An early Monday morning at Gatwick saw us on board a US Airways A300 bound for Charlotte North Carolina. Why Charlotte? Who knows! There was a four hour wait there and in a smaller plane, a much smaller plane(!) we headed for Memphis. Our guide met us at the airport. Late afternoon found us in the Heartbreak Hotel just a short walk from Graceland. The hotel IS at the end of Lonely Street and the desk clerks are dressed in black! But quite friendly. The hotel reception area is very retro and a riot of colour. One TV channel is dedicated to Elvis movies and is permanently on in Reception. Speakers in all the public areas, some outside(!), provide you with Elvis 24/7! We wondered around the hotel to check it out and then crashed out ready for an early start in the morning. Our group had four Australians, two Canadians and two Americans. The rest of us were from the UK. The guide told us that 90% of the overseas visitors to Graceland are from the UK. We are held in high esteem given the fact that we have to travel 4500 miles to be there!
We left the hotel at 7:45 and headed for a tour of Memphis. The hotel is some way out of the city centre. When Elvis bought Graceland it was out in the country but now it is part of a built-up area. We picked up our city guide and friend who pointed out various places which had featured in the life of Elvis. His high school, first family apartment, radio interview hotel, and the Sun Studio which we are due to visit on another day. Not sure why they had to keep bursting into song? The tour of Memphis included a visit to the Stax museum. This is housed in the former Stax recording studios. Stax was a famous meeting place for black and white musicians and one of few where they could meet. The death of Martin Luther King seems to have had an effect on the once tight knit community, friendships were broken and in the early seventies the studio closed. Otis Redding probably their most famous star. Memphis is a very quiet town. No rush hour traffic. Not too many people around. The biggest employer is Fed-Ex who take over Memphis Airport during the dark hours and distribute parcels worldwide. The most important part of the city tour was the visit to the Levitt Shell in Overton Park. This was where Elvis had his first professional engagement. Having sung an upbeat version of ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ he left the stage in a hurry thinking that all the screaming was negative. The promoter is alleged to have said; ‘I don’t know what you’re doing out there son, but go out and do it again!’
We headed out of town and picked up the interstate heading for Tupelo, Mississippi. A lunch stop on the way but we had plenty of time to see all we wanted in Tupelo. The house and museum complex have been the inspiration of Dick Guyton who welcomed us to Tupelo. The ‘Shotgun Shack’ where Elvis was born is still there. So-called because if you fired a shotgun through an open front door it would keep on travelling and exit via the open back door. Just two rooms. A bedroom and a kitchen/diner. Basic probably overstates its use. There is a museum on site and the church where the Presley family worshipped. This has been moved from its former site to form part of the complex. The statutory gift shop of course, where I always feel obliged to buy something as my Financial Director will tell you! A replica car is on the site and represents the vehicle which the family used when they moved from Tupelo to Memphis. A Plymouth Sedan as I recall. If you are not an Elvis fan all this would not mean Too Much but for Elvis fans then You Just Can’t Help Believin’?
We left the house and the other buildings and headed into Tupelo itself. A much smarter place than I expected. Our destination was the Tupelo Hardware Store where Elvis bought his first guitar (Well his Mum paid for it!). The present owner is related to the previous owners and an Elvis fan. The original reason for the visit was to buy a bicycle. Elvis saw an air-rifle and asked for that. A guitar was the compromise. And the rest as they say is rock and roll! The owner said to us that when Elvis was asked if he would like the guitar he would love to say that Elvis replied ‘That’s Alright Mama, that’s alright with me.’ But he didn’t!
That was Tupelo and most impressive it was. Back to the hotel we found out that our dinner venue was closed so we picked up the pink telephone and asked for the taxi. A few minutes later the eight-seater pink Cadillac pulls up outside and takes us for free to the nearest steak house. After an enjoyable meal the same car returns us to the hotel for the same charge! It has been a good day.
Wednesday is the day we had all been waiting for; the visit to Graceland. Although it is within walking distance you are bussed in so that the staff can supposedly manage the numbers. So much smaller than I imagined but just great to be able to wander round. Too many people allowed in the house at any one time would be my only complaint. Nothing has been changed since the seventies and the décor and furnishings reflect the time. No one is allowed upstairs. The racquet ball room has been converted into an award room and all the discs and awards from other countries are in there. Plus some large screens showing the Vegas performances. While we were in there it showed him singing ‘American Trilogy.’ Everyone stopped talking just to listen to what was a powerful performance of the song. At the end everyone applauded. Magic. A sombre moment then as we toured the meditation garden and looked at the graves. If you had asked me fifty years ago if I would ever visit Graceland I would have laughed at you. To be there was a very large tick in a very large box. Over the road the Graceland complex continues with the Convair aircraft Elvis used to travel to concerts. Named the ‘Lisa-Marie’ you are allowed inside and likewise the smaller ‘Hound Dog executive jet. There is an automobile museum which houses some of the cars owned by Elvis (He gave a lot of them away). Numerous diners, gift shops and a couple of smaller museums. I was expecting some sort of theme park but the whole Graceland experience far outweighed my expectations.
While Wednesday provided a great day Thursday probably provided the moment of the tour for me. We visited the Sun Studios where it all began. A very small place but I was able to stand on the very spot where Elvis recorded ‘That’s Alright Mama’ and hold the same mike in my hand. To stand on that spot where a shy young man from Tupelo Mississippi started a music revolution was something special.
