As an avid Elvis fan, it always disappoints me when I hear residents of Memphis say they’ve never been to Graceland or can’t answer simple questions about the origins of rock music. Both rock and blues music are Memphis’ most valuable assets and yet so many seem to miss it altogether. When I meet people around the nation who hear I’m from Memphis, I almost always get a question or two about Graceland and Elvis Presley. People outside the city are still fanatical about Elvis, Sun Studio, etc. And that shows each year as thousands flock to Memphis every August for Elvis Week or every January for the anniversary of his birth. In fact, Graceland is the second most visited house in America behind the White House.
As of 2009, about 600,000 – 700,000 people visit Graceland each year. Current plans to redevelop the entire Graceland area are underway with great attention to new attractions and hotels while keeping the mansion exactly the same. Groundbreaking for the new construction is scheduled to begin in 2009 – 2010 with an estimation of bringing in about 2 million visitors annually once completed.
Elvis Presley’s music also continues to exceed sales expectations. It still finds it’s way into movies, pop culture, and chart topping remakes and remixes. Sirius Radio confirms that the Elvis Radio station is always among its most listened to stations nationwide. And there’s never a shortage of people willing to embarrass themselves by throwing on a cape and jumpsuit and giving their best efforts at a tribute artist concert.
But Elvis isn’t the only player nor Graceland the only attraction in the tour of rock music’s origins. Char and I set out to visit various sites on our hometown tour to discover more about the beginnings of rock ‘n roll. Music is a passion of ours and the band we started, Vintage, performs music from all of Rock’s finest eras including the beginnings. Yes, we do perform some Elvis material.
The first stop on our discovery tour wasn’t in Memphis at all, but about about an hour south in Tupelo, Mississippi. Elvis Aron Presley was born January 8, 1935 in a 2-room shotgun shack built by his father, Vernon Presley. It was in Tupelo that Elvis fell in love with music and was given his first guitar. His primary influence was black Gospel music.
It was also in Tupelo, on October 3, 1945, that he held his first public performance at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show. He came in fifth place in the singing competition, winning $5 and free entry to all the rides at the fair. I’ve often wondered what became of those who placed first through fourth. Perhaps they should have capitalized on Elvis’ success by forming a quartet called “Better than Elvis” and traveling the country singing, selling records, and telling Elvis stories. Too bad I wasn’t around to manage them… to be their Colonel Tom Parker. I would have had them sing very poorly and act more like wrestlers in the style of comedian Andy Kaufman, yelling at audiences, demeaning them, screaming that Elvis couldn’t sing as well as they, etc. I would have them provoke Elvis fans into a frenzy and then have them run for their lives. Can you imagine the publicity? Can you imagine the profits? Oh well….
In September of 1948, the Presley family left Tupelo for Memphis, TN. Music had begun evolving and rock was taking shape. From a lineage of Gospel, Blues, Jazz, Country, and other genres, rock music with its strong back beat had begun to shape a sound but not a face. It would take an image to catapult rock into music’s forefront. Sam Phillips of Sun Records in Memphis was actively looking for a new sound evolution. But what fell in his lap was not just the sound but the image. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t Mr. Phillips who is responsible for the rock explosion. It started with a girl.
Marion Keisker was Sam Phillips’ assistant and when she heard Elvis Presley sing in 1953 at Sun Studio, she jotted down a note to keep him on file. Though he was singing ballads, she heard something in his voice… In 1954, Elvis was brought back to Sun Studio by Marion’s encouragement to Sam Phillips. Joining Elvis for the session was guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. They were unable to “gel” – unable to find the sound. During a break, however, Elvis started goofing off to Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right, Mama.” Scotty and Bill joined in. Sam Phillips heard the magic, turned on the recorder, and had just effectively produced the first Elvis hit. It was Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips who first played the record on July 8, 1954, on his Red, Hot, and Blue radio show. Listeners began calling in to the station demanding to know who his artist was. Dewey kept repeating the record… 14 times that day!
The trio of Elvis, Scotty, and Bill teamed up with drummer DJ Fontana and they formed a band known as “The Blue Moon Boys” to promote the Sun records. When performing, Elvis began moving his legs to the rhythm of the music and suddenly, rock’s first front man evolved. It wouldn’t take long before rock’s image took hold and the Blue Moon Boys became simply Elvis Presley.
Elvis paved the way for fame to come to other rock legends including Sun artists Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison. Once the youth demographic embraced rock ‘n roll, everything changed in American pop culture. Rock pioneer Buddy Holly once said, “Without Elvis, none of us could have made it.” And John Lennon’s famed quote, “Before Elvis, there was nothing” was expanded by Beatle bandmate Paul McCartney when he said, “Before Elvis, there was nothing – after Elvis, nothing else mattered.”
I’m reminded of a guitarist I once auditioned for a band I was forming at the end of the 1990s. He had moved to Memphis from South Carolina and asked me if I was an Elvis fan. Only when I said I was, did he agree to stay for the audition. He then – not jokingly – put up his shirt collar, held his guitar, and with an unmistakable sneer on his face, said, “Elvis is rock ‘n roll in the flesh, baby.” I’ve long since forgotten his name and his face… but not his passion for Elvis.
Elvis moved on to RCA Records and although Sun Studio eventually closed, it was re-opened in 1987 in the original building at the corner of Union Avenue and Marshal in downtown Memphis. It serves as both a recording studio as well as a museum. Local and national artists such as U2 have recorded in the famed studio in recent years.
