Blues, Grits and Gospel: An Elvis Guide to Memphis
Experience the city that made a king.
Elvis Presley may have been born in Tupelo, Mississippi, but Memphis, Tennessee, was home.
From the high school football fields where a young Elvis played as a teen, to the studio where he recorded for the first time, Memphis shaped both the star and style icon that he would become.
Often overlooked as the younger sister of nearby Nashville, this Tennessee metropolis is bustling with its own vibrant, cultural life. With record stores, music venues, and the kind of comfort food that helped Elvis develop his taste for deep-fried pickles, Memphis offers visitors a hot city with old Southern charm.
“Memphis is just one of those cities that really has an organic, authentic feel to it. We’re not trying to be anything that we’re not,” Graceland’s director of public relations Kevin Kern told Travel + Leisure. “Memphis is really a city with a soul. You hear that not only in Elvis’ music but also in the blues and soul that comes from Memphis.”
Start at the Roots
First-timers to Memphis should begin their trip by having breakfast at the Arcade, a 1950s-style diner where Elvis and his crew—nicknamed the Memphis Mafia—used to hang out in an over-sized booth. Though Presley was never known to be much of a drinker, he certainly did love the kind of good southern home cooking that visitors can still find at this classic haunt.
While digesting a heap of grits and biscuits, fans of the King’s early life can check out a few historical sites nearby, including Lauderdale Courts, where he lived with his mother in this public housing development and practiced guitar in the laundry room.
The nearby Orpheum Theater, which frequently screens Elvis flicks, used to be the site of Jim’s Barbershop, where Elvis would get his perfectly coifed hair trimmed, according to the Memphis Flier.
Presley famously first dyed his blonde locks black using shoe polish, but Jim’s, on the corner of Beale Street and South Main, was a place where the King went for a more professional touch.
Beale Street itself was a fixture of Elvis’ teenage years. Seen as the center of much African-American cultural life at the time, this commercial street emanated the blues and country sound that would become central to Presley’s early rockabilly style, according to Kern.
“Really it was the music of Beale Street and the style of Beale Street that tremendously influenced him,” he said.
The boy king shopped at nearby Lansky’s for some of the flamboyant button-downs and fringed jackets that are now ubiquitous with the name Elvis.
Feel the Blues, Country and Gospel
Swing by Sun Studio, where an 18 year-old Presley recorded his first two songs, “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.” He spent less than $4 to have the acetate disc made as a gift for his mother’s birthday.
Music producer Sam Philips founded Sun Studio in 1950, then called “Memphis Recording Service,” as a way to record and promote some of the local blues music that was coming out of segregated, mostly black neighborhoods in the city at the time. This music contributed many of the rhythms, licks, and lyrical themes that would become hallmarks of rock music.
“It was a merging of cultures: a mixture of blues and country is essentially what rock and roll [is],” Sun Studio’s Nina Jones told T+L.
Musician Jack White recently bought Presley’s first recording for $300,000 at auction. An archivist transferred the disc to digital, and now fans can take a listen to this rare recording of Presley, warbling out love songs with the accompaniment of a soft guitar.
Music buffs should also stop by some of the excellent record shops that Memphis has to offer, including Shangri-La Records. Goner Records is another great place to pick up some vinyl, and it is also home to an Elvis impersonator shrine that anyone can visit for just 25 cents.
Presley’s music was also infused with the sounds of gospel choirs that had enchanted him as a young man in Memphis. Teenaged Elvis was known to sit in the back pews of church so he could sneak out and attend the services of historically Black churches nearby. The soul and swelling gospel music of these choirs would become one of the most notable aspects of his full-throated singing style.
There are a range of churches where visitors to Memphis can immerse themselves in the musical style that inspired Elvis and so many others. One unique location is the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, a church led by legendary soul musician-turned-reverend Al Green.
Spend a Night as Presley's Guest
Presley’s former home at Graceland is a must-see for any true fan, especially with their new visitor center opening in March that includes a variety of museums and cultural exhibits. The hallowed home of the rock and roll king is hosting a series of celebrations for the King’s birthday, including a cake cutting to honor what would have been his 82nd birthday.
To get a feel for what it might have been like to be a part of Presley’s inner circle, try spending a night at the recently opened Guest House at Graceland. Replacing the nearby Heartbreak Hotel, the Guest House is inspired by a vision Presley had of creating a place for fellow musicians and collaborators to stay during their time in Memphis.
“Elvis always wanted to have a guest house for his guests; he was always entertaining people,” Mike Pramshafer, Vice President of sales and marketing for the Guest House, told T+L at the time of the opening. “The design and the decor of the Guest House is patterned after what we feel Elvis’ look would be in today’s society.”
With 400 rooms, a theater, and a sprawling lawn, the new addition may have been on a grander scale than what Presley had in mind. However those close to Elvis, including his former wife Priscilla Presley, have lauded the new hotel, saying it is in keeping with the style and spirit of Elvis' legacy.
Eat, and Then Eat Some More
No visit to Memphis would be complete without the city’s signature barbecue. After a day at Graceland, we’d recommend Neely’s Bar-B-Que for pulled pork, ribs and a more upscale roadhouse atmosphere.
You can’t go wrong with Central BBQ, especially if you ask for the pork platter with extra “bark” (that delicious, smoked crust). It’s no peanut butter and bacon sandwich, but the King would likely approve.