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|GRACELAND IS A SIGHT TO BEHOLD
March 10, 2017 - The Australian / Elvis Express Radio
“What do you give Elvis Presley for Christmas?” George Klein wonders aloud as he stands on the precipice of Graceland’s lavish loungeroom, at the very spot where, more than 60
years ago, he was confronted with one of life’s more enviable dilemmas.
My visit is early on a Monday evening, and Graceland, Elvis’s beloved home in Memphis, Tennessee, is closed.
The crowds of devoted fans and curious onlookers have left for the day and staff are busy clearing the capacious grounds. But the lights are still on inside Graceland, where the
singer’s school friend, 81-year-old Klein, is leading us on a private after-hours tour.
About 600,000 visitors will this year wander through the estate, leaving teddy bears and roses at the memorial garden where Presley is buried beside his parents and his brother,
ambling en masse past his carpeted kitchen and peeking in to his fabric-enclosed billiard room. Tonight, though, we have the place to ourselves.
This is one of many high points on an unofficial Elvis trail that began days earlier on a bus journey through America’s south.
From Nashville to Memphis, almost everywhere the King has been on our minds, his legacy enduring as strongly as ever 40 years after his death. The pilgrimage begins as we
drive along Nashville’s Music Row, the music industry hub just past downtown, and alight at a nondescript corner. RCA’s Studio B is housed in a small beige building, the simple
facade of which belies an impressive history.
Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson and Fats Domino are among the many musicians to have recorded here at the city’s oldest remaining studio and the birthplace of the Nashville Sound.
Elvis recorded only a fraction of the 35,000 songs cut here, but his overall contribution is enormous, racking up dozens of hits.
On a tour of the studio we wander past a wall laden with the colourful covers of the many singles he recorded here, down a hallway that he used as an echo chamber, and in to the
old studio where the Steinway piano he once played still sits.
It is surprisingly moving to be standing in this space, on the same aged linoleum floor, beneath the very coloured lights that Elvis ordered be switched off at around 4am on April 4,
1960, as he and his band recorded Are You Lonesome Tonight in complete darkness.
In the stillness of the studio, as the history of that night is recounted, the song sounds especially beautiful. Not so our rendition, which is recorded as we visitors sing together, our
efforts converted to a CD as a unique take-home gift.
Nashville was Elvis’s entree to stratospheric fame. And the riches he reaped as a result are evident at the city’s impressive Country Music Hall of Fame, the world’s largest popular
music museum. There are displays and artefacts here on everyone from Keith Urban to Dolly Parton and Taylor Swift, but Elvis’s 1960 Cadillac limousine is among the standouts,
with its plush upholstery and gold-plated television. This is the car he favoured for the 340km drive to Nashville from Memphis, his home for much of his life.
One of Memphis’s most stately buildings is the Peabody Hotel, which has stood at its downtown location since 1925. With its elaborate Italian Renaissance architecture, the hotel is
famous for its resident family of ducks, which are led with great fanfare, via a red carpet, to and from the fountain beside the hotel’s ornate bar each day.
But the hotel is also a notable site for events in Elvis’s life. It was in the beautifully maintained lobby where, with his father Vernon, he signed his contract with RCA in 1955 on
And upstairs in the stately Continental Room is where he attended his senior prom in 1953, too shy to dance with his 14-year-old date.
That same year, having finished high school, he walked along Union Avenue, entered the door at number 706, and for a few dollars cut his own record, singing two songs. Almost a
year later, Sam Phillips from the Memphis Recording Service and Sun Studio where Elvis had cut the songs, was looking for new talent. At the urging of a colleague who had heard
Elvis sing, Phillips had him return for an audition.
On July 5, he recorded That’s All Right. A few nights later, local DJ Dewey Phillips played the song and after countless requests replayed it more than a dozen times that same
evening. Within days Elvis had signed his first record contract and his extraordinary career was under way.
Despite the enormous impact the events that took place there would have on the history of rock ’n’ roll, Sun Studio is a comparatively small space and was left to become a
barbershop and laundromat in later decades. In recent years it has been mostly resurrected.
Still operating as a recording studio on many nights, by day it is a wonderful site to tour, and its upstairs displays include a recreation of the studio from where Dewey Phillips played
That’s All Right endlessly on that July night in 1954, and from where Elvis gave an impromptu on-air interview that evening.
Downstairs in the recording studio the original ceiling lights still glow over the old floor tiles. Beside one wall sits the piano Elvis famously played one night in December 1964 in an
impromptu jam session with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet. By then Elvis’s fame and wealth were enormous, and he was firmly
ensconced in Graceland, the sprawling Memphis mansion and grounds he had bought for $100,000 in 1957 and which today is the city’s most famous attraction.
In his years of friendship with Elvis, George Klein came to know the property well. Tonight, in his two-piece zippered tracksuit and runners, he greets us near the entrance, and it is
immediately clear that decades of discussing his famous friendship, and recently writing a book, have not dimmed the enthusiasm with which he share his memories. He tells us
Elvis was best man at his wedding and insisted on paying for the $75,000 celebration. Then he leads us off a shuttle bus and towards the famous mansion, with its colonial revival
“He loved this house, loved it to death,” he continues as he takes us through the front door, beneath a colourful leadlight window embellished with a large P. “I was with him when he
made Jailhouse Rock and every day he would ring here and say, ‘Daddy, put the decorator on the phone.’ ”
He takes us into the spacious loungeroom, noting the portrait of Elvis on one wall (a favourite of his mother Gladys), and proudly pointing to the massive sun-shaped clock above
the mantelpiece. So we discover this is what he gave Elvis that long-ago Christmas.
Klein’s narration is incessant and fascinatingly detailed, and our planned one-hour visit extends to two as he slowly talks us through the house. Elvis hated orange and brown he
reveals as we wander past the spacious kitchen. He had a soft spot for his Viva Las Vegas co-star, Swedish-American actress Ann-Margret, and Klein says “she would have been a
perfect lady for Elvis”, as we explore the yellow and navy basement, with its three television sets and hidden projector. (“Elvis would never watch his own movies.”)
In the trophy room we learn Elvis once insisted on paying for surgery Klein was awaiting. On approach to an outdoor office his father used, we are informed that Elvis was better
looking in person than he was on screen. By the time the house tour is over we even have an idea of what it was like to sleep with the King; before his famous friend moved to
Graceland, Klein would sometimes stay over at Elvis’s house if they had been out late. “He and I would bunk up in the same bed. His mother would warn me that Elvis talks in his
sleep and walks in his sleep. The next night I spent there he was walking [in his sleep] and I said real softly to go back to bed now, we have to be in Hollywood in the morning.”
The narration continues during an inspection of Elvis’s old racquetball court, through his private plane, named the Lisa Marie, and across the road from the mansion to Graceland’s
car museum. There, serenaded by a video of Elvis at his 1968 comeback concert, we have dinner surrounded by some of his favourite toys, including his purple Cadillac, the pink
model he gave his mother, his motorbikes, even the Graceland tractor.
Our southern barbecue dinner ends with tiny portions of Elvis’s beloved fried banana and peanut butter sandwiches. Then it’s time to end this fascinating night. But not before one
more round at the gift shop that has stayed open especially late for us (an Elvis nail file, anyone?). Klein graciously bids us farewell. Elvis’s friend has left the building. And soon, in
a state of glee, so have we.
Fiona Harari was a guest of Luxury Gold by Insight Vacations.