Memphis has produced a wealth of groundbreaking music over the years, but wherever you go, the city is still best known as the home of Elvis Presley, the undisputed heavyweight rock and roll champion of the world. All around Memphis, Presley's presence is utterly inescapable – from the sublime cheesiness of Graceland to the charmingly ramshackle town of Tupelo, his humble birthplace.
Naturally, Tupelo would be the first port of call on the Elvis tourist trail. Elvis's father, Vernon Presley, built the modest looking two-room wooden house that stands intact to this day. Elvis once said that the house was so small it could easily fit inside his living room at Graceland. On the same plot of land stands the fully restored First Assembly Of God Church, where the young Elvis was introduced to the gospel music that went on to influence him throughout his career and where his pastor taught him his first few guitar chords.
A few miles up the road you discover the largely unchanged Tupelo Hardware Store, which is where his mother, Gladys, bought Elvis his first guitar for his 11th birthday for the princely sum of 7.90. According to store owner, George H Booth II, Elvis had set his heart on getting a rifle, but his mother talked him into the idea of a guitar instead. The store is still in business, selling the same strangely eclectic selection of goods, ranging from wood grinders to guitars.
Without the Elvis connection, Tupelo would be just another anonymous little town with little for tourists, but its understated charm lies in the fact that it shows you exactly where he spent the first 13 years of his life before he became the most famous singer in the world.
It was just as Elvis reached his teenage years that the family left the house that Vernon had built and moved into an almost exclusively black part of town where he met a local boy called Sam Bell, who lived a stone's throw away from the Presleys. Sam still lives in Tupelo, and although he is now 75, his memories of their friendship are crystal clear.
With a boyish smile, Bell recalls his formative years with Elvis. "We was all little guys, and when the Presleys moved into my neighbourhood, we spent a lot of time together. Day and night we'd be playing ball, riding bicycles, shooting BB guns and eating apples, oranges, peaches and watermelons. In the summertime we'd go swimming and fishing together. We ran around and went to church and played and sang songs. We just clicked immediately.
"There was a lot of segregation and prejudice in Tupelo around that time, but as 13-year-old kids, we didn't care about colour. We were just having a good time. We used to go to the local movie theatre, and I had to go in through the black side and Elvis would go into the white side. Once we were inside, Elvis would sneak into the black section just so he could sit with me. His mother didn't treat me any different to him. I was just as white as he was when I went to her house, and he was just as black as I was when we went over to my house. He used to say to me 'The Lord made one big mistake with me, because I wasn't born black.' And you know what? It was true. He was like a black man in a white man's skin."
Did he realise that there was something unique about Elvis at that point? "We somehow knew he was gonna be something special, but we just didn't know how special. Elvis was different. I think his humbleness was what marked him out, and he was determined to learn, which is something his mother had a lot to do with. He loved that woman to death. He was a mummy's boy."
Elvis and Sam lost touch in 1948 when the Presleys moved to Memphis in search of a better life. Five years later, Elvis Presley released his ground-shaking debut single That's All Right (Mama) – recorded at Sam Phillips' now legendary Sun Studios.
If you are a rock and roll fan, it's impossible to stand in the middle of Sun Studios and not feel a chill run through you. After all, this is the place where rock and roll was born. Although at first glance Sun seems to be a pretty unremarkable place, jam-packed with vintage guitars and amplifiers, close your eyes and you can imagine Elvis gyrating his hips to the sound of Bill Black's bass and Scotty Moore's guitar as they created the blueprint for rock and roll. Standing on the X that marks the very spot on which Elvis laid down his vocals is a truly moving and magical experience.
