. In the Twenties it was the heart of black Memphis. By night it was its blues centre, jammed with dozens of clubs. It still is. The music spills out on to the street - hot trumpets, electric blues guitars and saxophones. BB King's Blues Club is here. We went to Willie Cobb's - a large, crowded room with a small stage in one corner. Its deep mauve walls are covered with autographed sketches of famous black singers - and Tom Jones. Later we drank coffee at a pavement cafe, and within earshot in Handy Park a woman was singing "Memphis Blues".

Memphis is famous for the people who died there: Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King. It was Elvis Week in Memphis. Events included: touring Sun Studio, where Elvis recorded his first song, going to the Elvis Chicago Style Gospel Mass and Spaghetti Dinner and the "Life and Cuisine of Elvis" seminar. As far as I know, the culinary tenets the King followed were: if you can choke it down it's yours, and quantity is of no concern. But this was not for us. No, a true Presley pilgrim makes for the shrine in Elvis Week. So the next day we went to Graceland.

Graceland is in a neighbourhood of car lots, family restaurants and failing businesses. It's not a huge house; in fact it's modest as mansions go. Elvis was 22 when he bought it, and newly famous. It's a touching expression of his need for dignity: his choice resembles the home of, say, a wealthy doctor: sensible and symmetrical, with a long, curving drive and a portico with columns two storeys high. Once you're through the front door, though, it's kitsch heaven: mirrored ceilings, wall-to-wall TVs, a jungle den.

Elvis's grave is in the grounds, marked by an eternal flame, a statue of Christ and a vivid blue pool. At the grave's edge, someone had placed a dog-eared fan photograph worn thin by handling. The site is moving in its tackiness, and there was a lot of weeping going on. We visited a year ago, the day after the anniversary of Elvis's death on 16 August 1977. There were immense floral tributes raised on easels: red hearts, the American flag, a pink Cadillac, and one with a handwritten message: "His Love Still Lights the World".

Memphis does not have an imposing skyline, but it has the Mississippi. In the afternoon we rode the monorail - like Tom Cruise in The Firm - high above the river, to Mud Island. We strolled around the Memphis Belle - the famous Second World War B-17 bomber and movie star - and looked back at the city. On our left was an extraordinary, 32-storey steel pyramid glinting in the sun. To our right, paddlewheelers and flat-boats lay along the levee. Ahead, through a collage of freeway ramps and bridges, was Memphis stacked up on a bluff. In the old warehouses on Front Street, cotton was once king. Now they are overshadowed by the new skyscrapers of a city renewing itself, part of a South that is rising again.

In 1968 it was different. Then, had you walked southwards from Front Street along Main, you would have found each block more blighted than the last, with cheap rooming houses and ramshackle stores. Then Memphis was deeply segregated. When Martin Luther King arrived in that year to head a black workers' strike, he stayed in this poor neighbourhood at the Lorraine Motel.

It's still there. We walked into its parking lot, admired the sleek Sixties cars displayed there, and looked up to the balcony outside Room 306 where Dr King was assassinated. You may visit the new National Civil Rights Museum adjoining the motel. When we were in Memphis there was a young black woman who had slept 2,054 nights on a torn brown sofa on the sidewalk outside the motel. Jacqueline Smith - once the Lorraine's desk clerk - was flanked by handwritten signs: "Boycott civil rights wrong museum tourist trap". She is incensed that this spot, sacred to Dr King's memory, is a private profit-making museum and not part of a foundation benefiting poor blacks. She argues that Dr King would have wanted something selfless on the site: a hospital, maybe a school. If you agree with her you go to the parking lot and remember him, instead of to the museum.

And the Hog riders? Pussycats. Once they were rebels, with or without a cause. Now they are middle-aged and Buddha-bellied, their cause is comfort: to sit astride chrome magnificence, enthroned on pillowed bike seats. And what they wanted at the end of the day was a good night's sleep. We were not disturbed. It was no Heartbreak Hotel.

Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
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

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Restaurant Manager / Sommelier

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Receptionists - Seasonal Placement

    £12500 - £13520 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced Hotel Receptionists...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Receptionists - Poole

    £12500 - £13520 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Recruitment Genius: Lifeguards / Leisure Club Attendants - Seasonal Placement

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Qualified Lifeguards are required to join a fa...

    Day In a Page

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn