Memphis and Graceland

July 6th.

We were up early, with 7.00 am breakfast to catch a taxi to the airport. A very quick ride, no problems with traffic. The passes we had printed off didn’t seem to amount to anything, so we queued up again. Warning signs said strictly two carry on items, the third would cost an extra $75, so I was a bit nervous about the Bible, safe in its box in my arms.

The Southwest staff were having none of it, ‘Two items only’, but in the end they took pity and checked my wheeled suitcase into the hold for free. We took off, just about had time for cranberry and apple juice and honeyed peanuts before we landed in Houston. I was peering out of the window, hoping to catch site of the Space Centre, but I didn’t really know what it looked like, and as Rog pointed out, it was probably miles away. I felt I had to mark the fact we had briefly been on the ground in Houston, but all the duty free could offer me were a spaceman fridge magnet and a pen.

Back up to the gate for the next flight to Memphis, and I checked my emails on the free wifi at the terminal. A message from Brenda, in Jasper, had I left any rings behind? I thought hard, and realised that yes, I probably had, my grandmother’s engagement ring, and the ring made up of stones from St Marshal Millar Craig’s tie pin!! AARRGGGH!

Brenda offered to send them somewhere before we left the States, but I am not sure how safe that would be. I had to break off the email discussion to board the next flight to Memphis, but finally agreed with her she would send them to my house in UK.

We arrived in Memphis Airport and picked up another Hyundai Elantra, blue this time, and a bit older, with 45,000 on the clock. Also a New Jersey registration plate. We only notice the scratches on the side after we have picked out the car and driven it away. First time we have been told ‘choose any car you like from the mid-size range, keys are on the visor’!

We find the hotel on Elvis Presley Boulevard, it is strange that such a big house with 13 acres of land should be in a rather dodgy neighbourhood.

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We have been told ‘don’t walk around away from Graceland and the two hotels’, so we won’t. We are being picked up by a pink Cadillac to take us out to dinner down the road!

Hotel itself is okay, has a busy pool in the shape of a guitar, which we haven’t tried.

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Room had air con on full blast, and was freezing; we have turned it off for now. Staff watched us struggling with cases and ignored us until we reached the reception desk, where the two of them continued to natter for five minutes whilst we stood there. We just accept that lack of smiles from staff is normal now.

Having found the room, it was then 3.00 pm, and we were hungry. No helpful info on places to eat available, so eventually found a Tripadvisor one, Lenny’s Sub café. Turning on and off the highway is a bit hairy, but Rog is beginning to crack it. We shared a 10” sub and lemonade. Also found milk for tea in a local shop (we have a fridge in the room), so are settling in.

Discovered that the Civil Rights Museum, which we are keen to see, is shut tomorrow, if we had been better organised, we could have gone this afternoon, never mind, hope to do that Wednesday morning.

Looking for somewhere to eat tonight, we found Marlowes, further along Elvis Presley Boulevard, recommended, and it had the attraction of a pink Cadillac coming to collect you and drop you back at your hotel – who could resist that!

We were duly picked up on time and dropped off at the restaurant, warmly greeted by the lovely Jamaica, and shown to a prime window seat.

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The ‘ribs’ had come well recommended, so we ordered those, with barbecue baked beans, green beans, burgundy mushrooms and fries. When the ribs arrived, it was a foot long chunk, and although wonderfully tender, it defeated the pair of us. We had to decline pudding, and didn’t take up their kind offer to take the rest of the ribs back with us.

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Waiting outside, the pink Cadillac returned and took us safely back. The pool was still being heavily used, don’t those children need to go to bed? 

7th July

I woke up today feeling light-headed and dizzy, I very much hope a delayed reaction to heat or something.  Bit worrying as there is a packed day ahead of us, perhaps it will go away.

Breakfast Days Inn style is not brilliant, despite all their managers award medals on the walls.  Whatever must the others be like? 🙂  Choice of four cereals, porridge, a bowl of over ripe bananas, fruit squash and coffee.  There was also a squeezy bottle of batter mixture for you to pour into the waffle maker, which Rog managed to achieve successfully, with a maple syrup flavoured sauce to go with it.  Oh and a toaster.  The butter was a liquid in another squeezy bottle, and the the plates and bowls polystyrene with plastic cutlery.  Oh well, we are only here two nights,

Graceland is only next door, we set off to walk, but I feel a bit wobbly, so we drive.  We find a parking space in the shade (it is already over 90 degrees Fahrenheit) and set off over the bridge and inside the foyer.  We can at least use the fast queue to get our tickets, having prepaid, and queue (join the line?) to start our tour.  We are given VIP Guest lanyards, have turquoise bands put on our wrists, and wait – and wait.  At long last we are allowed though the door into the coach waiting area, photographed, issued with ipads and earphones for the video tour, and wait, and wait.  A bus comes in, the people behind us, who might have been more clued up, skip the photo and head onto the bus.  We are told it is full.  Half an hour later, we finally get on a bus, cross the road, and head up the Graceland drive through the famous gates.

