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Memphis Tennessee

 

We'd booked tickets to Graceland - home of 'Elvis the Pelvis' Presley before leaving OZ. I was dubious. 

After Chicago Memphis seemed very small and very shabby in comparison. Yet I found the experience fascinating.  Memphis can very reasonably claim to be the birthplace of Rock and Roll and while several places claim to be the home of Soul Memphis can certainly claim, thanks to Stax Records, and to Elvis Presley, to be where black music made its first successful transition to popular, white, culture. 

Beale Street was where was all began. But on April 4 1968 it all came burning down, along with Stax records and with them the racial harmony that had led to the popularisation of black music.  Less than a mile from Beale St, at the Lorraine Motel, Dr Martin Luther King Jnr had been assassinated and Memphis was in flames.

Today it's undergone a revival and a sometimes tense racial harmony has been restored.  Black faces and white are in roughly equal numbers and in Beale Street there's a party atmosphere;  everyone enjoying the vibe.  But why are there a dozen police cruisers, several at the end of each block and dozens of both black and white police, some  grooving along to the music, others leaning on their cars chatting and a few scanning the crowds for a hint of trouble?

 


Beale Street - Click on this picture to see more
 

 

Both the Lorraine Motel and Stax Records are now museums.  Stax that had been an old movie cinema, before it was burnt to the ground, so for many year remained a vacant lot in a poor part of town. But now the cinema's been recreated as part of a fine modern building with a replica of the original recording studio and wealth of information.   The Lorraine Motel now forms part of the National Civil Rights Museum.

 


Stax Records - Click on this picture to see more
 

 

In the interests of being close to Graceland and because we had a car to get into town, we booked into the Days Inn - Graceland, on Elvis Presley Boulevard, 15 km out of town.  Days Inn is a chain of quintessential American motels serving a quintessentially American clientele.  This one seems to be wired in to 'Elvis Radio' so that his music blasts over the pool and in the foyer, continuously during waking hours.  The car also facilitated visiting places like Stax that's out in the suburbs.

In Memphis the teenage Elvis was in the right place at the right time. Stax records, just out of town, was selling 'black' street music to an increasingly white audience. But segregation was still in full swing in much of the country. 'Rock and Roll' would allow white kids to enjoy the racy sound while not offending their racial prejudices. While still a minor he was recruited by the entrepreneurial, Dutch born, Colonel Tom Parker who was looking for a likely white kid familiar with the genre. Elvis was both good looking and talented. Thus Elvis' very working class parents signed his first contract with Parker.

Parker was a demanding taskmaster who managed every aspect of the kid's life - and in return took around half of Elvis' total income.  Elvis is quoted as saying "I don't think I'd have ever been very big if it wasn't for him. He's a very smart man."  Television was a new rapidly growing medium. Parker choreographed a risqué, sexually provocative, stage presentation for the new medium and 'Elvis the pelvis' was born.  The rest is history.  Elvis briefly escaped Parker's clutches in 1958 when he was drafted.  But like many others at the time, including President Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, he was becoming increasingly dependent on a range of newly invented prescription drugs.  So like a drug, when Elvis was in the army and unavailable, Parker realised an opportunity to exploit the fans' withdrawal from their fix. By the time Elvis returned the fans had been brought to a fever pitch ready for a triumphant Gold Cadillac Tour.  Elvis was now bigger than the reigning king of pop, Frank Sinatra.  A string of very cheesy movies followed with increasingly silly plots designed to provide opportunities for songs and asexual romance and kissing.

In 1966 Parker became concerned about Elvis' dissolute real lifestyle and arranged for him to marry his girlfriend Priscilla in spectacular style in Las Vegas in 1967.  The marriage was very much for show as Elvis preferred the company of his mates and acolytes to that of his family. They divorced in 1973. His male hangers-on did nothing to curb the bizarre eating habits or drug taking that would contribute to his early death four years later at 42 years of age.

From the outset the Parker/Presley enterprise began to make a great deal of money.  Elvis' first priority was to lift his beloved mother, Gladys, out of poverty.  Initially he bought a house for the family in town. But as his fame grew the house was besieged by young fans. So in 1957 he gave his parents a budget of $100,000 for somewhere more secluded and they found and purchased, on his behalf, a colonial mansion - Graceland.  It became the family home until his mother's death a year later.  His father Vernon revelled in his son's wealth, allegedly installing a pool in his bedroom.  He soon remarried.  His new wife imagined the house was now hers and started making changes to Gladys' interiors and furnishings.  Elvis threw them out.  Nevertheless Vernon is now buried in the garden, alongside Gladys and their son.

During the periods between tours Elvis would return home to recuperate: shooting, riding or go-carting or grass-skido riding with his mates and occasionally even his wife and daughter. 

 

The King Lives

After his death in 1977 his daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, inherited Graceland and it's made more money than Elvis ever did when alive.  Lisa and her backers have invested hundreds of millions in a grand hotel and an enormous museum and convention centre across Elvis Presley Boulevard. The museum, that resembles a shopping outlet, is at least ten times bigger than Graceland itself.

 

 


Graceland - Click on this picture to see more
 

 

Among its features are dozens of Elvis' cars bikes and go-carts; in addition to his two aircraft.  The larger of these is full size jet airliner converted into a flying pad.  It had to have its wing tips temporally removed to bring it to the museum, down Elvis Presley Boulevard in a parade hosted by local politicians and dignitaries.  The museum is designed to glorify the King. Search as you might you won't see any photographs of overweight Elvis, nor reference to his divorce.  And no reference that I could find, apart from an appearance in a photograph, to Colonel Tom Parker.  In the gift shop you can buy a postcard with a recipe for a peanut and banana sandwich and at his plane, a converted airliner, you will learn that he insisted that it was ready 24/7 and he and his boys once took it out in the middle of the night to pick up peanut butter sandwiches.

Thus the American penchant for sanctification of its heroes and for sweeping uncomfortable facts under the carpet is in full swing here.  We would see this again later in Dallas, in the museum recording the assassination of President Kennedy.  Does it matter?  For a singer probably not. For a President it's surely a different matter.

People queue to get in at $100+ per head.  It's a money making machine and unlike almost everything else in Memphis, it's pristine, with evidence of constant upgrade. We had pre-booked our tickets from Australia.  And the one great thing about the Days Inn at Graceland is that it's virtually next door to the Visitor's Centre. 

All in all it was money well spent.  We didn't look at everything.  Wendy announced she was 'Elvis'd out' and we trotted back to our hotel then drove back into town and Beale Street for the real thing: the Memphis vibe.

 

 

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