When Elvis came in to cut some self-financed demos, Phillips' assistant, Marion Keisker asked him who he sounded like. He simply said: 'I don't sound like nobody.' Moore was 22 years old when he first met the then unknown 19-year-old singer a few weeks later on 4 July 1954. The next day Elvis went into Sun Studios for an audition that would quite literally go on to change the look and the sound of modern music, producing a version of Arthur Crudup's country blues song That's All Right (Mama). Two days later an acetate of the single was aired on local radio DJ Dewey Phillips' Red, Hot and Blue show on WHBQ. Listeners flooded the station, with Phillips responding to public demand by playing the song 14 times in a row. Sam Bell was working in Chicago when he heard Elvis on the radio for the very first time. He beams with pride as he recalls, "I turned to my workmate and said – Hey, that's my boy there. That's my man. The guy I was working with said to me – 'You grew up with Elvis Presley?' He couldn't believe it. Pretty soon, everybody in the neighbourhood in Chicago knew that my friend was Elvis. I went out to California to see him, but they wouldn't let me near him. I'm sure he would have seen me if he'd known I was there."
With Elvis's first releases, rock and roll was introduced to a mainstream white audience who had never heard anything like it. Yet Presley hadn't even played a professional gig at that point and had only met Moore and Black for the first time less than 24 hours before his audition.
"I was still working a day job at the time, and I'd drive by the studio a couple of times a week," 77-year-old Scotty Moore recalls. "If Sam wasn't busy cutting demos for somebody, we'd go next door to Miss Taylor's Restaurant and just sit and talk about music. Then one day, Marion Keisker came over and had coffee with us, and she says: 'Sam, did you ever talk to that boy who was in here a few weeks back? He had a real good voice.' A couple of weeks went by, and Sam still hadn't called him, so he asked Marion to give his number to me. I looked at it and I said: Elvis Presley? What kind of a name is that? That afternoon I asked him if he could come over to my house the next day, which was actually the 4th of July.
"I just said: Play what you feel. He was singing all different kinds of songs, and a lot of them he didn't even know all the chords to. The thing that impressed me most at that point was his timing. We spent a couple of hours just playing different songs. I told Elvis I'd talk to Sam and that we might be in touch. When Bill saw Elvis's car leave, he just said: 'Well, he's got a good voice, but it didn't really knock me out.'"
How would he describe the atmosphere in the studio the day the trio cut their first few songs? "We was just having a good time, really," Moore says casually. "There wasn't any pressure. We just joined in on whatever he was singing for a couple of hours. Bill and I were actually just getting ready to go home, because we both had to work the next day. The door to the control room was open, and Elvis stood up and started playing That's All Right (Mama), just beating on a guitar and singing it, and then Bill and I started playing along. Sam Phillips heard it through the door and he came out of the control room and says: 'What are you guys doing?' We're just doodling around, I said. 'Hey, get back on the mic – do a little bit more of this – it sounds pretty good.' We did it in three or four takes and they had it. And that was the first record."
The records that Sam Phillips produced at Sun between 1954 and 1957 changed everything, which is astonishing when you consider the fact that this was a studio which operated on a shoestring budget with the pitch: 'We Record Anything – Anywhere – Anytime.' Before Elvis had unleashed his first Sun singles, the very idea of a white singer delivering a brew of blues, boogie woogie and country would have been utterly unimaginable for most people who had previously only been exposed to music devoid of danger and sex.
Scotty Moore played with Elvis for the next 14 years, laying down his liquid licks on a machine gun run of timeless, incendiary rock and roll records including Heartbreak Hotel, Blue Suede Shoes, Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock which left an indelible mark on the cultural landscape. Elvis looked and sounded as if he had been beamed down from another planet.
Elvis's music was only part of the reason why he had become the world's most famous singer by age 21. It was his impossibly cool swagger and razor-sharp clothes that earned him the nickname Memphis Flash, and he had local tailor Bernard Lansky – self-styled "Clothier To The King" – to thank for the chic and unique way he dressed. Now 82, Lansky still works behind the counter most days, though you get the distinct impression that he spends more of his time talking to the steady stream of Elvis obsessives who visit Lansky Bros, now located in the lobby of Memphis' poshest hotel, The Peabody.
