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How a road trip from Memphis to New Orleans helped me understand Elvis Presley

Sam Phillips, once owner of the Sun Studio in Memphis, knew the ingredients of mainstream rock ‘n’ roll. So when an 18-year-old named Elvis Aaron Presley walked in from the street to record a birthday ballad for his mother, he heard the package was delivered to him on a silver tray.

I’m in Memphis, aboard a ’55 Cadillac Fleetwood – Elvis’ favorite car – with Tad Pierson, the man behind the wheel of American Dream Safari tours. He is about to accompany me into the still-moving Sun Studio to learn more about how The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll was born.

I’m traveling through the deep south to get inside The King, in the week of Baz Luhrmann’s brilliant new biopic, starring Presley played by Californian actor Austin Butler.

Pierson’s rose-colored tour is a tonic for time travel: the car, the streets of the film set, its soft southern accent. A fan of rusty blues, he’s bent on showing me what Elvis was made of: black music traditions (self-imitating), flashy outfits (by Lansky Bros; still open) and, of course, deep-fried Southern Cuisine.

After a calorie-rich breakfast at Arcade Diner, where Elvis ate peanut butter and banana sandwiches, we cruise down the musical Beale Street, Memphis’s Broadway blues.

Austin Butler as Elvis in the film (Photo: Warner Bros Pictures)

Formative years

Elvis, a lover of the blues, grew up during Jim Crow’s segregation; “Mixing” was frowned upon, so he would jump out the bedroom window and sneak downtown to watch his heroes play.

Channel some of that energy into the Lauderdale Courts complex, where he lived with his parents from 1949 to 1953. I sleep in Elvis’s room, look. Jailhouse Rock on the TV and, yes, I jump out of Elvis’s window.

On to Graceland

For a true pilgrimage, Graceland, the mansion where Elvis died, is essential. The theme park reception area does its best to raze the romance, but suffer and be rewarded with a tour around the crazy house on the way. Intact since his death, this hymn to the glitz of the ’70s takes you back.

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The audio guide takes people, in single file, through her living room and dining room – white piano, peacock stained glass – and then down to her Media Room and cashmere-lined Pool Room. Here, the “Memphis Mafia” met regularly with him and listened to his formidable record collection.

The ostentation is unleashed in the Jungle Room, where a heavy grass-like pile emphasizes an indoor waterfall with ridiculous effects.

But it is outside that I really feel it; weighs a heavy solemnity. I listen to “Burning Fire”, blaring, as I pass his grave. It induces such melancholy that I have to tell the person in front of me. “Don’t worry,” he says. “The king is alive!”

Back in time to Tupelo

Forward, east and back – to Tupelo, Mississippi, where Elvis was born. The two-room shack still stands and a museum documenting “Elvis the boy” surrounds it.

I visit during the Tupelo Elvis Festival, which serves as a qualifier for Graceland’s annual Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist (ETA) contest. I meet a handful of the best in the world: fluid-moving Dean Z, sexy Cody Ray Slaughter and velvety-voiced cockney Jonathan Thompson.

As I queue for a photo with Cody, I talk to two bejeweled women who spend 21 weeks a year attending Elvis festivals across the United States. “We could easily do it all year round!” one of them tells me. “Who is more important,” I ask, “Jesus or Elvis?” “Jesus”, she says, “but only right!”

I gobble up some far-fetched “pasta burgers” ($ 1.40 / £ 1.15) from the unchanged Johnnie’s Drive In (Elvis’ favorite), before taking the road west along the Natchez Trace Parkway.

Elvis Presley’s birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi (Photo: Andrew Woodley / Universal Images Group / Getty Images)

It was his theatrical performances that would see the Elvis mania enter the scene. In the trailer for Luhrmann’s biopic, we are transported to the Municipal Auditorium in Shreveport, Louisiana. This is where Elvis came to play his first single “That’s Alright Mama” for the popular Louisiana Hayride radio show, The Cradle of the Stars.

A brass bolt on the stage floor marks the spot where he held a performance that changed the history of music. I pause above as I look out over the King Tut-deco concert hall, listening to lyricist John Wessler describe the night Elvis “left the building”.

I conclude in New Orleans, where Elvis filmed king creole. I meet tour guide David Higgins at the gilded Roosevelt Hotel, where Elvis stayed during filming.

Higgins describes how a rock ‘n’ roll storm raged here in the 1950s, thanks largely to Cosimo Records, which had recorded Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man” and Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”.

Pirate’s Alley in the French Quarter (Photo: Getty)

We walk through the antiquity and iniquity of the French Quarter as Higgins brings to life some of the film’s most memorable scenes: singing from a cast iron balcony on Royal Street and running away from enemies in Pirate’s Alley.

Higgins starts playing his harmonica to a sensual Louis Armstrong song as we part ways. I sit in a coffee shop on St Philip Street looking directly at where Elvis was filmed punching his antagonist in the mouth.

I reflect on his magnetism and on how he is anchored in the contrasts of his character: gravitas, rock ‘n’ roll grit, generous, shy, flamboyant. All the principles of a great film and an intoxicating mix for a memorable journey.

“Elvis” is in theaters on Friday

Travel essentials

Getting there
America As You Like It offers fly-drive packages in the Deep South. Two week trips from £ 1,350 per person.

Stay there
Courts of Lauderdale, Memphis.

More information

Visitors to the United States must be fully vaccinated and in possession of a valid visa or Esta visa waiver.

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