Road tripping to Memphis to visit Graceland has long been on my travel wish list, and last year my dad and I made it happen. Armed with our AAA TripTik and an epic Elvis Presley playlist, we hit the road.
by Kristy Tolley
We stayed at the Guest House at Graceland (AAA Four Diamond). Conveniently situated across from Graceland, it was a perfect home base for our local excursions. You won’t find any photos of Elvis in the hotel (save the gift shop), but you’ll see nuances of him through the photography and décor. Chair backs in the lobby are reminiscent of the collars on Elvis’ rhinestone jumpsuits, and stylized photos of items that belonged to Elvis adorn the richly-hued walls.
Onsite dining options include EP’s Bar & Grill and Delta’s Kitchen. We loved the contemporary take on some of Elvis’ favorite dishes in EP’s and we just about ate our weight in those decadent Southern biscuits at Delta’s.
Our first full day in Memphis was largely spent at Graceland. Total touring time for us was about five hours, and I honestly felt like I could have stayed longer. We took the “Elvis Entourage VIP Tour.” It included a mansion tour with full access to the new Elvis Presley Memphis Entertainment Complex, which housed Elvis Discovery Exhibits, Presley Motors Automobile Museum, Elvis: The Entertainer Career Museum and Exclusive VIP Exhibit.
Built in 1939 (and completed in 1941) by local physician Dr. Thomas Moore and his wife Ruth, Graceland was named after Ruth’s aunt, Grace Toof. Elvis purchased the mansion and 13.8-acre estate in 1957 for $100,000. About 600,000 people visit Graceland each year, making it the second most visited home in the U.S., behind the White House.
Walking through Graceland was like exploring a 1960s- and 1970s-era time capsule. Over-the-top design and colorful kitsch abound throughout, and it’s glorious. From the Jungle Room family room complete with Polynesian furnishings and a working waterfall to the vibrant lemon-yellow and black TV room (with three TVs and a funky monkey), it was hard to pick a favorite.
Even if you aren’t an Elvis fan, it’s difficult not to be inspired by his rags to riches story. He embodied the American dream, and Graceland’s extensive displays of letters, clothing, photos and other memorabilia bring Elvis’ journey to life. By the end of the tour, I realized that even though Elvis’ career spanned only 23 years, he packed a remarkable amount of life and work into that time.
After some post Graceland tour downtime at the hotel, we headed to Catherine and Mary’s for dinner. Named after the chefs’ grandmothers, Catherine and Mary’s is one of several successful restaurants opened by Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman. The two chefs pay further homage to their grandmothers with their brilliantly executed Tuscan- and Sicilian-inspired cuisine. With a monthly-changing menu, an impressive wine list and handcrafted cocktails, it’s easy to see why it’s a local favorite.
The Elvis connection? Catherine and Mary’s is in the former Chisca Hotel, where on July 8, 1954, Elvis Presley hit the airwaves for the first time. Popular disc jockey, Dewey Phillips, played Presley’s recording of “That’s All Right” on his radio show “Red, Hot & Blue.” Listeners went nuts. Dewey played the song 13 times in a row, and coaxed Presley to the studio for an on-air interview. Dewey’s original radio booth was salvaged from the Chisca building and is on display at Sun Studio.
Pairing my dad’s two favorite things (anything Elvis and classic cars), we toured Memphis the best possible way — in a baby blue and white 1955 Chevy Bel Air. Rockabilly Rides’ “Red, Hot & Blue Tour” of Elvis’ Memphis was fun and extremely informative. The owner, Brad Birkedahl, drove us by local Elvis landmarks like L.C. Humes High School, where Elvis graduated; Lauderdale Courts, his family’s first Memphis apartment; and the Levitt Shell, where Elvis gave his first paid concert in 1954. Along the way, Brad shared lesser known Elvis stories that even my dad hadn’t heard before and he provided insight into other Memphis attractions and restaurants.
You can’t have the true Elvis experience in Memphis without savoring a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich (one of Elvis’ favorite dishes) at the Arcade Restaurant, so we began our day with breakfast there. Although it’s known for being one of Elvis’ favorite dining spots (with his own secluded booth by a back entrance), this historic diner is also Memphis’ oldest restaurant. Opened in 1919 by Greek immigrant Speros Zepatos, the Arcade is still family owned and the place to go for a hearty Southern breakfast, slap-your-mama good cheeseburgers and a variety of pizzas and salads.
Fully sated from our breakfast platters and our side order of PB & B, we made our way to Sun Studio. Quite possibly the world’s most famous recording studio and often dubbed the Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll, it was the spot of the first true rock and roll recording, “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Sun Studio helped launch the careers of the likes of B.B. King, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison.
The first room was lined with glass cases filled with studio memorabilia — vintage recording equipment, photos, posters, Elvis’ Social Security card and diploma (on loan from Graceland) and other items. You’ll also find Dewey Phillips’ reassembled office and sound booth. Our guide weaved the Sun Studio story with recordings of Elvis’ “My Happiness,” Rufus Thomas’ “Bear Cat” and “Just Walkin’ in the Rain” by the Prisonaires. Fun fact: The Prisonaires were escorted by armed guards to the studio from prison to record the song in 1953. Two of the members of the group were eventually granted a full pardon.
The second part of the tour was in the actual recording studio section of the building, which included Marion Keisker’s office. Keisker, the studio secretary, is credited with launching Elvis’ career. She was working that day in 1953 when Presley arrived to record songs for his mother as a birthday gift. She encouraged him to return and perform for Sam Phillips, Sun Studio’s owner. At the end of the tour, we were given the chance to ham it up with an old school studio microphone that was salvaged from the original building.
For dinner, we made an appointment for a meal at the Beauty Shop, a hip restaurant located in the Cooper-Young district. The building was once Atkins Beauty Salon, Priscilla Presley’s curl-and-dye spot, and the restaurant pays campy homage to the ‘50s era beauty shops. I dined under a hooded Belvedere hair dryer by Vitrolite walls — both original fixtures from the salon.
We couldn’t very well drive through Tupelo, Miss., and pass by the Elvis Presley® Birthplace without visiting, so we hit the road early to make time for a stop. The complex is comprised of Elvis’ original home place, the church he attended growing up, a museum and gift shop. The white framed, two-room home was a stark contrast to Graceland, and amplified my sense of awe in Elvis’ accomplishments. The museum showcased original clothing, belt buckles, photos and other personal items belonging to Elvis, many of which were from the private collection of Janelle McComb, a close family friend.
Need inspiration for your Elvis Presley playlist? Try this one!
- That’s All Right
- Don’t Be Cruel
- Return to Sender
- Viva Las Vegas
- Bossa Nova Baby
- Are You Lonesome Tonight?
- (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame
- Can’t Help Falling in Love
- Good Luck Charm
- Let Me be Your Teddy Bear
- A Little Less Conversation
- Suspicious Minds
- All Shook Up
- (You’re the) Devil in Disguise
- Burning Love
- Love Me Tender
- Heartbreak Hotel
- Little Sister
- Blue Suede Shoes
- Stuck on You
- Hound Dog
- Can’t Help Falling in Love
- Jailhouse Rock
- My Happiness
- Suspicious Minds
- Treat Me Nice
- Way Down
- Separate Ways
- Too Much
- Hard Headed Woman