Elvis. With apologies to Mr. Costello, those five letters bring one person to mind -- Elvis Presley, The King. Young Elvis with his sleepy eyes and home-grown good looks. Screaming women being taken from concert halls, passed out on stretchers. Elvis romancing Ann-Margret and Shelley Fabares on the silver screen. Sequined jumpsuits, onstage karate and the bright lights and buffets of Las Vegas.
And then there's the music. An astounding 140 Top 40 singles, 40 Top 10s and 18 No. 1s [source: Billboard]. He has sold more records than anyone in the history of recorded music, with some estimates coming in at more than one billion records sold worldwide. Simply put, Elvis Presley rewrote the records books and changed the face of music and the recording industry. All with a peanut butter and banana sandwich in hand.
Elvis Presley Image Gallery
Every king needs a castle, and for Elvis that was Graceland. Aside from The White House, Graceland may be the most famous dwelling in the United States -- and perhaps even the world. You'd be hard-pressed to find anybody who doesn't recognize those ivory-colored gates at 3764 Elvis Presley Blvd. in Memphis, Tenn. The house where Elvis lived and died is so famous that it's registered as a National Historic Landmark.
Many people may not know that Elvis wasn't the original owner of Graceland and didn't even have a hand in naming it. Graceland was built by Dr. and Mrs. Thomas Moore nearly 20 years before Elvis' blue suede shoes touched shag carpet. The land had been in Mrs. Moore's family for generations, and the property was named after her great aunt, Grace Toof. Elvis bought the home in March 1957 -- only nine years after his parents bought him his first guitar and just four short years after he graduated from Humes High School. The King's rise to the top was a quick one, and Graceland came to symbolize the success of a poor kid from Tupelo, Miss.
Graceland wasn't Elvis' first big purchase once he hit the big time -- he lived for 13 months in a ranch-style house on Audubon Drive. The Audubon house was in a nice neighborhood, but Elvis was destined for greater things. Graceland has grown some since Elvis bought the house and nearly 14 acres in south Memphis for $102,500 -- close to $800,000 in today's dollars. The original home was about 10,000 square feet (929 sq meters). Elvis expanded it over the years, bringing the total square footage to over 17,000 square feet (1,579 sq meters) and the number of rooms to between 18 and 23, depending on his remodeling whims. The interior was redecorated quite a bit as well in the 20 years that Elvis inhabited Graceland. It says a lot about the man that he never packed his bags and moved to Los Angeles or Las Vegas. Elvis was a Memphis boy through and through and never had any desire to leave his castle.
Graceland: The Elvis Years
There are really two Gracelands.
There's the Graceland museum, a highly-toured time capsule of 1970s luxury and style. The tour opened in 1982 and has been an incredibly popular tourist destination ever since. Even the street the house sits on bears Elvis' name. The area across the street that houses an Elvis auto museum and his two private jets, the Hound Dog II and the Lisa Marie, is known as Graceland Plaza. Thanks to The King's ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, Graceland is big business, pulling in more than 750,000 visitors each year [source: USINFO].
Then, there's the Graceland that was Elvis' private retreat and safe haven that he bought at the (love me) tender age of 22. It was where he celebrated holidays and family meals, held impromptu jams with other musicians and shot pool with his buddies. It was the house where he raised his only child, Lisa Marie and where his beloved mother, Gladys, spent her final days. Elvis cherished his privacy and Graceland was his only stop when he wasn't on the road, touring packed houses filled with adoring fans. It's hard to imagine Graceland as a private residence now, but fans of The King in the 1960s and 70s can tell you that Elvis himself would often head down the driveway to sign autographs for his fans, sometimes on horseback.
Graceland was a home that was alive and always buzzing with activity. Even back then, Elvis Presley was an industry, and it took a lot of people to manage the business. Elvis' father Vernon headed up the day-to-day management of Graceland, handling the renovations, repairs and monthly bills. Vernon and two secretaries worked out of the business office in a building adjacent to the main house. Vernon was a tough customer who looked out for his son's safety and privacy as best he could. A sign on the business office door still reads:
All of the holidays, especially Christmas, were cherished times at Graceland. Blue lights lined the driveway and front facade. Elvis had more than one Christmas tree inside, but the main tree sat in the dining room beyond the head of the dining table. The draperies were switched out to red velvet, and holiday music played almost nonstop. Staying true to his Christian roots, Elvis had a life-sized nativity scene in the front yard for all of Memphis to enjoy. The Elvis Presley estate still maintains these traditions today, and Christmas is one of the busiest seasons for Graceland tours.