Anyone visiting Memphis for Elvis or Graceland is doing themselves a great disservice if they don’t add Sun Studio to their vacation plan. On display in the museum are artifacts from the early days of recording and rock and roll radio, Elvis memorabilia and personals, etc. Your tour guide will walk you through the very room where rock and roll took shape. His telling of the Sam Phillips story is genuine, passionate, and humorous. You’ll even hear samples from early recording sessions with Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and more – including a sample from the song many believe to be the first song to be considered rock n roll. The song is entitled Rocket 88 and was recorded right here in Memphis at Sun Studio.
One of the best ways to enjoy Sun Studio is to choose it as an add on to another Memphis tour: The Backbeat Tours “Memphis Mojo” tour with the one and only Memphis Jones. I’ve been a friend of Memphis Jones’ for many years but had never been on any of his tours until Char and I went on our journey to discover rock’s origins. After going on the tour, I am left with the belief that the Memphis Jones experience with Backbeat Tours is an essential part of any visit to the Bluff City.
The tour starts at Second and Beale Street in a vintage bus and you’ll ride around various downtown sites while Memphis Jones gives an unscripted lesson on the history of rock, soul, and blues through song and conversation. Memphis Jones is as entertaining as he is talented. He’ll guide you to the church where Johnny Cash played his first public performance… he’ll show you where Elvis lived as a young teenager, just adjacent to his neighbor, B.B. King. He’ll sing songs, tell stories, and make you laugh as you are enlightened on the rich musical history and heritage of the birthplace of rock n roll.
One of the highlights of Memphis Jones’ narrative was his recitation of early rock n roll lyrics. I’ve always been nuts for a good lyric – it must be the poet in me. But so much of rock is written with poor lyrical taste or not much concern for lyrics. Jones pointed out on the tour that before Johnny Cash, most of rock was nonsensical lyrically. Cash began telling a story – and did so with soul. Jones further explained a good definition of soul and pointed to the progressive Memphis music scene of the 1940s and 1950s for examples.
In case I’m not making the point clear enough, may I implore, beseech, and supplicate you to make Backbeat Tours and Memphis Jones a top priority if you visit Memphis to tour rock’s origins for yourself. As mentioned before, you can add a stop at either the Stax Museum of Soul or Sun Studio to your trip with Backbeat Tours.
It has been well said that all roads on the trip through rock n roll lead to Graceland and that’s where my narrative takes us now. If you ask any rock star today who their rock idol was growing up, then ask that rock idol who their rock idol was as a child, chances are almost 100% that you’ll get to Elvis Presley within one or two generations. You heard me right… if there was no Elvis, there would be no Beatles. If there were no Beatles, there would be no Cheap Trick. If there were no Cheap Trick, there would have been no Nirvana. Robert Plant, John Lennon, Rick Nielsen, Bono, and countless others all declare themselves to be Elvis fanatics. But enough of that. I don’t think there’s really any debate on the issue so we’ll proceed to the Graceland tour and it’s significance.
Elvis Aron Presley purchased the Graceland estate for approx. $100,000 in early 1957, not long after he became a national sensation. It would serve as his primary residence until his death in August of 1977. The home was opened to the public in 1982 and has become a national phenomenon. Thousands flock each year to walk through the mansion and the property grounds. The upstairs, where Elvis passed away, is closed to the public. Near the end of the mansion tour, guests walk through a hall of awards commemorating Elvis’ success. In the final room, the trophy room, visitors are walked past a piano on which Elvis played “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” just hours before passing away. The last stop in that room honors Elvis for being the best selling recording artist of all time and includes an impressive glass trophy from RCA Records.
Across the street in Graceland Plaza is an Elvis Presley automobile museum, an exhibit of his famous costumes, the tour of Elvis’ two private planes, and more. Also across the street is the broadcasting home of Sirius 13 – Elvis Radio. George Klein, personal friend of Elvis’ and long time Memphis DJ from the early years of rock n roll, still spins Elvis tunes from behind the booth at Sirius.
The point in all of this is to show the impact of Memphis rock music on international culture. Viewed one way, Graceland is nothing more than the home where a singer once lived. But understood in context of how rock music has shaped world history since its beginnings at Sun Studio, Graceland is properly seen as THE most important stop in our music tour. It is the home of rock’s original front man. No other museum or hall of fame can match the honesty and sincerity of this tour. What other pop culture icon has so many visitors from around the world?
You don’t find so many people making pilgrimages to Charlie Chaplan’s home, there isn’t a Babe Ruth Week that draws thousands worldwide, and no novelist I know has had a radio station devoted to reading his works. So what is it about the music born in Memphis that has caused such a phenomenon?
The tour of Graceland changes seasonally and Elvis Presley Enterprises only displays about 20% of its holdings at any time. Each time you visit, you learn more about the personal influence that shaped the evolving sound of rock music. While Graceland sees many visitors every day, it is Elvis Week – the week leading up to the day of Elvis’ death – that makes the biggest news.
Elvis Week is as much about the legacy of the early Memphis rock n roll sound on the history of music as it is about Elvis himself. Events during a typical Elvis Week include meet-and-greets with people personally impacted by Presley, tribute artist competitions, special exhibits and tours, charity races, concerts, and the annual candlelight vigil.
The vigil itself has an interesting origin. On the first anniversary of Elvis death, a large group of fans gathered at the gates of Graceland that evening for conversation and reflection. This continued each year and the number of people steadily grew. Elvis Presley Enterprises eventually “sanctioned” the event and it has become the climax of Elvis Week each year.
Rain or shine, the people line up.
Today, when you turn on the radio and hear any of the current musical celebrities, you know he or she owes a debt to what took place in Memphis and the South in the early to mid 1900s.
Char and I are obviously passionate about music – and we leave this story with one word of caution: as you discover the history of rock music, do yourself a favor and try not to intellectualize it too much. Rather, feel the social, political, and personal convictions that characterized the era and allow yourself to feel the soul of early rock n roll music. It is only then that you will fully understand and appreciate this truly American art form.