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Mirror Travel: One for the money, two for the show; Jon Bird goes to Memphis and gets all shook up.

Byline: Jon Bird

MEMPHIS is an extraordinary place - it makes its money from cotton but its real wealth stems from a far rarer crop, one that has changed the world.

Deeply embedded in the fertile Mississippi Delta lie the roots of rock and blues. Roots that have produced legends of modern music such as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, BB King and, of course, the king of rock 'n' roll, Elvis Presley.

The Tennessee city was a magnet to these exceptional artists and still attracts world-class performers and vast numbers of visitors to its bustling hub, Beale Street.

The street's neon-lit clubs are an oasis of fabulous live music, whether it's searing blues at BB King's, the infectious dance vibe at Alfred's or the raucous piano acts at Silky O'Sullivans. There can be few finer places to spend a thumping night out.

There's more to Memphis than music, such as the motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated but many visitors have a single destination in mind.

About 10 minutes' drive from the centre there's a road sign with a picture of Elvis on it which reads: "It's Now Or Never", a reference to one of his hits and the turn off for Graceland.

Each year, 600,000 fans make the pilgrimage to the white-columned mansion, Elvis's home for 20 years until his death at 42 in August 1977. For $25, you spend about two hours touring the 1939 home and looking at his collections of cars and jet planes.

The downstairs and basement are in breathtaking bad taste, a cross between Austin Powers and Dynasty. We're talking about 15ft white sofas, mountains of silver, a bright blue and yellow TV room with three sets on one wall and a pool room covered in Laura Ashley-style cloth.

But nothing can compare to the jungle room, entirely decorated by Elvis. It has a waterfall, heavy furniture with carved animal heads and shaggy green carpet on the floor - and the ceiling.

Few can stand the heat and have to get out of the kitsching. Moving through the trophy room, containing his gun collection and karate black belt, you reach the Hall Of Gold, containing Elvis's 37 gold albums, 63 gold singles and 28 platinum. He sold a phenomenal 100million records.

OUTSIDE, there's the meditation garden, where Elvis, his mother Gladys, father Vernon and grandmother Minnie Mae are buried.

Across the road there's Presley's cars, including a sleek 1955 pink Cadillac, and his private jets.

Graceland is smaller than you expect, especially as the upstairs is off-limits. It presents a sanitised portrait of an amazingly talented but highly troubled man. Flash photography is banned and you feel as if you're being herded around as quickly as possible. Little wonder Elvis is earning more dead than alive.

For a more intimate picture of Presley's early life, drive two hours to his birthplace at Tupelo, Mississippi. He was born in a two-room house on January 8, 1935.

It's worth visiting the wooden house, which had no power or running water and measures just 15ft by 30ft. Next to it is a new statue of Elvis at 13, the age he left Tupelo, a memorial chapel and an Elvis Presley museum. Among the eye-catching items are a quote from Elvis which says: "I could never become so rich that I would forget what it's like to be poor" and photos of him meeting former president Nixon.

Tupelo is a charming town and can also boast the hardware shop where Elvis bought his first guitar at 10 - he'd wanted a rifle but his mother put her foot down - and is still home to some of Presley's childhood friends.

It holds its fourth annual Elvis Presley festival from May 31-June 2, with BB King topping the bill. For more details, log on to tupeloelvis

Elvis gained his earliest experience of performing at Tupelo but his big break came at Sun Studios in Memphis, where Sam Phillips produced his first single, That's All Right, Mama and later sold his three-year contract to RCA for $35,000.

A dazzling list of performers recorded at Sun, including Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and, much later, U2.

It is covered with stunning black and white shots of the stars, and has the original acoustic tiles and flooring. The $8 tour includes listening to recordings made at the time and is a must for rock fans, particularly as there's a chance to pose with the microphone used by Elvis.

But for an overall picture of how music developed in Memphis, visit the unforgettable Rock 'n' Soul Museum. It charts the birth of rock and blues, from the tribulations of the sharecroppers in the 20s and 30s to the population shifts into cities and the starting of labels like Stax.

It's packed with fascinating items, such as Ike Turner's piano, Elvis costumes, BB's first "Lucille" guitar and a 1973 costume worn by Al Green, the smoothest voice of 70s soul who had a string of hits including Let's Stay Together.

Three years later, Green traded in the white leather trousers and lurid shirts for preacher's garb. He founded the Full Gospel Tabernacle and is still the Pastor there. Backed by a gospel choir, heerful when I visited - at least three preaches an intoxicating form of religion for about three hours on many Sundays.

He doesn't sing "between the sheets songs" but his fabulous falsetto is as sweet as ever, his showmanship undiminished and sense of humour still lively.

His message of love and forgiveness certainly proved pow women were thrown into convulsions. You don't have to stay for the full three hours but are expected to give to the offering during the service then, like me, you may be blessed by a living soul legend.

You shouldn't leave Memphis without visiting The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was shot in April 1968. It details the civil rights movement's fight for equality.

Memphis is not one of the most obvious holiday destinations but there are loads of places to go and things to do - even if you're not a diehard Elvis fan.


GETTING there: Contintental Airlines offers flights to Memphis from Gatwick, Stansted, Birmingham and Glasgow. For prices and reservations, ring 0800 776 464. Tour operators: America Direct (0870 8890 827) features Memphis city stays from pounds 459, including return flights and four nights' at Elvis Presley's Heartbreak Hotel, plus entrance for two to Graceland. For more info, phone 01462 440 787 or visit www.


ROOTS OF ROCK: Presley's modest birthplace in Tupelo
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Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Apr 6, 2002
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