First off, a girls trip with high school friends to the Mississippi river town that "gave birth to the blues," and Graceland and the National Civil Rights Museum as well. After my friends collected me at the airport, we gps'ed our way back to town, into the art deco condo that became our trendy dorm for the next three nights. The itinerary was finalized weeks before, so we were off and singing the blues the next day.
Day one in Memphis was the Mo Jo Extended Tour that revved up at B.B. King's place on Beale Street. With crispy green-fried tomatoes and cheese-smothered nachos warming our plastic carry-out bags, courtesy of B.B., we jumped on the packed tour bus ready to munch and rock.
Where or where can you find a honky tonk tour like this, with an aspiring star on a high stool at the front of the bus, belting the blues and sharing the stories while passengers click, clap, and rattle their instruments (courtesy of our tour leader) in time to the music? Sheer joy. All the hot spots passed like a slideshow across our window frames...Elvis' family home, Johnny Cash's first apartment, the Sun Record building, Lorraine Motel, and Beale Street joints. Memphis is like a lot of smaller towns in the south, with leafy avenues, stately historic homes, and older business districts with abandoned buildings.
|L to R: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins,|
Elvis, Johnny Cash
Day two at Graceland: As girls of the '60s, my high school friends and I started our tour thinking we knew Elvis' story. What more did we need to know? I had to confess I'd never been a fan until he died. It was then that I started to listen to Elvis' music and appreciated it on a whole new level. And Graceland had never been on my list of places to see before I died, but my Carlsbad neighbors urged me to go. So I pushed it with our group, one of whom passed on it when she visited Memphis years ago.
The house is a mansion of the 50s/60s, which is to say that it's got a log of swag, shag, and the token animal motifs, figures, and patterns. Stepping back in time, the 1950s interior reflects the era, with interesting color combinations (pink and green tile in a bathroom), and rooms to spare.
The entrance to his parents Vernon and Gladys' bedroom on the main floor is a few feet from a youthful Elvis portrait, full of innocence and blondish hair hanging inside the front foyer, at the steps to the second floor.
Outside, the smell of fresh cut grass greeted us along a walkway that weaves through lush grounds bordered by flower beds. In earlier days, horses grazed in the distant pasture, and golf carts roamed the landscape where Elvis, Priscilla, and Lisa Marie played games with family and guests. But it's the buildings beyond the main house -- a former racquetball court, offices, garages, etc. -- that house the treasures and showcase the life and career of the king of rock 'n' roll.
The walls down one narrow room, maybe the length of a football field, are lined with gold records. How could any human accomplish so much over a lifetime, let alone a life cut short? It was impossible to take it all in -- the endless beaded and sequined costumes, vintage posters, a gazillion photographs, paintings and portraits that were gifts from fans and artists worldwide, original videos, and assorted memorabilia. Even the antique cars, in a circular display around a drive-in theater set with a gas station, are fascinating.
But the final stop on the house tour is the one that weighs heavy on the heart. It's the meditation garden, now turned into a cemetery where Elvis, his parents, twin brother (plaque only), and a grandmother are laid to rest. My Carlsbad friends called their visit a "spiritual experience." I now knew why. What struck me as gauche at first seemed appropriate seconds later. I didn't want to leave the beautifully landscaped area, unlike anything I'd ever seen on the grounds of someone's home. I later read that Elvis and his mother were first buried at Forest Hills Cemetery in Memphis, but someone tried to steal Elvis' remains a few weeks after burial, and he and his mother were moved to the meditation garden.
Throughout the tour, including stops at shops and restaurants in a Graceland strip mall, I couldn't stop thinking about the sad parts of Elvis' life. They hover in sharp contrast to the legacy displayed. His twin brother died at birth, and his dad landed in prison for three years when he was a baby. As a toddler, he made the three-hour bus ride with his mom to visit dad, who moved the family to Memphis the year Elvis turned thirteen. Gladys died at the age of 46 from a heart attack related to hepatitis. Elvis took leave from Army training in Texas only two days before she died, and some say he never recovered from the loss of his mother. He placed a star of David on her grave to honor her Jewish heritage. It's also been said that the twin brother's death haunted him his entire life. The marriage to Priscilla ended in divorce, with Lisa Marie the gift of that marriage. But in the end, there weren't enough gold records, cars, movies, and not even a daughter to keep him from the demons and drugs that ended his life. Thanks to Priscilla and Lisa Marie, Memphis has an exceptionally well developed landmark that tells the story and documents the career of Elvis Presley.
Each year, during the week of August 16 (the day he died), Elvis is remembered with a ceremony and candlelight vigil at Graceland. A fitting tribute to the music industry legend who sits at the top of the mountain. The 2015 Vigil and Auction at Graceland included Priscilla Presley, Lisa Marie Presley who speaks to the gathering, and her two daughters.
Day three at the National Civil Rights Museum (NCRM) in Memphis had nothing to do with my quest for music, but everything to do with the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s, as much a part of my childhood as the songs in my dad's car and at family picnics. Again, my friends and I grew up in the 60s in the South, and some of us marched or volunteered in the battle for civil rights. In high school and college, we witnessed history in our city, in our TV news, and in our classrooms. We knew a lot. At least we thought we did.
The stories and voices that bear witness to history are displayed and recorded in interactive stations with earphones and on room-sized screens. Extensive TV footage of events that shook the country highlight the context, with tension and trauma front and center, reminiscent of popular films, The Butler and Selma. Rosa Parks' bus features a figure of the courageous woman in her seat near the front of the bus. When you step inside, a voice booms, "Move to the back of the bus. You can't sit there. Move back!" In a flash, I'm there, with generations of blacks denied a simple right to choose a seat and so much more.
The original lunch counter for the student sit-in in Montgomery anchors youthful figures and nearby hecklers while a nonviolent training video plays on the wall behind the exhibit. The charred bus of freedom riders in Birmingham stands as a symbol of white supremacy at its worst. We weave through the black power movement that addresses nonviolence, women's rights, war, riots, poverty, and integration. Several hours pass and exhibits are coming to a close when I look up to see Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel before me. Dirty plates with napkins tossed over them. Drapes pulled aside for a view through the glass sliding doors. Again, I am there. This is powerful, profound, unforgettable. The feeling lingers, well beyond the exit and rest of the trip. The NCRM is among the top three museums I've visited, alongside the World War II Memorial in New Orleans and the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem.
Since the NCRM opened in 1991, the annual Freedom Awards recognize individuals who have made significant contributions in civil rights and who have laid the foundation for present and future leaders in the battle for human rights" in the United States and around the world.
NEXT STOP: Louisville for the Muhammad Ali Center and a High School Reunion