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.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Yaya Touré has defended his posturing over his future at Manchester City
Spectators photograph the Tour de France riders as they make their way through the Yorkshire countryside
voicesHoward Jacobson: Line the streets for a cycling race? You might just as well watch a swarm of wasps
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
lifeHere's one answer to an inquisitive Reddit user's question
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Detail of the dress made entirely of loom bands
Life and Style
There were mass celebrations across Argentina as the country's national team reached their first World Cup final for 24 years
transfersOne of the men to suffer cardiac arrest was 16 years old
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
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
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice