Goin' to Graceland, Graceland – Memphis, Tennessee

Posted January 29, 2008 3:53 p.m. EST

If you want to know what Elvis Presley was really like, stroll through his Memphis mansion, Graceland.

Even though the music icon died more than 30 years ago, you’ll feel his presence at every turn. That's because every room on the Graceland tour is pretty much just as he left it when he died there in 1977 at age 42.

Elvis burst onto the music scene in 1954. The 19-year-old truck driver had paid $3.98 for studio time to record a couple of songs that went nowhere. Finally, Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records, heard one he liked, "That’s All Right (Mama)." Phillips made a few hundred copies and sent them out. One DJ liked the song so much he played it more than 100 times in a day. It caught on around the nation, and soon Elvis began cranking out one hit after another.

Elvis bought the 13-acre Graceland in 1957 for $102,000 with proceeds from "Heartbreak Hotel." It now costs more than $500,000 per year just to maintain the 17,552 square-foot home. Built in 1939, the limestone mansion has 23 rooms, including eight bathrooms and eight bedrooms. The upper floor, where Elvis died, has never been open to the public.

Walking through the mansion, your first impression might be that you are in a home decorated by someone with outlandish taste and lots of money. Some rooms are overdecorated and gaudy; others tastefully done and relatively low-key.

Most of the couches are large, pillow-stuffed and comfortable-looking. One room is filled with television sets. Elvis was known to watch three at one time – back when only three stations were available.

Driving up to the gates at Graceland, 3734 Elvis Presley Blvd., tour buses and people are everywhere. More than 600,000 people visit each year. The wrought-iron gates, decorated with musical notes out front, are a favorite photo backdrop for Elvis fans.

Graceland Basics

A ticket for a basic Graceland tour – mansion and grounds only – is $25 for adults, $22.50 for seniors and students.

The mansion tour includes the living room, music room, dining room, kitchen, Elvis’s parents’ bedroom, TV room, poolroom, “jungle” den (with a stone waterfall and fake fur furniture) and the main house annex. Behind the house, you’ll see Elvis’s racquetball building and his business office. Also on the basic tour: the trophy building, with a huge collection of gold records and awards, along with a display of career mementos, stage costumes, jewelry and photographs.

Two elaborate stained-glass peacocks flank the entrance to the living room. The kitchen could have come from almost any middle-class home of the 1950s, with lots of Formica counter tops and ordinary appliances. It was here that Elvis' favorite peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches were made.

The tour ends with a visit to the Meditation Garden where Elvis, his parents and grandmother are buried.

The Graceland Platinum Tour adds a self-guided look at Elvis’s custom aircraft, his auto museum (including a 1955 pink Cadillac, 1956 purple Cadillac convertible, a 1973 Stutz Blackhawk and a collection of Harley Davidson motorcycles) and the Sincerely Elvis Museum (featuring 56 of Elvis’s stage costumes and other personal items) and the Elvis After Dark Exhibit. Tickets are $30, $27 for seniors and students.

For the die-hard fan, the Graceland Elvis Entourage VIP Tour adds front-of-the-line VIP access, an all-day ticket, keepsake backstage pass and enhanced tours. Tickets are $68.

The mansion, designated a National Landmark in 2006, has seen more than 15 million visitors since it opened in 1982, second only to the White House as the most visited private residence in the nation. In 2006, President George W. Bush visited Graceland, along with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a rabid Elvis fan.

Other Memphis Sites

Graceland lures thousands to Memphis and west Tennessee annually. But after the Elvis tour, unique tourist options include the motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, a pearl farm, blues clubs on Beale Street, a bird dog museum, Indian burial mounds, a pewter factor and even a reconstructed small town.

The Lorraine Motel, at 450 Mulberry St., where King was shot by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968, from the nearby Young/Morrow Boarding House, has been made into a national civil rights museum. It chronicles through graphics and panoramic displays the struggle of black people in America and includes a bus from Montgomery, Ala., from the era in which Rosa Parks conducted her sit-down protest. That act touched off the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which in turn helped spark other civil rights demonstrations and movements.

A fresh wreath is kept on the railing in front of Room 306, and the room is as King left it inside. Tourists walk to the boarding house via a tunnel and view the squalid bathroom from which the fatal shot is believed to have been fired.

The famous Sun Recording Studio, at 706 Union Ave., is where Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tina Turner, Isaac Hayes, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison and Elvis got their starts. A black plastic "X" inlaid in the floor of the small studio marks where Elvis stood when recording. The un-air-conditioned studio, about the size of the average living room, has become a tourist attraction, and guides can tell you the history of the studio and its founder, Sam Phillips.

Beale Street

Beale Street is the Memphis' version of Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Shortly after the Civil War, traveling black musicians began congregating on Beale Avenue (it was changed to "Street" later to conform to W.C. Handy’s musical number in which he called it "Beale Street."). Blues music evolved, led by men like Handy and B.B. King, although any kind of music could be found on Beale Street, ranging from jazz to rock ‘n roll. Elvis was undoubtedly influenced by the music there.

Today, this National Landmark offers more than 25 clubs and shops, including such places as Mr. Handy's Blues Hall, Alfred's on Beale, the New Daisy Theater, B.B. King's Blues Club and the Blues City Café and Band Box.

The Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Area, near Jackson on the Forked Deer River, will fascinate those interested in American Indian archeology. Within this relatively small area, Native Americans began building burial mounds as early as 1000 B.C.. Earliest maps show there were 35 mounds, some up to 72 feet or more in height, although there are only 17 clearly definable mounds today. The area was purchased from the Chickasaw Indians by treaty in 1818.

Tennessee is rich in Civil War history, from Shiloh to Vicksburg and the Battle of Parker's Crossroads, where Union troops thought they had Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest trapped after Forrest had attacked a supply line. Forrest, with just 2,100 troops, ordered his men to charge in two directions and both fought their way out of the trap. Gen. Robert E. Lee later said Forrest was one of his top generals.

Ames Plantation

Ames Plantation, which began in 1826, was once center of about 25,000 acres of cotton land. It was founded by John Walker Jones, who owned it up until he was killed in the Battle of Shiloh. His heirs sold it to Hobart Ames, principal owner of the Ames Shovel and Tool Co. of Easton, Mass. Ames became a major supporter of the annual National Field Trial Championships to determine the best quail dog in the nation. In nearby Grand Junction is the home of the National Bird Dog Museum, which includes portraits and photographs of national champion dogs, firearms and a collection of bird dog lore.

Located 24 miles east of Memphis, Collierville is a town reconstructed after the original town was burned to the ground by Union troops during the Civil War. The town's main park has sidewalks configured to resemble the Confederate battle flag. Although a working town, it dates from the 1830s, and was a thriving cotton center when the Civil War began. Today it could serve as backdrop for a Civil War era movie, complete with train station and quaint shops and restaurants. One train car has become a fine restaurant, the "Tennessean."

The nation's only fresh-water pearl farm is open for tours at Camden on the Tennessee River. Here, thousands of fresh-water mussels are implanted with a tiny irritant like a piece of shell that causes the mussel to encapsulate the bit of grit with the nacreous substance that hardens into pear. The gem-quality pears are sold worldwide.

The base of operations for a recent writers’ tour was the Memphis Peabody Hotel, famous for its daily parade of ducks between the large lobby fountain and the elevators. The ducks stay in an enclosure on the roof at night. The almost military-like march of the ducks in the morning and the evening has become a tourist draw. It began when an early owner of the hotel before World War II put live duck decoys in the fountain after returning late from a duck hunt. They proved so popular, that the tradition evolved.