While Elvis entered Graceland through the ornate custom-made front gates, visitors today are shuttled from the ticket office at Graceland Plaza to the front of the house. An empty guard shack sits just inside the gate, where Elvis' relatives were often employed to manage the entry and exit of guests.
Standing outside the front door of Graceland, you might think that the house isn't exactly fit for The King. The classic-revival design is somewhat understated by today's rock star standards, but the home was very large for the 1950s, with nine bedrooms, seven-and-a-half baths, two full kitchens and two living rooms. Immediately upon entering the house, you're transported back in time. The house is modeled in the style that Elvis had it for the first 18 years he lived there. One of Elvis' long-term girlfriends after his divorce, Linda Thompson, redecorated Graceland in bright reds when she lived there. Priscilla Presley and the curators of the museum felt like the tour should showcase the home's original décor.
When you enter Graceland, you'll stand in the foyer where Elvis would greet his guests. The steps to the second floor are directly in front of the foyer but have been closed to everyone but family members. The foyer sits directly beneath the master bath -- where Elvis passed away from cardiac arrest on Aug. 16, 1977. But you probably won't hear that from Graceland tour guides. The upstairs was made somewhat of a mystery to outsiders from the moment Elvis first moved in. Even though Graceland was often crowded with guests, no one was ever allowed upstairs to his private retreat. What we do know is that the upstairs housed The King's personal office, his bedroom and bath, Priscilla's bathroom and Lisa Marie's bedroom and bath. There was also a third upstairs bedroom that was eventually converted into Elvis' personal walk-in closet.
To the left of the foyer is the dining room. Elvis sat at the near-side head of the table when dining with his friends and family, under an Italian glass chandelier. Dinners of 10 to 12 people were common at Graceland, and they were usually late as well. Elvis was a night owl and typically slept till about 4 p.m., at which time he'd have breakfast. Dinners with the "Memphis Mafia," Elvis' entourage, were at about 10 p.m. and consisted of good old-fashioned southern cooking, prepared by his full-time cooks. Elvis also staged poker games at the large dining room table.
To the right of the foyer is the living room and beyond that, the music room. The living room is furnished with a custom-made, 14-foot-long (4.2-meter) white leather couch and 10-foot (3-meter) coffee table. A mirrored wall was added in the 1970s, and the entire room is decked in gold, blue and white. The music room is separated from the living room by an entryway flanked with stained-glass peacocks. This room was the scene of many late night music jams on one of three pianos that lived there at various times -- a white Baby Grand, a gold leafed Baby Grand and an ebony Story & Clark. The music room also has a special wall mirror -- it was one of the few items that made the trip from Elvis' previous house on Audubon Drive.
Graceland Tour: The Jungle Room
The kitchen and Elvis' parents' bedroom are the other remaining first floor rooms available on the public tour. The kitchen style is homey and warm, unchanged from the final set of renovations in the mid-1970s. The same fridge, freezer and stained glass lighting fixtures still live there -- the cast-iron skillet used to cook The King's bacon still sits atop the stove. It was an active and social kitchen, and the cooks certainly earned their salaries whipping up meals at all hours of the day and night for Elvis and his entourage.
There's something else you'll notice in the kitchen -- video monitors and what appears to be a "bat phone." Elvis was pretty tight with security, for obvious reasons, and he liked to keep tabs on the comings and goings of Graceland visitors. Beside the breakfast bar is a pair of video monitors that kept Elvis abreast of Graceland's activity via closed-circuit cameras stationed throughout the property. The red telephone beside the monitors was Elvis' private line that he used to communicate with his security staff.
Gladys and Vernon's bedroom sits behind the living room and is a bit more understated in its décor than the rest of the house. It's simply decorated with a bed and matching wardrobe chests and another Italian chandelier. It's not until you reach the "jungle room" that things get really out of hand. The infamous jungle room was originally a screened in back patio that sat behind the kitchen. In the 1960s, Elvis made the patio part of the main house, complete with a working waterfall on the far wall. The waterfall was a great idea, but was a thorn in Elvis' side because it leaked and flooded.
