Last week over lunch, my editor at the Wall Street Journal asked me to travel to Memphis for the weekend to cover Elvis Week. I've long wanted to attend the event marking the anniversary of the rocker's passing. I was never a big Elvis fan beyond the 30 # 1 Hits CD. I had always assumed there was something oddly Gothic and sticky about the whole obsession. But I was curious.
The more my editor and I talked, the more we recognized that the story's angle couldn't and shouldn't cast the event as a novelty or freak show. That wouldn't be respectful. The harder and more interesting story would be to figure out what makes today's fans tick and why so many keep returning each year to Memphis in August. [Photo of Elvis fan Jim Hamilton at Graceland by Marc Myers]
So I hopped a flight to Memphis on Saturday morning. Today's issue of the Wall Street Journal carries the result of my visit and reporting. You'll have to pick up a copy at the newsstand or go here if you have an online subscription.
Here are the first few paragraphs:
"As Elvis Week wound down Sunday night, nearly 20,000 fans held a candlelight vigil outside the gates of Graceland. Yet the question hanging in the 100-degree heat was why so many of these same fans continue to celebrate the life of a man who died on Aug. 16, 33 years ago—before some of them were even born. [Pictured: Elvis Impersonator by Marc Myers]
"From afar, it's easy to write off the 29th annual event as a gathering of freaky Elvis Presley wannabes and silly like-minded vacationers stuck in a polyester time warp. But after a multiday visit, you quickly learn that both assumptions are unfair and completely miss the point.
"Elvis Week is a pilgrimage by fans of Presley's music and his life as America's most charismatic and fatalistic phenomenon. But those who return annually seem to be on a secondary mission: To better understand why Presley is so captivating. The question is unanswerable, of course, but that doesn't stop them from trying."
What I discovered during my intensive 48 hours in Memphis is that most Elvis fans seem drawn to the city for its warm Southern hospitality and for the friendships they've made. At a time when even airline personnel curse and chute, Memphis offers a polite, courteous respite. What I also discovered is that Elvis, even in his later years, was way more spectacular and charismatic a performer than I recalled.
Rather than make this a traditional post, I'm simply going to share with you my reporter's notebook—my jottings that didn't make it into the Wall Street Journal article because of space limitations:
- The proper way to pronounce Graceland in Memphis is "GRACE-lind."
- Kevin Kern, Elvis Presley Enterprises' director of public relations, knows more facts about Graceland off the top of his head than anyone you'll meet.
- Elvis bought the home in 1957 for $100,000 ($776,000 in today's dollars) because his neighbors in another part of town couldn't bear the crowds.
- Graceland wasn't named for Elvis' mother, Gladys. The previous owner was named Grace and she gave the property to her niece, who in turn named the home Graceland. Elvis kept the name out of respect.
- Graceland feels almost cramped by today's McMansion standards. The home's interior is frozen in time, untouched as though it were 1977.
- RCA, Elvis' record label, provided him with most of the home's cutting-edge media technology. This includes 14 TV sets, though Memphis had only three TV stations at the time. [Pictured, center: The Jungle Room]
- Elvis' kitchen [pictured] features Memphis' first microwave oven, which cost $1,000 at the time.
- Elvis traveled with one of the first so-called cellphones: military gear that combined a phone and shortwave built into a large attache case.
- The famed Jungle Room was influenced by Elvis' love for Hawaii and the tranquility it provided him while filming there.
- The TV Room boasts three built in TVs—installed because Elvis had heard President Johnson had three. Elvis watched three football games at a time on them.
- Men lingered longest at the Jungle Room. Women lingered longest at the kitchen.
- Graceland owns 80 Elvis jumpsuits. They were made by the IC Company. The IC stands for Ice Capades. The jump suits were designed by Bill Belew.
- The jumpsuits have wide shoulders and a narrow waist. Based on the garb, Elvis' seems to have worn a 44-inch jacket with 32-inch sleeves and pants with a 32-inch waist. The big surprise, though, was his height. Elvis was taller than you'd expect—he was 6 foot.
- Elvis and his family are buried on the property, in the Meditation Garden.
- I passed up an opportunity to have my photo taken in front of Graceland, which startled Kevin. He said, "You're too cool for Graceland? People come from all over the world to have their pictures taken here. Are you kidding?" I tell him I store all my memories in my head. He shrugged.
