On a wall next to one of the many gift shops at the Graceland complex are three large photographs of Elvis Presley. Displayed side by side, the photos succinctly show how Presley’s image evolved over the singer’s twenty-two year career.
The center photograph is of Elvis as he would have appeared performing during the 1950s. Holding his guitar with his right hand, he is on his toes flailing his left arm above his head while he is clearly engaging in those “sinful gyrations” of his hips that a Florida judge once threatened to arrest him for and a famous variety show host used as a reason to film him from the waist up only.
On the left is Elvis from the 1968 Comeback Special. Clad in a black, leather suit and playing a Gibson Super 400 guitar, he is performing in one of the show’s informal jam sessions that some believe is the prototype for today’s popular “Unplugged” performance format.
On the right is an image of Elvis wearing one of his iconic jumpsuits during his 1973 Aloha From Hawaii concert. Aging, but still charismatic, handsome, and energetic, he is forcefully delivering lyrics in a way that was uniquely his.
The pictures, positioned as they are, epitomize the life of the most successful solo artist of all time. Original, courageous, resilient, and inventive, Elvis always seemed to have the right formula for success at the right time in American musical history.
Maybe that is why nearly forty years after his death, his Memphis home still receives about 600,000 visitors a year. But I expected to see something different than what I saw. I’d always pictured it in my mind as set back and secluded, but it is not. Graceland sits on a hill not far from a busy Memphis street. Visible from the street and separated from it by an easily scalable, chest-high wall, it seems as if one of America’s most popular entertainers was in easy reach of the throngs of fans who, back in Elvis’s day, must have loitered around the front gate hoping to see the King of Rock and Roll in person.
Yet despite its proximity to the street, no one is allowed to walk through the famous gates and up the driveway to the mansion. You must take the shuttle from across the street, where, before boarding, you are handed a set of headphones for your audio tour of the grounds. Usually I skip the headphones or those other devices that you hold to your ear and listen to someone simply repeat what is on the placards anyway. This time, however, I found that they are worth it, as the narrator conveyed much more information about Elvis and his estate, and it did enhance the visitor experience for me.
The tour starts in the front hallway and includes the first and basement floors only. (No one is allowed upstairs as it was Elvis’ private area and the place where he died.) The first room on the right is the living room and behind the stained glass peacocks at the end of the room is the music room, an area where Elvis entertained visitors and family. Despite the living room’s fifteen-foot sofa, it and the music room seem small by today’s standards. But the home was built in 1939, an era when even the large homes had small rooms. And that is one feature of the home that is consistent throughout. The rooms are small, and the downstairs ceilings are low. Despite its seemingly immense facade, there is almost a claustrophobic feel to the home’s interior.
But that doesn’t make it uninteresting or even unappealing, especially when you think about the construction trends of the day. Consider what technology was like back then too. The TV room, one of Elvis’ favorite hangouts, had three televisions installed into the wall, so Elvis could watch all three networks simultaneously–remember that this was the 1970s.
And don’t forget the 1970s interior design trends either. A yellow wet bar is not far out of reach of the TV rooms’ sectional sofa, while across the hall is the billiards room where a pool table is surrounded by walls adorned with a pleated fabric instead of something like wallpaper. The fabric’s pattern is busy enough, but that combined with the Tiffany-style overhead lamps that hang over the table won’t receive any decorating awards.
The last room is the famous Jungle Room. And yes, this one, even by the standards of the 1970s is out there. Fortunately, it was not in its present state that long. He purchased the gaudy furniture in 1974, and it seems to fit in with the green shag carpet. The carpet dampened sound, so Elvis used the room as a recording studio.
Graceland is a historic home, but the grounds and the complex across the road are a campus of separate museums. In a building near the home, you are lead through a chronology of Elvis’s career that while it tells that story, it also shows just how prolific an artist Elvis was. Gold records hang from the wall. Costumes from his many movies, and some of his iconic jumpsuits are on display. In the racquetball court are displayed more of his posthumous awards. It’s overwhelming, or at least it seems that way. Elvis’ body of work was enormous (31 films, two documentaries, 110 gold or better singles and albums, 90 albums in the Billboard 100, and fourteen Grammy nominations), and the two buildings adjacent to the mansion document much of what Elvis achieved.
Across the street are several other museums. In one, Elvis’ connection to Hawaii is explored. For me, it was difficult to see most of the displays encased behind glass enclosures as about twenty or so visitors were watching a video replay of Aloha From Hawaii. When Presley started in on Welcome to My World, nearly everyone started to quietly sing along. But when all were singing at the same time, their chorus filled the room. The song is infectious, and so is Elvis’ version of it. In another is Elvis’ car collection. Two others examine Elvis’ famous Las Vegas concerts, and his even more well-known ’68 Comeback Special. Even both of Presley’s airplanes, a Convair 880 and a Lockheed Jet Star, are available to see and walk through.
The man lived large. He worked hard and, and from the looks of his possessions, he played hard. But he succeeded, and, despite his early demise, he is still successful to this day. The cash registers at the twelve gift shops and three restaurants were ringing–constantly. And that was for people who’d already paid from about thirty to seventy dollars a ticket just to get in.
A tour of Graceland is something like a journey through an amazing man’s life. I was exhausted after spending four hours there, but there is no place else that I’d rather be when I’m in Memphis. To visit it and take it all in is a challenge, but it is a fun one. One that may not even be met given that Elvis Presley, even in death, remains one of this country’s most enduring cultural icons.