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We are soon inside, in the hall, and can see the roped off sitting room, in cream and gold, with a sofa that must have been about 20′ long, and an almost as long coffee table in front of it, apparently specially made.  There are family photos, and behind it the music room with a baby grand piano.

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Ahead of us are the stairs, roped off, no-one is allowed up there, has not been touched since Elvis died in the bathroom above our heads

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Down the hall, on the right is Gladys and Vernon’s bwdroom, Elvis’s parents.

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Quite plain really, more family photos on the TV.

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Back up the hall to the dining room, which only had a small table and six chairs, and photos of Lisa Marie and Priscilla.

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Ahead of us to the left is the large kitchen, complete with microwave, which surprised me, and yet more televisions of course.

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Through the kitchen was the ‘Jungle Room’, with walls and ceiling lined with green carpet (helps acoustics apparently) where a recording was made, and it had a waterfall running down one wall.

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We then went down some fully mirrored stairs to the cinema, which had a pull down screen over the bank of six televisions, and another huge sofa for Elvis and guests to sit on.

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There was a small bar next door, Elvis didn’t like alcohol, but he provided it for his guests.  This led through to the pool table room, lined with pleated multicoloured fabric over walls and ceiling, the video guide told us it cost $8,500 and took a week to complete.

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The video tour on the ipad was very informative, with nice touches such as telling us that Elvis only greeted guests downstairs, when he had made sure he was properly dressed for visitors, and you could hear him coming by the jangling of his jewellery as he came down the stairs!

Then we were out in the garden, overlooking the paddock where he kept his horses, there are still horses here, I hope they get ridden.

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We passed a children’s play area, with the swings and slide now looking very old fashioned,

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into Vernon Presley’s office, also unchanged.  A rough brick building to the right housed a model of the ‘Shotgun’ house Elvis was born in, in East Tupelo.  Although Vernon Vernon used this part of the building for a smoke house, it was also a makeshift firing range with a target for Elvis and friends to practice with their guns!

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Next was the trophy room (and by the side a rather inconspicuous restroom for those needing it, this is a long tour!)  This contained rows and rows of gold discs, and some of his jumpsuit from his shows, plus various trophies he had been awarded.

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There was also his wedding suit, Priscilla’s wedding dress and veil, and video of their wedding, plus a few of Lisa Marie’s baby clothe

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There was also a few of the very many cheques that Elvis personally wrote to local charities.

Then it was back outside, past his swimming pool, not a large one,

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to the Racquet Ball Building.  This had the racquet ball court, but also a leather sofa area with a glass wall so his friends could watch him play.  In this area was an upright piano, which we were told he was playing a few hours before he died.

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The court was now set out with more gold discs and show clothes.

From there the door led outside to the meditation garden, which Elvis created as a quiet spot for reflection.  He and his mother were buried in the local cemetery, but a couple of years after his death the bodies were moved and reburied here at Graceland for security reasons.  His father, and his grandmother, Mini Mae are also buried here.

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His stillborn twin brother, Jesse Garon, is buried in East Tupelo, but there is a memorial plaque to him here too.

This brought us round to the front of the house, and we thought we would be getting back on a bus, but as VIP Guests, we were told there was an extra room for us, the Archive Room.  This contained a random fraction of all the personal effects and documents which are stored here.  We were then shown into a small cinema for a 15 minute show of some of his performances, from earliest to last.

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We were then sent to a VIP Tour queuing area to take us back to the main plaza over the road.

By this time we thought we might manage a bite to eat, so went into one of the cafes.  The range of unhealthy food options was a challenge, we finally opted for Chicken Tenders (heavily battered and deep fried, with chips) and a hot dog for Rog, which he said actually contained quite a decent sausage.   I noticed my lemonade, which was very refreshing, contained 210 calories alone!

After lunch we went on to tour the two airplanes parked there.  We had always been told that Elvis was too scared to fly and that’s why he never came to the UK.  Obviously blatantly untrue, since here were his pride and joy, a commercial jet he had had fitted out for his own use, with TV  lounges, gold bsins in the washrooms, and even a double bed which could be curtained off so he could sleep.  Bizarrely there was an extra long seatbelt stretched across it, a federal regulation, apparently, I can’t imagine it would have done anything more than strangle you in the event of a crash whilst lying in bed!