The jungle room was loaded with exotic plants, animal prints and floor-to-ceiling shag carpet in what can only be described as an African motif. Elvis bought the furniture on a whim in 1974, supposedly to rile his father -- Vernon had said it was the ugliest furniture he'd ever laid eyes on. The result of the carpeted ceiling was a dampened sound that made recording music a possibility. In fact, Elvis recorded the album "From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee" and half of "Moody Blue" right there amid the fauna and leaking water.
Elvis may have inadvertently invented the concept of the "man room" -- he didn't go with the jungle motif until he and Priscilla divorced. The jungle room also boasts one of the first portable telephones, from 1966. Yeah, it looks more like a suitcase than a phone, but Elvis loved having things that no one else had. There are even hand-written instructions from The King himself taped to the front.
Graceland Tour: The TV Room
It seems like one man room wasn't enough for The King, so he created two more in the basement of Graceland. On the public tour, you can visit both the billiard room and the basement living room, referred to as the TV room. The billiard room was redone in 1973 and is a great example of Elvis' unusual decorating taste. The couches, walls, and ceiling are all covered in pleated, matching fabric -- 400 yards (365 meters) of matching fabric to be exact. It took three workmen 10 days to cover every square inch of the billiard room with the stuff. Elvis loved to play pool and he was very competitive, as he was in all things. The table still sports a tear in the felt where one of Elvis' friends attempted a trick shot.
Across from the billiard room is the TV room. Why is it called the TV room? Because there are three televisions mounted side by side on one wall. Elvis got the idea for the multiple sets after hearing that President Lyndon Johnson had three sets to keep up with all the major network newscasts at the same time. Elvis loved football though, so he'd typically tune in to the NFL each Sunday. There's also a pull-down movie screen, a jukebox and Elvis' personal record collection. The other noteworthy part of the TV room is the large lightning bolt painted on the wall behind the couch. This, along with the letters "TCB," was Elvis' personal credo and what he considered to be words to live by -- "taking care of business in a flash." The King had TCB medallions and bracelets custom made for himself and his Memphis Mafia members.
Moving out from the main house, your next stop on the Graceland tour is the former racquetball court, which now serves as the display room for Elvis' gold and platinum records, his memorabilia collection and a nice variety of actual jumpsuits that The King wore during his Las Vegas years. The building itself was erected in 1974 when Elvis took up racquetball. He built a two-story, 2,400-square-foot (223-square-meter) recreational area with a court, workout space and private lounge, complete with locker rooms, a Jacuzzi and guest showers. Elvis' personal shower area was in keeping with his extravagant style -- it had five gold-plated shower heads.
A swimming pool and a patio were the first things Elvis added to Graceland after he bought it. The surrounding yard was the site of touch football games, go-cart and golf cart races and fireworks battles -- usually at the expense of the lawn. Elvis even had a snowmobile that was converted to drive on grass, which ensured that his gardeners stayed busy. The pasture and stables held Elvis' horses, his favorite being a golden palomino named Rising Sun. At the far end of the yard is the carport, which has a few of Elvis' favorite cars and motorcycles on display.
Just south of the swimming pool is the final stop on the Graceland tour. The meditation garden was built in 1964 and contains a circular pool with fountains and a set of white columns and pergola on one side. In front of the pool is the final resting place of Elvis, Gladys, Vernon and Elvis' grandmother, Minnie May. There's also a marker in memory of Elvis' stillborn twin, Jesse Garon. The King and Gladys were originally buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery, but Vernon had the caskets moved for security purposes in October 1977.
Graceland Mansion and the King: Facts and Figures
Elvis' meteoric rise to fame was like no other. Toward the end of 1955, he signed his first big recording contract with RCA Records. In 1956, everything changed for the future king. Here are his 1956 highlights:
- Record contract has a $40,000 payout with $5,000 up-front as a signing bonus
- "Heartbreak Hotel" is released, selling 300,000 copies in the first week
- The single sells a million copies total, making it Elvis' first gold certified record
- Makes two full-length records, both of which go gold
- Appears on national TV 11 times, including his pivotal first performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show"
- Signs a seven picture movie deal with Paramount Pictures and stars in his first film, "Love Me Tender"
Graceland was the fulfillment of a promise Elvis made to his parents when he was a child. He would often tell them that one day he would be rich and buy them the finest house in town. At the time, that house was Graceland. Here are a few more interesting facts about the Presley home:
- Purchase was made with a $10,000 down payment, the trade of the Audubon Drive house at $55,000 and $37,500 in financing, for a total of $102,500
- Front gates were installed on April 22, 1957 by John Dillars of Memphis Doors, Inc.
