Graceland – Touring Elvis’ Memphis Home
In my first post from Memphis Alison and I stayed at the legendary Peabody Hotel and enjoyed much of what there is to see in the downtown area. In this post we’ll leave the downtown and head south to spend some time with Elvis Presley. Christmas is a great time to visit Graceland, the colonial style mansion Elvis bought in 1957 and made his principal residence until his death in 1977. After he died his father Vernon inherited it and when he died it went to Elvis’ only child, Lisa Marie. When she died in early 2023 it went to her oldest daughter, Riley Keough who is the current sole owner. Since 1982 it has been open to the public and has become an American icon of the rags to riches story that Elvis’ life truly represented.
The mansion and the outbuildings remain largely furnished as they were when Elvis lived there and at Christmas are augmented by holiday decorations that create a festive atmosphere. There’s also a lot fewer visitors at this time of year and you can take as much time as you want during your visit.
There are a myriad of different packages offered on the website, and the one we opted for was the basic audio tour of the mansion followed by as much time as you want in the Elvis Presley Entertainment Complex which is across the street from Graceland. The complex is huge and divided into a number of distinct sections featuring his movies, his time in the army, his automobiles, his records and his many jump suits. When I first visited Graceland this complex did not exist so only a few of his records, jump suits and other memorabilia were on display inside the mansion. Since the complex opened in 2017 the mansion is much more accurate in terms of what it actually looked like when Elvis lived here. The basic ticket also includes access to Elvis’ private jets. The cost is $82.00 and worth every cent.
The first thing you notice upon arriving at Graceland which is nine miles south of central Memphis, is how open it is. Elvis Presley Boulevard is a busy typical American suburban street with strip malls, BBQ joints and fast food restaurants. It is certainly not what you would call an upscale neighbourhood. Then you see this big house set not that far off the road and completely visible to anyone driving by. Unlike most celebrities Elvis did not try to hide behind a walled in compound. Yes there is a metal fence around the property so you can’t just wander in, but still you’ll be impressed at how approachable the place is.
After parking in the vast parking lot you get your ticket validated at the entrance to the Entertainment Complex where you are given your audio equipment and then board a bus which only holds about twenty people. It makes the short trip across the street and up to the entrance where you get out. By limiting the number of people entering to a reasonably small number at a time you get a much better experience than if it was just a free for all.
The audio tour takes a defined route through the first floor of Graceland with a description of each room followed by a number of outbuildings and you can take as much time as you want exploring the place.
The first thing I remembered from my first visit and which was reenforced on the second is just how ordinary the house is. Yes there is some very distinct decor that give it a unique Elvis touch, but overall this could be any well off family home from the 1960’s. This ordinariness does not diminish the experience, but rather enhances it because you know that Elvis could have built a place ten times this big anywhere in Memphis and filled it with priceless art work like many nouveau riche people do. But he didn’t and that makes the place all the more real and the connection to Elvis all the more real as well. As you tour Graceland you can sense his presence and I don’t mean as a ghost, but as a real person playing with his daughter, hanging out with his boyhood friends or just puttering around like we all do.
So let’s look at some rooms starting with the living room which is just off the modest foyer. The peacock stained class doorway leads to the music room. The living room is where Elvis met with people on business or spent time with his parents, not his friends who hung out in other parts of the house we’ll come to.
Across the hall from the living room is the dining room which is set for a Christmas dinner for six.
Probably the one room that brings home the sheer normalcy of Graceland is the kitchen which is not that different than you’d find in any suburban home of the 1970’s. Elvis had his own cook, Mary Langston who kept his weight up with a steady diet of super rich foods that he loved, especially her meatloaf. On my first visit to Graceland the narration for the kitchen included the fact that he had her make it for something like forty straight days until Priscilla finally revolted.
From here the Graceland tour heads down to the basement where you find the TV room which apparently have three different channels on simultaneously.
Next to the TV room is the pool room which is anything but ordinary with its walls and ceiling covered in a riot of coloured fabrics.
Then it’s back upstairs to perhaps the most famous room in Graceland, the jungle room which Elvis had decorated in a Polynesian style that reminded him of Hawaii, one of his favourite places after Memphis. This is where he spent most of his time with family and friends rather than the more normal living room.
From here the Graceland tour goes out the back door where there are a number of outbuildings including Vernon’s office, a shooting range, a racquetball court and the barn where horses are still stabled.
This is the view of Graceland from the back yard.
Next on the tour is the Trophy Room which is a separate annex of the mansion proper. Here there are a number of collections on display including his hundreds of police badges he was given over the years and the Presley family tree.
On the way to the final part of the mansion visit, the Meditation Garden, you can get a glimpse of the very modest kidney shaped swimming pool.
The Meditation Garden will almost certainly be the most moving part of your visit to Graceland as it is here that Elvis is buried along with his parents, his daughter and one of his grandchildren.