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We were told he used them a lot for touring, but also for fun, taking Priscilla and Lisa Marie on a trip to Colorado to find snow, when Lisa said she had never seen any.  A few minutes having a snowball fight, then it was back on the plane and flying home!

The other one was a much smaller private plane, more conventionally set out with forward facing leather seats.

We also toured the car museum, a selection of cadillacs (though not the one we saw at the O2 in London!) Rolls Royces, a Ferrari, a host of fun vehicles such as skiddoos equipped to go on grass, golf carts and go carts.

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There was also the old John Deere tractor used to maintain the grounds, which has had to be retired in the 1980s, but students of a local technical college had lovingly restored it to a pristine condition.  Rory would love it!

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There was also the exhibit “I shot Elvis” with pictures taken by fans when he met them, but also more jumps suits and awards.

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By this time I was approaching 4.00 pm, and we wanted to visit the Sun Studio as well.  We looked for the free shuttle, but couldn’t find it, and therefore decided to go back to the hotel, retrieve my memory card, and drive to the Sun Studio.  The SatNav took us into what looked like a bit of a rough area, but lo and behold, there was the Studio, with a parking space off the road immediately next door.

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There was a tiny shot selling clothes and CDs, then we were off on the tour.  Up the narrow stair, and into a room above filled with old studio equipment, and objects from the past history of the place.  There was the portable tape machine that Sam Phillips used to record out in the field.  I could remember a similar one used by our church chirmaster!  Sam was interested in capturing the local music, which no-one was doing at the time.   Elvis arrived, and paid 4 dollars to make a record of ‘That’s all right Mama’.  Not for her birthday we hear, but because he had this dream of being a big recording artist.

Sam Phillips wasn’t there when he first came, so Sam’s PA, Marion, showed them into the booth, took the money, and then listening to what was an unusual voice, did a secret tape of it.  Elvis departed with his disc under his arm, but he spent days hanging around the studio.  Marion showed the tape to Sam and got him to listened.  He wasn’t impressed, and it took her a year before he finally agreed to call Elvis in for a trial recording.  Sun didn’t have its own label, it just acted as the Memphis Recording Service (it’s real name) and Sam would send off the tapes for cutting and pressing elsewhere.

Elvis arrived, and began singing gospel songs, Sam still wasn’t interested.  He continued to jam with the musicians into the studio for some hours, and Sam heard nothing he liked.  Suddenly Elvis started singing a black blues number, and Sam woke up.  This was something new, and he set to work recording it.

Sam signed Elvis up for a contract, arranged by Col Tom Parker, and for a year or so, Elvis’s records went out on the Sun Studio name.  Then Sam ran into financial difficulties, Elvis wasn’t making him much money, because the records were only selling locally.  He sold Elvis to RCA for £40,000 to clear the debts of the studio, because it was about to be repossessed.  RCA obviously got the bargain of a lifetime!

We were then taken downstairs to the studio where the actual recordings took place.  IT is still used as a recording studio now, you can hire it, but there is only one piece of original recording equipment there, which is the microphone Elvis used.  We were encouraged to have our photos taken with it, (although I had to lean it quite a bit, to be able to reach the mike!)  hope it comes out!

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It had taken us about 20 minutes from the hotel, so we set out anticipating the same return.  The first SatNav app I loaded wouldn’t find a satellite connection, so after waiting for ages, I switched to the second one, and that seemed to struggle to find the right bit of Elvis Presley Boulevard.  Rog suggested putting in Craft Road, which crossed it around the place of the hotel, so I tried that, but the direction it was taking us seemed wrong.   The roads were getting narrower, the houses a lot shabbier, and when eventually we turned into Craft Road, we were getting a volley of instructions from the SatNAv, telling us to turn right, turn left , turn around, it was mind blowing!  More worrying we knew there were areas of Memphis not to get into, and the street signs were peppered with shotgun pellet holes.

I eventually worked out that the original SatNav app had found its satellite and was directing us to EP Boulevard, whilst the other one was taking us to the grotty Craft Road.  I switched one off, got the other going in the right direction, and we eventually arrived back.  It has taken us one and a half hours, instead of 20, and we were frazzled, and very relieved when we eventually found the right way to drive down EP Boulevard and get to the hotel.

By now it was late, and we wanted something to eat.  I had read a menu on the Heartbreak Hotel website that included the usual fast food, but it would do, so we set off to find it.  We couldn’t!  There was no sign from EP Boulevard to drive to it, apart from an RV park.  We asked some people hanging around outside the Graceland Plaza, and they assured us it didn’t do food in the evening.  We walked up and down the strip, and in desperation noted that the KFC drive in was advertising a ‘Pot Pie’.  At least it wasn’t fried, so we went in.  Most of the menu was ‘off’.  So we were stuck with basic KFC or nothing.  I ordered corn, thinking this would be on the cob as in England, but it turned out to be a small tub of the tinned variety.  Rog had 3 pieces of chicken and gave me one, the leg, to keep me going.