"He was a dude – I could see that from the moment I first met him when he was a kid," Lansky recalls. "He was just naturally cool, he weren't no fool, and I gave him what he wanted in terms of his style... I was the man with the plan. We had all the hip stuff, and he loved it. By the time he got famous, there was a real commotion every time he came into the store."
Having known him since he was a teenager, did Lansky find it distressing when, later, he saw Elvis's life spiralling out of control? "I found it very upsetting, and it was difficult to watch it all happening to him as things started to get weird around him. I was like a father figure or a big brother to him. I'd talk to him and try to help him, and he'd say, 'I understand what you're talking about, Mr Lansky. Don't worry about all that stuff.' I said, 'I ain't got to worry about it. You've got a problem, not me.' He recognised that he had problems, and I think he tried to take my advice, but really, Elvis just needed people around him who could be straight with him."
In 1957, Elvis bought Graceland, located at what is now named 3764 Elvis Presley Boulevard. It is by far the biggest tourist attraction in Tennessee, with up to 750,000 visitors each year since Elvis Presley Enterprises opened the Guitar Man gates to "The King's" castle in 1982. Sun Studios may be the most historically important part of Elvis' Memphis years, but the most famous location associated with the man is undoubtedly Graceland.
Although you can't escape the lines of brightly coloured stage costumes and the trophy displays, a visit to the Meditation Garden, where the Presleys are buried, is a strangely moving experience, despite the stream of tourists obliviously clicking their cameras. After paying your respects, it's almost obligatory to load up with the tat on offer in one of the many gift shops, but you can't help wondering exactly what Elvis would have made of it all.
Considering what a huge star he was, Graceland is far smaller and less grand than you would expect. In fact, compared to most rock star mansions, it's understated. However, as you walk past his two lavishly appointed private jets and the garage stuffed with everything from pink Cadillacs to Bentleys through a series of themed rooms, the whole place perfectly personifies the public perception of 1970s Elvis.
The Jungle Room, with its waterfall, Hawaiian sofas and green shagpile carpet and the TV Room, with its mirrored ceiling, offer a fascinating insight into the surreal life he must have been living in this period. Elvis was hermetically sealed off from the outside world, surrounded by the infamous Memphis Mafia, his gang of employees and friends who kept him happy and often looked after their own interests rather than trying to help him.
Jerry Schilling, who met Elvis in 1954 and stayed by his side throughout his life, is one of the best-known and longest serving members of the Memphis Mafia. He explains: "People did help him from time to time, but he was a very hard guy to help. He was a very proud, strong individual, but that didn't mean you couldn't talk to him, although it was very rare that you really had the opportunity to help him as his life got more complicated."
Would Schilling agree that in his last years Elvis appeared to be a lonely man trying to fill a void? "Elvis's life was multi-faceted. He took all of us along for this ride, and most of the time we had a great time. He wasn't brooding, but he was lonely, though. Elvis always wanted to be loved, and he's still being loved 55 years after I first met him. That kind of love is forever."
Had Elvis lived to celebrate his 75th birthday on 8 January, he would surely have been astonished at the limitless fascination still surrounding his life and work. There is no getting away from the fact that, today, Elvis is as well-known for his gradual personal and musical decline as he is for personifying rock and roll at its coolest and most primal. Rock stars come and go, but Elvis Presley remains the most important, influential and iconic of them all. John Lennon put it best. "Before Elvis, there was nothing."
A six-day Elvis package by Trailfinders includes flights from Heathrow, two nights at the Comfort Inn in Tupelo and three nights at Elvis Presley's Heartbreak Hotel in Memphis, plus car hire. Price from 649pp, based on twin share for selected March 2010 departures. Call 0845 050 5871 or see www.trailfinders.com For tourist information, call 01462 440787.
• This article first appeared in the Scotsman on Saturday 2 January, 2010