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On The Elvis Trail

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Mark Hagen | 13:30 UK time, Tuesday, 5 January 2010

At one point in the early 70s, if you passed an enormous Cadillac stuck in Memphis traffic it was likely to belong to either Elvis Presley or Isaac Hayes, those two great gaudy signifiers of the city's music, The King and Black Moses. Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns told me that, and at the time we were standing in the Stax museum looking at Isaac's very own Cadillac, the one covered in bling and boasting its own ankle deep white shagpile carpet.

A couple of days beforehand I'd been sitting in the Presley's old two bedroom council flat, listening as Suzi Quatro talked to a childhood friend of Elvis. According to that old friend, one of his primary motivations in life back then had been to make enough money to buy his mother a car and take her back to the little town where they came from, to show those people how far they'd come. And not just any car - it had to be a Cadillac.

Elvis' story - like that of the Beatles - is one of the great myths of popular music, a story you can tell over and over again, one that people never get tired of. It doesn't really matter whether this bit is literally true or whether that bit actually happened, because we all love to hear it anyway. And - because it was the first - the Elvis story is especially potent, as we're all finding out again through the BBC's celebration of what would have been his 75th birthday this coming Friday, January 8th.

I made two of Radio 2's contributions, the oral history show Don't Start Me Talking... and Suzi Quatro's Elvis. These are two more versions of Presley's story, one told from the perspective of British Elvis fans, the other putting right a 35 year old wrong.


Suzi Quatro outside Elvis Presley's boyhood home in Tupelo, Mississippi

Looked at from today's post Generation Gap society where we all live in an eternal musical present and love Dizzee Rascal and Jerry Lee Lewis just the same, we tend to forget quite what a disturbing, disrupting force Elvis really was. You get a very different perspective from watching the eyes of Home Counties pensioners light up and hearing their voices go thick at the memory of what Elvis did for them, of how he took them away from the grey world of post-war Britain, of how he set them free.

And you get yet another story from travelling in Elvis' footsteps.

Back in 1974, Suzi Quatro was in Memphis on tour when she got a phone call in her hotel room inviting her to meet Elvis at his Graceland home; she didn't go and she's regretted it ever since. Radio 2's Elvis season seemed like an ideal opportunity to do something about this - by taking Suzi back to Memphis we could also retrace Elvis' own journey and hopefully learn something about both of them along the way.


Elvis Presley's former home at Audubon Drive in Memphis

Neither Suzi or I had any interest in just telling Elvis's story by rote - she wanted to try and get an idea of what he was like as a person, what motivated him, what drove him on - and it occurred to me that a new way of doing that would be to visit the places where Elvis lived, in the order in which he lived in them and to talk to the people who still lived there who had been his friends.

And so that's what we did.

Elvis only really lived in four houses for any length of time: the two room wooden shack in Tupelo, Mississippi where he was born in abject poverty; the project housing at Lauderdale Courts in Memphis where he spent most of his teenage years; the upmarket house on Audubon Drive, the first he bought with his own money; and finally Graceland, his home for 20 years, the place where he died and where he is buried, alongside his mother, father and grandmother.


Suzi Quatro at Elvis' grave at Graceland

We had a map; one of the great tragedies of Elvis' life was that he didn't. Nobody had done that journey before him; as Suzi remarks in the programme, nothing in his background could have prepared him for it. After our emotional visit to Graceland itself, we were discussing how small the house really is, and in many ways how it's so not the house you would expect the King of Rock'n'Roll to own. Then I remembered that it was originally built for a doctor; that in Elvis' rural childhood, the two pillars of society would have been the local minister and the local doctor, and that in the end he never really moved all that far from Tupelo, Cadillac or no Cadillac.

Related Programmes
Don't Start Me Talking About... Elvis
Suzi Quatro's Elvis



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