Across from Graceland.
- Two jets sit on Graceland property across Elvis Presley Boulevard—the larger one was used by Elvis. The smaller one Elvis bought for Colonel Tom Parker, his manager. You can tour the interiors.
- The Elvis impersonators here aren't strange at all. They are among the most friendly, kind and open people you'd ever want to meet.
- Many of the fans I encounter are from France, Italy, Canada and Russia.
- When the temperature outside reaches 110 degrees, drops of sweat pour down your face without any exertion at all.
At the screening of Elvis on Tour.
- Many of the people I interview in the lobby of the historic Orpheum Theater note that Elvis was a "family guy," "loved his mother" and was "very respectful." Many of the women say they wish they could take care of him. Many of the guys say they see aspects of Elvis in themselves, especially when they shave.
- The 1972 documentary was influenced by the movie Woodstock.
- Elvis on Tour is a mind-blowing film. The behind-the-scenes drama—from the green rooms to fast escapes in limos—make your hairs stand on end. You also learn that Elvis had stage fright.
- Elvis was easily more passionate about gospel than any other form of music, and he delivers gospel songs in the film in a huge, powerful voice.
- Elvis easily is more charismatic and exciting to watch than any other show-business personality. More riveting to watch than the Beatles and Frank Sinatra. He's larger than life and remains so in every scene. You simply can't take your eyes off of him.
At the Sunday morning gospel concert.
- About 500 people stand in line in an orderly, friendly manner, despite the early-morning heat. No one complains. No one pushes. And no one rushes the gate.
- Everyone on line is making conversation with people in front and back, sharing their views on what makes Elvis special and offering tips on what to do in town.
- Donnie Sumner [pictured] of The Stamps, Elvis' backup group in the 1970s, says, "Gospel gave Elvis balance. Despite all the stress of touring and appearing on stage, gospel made him the most peaceful, reposed person."
At Sun Studio.
- Here, you get to see the history of early rock 'n' roll. Upstairs, cases are filled with a smart, accurate and orderly exhibit of equipment and information about r&b artists who most influenced Elvis.
- The studio was started by Sam Phillips as a place to offer inexpensive recording services. But after Phillips recorded Jackie Brenston's Rocket 88 for Chess Records and it went to No. 1 on Billboard's R&B chart in 1951, Phillips decided to start Sun and record R&B hits of his own.
- Elvis' social security card is here behind glass. His number was 409-52-2002.
- Incredibly, the Sun tour ends right smack in the studio where Elvis recorded his five Sun 45-rpms and Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison all made their records. The floor, walls and ceiling tiles are all original.
- Electrical tape marks where Elvis and the other two musicians stood when they recorded. According to Jayne White, my tour guide, Bob Dylan came in, kissed the "X" where Elvis stood and left.
- The tour lets you hold and even pose with the original Shure 55 microphone Elvis used to record. Mike Schorr, one of Sun's co-owners, explains that the studio goes out of its way to provide guests with as much proximity to history as possible.
Stax: Soulsville, USA.
- The record-label rival to Motown was named by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton—by combining parts of their last names.
- Tim Sampson, Stax's public relations director, notes that Hooper’s Chapel AME Church, originally in Duncan, Miss., was disassembled piece by piece and then rebuilt inside the Stax Museum.
- Some of the most amazing Elvis photos are now on exhibit at Stax. Elvis: From Memphis to Manhattan features images from CBS' photo archive. Dig this one of a wily Colonel Parker, an uneasy Elvis and an insistent Ed Sullivan.
- A special thanks to June Balish and husband Rob, who generously gave me a lift back to my hotel and made a stop at the National Civil Rights Museum so I could see the old Lorraine Motel.
- Pulled pork (at Neely's), sweet tea and Elvis go together neatly in Memphis.
- Memphians are the nicest, kindest, most soulful and respectful people you'd ever want to meet. By Sunday morning, I get the whole Elvis Week thing. It's about friends and Southern hospitality. I can relate completely.
- On Sunday, I called Kevin back to tell him I made a terrible mistake. He asked what happened. I told him I should have listened to him and taken a picture up at Graceland. Kevin laughs and urges me to come back. I do, and he snaps a shot of me in the 110-degree heat.
JazzWax clip: Here are the opening scenes from Elvis on Tour, which has just been remastered and reissued on DVD and Blu-ray...