Memphis Has Not Lost Its|
Infatuation with Elvis
By John Bordsen, Knight Ridder Newspapers, October, 2005
MEMPHIS, Tenn. - This is where rock 'n' roll began. In the mid-'50s, young whites in the solidly
segregated mid-South acquired a taste for black radio. Black musicians could go into a
white-owned studio and lay down tracks.
Leastwise, they could record at Memphis Recording Service, a shoestring operation started
on Union Avenue by an Alabama native named Sam Phillips.
The "We Record Anything -- Anywhere -- Anytime" slogan at his shop was taken literally.
Phillips found a different crossover sound for his own Sun label in 1954: a white guy who
could sing black over countrified, fast-played blues. The 18-year-old was Elvis Presley,
the sound was called rockabilly -- and the earliest rock 'n' roll was born.
But this stop on the "Road to Rock 'n' Roll" really begins downtown in the lobby of the
historic and plush Peabody Hotel. That's where the famous ducks go on parade every day.
It's also where you'll find Lansky Apparel & Gifts, an upscale menswear shop whose proprietor,
Bernard Lansky, is an older and affable gent with a julep voice and urbane manner.
Get him going and, in his courtly way, he will tell about the days when Lansky Bros. was on
Beale Street and his clientele was altogether different.
"We were open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week, selling clothes to gamblers and pimps
who wanted to be sharp, in clothes that were tailored to fit. We had Elvis and we had ethnic people."
"He was working as a theater usher down the street -- just a white dude walking on Beale
Street. He'd always look in the windows, but would never come in. One day, I went out and
said, 'Would you mind coming in, young man?' I had to pull him in. He said something
like, 'I got no money now, but when I do, I'll buy you out.'
"I said, 'Don't buy me out -- just buy from me. Come back when you get paid; we can work
something out.' When he did return, he got a $3.95 shirt that was way out. That's what
he liked. He wanted something different. He wanted to be noticed, like the people on
"Taste? Elvis didn't have any! I made him look the way he did. I put him into pinks and
blacks, and shirts with Hi-Boy collars. He was concerned about the collar messing
with his hair. I showed him it wouldn't.
"He came in to get clothes for a high-school prom. Dressed in black and pink, he looked
as clean as Ajax.
"When he started to hit, he didn't have money to get dressed to be on 'Ed Sullivan.'
I got him dressed on credit. Elvis, he was our PR man."
Oh, yes. Lansky became clothier to the King. At all hours.
His son Hal, who has his own tales of dead-of-night deliveries to Graceland,
stands back a bit, chatting quietly with Tad Pierson.
Pierson wears a black-and-white sports shirt James Dean would've loved.
Looks a bit like aging hepcat Dennis Hopper. And it's his 1955 Cadillac illegally
parked at the hotel entrance that brings true Elvis and rockabilly believers to chat
with the Lanskys.
Sure, it could get ticketed. But it seems cops, doormen, merchants and porch-sitters
in Memphis know him -- the American Dream Safari tour operator who double-parks in the city's
storied past. His vehicle is so well-known, he says, there's little chance of anybody successfully
driving off in it.
The Cadillac is just a tad lighter than Lansky pink.
The human side of history and travel is what appeals to Pierson, who was a 3-year-old in
McPherson, Kan., when rockabilly arrived. He came to "anthrotourism" and Memphis in a
In 1988, teaching English in central Africa, he met a French couple passing through Burundi.
He fell for their pipe dream -- bombing around the American heartland in a cool car,
visiting places, a knowing native at the wheel. He orchestrated the trip for them the
following year. Cross-country trekking proved a hassle; Pierson decided to just run tours
out of Memphis.
Of Elvis, he says, "There's a demographic -- kind of lower middle-class, not redneck
necessarily -- and Elvis speaks to their dreams and hopes."
Though he offers everything from garden tours to civil rights tours, Elvis is No. 1.
And those customers can be hard core: "They want to get close to the man, who is an
especially big phenomenon 25 years after he died."
That ain't easy. People who knew the "singing truck driver" before his rise to fame
are increasingly few and urban renewal removes landmarks.
Still, Pierson has done his homework, knows the city and customizes tours to match your
interest level and time.
Half-day of rockabilly and '50s Elvis? This way to the Cadillac.
Besides Lansky's place, drive-by or drop-in highlights on a Pierson jaunt included:
Lauderdale Courts, the public-housing project at Third and Winchester, where Vernon,
Gladys and their son Elvis lived after arriving in Memphis from Tupelo, Miss. Their
first-floor apartment was a step up for the impoverished family, which had been staying
at rooming houses.
The appearance of the 347-unit complex reflects downtown Memphis' piecemeal
gentrification: "They've been gutted, retooled and are pretty nice now,
though affordable," Pierson says.
