Elvis Presley’s story is intimately bound to Memphis. The city, located on the fertile banks of the Mississippi River in southwestern Shelby County, Tennessee, gave him everything and he gave it everything in return, bestowing Memphis with one hell of a legacy. Today, it is known as the city that gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll, and rightly so.
Memphis was the perfect place for an aspiring musician to grow up, containing a vibrant cross-cultural musical heritage, rich nightlife, and a wealth of radio stations eager to showcase the enormous amount of music that poured out of the city in the 1930s, 1940s and, of course, the 1950s.
The roots of Memphis’ astonishing musical heritage go deep into American history. After the Spanish conquistadors stole the land from the Chickasaw Indians who had lived in the territory for hundreds of years, it was named after an ancient Egyptian city meaning ‘Place of Good Abode’ – and it was certainly that. Memphis became one of the most populous cities in the fledgeling American nation and quickly transformed into one of its main cotton manufacturers.
What has all this got to do with rock ‘n’ roll? I hear you say. To which my answer would be: everything. By extension of being at the centre of the cotton trade, following the civil war, Memphis also had one of the densest populations of freed slaves of any state. The variety of atrocities that were committed against Memphis’ Black population in the decades that followed – including the race riots of May 1866 – underpin much of the city’s modern cultural history, especially rock ‘n’ roll. And while it might be convenient to ignore Memphis’ troubling history, without confronting it, it’s impossible to fully understand why it became one of the most important musical cities in the world.
Below, we’ll be taking a walk around Elvis’ Memphis, a city that contains equal measures of joy and pain. It is this constant pendulous swing between those two emotional states that defines the city’s music. We’re talking about the city that became famous for the blues, a genre that takes human suffering and gives it dancing legs, a genre that transforms bitterness into delight, a genre that made Elvis ‘The King’ Presley.
Exploring Elvis Presley’s Memphis:
Lauderdale Court – The Presley’s apartment
Location: 282 TN-3, Memphis, TN 38105.
Elvis didn’t always live in Memphis. In fact, he was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in a tiny two-room house built by his father. He spent his entire childhood there. However, at the age of 13, Elvis’ parents decided to make a new life for themselves. From September 1949 to January 1953, he and his parents, Gladys and Vernon, lived at 185 Winchester, apartment 328 in Lauderdale Courts. It’s not a colourful part of town. The building itself is an impenetrable horseshoe of red brick that, with its wide, barred windows, looks more like an old psychiatric hospital than a place to call home.
Nevertheless, Lauderdale proved to be essential to Presley’s success, for it would be in the basement laundry room that a young Elvis would practise his guitar. The community-minded layout of the budling itself also meant that Presley would bump into, and subsequently play, the other musicians who lived there, giving him his first experiences of performing music for an audience.
Location: Beale St, Memphis, TN.
If Beale Street could talk, it would probably sing. It is, and always has been, full of amazing music venues. From soul to rock ‘n’ roll, today Beale Street rings with the sound of its musical past. The street became the focal point of the blues sound that was bought up from the Mississippi delta, marking it out as what the folklorist George McDaniel called “a meeting place for urban and rural styles”.
The various clubs and venues on Beale street nurtured the city’s stunning array of musicians, many of whom – including BB King, Muddy Waters and Booker T – went on to make a profound impact on American popular music. Indeed, the Memphis sound and the musical traditions that were born on Beale Street shaped the rockabilly style for which Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Johnny Cash would become known.
Location: 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, TN.
Few recording studios can lay claim to the legacy that Sun Studios can. Opened in 1950 by record producer Sam Phillips, the facility was once known as the Memphis Recording Service and shared a building with the Sun Records label. Before Presley showed up, Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner recorded their seminal track ‘Rocket 88’ in the studio’s cosy booth in 1951, making it the first rock ‘n’ roll tune to be stamped to wax.
Then, in 1953, an 18-year-old Elvis Presley stepped through the door. It was his first recording session and he couldn’t keep his voice from shaking. Phillips was not impressed. But Elvis continued to hang around the studio and, in 1954, Phillips agreed to let him sing again – this time backed by a band. For hours they churned through their material, but nothing stuck out. Presley, exhausted and creatively spent, collapsed in a heap with his guitar, at which point he began playing an old blues song he’d heard on Beale Street, ‘That’s Alright, Mama’, it was called. Phillips set the tape spinning and history was made.
Location: 3764 Elvis Presley Boulevard (Highway 51 South), Memphis, Tennessee, US.
Like Beale Street, Graceland – Elvis Presley’s Memphis mansion – had music in its bones well before ‘The King’ arrived. It was once part of a 500-acre farm that was passed down to Thomas Moore, whose daughter was an accomplished harpist and performed with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. But, with the arrival of Presley in 1957, the classical recitals would be replaced by raucous rock ‘n’ roll jam sessions.
Presley was just 22 when he purchased the home and grounds for $100,000, having already made a name for himself as one of America’s most successful musical exports. Indeed, just the year before, he’d appeared in his second motion picture, Loving You, which would be followed by the iconic Jailhouse Rock. The house truly is something to behold. It sits on the crest of a hill, surrounded by oak groves and overlooking verdant farmland.
Architecturally, it looks like a cross between a Swiss chalet and a neoclassical palace. The 650,000 people who visit Graceland every year are greeted by the towering ivory white columns that form the mansion’s front entrance. Inside, you will find innumerable bedrooms, bathrooms, billiard rooms, and even a jungle room, which features an indoor waterfall of cut fieldstone. It’s amazing to think that Presley grew up on the other side of town in such incredibly different surroundings. But what’s more amazing is that, as famous as he eventually became, Elvis Presley never left his beloved hometown of Memphis.