He was in the building. Dressed in full attire. White flared trousers, a gold studded belt, high collar, topped by jet black hair and side burns. The music starts and so does a journey back to Rock ‘n’ Roll music with the King! Elvis impersonators are everywhere, performing in theatres and pubs up and down the country, complete with the signature moves and melodic voice.
But for the real experience, a trip to Memphis in Tennessee to see and understand the real Elvis is a must. Getting there is easy as it’s a popular destination, especially for music enthusiasts. There are no direct flights from the UK but connecting flights allow for time to explore gateway cities such as New York, Atlanta and Philadelphia. I took a flight to Chicago and then to the blues city of New Orleans. It was from here where I boarded the Amtrak train to Memphis to capture a more authentic travel experience along with other inquisitive travellers, American, Canadian, Italian and of course, fellow Brits.
The Amtrak staff were most helpful. They stored my case while I took my hand luggage with me. The train departed on time at 13.45. I had booked a coach seat as it was a day journey, arriving in Memphis at 10pm. The seats are very comfortable and recline generously and, situated on the upper deck, the views are good.
It maybe a long journey, but its fun watching Americana pass by your picture window – the neon lights, the ever-changing landscapes and children waving from porches. There are brief station stops along the way where you are invited to get off but don’t stray far, the train won’t wait for you. During the journey, you can take a stroll to the café or to the sightseeing carriage for a more brighter outlook. Here it’s more sociable and great for people watching. Internet connection along the route is sparce, but the scenery, friendly staff and a relaxing atmosphere certainly make up for it.
On arrival, Memphis was in full swing. My first experience of Beale Street was similar to an ongoing street party, alive with the buzz and strum of live music packed with music lovers and revelry. But then Memphis is the birthplace of the Blues, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Soul and this is the world-famous Street in Memphis’ lively and historic entertainment district. It certainly is lively, colourful, and energetic, a cauldron of sights, a high octave of sounds and calorific food. The dance floor at BBKings is crammed by day and by night. Bright signs advertise “Flipping, Dipping, Sipping Ribs”, “DownHome Blues Cookin’” and each shouts for attention The street is lined with bars with window hatches serving spilling beers while hidden garden areas host bands of every type. But rest assured, Elvis fans, you will always be assured of hearing a rendition or two from one or several of the venues along the street.
Breakfast with Elvis? In downtown Memphis, make a visit to the Arcade Restaurant, the oldest café in town and made famous by its own legendary resident, Elvis. Here he enjoyed his peanut butter and banana sandwich in the cubicle next to the back door, convenient for his many quick escapes from fans. This table can be reserved, so you can eat your stacked pancakes amongst the Elvis momentos which share the table.
Elvis’s lifestyle is entombed in Graceland, a 14-acre visitor attraction that has been cleverly designed to interest all ages. This was his stately colonial revival-style mansion home he had built for himself and his parents which has been lovingly preserved. A tour of the mansion house comes with an audio-guided tour. I was provided with an ipad, cleverly designed to give very detailed images and footage of his life with commentary by Elvis and his daughter, Lisa Marie. You can see where he relaxed with friends and family with a peek into his Jungle Room and into his Music Room. Most impressive, however, is his trophy room with endless record and album tributes while his movie career is also on show.
His flashy cars are displayed in a dedicated Automobile Museum, – the colourful Cadillacs, Rolls Royce Sedans, 1975 Dino Ferrari, Mercedes and his John Deere tractor amongst his other wheeled vehicles and bikes. To top it all, the tour leads to two custom jets, kitted out just as you would expect with gold–plated seat belts, suede chairs, leather covered tables, private phones and 24-carat gold flecked sinks.
The memorabilia spills out of the gift shops – sunglasses, glitter T-shirts, mugs, pens in a range of colours and themes. There are a number of restaurants but try the Ice Cream Parlour, authentically designed in a typical diner style. The tour provides a good visual insight into the everyday life of Elvis at home and although it is very busy, the tours are well organized and thoughtfully presented.
For a convenient day, a new 400- room Graceland Hotel is scheduled to open this year. Graceland is around 20 minutes from downtown Memphis. A free shuttle operates to serve the other music attractions which include Sun Studios and the Rock ‘n’ Soul museum.
Sun Studios boast some of the most famous music recordings and the location that began the careers of musical legends such as Johnny Cash, BB King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and The Million Dollar Quartet. In 1954, Elvis got his first start here when the owner, Sam Philips, believed in him as an artist who could perform with the energy of a blues artist but who could also reach across regional, musical and racial barriers. The museum is on the outskirts of Memphis and is very compact. Tours are timed as it gets very crowded but worth it especially to witness the exact microphone spot used by legendary artists to record their music.
The Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum presents a chronology of musical pioneers and the barriers they overcame to create the sounds that sung the tales. Opened in 2015, the Music Hall of Fame completes a Memphis Music pilgrimage, portraying the heroes of Memphis Music.
If you like gold-plated Cadillacs take time to visit the Stax Museum of American Soul which houses Issac Hayes’ motor car, complete with its fur-lined floorboards and TV. Stax’s music is rooted in the sounds of Southern gospel music and was the fifth-largest African American owned business in the US during its time. It launched the careers of Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave among others.
Elvis was certainly a fashion icon. Studded suits, flared trousers, wide belts, high collars and draped cloaks in a range of colours. Visit the Peabody Hotel in the heart of Memphis for your own Elvis wardrobe. The Lansky family, renowned for designing Elvis’s distinct style still operate the tailoring store in the hotel. The shop is like a museum with signed guitars decorating the walls while copies of Elvis’ jackets, flip-collared shirts and trousers fill the sales racks. There is a guided tour around the hotel which reveal the many connections with celebrities and in particular, Elvis. It was in the hotel where Elvis attended his high school prom and in 1955 where he signed his first recording contract on Peabody headed paper. Time your visit to the Peabody Hotel to arrive for the Duck March at 11am daily. This 50-year old tradition attracts international acclaim led by a dedicated Duck Master.
Elvis lives on in Memphis from the songs belting out in Beale Street, his palatial home in Graceland, a dedicated breakfast table in downtown and even his own tailor. It is no wonder millions travel here to pay homage. Elvised out, I’m back at the station, bags packs ready to board the Amtrak train. It’s an overnight journey returning to Chicago. I am escorted to my Roomette which is already prepared as my bedroom where I am lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking movement of the train and Elvis melodies still ringing in my ear.
For train travel to Memphis and holidays by train worldwide, visit, www.holidaysbyrail.com
Information on Memphis, visit http://www.deep-south-usa.com/