The tour of studios was given by an attractive young lady who must have been born long after Elvis died. As Bill Anderson was to say at the Grand Ole Opry on the Saturday about another young lady, ‘If she don’t light yer fire then yer wood must be wet!’ From there to the Rock & Soul museum. This was interesting but really a continuation of the Stax tour. Then it was free time and a look around Beale Street the legendary home of the blues. Or it used to be. Now it is just a tourist trap and looks cheap and cheerful! We pick up the coach and it takes us to the Lorraine Motel where we pay our respects to Martin Luther King. The balcony on which he was murdered by James Earl Ray is marked by a large white-flowered wreath. The window from which Ray fired the fatal shot is boarded up and painted black. A time for reflection as we head for a look at the mighty Mississippi river. We arrived back at the hotel at 4pm and decided we would visit Graceland for a second time. Only six of us in the house, which made us feel more like guests than tourists. In the long corridor which houses all the gold discs I found myself on my own and was able to take a photograph which the day before had proved impossible because of the numbers of people. A even more impressive visit than the first one.
Dinner at the Rock and Roll Café. We had the entertainment of an Elvis impersonator. He started well and went downhill once he tried to be Dean Martin! Not too late to bed as the hotel porter wants the cases outside our room at 6:45 tomorrow morning!
Once more to the interstate, and we have a traffic free run to Nashville pausing for coffee along the way. Lunch is on Broadway where all the Honky Tonk bars are located. Well they should be renamed Rock n Roll bars. Small rooms and very loud music had all of us finding somewhere quieter to eat! Then, to the Country Music Hall of Fame, and a private audience with John Carter Cash. This was just for our group and provided an hour of reminiscence and song as the son of Johnny Cash took us through his father’s life. He did not try to hide his father’s faults but said that weighed one against the other the good things tipped the balance. He ended singing ‘Hurt’ which was a brave song to finish with. We stood to applaud.
From there to the Millennium Maxwell House Hotel where the coffee is, quite nice. No really. The hotel is OK and much like any other for the price. In your room wifi is charged for, but down in the lobby it is free! Need to check my emails!
Saturday comes and we are due to head for RCA Studio B first up. However a charity marathon has closed some main roads in Nashville and the coach is not allowed through and will not reach Studio B for our appointment. A quick change of plan and a few phone calls as we do the city tour first. Nashville looks more vibrant than Memphis and does seem to be the busier city. But then it is the capital of Tennessee! A most impressive war memorial in the Bi-Centennial Park. During the Civil War Tennessee provide the most soldiers for the Union side and the most soldiers for the Confederates! Its government voted for secession from the Union.
Finally the last marathon runners had dragged themselves across the line and we headed for Studio B on Music Row. Elvis recorded 260 songs here. Roy Orbison recorded ‘Only the Lonely,’ the Everly Brothers ‘All I Have To Do is Dream’ and ‘Cathy’s Clown.’ Jim Reeves recorded most of his most famous songs here. We saw a video of him doing a recording session. We listened to out-takes of Elvis recording ‘Little Sister’ and him singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ using the Steinway piano which remains in the studio. Then the moment we had been waiting for. The Cosmos/Archers Singers record ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love!’ Just one take that’s all it took! A CD was given to each of us the next day with a superb commemorative label on it. When we had finished one of our group, Tony, sat at the Steinway and played ‘Blueberry Hill’ which had us singing along! It could have been the B side! The American group behind us had a sense of humour failure at being delayed. One other recording took place at Studio B. It was by Perry Como, and aptly describes the tour, ‘Magic Moments’ indeed!
From Studio B it was back to the Country Music Hall of Fame and a good look around. Some had lunch before some afterwards. There was an excellent exhibition about Patsy Cline. A well laid out building and the displays were magnificent. Elvis presented them with one of his cadillacs which had all gold fittings. Apparently he just turned up one day and dropped the keys on the desk saying ‘It’s all yours!’ We headed back to the hotel on the shuttle bus and a freshen up before heading to the Grand Ole Opry.
This is the longest running radio programme in the world and is an institution in Nashville. It is a concert with adverts! I had a vague memory of Bill Anderson but had not heard of any of the other acts and only recognised three songs. But it was about being there and the atmosphere was fantastic.
It was all over bar the shouting. Tomorrow was to be a free day.
A late breakfast and we shared a taxi to Opryland. This is a shopping mall. When I say mall I mean mall! It is a country mile long! The largest of its kind in Tennessee if not the country! We covered about 200 country yards and caught the shuttle to the Cascades Hotel at the end of the mall. A beautiful place, with two massive atriums which have plants and trees. One of them has an artificial river flowing round an island. We went for a cruise on a Mississippi flat boat. The river is stocked with Koi and blue catfish. Most impressive. I dread to think how much it costs to stay there! My one American phone call on my mobile summoned the taxi! It was back to the hotel for our last night and dinner in the restaurant.
Time for the exchange of memories and farewells with our tour companions as we all departed at different times. We took off for Charlotte at 2:30 pm. This time there was only an hours wait and our A300 climbed out to 40000 feet and with an 89mph tail-wind put us in to Gatwick just after 7am.
The tour exceeded all expectations. Time is moving on so it was a case of ‘ It’s Now or Never’ and I guess you could say ‘My Wish Came True’ and now I feel like I’m ‘King of the Whole Wide World!’ Sometimes you just have to ‘Follow That Dream?’
Enough all ready! Back in England we put the CD on and listened to our recording. It was a happy reminder that we had not been dreaming. We really did go to Tennessee. And you should too?