On the other side of the road, the lights to Graceland twinkled, and the shut gates showed the famous wrought iron guitar.

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Two rather weary travellers returned to the Hotel, and collapsed into bed.  At least there were no shrieks and shouts from the pool late into the night tonight.  Rog didn’t like the look of the patch of mould on the ceiling, and complained the room smelt.  To me it just smelt of disinfectant, but either way, we were quite glad this was our last night in this accommodation.

July 8th

In the morning we had breakfast, packed up and set off for the Civil Rights Museum in Mulberry Street.  The Satnav behaved this time, and we were soon parked up and walking up to the Lorraine Motel.

This was the place where Dr Martin Luther King was shot dead on 6th April 1968.   He was on the outside hotel balcony, just leaving room 306 with his brother and friends to go to dinner when a shot rang out from the building opposite.  He received a large wound in the neck and died very shortly afterwards.  Police arrested James Earl Ray.

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We learned this from information boards and the red and white wreath on the actual balcony rail outside room 306.  The rest of the hotel has been turned into a museum, but the room where he was staying has been left as it was on that day, with just a glass wall so you can see it inside.

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The Museum itself was a moving experience, telling the history of black Africans, and their struggle for freedom.  It started with a mock up of a slave ship crossing over from Africa, with the men chained together in the bowels of the ship.

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Sometimes they would be forced to lie on top of each other, there was no sanitary facilities at all, and the women and children were kept separately and abused.  Apparently 20% of them died on the voyage from diseases and were thrown overboard.  The USA depended on slave labour for its wealth creation and trade, but they were seen as goods to be traded and sold.  The 14th Amendment of the American Constitution “All men are created equal” was not deemed to apply to them.

We learned how laws were passed to ensure that slavery was eventually abolished, but the attitudes of the southern states of America refused to recognise that they had equal rights to education, to own properly, and to vote.  The discrimination was appalling, and the struggle to achieve equal status was largely fought through marches and other non-violent means.  One such demonstration was the attempt to drive a bus load of mixed races from New York down to New Orleans.  It met huge opposition and riots.  President Kennedy, who was fighting a cold war with Russia, was forced to take interest as news of the protest and violence hit the international headlines.  Dr Luther King, a very important spokesman for the rights of black people and achieving change through non-violence, warned them that they would not get through Alabama, and he was right, the bus was set on fire.  The burnt out shell of the bus was there in the museum for all to see.

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There were many examples of heroic refusal to bow down to segregation, and the costs paid by those who took a stand, eg by refusing to give up a bus seat to a white person, or going into an all white restaurant and being beaten whilst the police paid no attention.

Things came to a head with the sanitation workers strike in Memphis.  They were forced to work 90 hours a week, in foul jobs with very little pay, and eventually started to march, each wearing a placard round their necks ‘I am a man’.  Dr King arrived to support them, and it was during this visit that he was shot.

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We came away deeply saddened at man’s inhumanity to man, but heartened by the fact that in the end non-violence and the voice of Christian preachers prevailed, despite very strong opposition from southern state politicians.  When Kennedy was assassinated, the view was that as Lyndon Baines Johnson, his deputy, was a Southerner, that the civil rights cause might be set back, but it was unstoppable.  We are only talking less than 50 years ago, at the time that we were late teens, early 20s, and can remember some of the news stories, but it all seemed so far away.

I imagine there are still pockets of discrimination happening in parts of the USA, where the shooting of a black man doesn’t warrant the same investigation as that of a white man.  I was surprised to see a gollywog for sale in a shop in Canada, and at the Parkers Crossroads shop there was the children’s book ‘Little Black Sambo’ still for sale, I can remember that getting banned in the Uk decades ago, it was quite a shock to see it openly on the shelves.

We left in sombre mood.  The whole trip round the museum was made in silence, people didn’t speak, they were just shocked.

We had lunch at a restaurant round the corner from the Museum, and again the menu was the same all frted food.  I thought I would order a ‘Fish Sandwich’, what I got was two halves of a bun on different sides of the plate, with about 7 large pieces of fried fish between them, indistinguishable from the Chicken Tenders at Graceland, and not much difference in flavour either, I could just about tell it was fish, but it was a close thing!  The plate included a large portion of chips and an assortment of sauces.

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Rog had five fried large breaded shrimps with sundry sauces and coleslaw, which looked a bit more appetising, and I think he quite enjoyed, though he said  he was craving veggies!

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