Chapter 1: Stax Records – Soulsville USA!
Today was a very big day for both Justyn and I – we were going to Stax Records AND Graceland. A huge fan of the style of music put out by Stax, Justyn was beside himself that we were going there, and I was realising a life-long dream to go to Graceland to look for Elvis. So we booked tickets to Graceland for later in the day, and we caught a transit bus to Stax Records. The trip to Stax was interesting in itself as the studio was based out of Memphis and the bus meandered through many different types of suburbs from more affluent to those that were the equivalent of public housing / housing commission and even squats. It was a scorcher again and as we headed for the air conditioned Stax studio, three full coach loads of students from Dallas on a ‘civil liberties’ tour also arrived en masse as Stax, along with Sun Studios were considered to be very influential in the merging of black and white music in the turbulent years of the mid-1900’s in America. I’ll hand over to Justyn for his account of his visit to Stax:
Stax was not the original building but a facsimile with a heap of memorabilia, which we were a bit worried about but that was soon forgotten as one of The Mar-Keys (with security guard) there to meet the kids from Dallas. After the obligatory film to start the tour, which gave a greater insight into the record labels history, we headed on into the museum proper wandering leisurely through the museum occasionally being enveloped and overtaken by tour groups. Two main points of interest came out of the tour for me; the first was just how big Isaac Hayes was, I have always known he sold a heap of records – in spite of his fashion sense or ego - but he was massive, and wrote a heap of stuff for others. The second was how Stax came to an end; basically, the suggestion is that Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in Memphis directly led to the failure of Stax, that that event introduced issues of race to a record label, and a greater community of musicians and music fans that created a strain that led to the labels demise. The music is still fantastic, and there is so much of it, so do not hesitate in picking up any Stax compilations, you will not be disappointed.Chapter 2: Elvis Has NOT Left the Building
After our tour of Stax, we waited in the blazing sun for another bus to take us back into town to drop off our souvenirs, grab another bottle of water and detour via the Peabody Hotel to view the famous ducks who live in the hotel’s fountain. The Peabody Hotel is a luxury hotel and every single day, 5 ducks are escorted down from their residence on the roof by the Duckmaster, across the lobby to swim in the hotel fountain for a few hours each day. Very cute! More info in the Peabody duckies can be found at http://www.peabodymemphis.com/peabody_ducks/index.cfm.
After our short detour to check out the ducks, it was time to meet the shuttle bus that would get us out to Graceland for our 2:15pm tour. Graceland is 12 miles out of downtown Memphis – I think I expected it to be within walking distance! We arrive, had the obligatory souvenir photo taken as we boarded another shuttle bus that takes you across the street to the actual mansion of Graceland. I was hot and sweaty but so was everyone else and the anticipation of actually going to Graceland was really building for me. We received individual headphones for a self-guided audio tour that meant that you could take as long as you wanted to tour the house where Elvis lived. There were many many people who were employees of Graceland to assist and point you in the right direction and remind you that you were allowed to take as many photos as you wanted – just minus the flash. Upon entering Graceland, the white staircase, filled with reflective mirrors, is directly in front and you can imagine Elvis with all his ‘bling’ standing there. The tour takes you past the living room and you can glimpse the adjoining music room and then step through the dining room and the kitchen (where Elvis’ mother would make his infamous deep friend peanut butter and banana sandwiches) and continues through the basement, where Elvis' media room with its three televisions can be seen. There is also a bar and billiards room. The tour continues upstairs again, through the infamous Jungle Room with its dark green shag pile carpet on the floor, walls and ceiling. It’s SO 70’s all over! We weren’t allowed to go up the stairs as that was Elvis’ private area and out of respect to him, they keep it closed off from the fans. Down the sloping lawn, past horses grazing behind neat white fences, we entered the "Trophy Room" with his famous gold lame suit from his early years. Also in the Trophy Room many walls display records, movie posters, memorabilia, his Grammy's and gold records and awards; even Elvis and Priscilla’s wedding outfits! The Trophy Room then winds down the halls through a display of his 68 Comeback, featuring his leather suit, his personal copies of his movie scripts, costumes he wore in many of his movies and a few of his trademark jumpsuits.
Once again outside, the tour moves past his still fully functioning stable of horses. Elvis' Racquetball Court is next, and has been converted to display Elvis' sequined "jumpsuits" and stage costumes and many posthumous awards, gold and platinum records. Then, as the tour winds up and just past the pool area is the Meditation Garden where Elvis, his mother Gladys, his father Vernon and grandmother Minnie Mae Hood Presley lie buried.
I can’t believe how moved I was by this visit. I know it is so commercialised and that his name is a licence to print money, but I just couldn’t believe how sad I felt at the demise of this person I never knew except through song and film, yet I felt his presence all through the house and when you knew you were coming up to the area where he was buried, Justyn had to give me a tissue to wipe away the tears. I was all about taking photos of anything and everything during the tour, but I just couldn’t bring myself to take a ‘happy snap’ of his final resting place. I paid my respects, sang a few of his songs in my head and farewelled the King of Rock and Roll. Even now as I type this, tears well for the loss of ‘what might have been’. I remember the day he died, folding the washing with mum and we had the telly on and she just sat down and said ‘I can’t believe Elvis is dead’. We both had a little cry and watching Elvis movies on a Saturday afternoon became our tradition. Mum and I even went the Elvis Live concert in the 90’s in Sydney when his backing band and singers supported huge screens portraying Elvis singing – the closest we ever came to seeing him in concert!
After the visit to Graceland, the shuttle bus takes you back across the road to the complex that houses his cars, his planes, and various other tributes to Elvis including the ’68 Comeback Special and even his fashion style! And of course souvenirs. Lots and lots of souvenirs! We did have a banana split with 3 scoops of icecream, fudge sauce and whipped cream while in this area and it was the best banana split I’ve ever had – delicious! And then it was all over. I’d made it to Graceland and it was one of the best moments of my life.
Chapter 3: Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken
Apart from the banana split, Justyn and I had not really eaten all day so we were starving by the time we made it back downtown. After dropping off our (okay my) bags and bags of Elvis memorabilia, we headed to a dining establishment recommended by Barb and a number of other people – Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken (you could have fried a chicken on the footpaths of Memphis!). While we were in the South, we were determined to do the fried chicken and a place proclaiming to be the ‘worlds best’ had to be sampled! We walked up to Front Street to get a last view of the Mississippi river and wandered down to the restaurant and put our name on a waiting list. Gus’ was very low key, no air conditioning, just fans, a jukebox, black and white tablecloths, paper plates and plastic cutlery – we knew we were in for a treat. In the words of Anthony Bourdain, “do one thing and do it well”. And Gus surely did. Gus's fried chook was perfect; crisp golden-brown on the outside, moist and succulent on the inside, and salted and seasoned with just enough cayenne pepper to let you know it's there. Served with slaw, potato salad and fried rice, both Justyn and I reckoned that it was ‘worlds best’. For dessert I took on a piece of sweet potato pie and I reckon that it was a journey well spent! What an awesome, fabulous, perfect day in Memphis – one that I will remember and cherish for a very long time.