For Elvis fans, Tennessee and Mississippi are definitely the must visit states – you can follow his life from the lowly two room shack where he was born, to the hit studio where he made his first recordings, the mansion where he lived until he died, and his final resting place. Fly into Memphis or Nashville, they’re about 3 hours apart, rent a car and stop off at Tupelo on the way.
Elvis Aaron Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, on January 8, 1935, to Vernon and Gladys Presley in a wooden two room shack, built by his father, grandfather and uncle. They moved out when he was only a few years old but, in 1957, he donated the proceeds of a concert to the city so they could create a park here.
They purchased 15 acres, including the house and renamed the road around it Elvis Presley Drive. In 1971, the East Heights Garden Club began to improve the birthplace as a club project and over the years purchased furniture and other pieces to duplicate the house’s contents from when the Presleys lived there in the 30s.
The house is now surrounded by green parkland but originally there were other houses nearby. In 2008, the Assembly of God Pentecostal wooden framed church was moved here from a block away. It’s the place where he was first exposed to the rich Southern gospel that became a staple of his musical repertoire. Today, there are no live services, but instead a 15 minute multimedia recreation of a Pentecostal service from the 1940s.
There’s also a small museum displaying the collection of Janelle McComb, a Tupelo resident and friend of the Presley family. Highlights include examples of Elvis’s splendid dress sense – corduroy suits, an orange-striped parka, and fishnet and paisley shirts with puffed sleeves. A huge diorama shows the neighbourhood as it appeared during Elvis’s boyhood.
Memphis is undergoing something of a revival, with revitalised clubs on Beale Street providing non-stop live music, and Stax opening a museum and academy. The Presley family moved here from Tupelo, in November 1948, and lived in various places, none of which are currently open to visitors, although the studio where he made his first recordings is doing good business.
Sam Philips founded this tiny studio housed in an unassuming brick building in 1950, little knowing it would become the birthplace of rock and roll. Elvis paid to record his first tracks here in 1953, but Sam Philips called him back in 1954. The result was his first hit “That’s Alright (Mama)”, and there were five more over the next fifteen months. You can almost feel the star magic as Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, and many others recorded here. It’s still a functioning studio, although in use only at night, as hordes of fans pass through during the day.
A couple of miles away is the Arcade Restaurant, one of Elvis’ favourite haunts, and still growing strong. They’ve preserved his booth at the rear, where he would slip in unnoticed and sit with his back to the other diners. You can even order one of his favourites – a deep fried peanut butter and banana sandwich, although you might want to pass on the added bacon.
Thirty minutes from downtown is the house that Elvis bought in March 1957 and occupied until he died. It’s a surprisingly unassuming property and even the furnishings, bearing in mind the excruciating bad taste of 70’s, are not too ghastly. Of course it’s been kept exactly as he left it, and you can see his parent’s bedroom, the kitchen, jungle room and basement den, although upstairs is out of bounds. Apparently his daughter, Lisa Marie, still makes use of it during festive occasions. Elvis is buried next to his parents outside, at the foot of the swimming pool.
Recently the land on the other side of the road has been transformed into a sprawling entertainment, retail, dining and exhibition complex, now named “Elvis Presley’s Memphis”. The highlight is the museum celebrating his music, movie and concerts, with hundreds of artefacts including a collection of suspiciously small jumpsuits. In an adjacent building “Presley Motors” contains over 20 of his cars, including the iconic 1956 Pink Cadillac Eldorado, plus golf buggies, go carts and even a lawn mower. In a separate area sit two of his private jets and you can climb aboard the Convair 880, which has Lisa Marie’s name painted on the fuselage.
Elvis loved home cooking so there are two themed restaurants named after his parents, Gladys and Vernon. Gladys’ Diner features classic American fare, including that famous Elvis sandwich and Vernon’s Smokehouse serves authentic Memphis BBQ, smoked in-house. Of course, if you’re after Elvis merchandise you’ll find the world’s largest collection on sale in the various gift shops.
Smithsonian’s Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum and Stax
Memphis, of course, isn’t just about Elvis and the Smithsonian brings its impeccable eye to the story of the three important revolutions in music that happened here. It takes you from the birth of the blues in the ‘20s, rock and roll in the ‘50s and soul music in the ‘60s. In another part of town, Stax Studios has risen from the dead and is now the Stax Music Museum of American Soul Music. It includes a recreated studio plus artefacts from the time and a well laid out display telling the history. Next door there’s the Stax Music Academy which nurtures young black talent.
MusicCityUSA is still the capital of country music and bars and honky-tonks line downtown Broadway. There’s still good music in the clubs and at the famous Grand Ole Opry. Elvis appeared on stage here early in his career and recorded at RCA studios after leaving Sun Records.
Celebrating its 125th anniversary in 2017, the Ryman Auditorium was originally a church and its seats are still as hard as any pews. It was the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1925 until 1974 when it moved to a new venue on the outskirts of town. Elvis made his first and last appearance in 1954 when his gyrations didn’t go down too well with the rather conservative crowd. These days there are still concerts most nights and, in winter, the Opry moves back to its former home.
Country Music Hall of Fame
Elvis, of course, is featured in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and they’ve even got one of his gold plated Cadillacs. However he takes a back seat to this unrivalled collection of country music artefacts, recordings, photographs and videos, spreading over two floors. And it’s not all country – the most recent exhibition is dedicated to Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and the Nashville Cats.
After RCA bought his contract from Sun, Elvis started making money for the company and they built these studios in 1957, in part so he could record here. More than 35,000 songs were brought to life at Studio B, including over 260 Elvis recordings, 40 million selling singles, and more than 1,000 American hits – songs like Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely,” the Everly Brothers’ “Dream,” Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and Elvis’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” A guided tour takes you round the studios, tells the story behind many of their greatest hits and you can sit at the famous Elvis piano.
Tell me more about the Elvis Triangle: Tennessee to Mississippi
United flies to Tennessee and Mississippi from London Heathrow.
Deep South USA has information about the region.
The Germantown Inn is a charming converted townhouse, complete with antiques.
Sobro Guest House is close to downtown and the rooms include kitchens.
Visit Music City has information about the city.
The iconic Peabody Memphis Hotel has been in its present location since 1925 and the legendary ducks still waddle through the lobby every day.
Memphis Travel has information about the city.
The Fairfield Inn & Suites makes a convenient base for visiting Elvis’s birthplace.
Tupelo has information about the city.
Visit Mississippi has information about the state.