Better yet, just stay at the Presleys': Vernon paid $35 a month; it's yours for
$249 per night (two-night minimum). The two-bedroom Elvis Suite sleeps four
adults and has amenities both new (Internet, flat-screen TV) and old (a 1951
Frigidaire, Ike-style furniture throughout). You can peek inside twice a year --
Elvis birthday week (January) and death week (August) --for $10.
Nearby, Humes High was an all-white, blue-collar neighborhood school when
Elvis played the loner there. "Now it's a middle school, predominantly black,
with at-risk students," Pierson says.
The Arcade, one of Memphis' oldest eateries (at 540 S. Main St. since 1919),
had its most recent remodeling in 1954 -- when Elvis used to drop in. The Elvis
booth is in the back; he'd face a wall mirror, see fans coming his way and be able
to scoot out through a side door. There's a marker there and another at the next
booth, which was favored by Memphis' Rufus Thomas, who recorded "Walkin the Dog,"
"Do the Funky Chicken" and other novelty songs.
Sun Studio, 706 Union Ave., is rockabilly's main shrine. Besides Elvis, other no-names
who soared on the rooster-and-sunburst label: honky-tonk guitarist Carl Perkins
("Blue Suede Shoes," "Matchbox"), appliance salesman Johnny Cash ("Folsom Prison
Blues," "I Walk the Line"), ex-petroleum worker Roy Orbison ("Ooby Dooby"), roadhouse
piano player Jerry Lee Lewis ("Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On," "Great Balls of Fire")
and soybean farmer Charlie Rich ("Lonely Weekends"). They often played on each other's recordings.
The current foyer (in the '50s, it was Miss Taylor's Cafe) doubles as a soda fountain
and rockabilly store. Pierson turns you over to a Sun guide who recaps Phillips'
vision and great fortune in discovering Elvis and other legends.
The studio is small; you stroll a little and listen a lot.
You take a walk-through of the upstairs gallery, where Sun memorabilia is behind
glass and the guide activates sound snippets from Sun archives. Then you visit the
actual garage-size studio on the first floor. Phillips moved into less cramped quarters
in 1960, leaving this place and its gear mothballed. Largely unchanged since the '50s,
it retains a basement rec-room look.
It was shuttered until 1985, when four Sun statesmen returned to record "The Class
of '55" homage LP on original Sun equipment: Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny
Cash and Carl Perkins.
Only Lewis, the studio and the legend are around nowadays. Bands, notably U2, have recorded
in the carefully preserved 18-by-30-foot space. Yours to use at $75 an hour.
On July 19, 1954, this is where Elvis recorded the first of 10 cuts for five Sun 45s that
would change American pop. It was toward the end of a fruitless session where Phillips
teamed Elvis with guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black. Elvis, goofing around,
began to sing "That's All Right," a blues tune; the country guitar and bass kicked in.
Phillips, who'd been half-listening to the session from the control booth, stuck his
head out and told them to do it again -- with the Ampex machine running.
Taped X's on the tile floor mark who was where the day of that session. (Moore ID'd
those spots long after the fact.) There's a round hole where the metal peg of a
bass fiddle received a slapping during that and other sessions.
And yes, this is the original mike. You may touch it and have your picture taken
singing into its grill. For most, this literal grasp of history is the tour's highlight.
It's a Shure Unidyne microphone affixed to a weighted mike stand -- about 25 pounds
of metal and history. Still works. Built to last. Like rock 'n' roll.
IF YOU GO
MEMPHIS ROCKABILLY ... THEN
Rockabilly was the blues-country fusion at Memphis' Sun Studio in the mid-'50s.
It spawned rock 'n' roll and launched the careers of its earliest stars, including
Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins -- as well as Johnny Cash. Blues
legends B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf were first recorded there by owner Sam Phillips,
for different labels.
... AND NOW
Catch the Memphis-based Dempseys, a stellar rockabilly trio, live.
Record "That's All Right Mama" or any of 1,000 other songs at the Sun Studio custom
karaoke session; your copy of it has a Sun label sticker. $30 for first song.
Learn about rockabilly on the Internet at
Eat at The Arcade, 540 S. Main St., where Elvis would dine before he got too famous.
(It's just blocks from the National Civil Rights Museum -- the onetime Lorraine Motel,
where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.)
Sleep where Elvis and his parents lived -- Apartment 328 at Lauderdale Courts,
252 N. Lauderdale. Cost: $249 per night (two-night minimum). Details: (901) 521-8219;
Celebrate at concerts held Elvis Week (held Aug. 10-17, keyed to the anniversary of his
death in 1977); and Elvis Birthday Week (Jan. 5-10).
AMERICAN DREAM SAFARI:
Rates start at $50 per person. Owner/driver Tad Pierson requests minimum party of four.
Memphis tours run about three hours; different theme tours (evening juke-joint, full-day
Delta tours) available. Details: (901) 527-8870; www.americandreamsafari.com.
706 Union Ave. Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily; tours at half-past the hour.
$9.50; ages 3-11 free; 2 and younger not allowed. Details: (800) 441-6249,
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