On my first visit neither Lisa Marie or her son Benjamin Keough were interred here. Lisa Marie died in January 2023 as a result of complications from bariatric surgery, a type of weight loss procedure she had undergone a few years earlier. Benjamin was almost a lookalike for his grandfather and that turned out to be more of a curse than a blessing. He committed suicide in 2020 at the age of 27.
Visiting at this time of year allowed us to spend as much time as we wanted at Elvis graveside and after touring Graceland and seeming to get to know him on a personal level, it will be nigh impossible not to be moved to tears as you reflect on what could have been if he had not died so young.
From here you return to the front of Graceland and that’s where you can bet your photo taken by one of the onsite employees before taking the bus back to the Entertainment Centre.
The Graceland Entertainment Complex is huge and I have room for only a few of the highlights which begins with his many automobiles. I had always associated Elvis with pink Cadillacs and he did have those for sure, but I did not know that he was a true car nut and had literally dozens of luxury models from many famous brands including Rolls Royce, Mercedes, Bentley and more. He wasn’t into fast cars as much as just big suckers with massive engines like this 1971 Stutz Blackhawk.
This Cadillac was driven by Vernon Presley. Elvis gave away over 200 Caddies to his friends, relatives and employees over his lifetime.
Another room is dedicated to Elvis’ time in the US Army which lasted from March 1958 to March 1960 with most of it spent with the 1st Medium Tank Brigade in Germany. It seems almost certain that the drafting of Elvis, just as that of Mohammad Ali in 1966, was deliberately orchestrated to get a person perceived to be a threat to public order out of the way. As beloved as Elvis is today, at the beginning of his career he was vilified for acting on stage like what most racists thought only black performers would do i.e. use his body gyrations in a provocative way that earned him the moniker Elvis the Pelvis. Unlike Ali, Elvis did report for duty, but in both cases the draft effectively stripped both of them of their potentially most productive years.
This is Elvis’ army uniform. I had no idea that he was actually a sergeant and not just the ordinary G.I. he played in the movie G.I.Blues.
Aside from his automobile collection Elvis had a vast collection of musical instruments, mostly guitars and Graceland has an entire room of them including this custom made Gibson that Elvis played on some of his most famous gigs including the famous Aloha concerts in Hawaii. His penchant for giving people gifts, even complete strangers, was in evidence in Asheville, N.C. in 1975 when, in the middle of a set he took it off and gave it to Mike Harris, a fan in the front row. That gift turned out to be worth $270,000.00 when Harris sold it some forty years later.
Also on display in the instruments room is this complete non sequitur on loan from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. This is the piano John Lennon used to compose the songs for the album Double Fantasy which was released only three weeks before his death. In perhaps one of the cruelest twists of fate ever, Lennon signed a copy of the album for Mark Chapman just 30 minutes before Chapman shot him and that album later sold for $400,000.00, the most ever paid for a vinyl record.
The room that contains Elvis’ gold and platinum records is simply overwhelming. This is only one wall of them. He is the first artist to have ever achieved over one billion record sales worldwide. In the United States alone he has over 150 gold, platinum and multi-platinum records. One of the reasons for his phenomenal success was his wide ranging appeal to many fans of different music genres. He has been inducted into five separate music hall of fames – rock & roll, blues, country, gospel and rockabilly. I didn’t even know that the latter existed until visiting Graceland.
And I’ve saved the best for last at the Graceland Entertainment Complex – his famous outfits. On my first visit to Graceland a few of these were on display at the mansion, but now there are dozens in stacked showcases. These are truly works of art, all created by costume designer Bill Belew between 1968 and Elvis’ death in 1977. If you are an Elvis fan, and who isn’t, you’ll recognize some of them such the famous jumpsuit he wore for the 1973 Aloha concert in Honolulu that was broadcast by satellite to 36 countries and estimated to have been seen by over a billion people.
These are just some of the outfits he wore during his so-called ‘Vegas years’.
Alison is a bit overawed by it all and you will be too.
There is a lot more to the Graceland Entertainment Complex than I’ve shown in this post including a room dedicated to his movies, another called ‘Icons’ that traces Elvis’ influence on other entertainers from Elton John to Bruce Springsteen and every genre in between and even one displaying his karate outfits. There’s also a ton of interactive experiences to enjoy, with one in particular I liked, the recreation of Elvis’ 1968 comeback performance with this iconic set. Give it your best Elvis’ pose impression.
While that ends the tour of Graceland, that’s not the end of this post. Having come as far as Memphis it was no hardship to drive the 115 miles (185 kms.) to Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi. We did this on Christmas day and I fully expected that the famed shotgun shack where he was born would be behind some fenced in area and hoped just to get a glimpse of it. But no, while the museum was closed the actual house was quite approachable. What are the odds that we would have this place entirely to ourselves?
This is Alison with a statue of Elvis at the age 13, the year when his family would move rom here to Memphis.
And here I am all by my lonesome sitting on a swing on the Presley porch on Christmas Day. It’s a wonderful world.