"We go in through the kitchen because that's how Elvis used to do it," John Bass, director of the Mike Curb Institute for Music at Rhodes College, says as he swings open a screen door and steps into 1034 Audubon Drive. "It feels like 1956 when you walk in. He went from being an interesting, regional musician to becoming Elvis while living here."
Walking through the house, which Presley bought with royalties earned from "Heartbreak Hotel," is a step back through time to his final months of normalcy. 1956 was a big year for the 21-year-old musician. A number of his songs — "Hound Dog," "Don't Be Cruel," and "Love Me Tender" — would top the charts. He'd also make his debut appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. But for 13 months, before the Presleys moved to Graceland, Elvis and his parents called Audubon Drive home. Wood paneling lines most of the walls, save a few, which are covered in busy wallpapers — hummingbirds hovering above plants, music notes circling guitars and drums. Framed photos of the Presleys can be seen at every turn. A baby-blue couch sits on top of bright red, shag carpet that flows into a wide, open den Presley himself built onto the house. Acoustic tiles, the same used at Sun Studio, soundproof and cushion the room for a warm sound.
Bass knows the house well. In 2006, Mike and Linda Curb of Curb Records purchased and restored it, and the Curb Institute eventually repurposed the space for a student-led concert web series. "Evening at Elvis" kicked off in November 2013 with Memphis locals Star & Micey.
"We realized students at Rhodes had a lot of interest in music-focused things, but Rhodes doesn't have a music business program. The idea became, 'Well, what if we did house concerts that were filmed? What if we put them online? We could share what we were doing.'"
The den seats about 75 people, and the event is invitation only. Bill Frisell, Rosanne Cash, and Bobby Rush have played in the room.
"There was major apprehension [before the first show]," Bass says. "But once the music started — and this still happens — it's such a deep and profound experience. The room has this deep vibe in it. You're in this tight, little space, and once the music starts, everybody is captivated by it. I hesitate to call it a magical experience, but it almost is, and it just feels so right every time."
Bass' mission digs deeper. He wants both to bring in musicians who connect meaningfully with Memphis' musical reach and to expose his students to the artists still around to tell their stories and pass the torch.
"We're not interested in creating museums, but using history to inform the present," Bass says. "Elvis will probably come up, but we're talking about Memphis and what it means. It's a powerful experience seeing a young person talk to someone like Charles Lloyd and know they have a connection to them that they've never had before."
This year, Bass hopes to partner with other Memphis-based organizations to bolster the institute's reach. Rhodes will collaborate with Stax Records for a performance featuring Terry Manning in March.
"The project is cool, but this resource is important to us to do something positive for the community," Bass says. "Can we effect positive social change with it? I've got students working on that question now."
As the series grows, so does the responsibility. Bass teaches a class named "Music and Community in Memphis," in which he splits 15 students into groups: audio and visual recording, public relations and marketing, research and writing, and education and community engagement. Students work closely with real-world professionals to hone their skills.
Ashley Dill, a 20-year-old student who works as the associate event manager for the series, says the class shares a vision that parallels what Elvis saw in Memphis as rock-and-roll was on the upswing.
"Memphis was such a huge part of who he was," Dill said. "He saw something special in Memphis that I also see."
Of the few musicians who have played at Audubon, Dill and Bass both said Frisell made them see "how connected it all is."
"Frisell's songs just kind of flow from one to the next," Bass says. "Textures just come out. We're sitting there — an ethereal, moody wash of sound happening — and all of a sudden "That's All Right, Mama" comes through. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. [A photo of] Elvis is in this glass case on the wall, and Frisell is playing the first hit he recorded at Sun. And we're sitting in his living room."
Though decades have passed, Bass sees a connection between his students and a young, impassioned Presley during his unprecedented rise to stardom.
"He was just a young guy trying to do cool stuff and buck the system," Bass says. "We're trying to use the house in the same way. If you just read about him, you might not have the same connection as you would standing there looking at photo of him on the wall saying, "Wow, when he was my age, he was right here trying to do cool things.'"
For more information on the Mike Curb Institute for Music, visit www.rhodes.edu.