The Mississippi DeltaWas shining like a National guitar I am following the river Down the highway Through the cradle of the Civil WarI’m going to Graceland, GracelandMemphis, Tennessee I’m going to Graceland Poor boys and pilgrims with families And we are going to Graceland
…For reasons I cannot explainThere’s some part of me wants to see Graceland
(Graceland, Paul Simon)
In 1956, his breakout year, Elvis Presley bought Graceland for $105,000, equivalent to about $1.1m today. Over the next 20 years, he spent at least five times the original purchase price on extensions and repeated changes to the interior decor. By the time he died, although the facade remained the same, the footprint had almost doubled to 23 rooms, including eight bedrooms and eight bathrooms.
In 1991 Graceland was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2006 it was designated a National Historic Landmark, the first rock-n-roll site to be named to both lists.
Since being opened to the public in 1982, it’s become the most visited residence in the United States after the White House. In May 2016 it welcomed its 20 millionth visitor. Even now, 47 years after Presley’s death, around 600,000 people visit every year.
You cannot come to Memphis and not visit Graceland, but we thought it would be chaotic, crowded and frustrating. Maybe there’s a January lull, or perhaps its the current unusually cold weather, but it was the absolute opposite. No queue for tickets, no waiting to tour the mansion.
And we’re almost embarrassed to admit, this is a great day out.
From the outside, the house seemed smaller than we expected.
Inside, it’s every bit as tacky as you’d expect from the man renowned for sequinned jumpsuits and gaudy jewellery.
Graceland has been described as “a Technicolor illusion. The façade is Gone With the Wind all the way… [but] living in Graceland was like living on a Hollywood backlot, where patches of tropical scenery alternated with the blackened ruins of antebellum Atlanta. It was like living in a Memphis movie”.
It’s certainly a mish-mash of styles and eras.
Elvis heard that President Lyndon Johnson simultaneously watched three televisions to keep abreast of all the news channels, so he had his basement television room fitted out the same.
Every room had a bar. Even the racquetball court he added in 1975 had a viewing lounge with a bar and piano. On 16 August 1977, Elvis played racquetball, sat at this piano and sang Unchained Melody by The Righteous Brothers and Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain by Willie Nelson, then retired to his room. Hours later, he had died.
Elvis is buried in a family plot next to the house. Fans still leave flowers and messages, and as it was only a couple of days after his birthday, there were loads of tributes.
His parents and grandmother are buried either side. There’s a memorial to Elvis’ twin brother who died at birth. On the other side of the circle are the graves of his daughter Lisa Marie who died suddenly in January 2023 and Lisa Marie’s only son, Benjamin, who died by suicide in 2020. For all the kitsch, there’s a quiet, respectful atmosphere.
Across the street from Graceland, the estate bought out a large shopping centre and has converted it into exhibition spaces.
The Elvis Presley Automobile Museum houses more than twenty of the King’s motor cars including his iconic pink Cadillac. Elvis promised his mother he would buy her one when he got famous. He made good on the promise early on. She never drove it because she never got her driver’s licence, but he always referred to it as ‘Gladys’ car’.
There’s also the black Stutz Blackhawk in which he drove through the gates of Graceland for the last time, on the day he died.
There are motor bikes, golf carts and a little runabout, christened Gladys after his mother, which he used to mess about on the creek behind the house.
Elvis’ two private jets are on display in the grounds. Of course, they were custom fitted to his specifications. The Lisa Marie has a lounge, master bedroom and conference room all with bars. The seat belt buckles and bathroom fittings are gold plated. Of course.
There’s video of Elvis’ pilot describing how he once flew Elvis and his entourage half way across the country and back just so they could pick up a tray of peanut butter sandwiches from a place Elvis particularly liked.
And how the smaller, 10 seater Hound Dog II, once flew Elvis’ dog to and from Boston for a one-off vet appointment. The fitout is a testament to 1970s kitsch.
There are several 60s style diners on site. We ate at Gladys’ Diner, where you can sit in a Cadillac and eat one of Elvis’ favourite foods – a banana and peanut butter sandwich grilled in bacon fat. Ridiculously calorific but very tasty.
There are five gift shops on the site and we were hoping to pick up something super kitsch. Alas, having evicted all the trashy knock-off souvenir stands that used to be in the area, the official shops are filled with more ‘respectful’ stuff. No bobble-headed Elvis dolls, no cookbooks called “Are You Hungry Tonight”, no coffee cups with Elvis declaring “Brew Were Always on My Mind”. (All of these exist elsewhere in the real world). The tackiest thing we could find was a pink glitter-encrusted Graceland snow globe. Julie will treasure it always.
We loved the pavilion displaying Elvis’ outfits, mostly from the late 1960s onwards when designer Bill Belew created increasingly ornate jumpsuits for Presley’s tours and his shows in Las Vegas.
Aside from his military service in Germany, Elvis never travelled outside the United States. But in 1973, he became the first solo artist to have a concert broadcast live by satellite around the world. Aloha From Hawaii was seen in 36 countries, by a record audience of 1.5 billion.
Elvis wanted an outfit with a patriotic look, so Belew created this American Eagle themed jumpsuit.
There’s an exhibition about Lisa Marie Presley with her perspective on ‘growing up Presley’ and life at Graceland.
Dotted throughout many of the exhibition rooms are videos and screens of Elvis’ performances.
Perhaps most surprising was an exhibition about musicians who credit Elvis as their early inspiration.
“If there hadn’t been an Elvis, there wouldn’t have been The Beatles.” John Lennon
“Elvis was the king. No doubt about it. People like myself, Mick Jagger and all the others only followed in his footsteps.” Rod Stewart
“If it hadn’t been for Elvis, I don’t know where popular music would be. He was the one that started it all off, and he was definitely the start of it for me.”
Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, Isaac Hayes, Mick Fleetwood from Fleetwood Mac, Gene Simmons from Kiss, even country singers like Faith Hill.
Bruce Springsteen was a life long fan. He first heard Hound Dog as a kid and said “it made me realise there was more to life than what I’d been living … there’d been a vision laid out before me”.
In 1975, Springsteen was in Memphis on his Born to Run tour. On impulse, he jumped the fence of Graceland at 3am and ran up to the house, hoping to meet Elvis. The security guard didn’t believe he was a musician. He said Elvis wasn’t home (probably a lie) and politely escorted him off the property. The only thing that could make that story better was if he’d said “Elvis has left the building”.
The two never met, but Springsteen summed it all up:
“There have been lots of tough guys. There have been pretenders. There have been contenders. But there is only one king”.
A word of advice – if you’re planning a visit to Graceland, put on your blue suede shoes and go early. You’ll need a whole day to see it all.