- It was already sold to the YMCA for $35,000, so Elvis upped his offer to an impossible-to-refuse $102,500
- It's 12 miles south of downtown Memphis
- His parents had a vegetable garden and chicken coop on the property
- Highway 51 South was changed to Elvis Presley Blvd. in June 1971
- Brick smokehouse on property served as Elvis' pistol shooting range
- Elvis' first home on Audubon Drive was sold on ebay.com in 2006 for $905,000
- Billionaire Robert Sillerman purchased 85 percent of Elvis Presley Enterprises, including Graceland, for $114 million in 2007
Elvis Presley died in his home on Aug. 16, 1977. After a late night dental appointment on Aug. 15, Elvis, his cousin Billy Smith and wife Jo, and Elvis' girlfriend Ginger Alden returned to Graceland around midnight. Billy and Jo went home, only to be called back at 4 a.m. to play racquetball with Elvis. After a few games, Elvis played and sang at the piano for his guests for about 20 minutes. Among the numbers he sang in what would be his final performance were "Unchained Melody" and "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain."
He then told Billy that he was tired and was going to try and get some sleep. At about 8:30 a.m. Elvis told Ginger that he was restless and was going to read in the bathroom. At roughly 2 p.m., Ginger checked on Elvis and found him passed out face down on the floor. She immediately called on the intercom for Memphis Mafia member Joe Esposito. Joe arrived on the scene and attempted to revive Elvis after calling the operator for an ambulance. Twenty minutes later, the ambulance arrived and took Elvis to nearby Baptist Medical Center. Shortly thereafter, Elvis was pronounced dead.
Word spread through the family and the Memphis Mafia that their beloved King was gone. At 4 p.m. that day, Vernon Presley somberly announced to a group of reporters gathered on the steps of Graceland, "My son is dead." Elvis Presley was 42 years old. The official cause of death was listed as cardiac arrest. An estimated 80,000 fans passed through the gates of Graceland the following day to view The King's body. More than 15 million people have walked the shag carpets of Graceland since it first opened for tours in 1982.
Please see the links on the following page for more information on Elvis and the recording industry.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- "Elvis and Graceland." epgold.com, 2008. http://www.epgold.com/elvisandgraceland.htm
- "Suspicious minds fear worst for Graceland." Times Online, August 16, 2007. http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/music/article2267548.ece
- "Elvis Quick Facts." Fifties Web, 2008.http://www.fiftiesweb.com/elvis-bio.htm
- "Elvis' First Home Sold on eBay for $905K." Associated Press, May 16, 2006. http://origin.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,195674,00.html
- Quinn, Brian. "Elvis' American Record Sales a Request for Action." http://www.biwa.ne.jp/~presley/elnews-ElvisRecordSales.htm
- "Top 20 Billboard Singles." elvis.com, 2008. http://www.elvis.com/elvisology/billboard/elvis_singles.asp
- "Some Fascinating Facts." elvis.net, 2008. http://www.elvis.net/facts/factsframe.html
- "The Estate of Elvis Presley & The Elvis Presley Trust." elvis.com, 2008. http://www.elvis.com/elvisology/history/elvis_estate.asp
- "Inside Graceland." Larry King Live, 2007.
- "The Legacy of Elvis Presley." usinfo.state.gov. July 18, 2006. http://usinfo.state.gov/usinfo/Archive/2006/Jul/18-354533.html
- "The Man Who Owns Elvis." CBS News, February, 2007. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/02/18/sunday/main2491098.shtml
- Harris, John. "Talking about Graceland." guardian.co.uk, March 27, 2006. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2006/mar/27/talkingaboutgraceland
- "Elvis Presley's Graceland." elvis.com, 2008. July 7, 2008. http://www.elvis.com.au/presley/biography/elvis_presley_graceland.shtml