The year was 1946. World War II was over, Harry S. Truman was in the White House, and Big Band music was all the rage. But one day that year, a little boy walked into a hardware store in Tupelo, Mississippi and made a decision that would change the sound of music.
It was the kind of day you could see the heat boiling off the sidewalks when Gladys Presley and her 11-year-old son entered the new Tupelo Hardware store. The highly polished wooden floor clicked under her heels as she walked past a long row of glass cases, in search of a clerk. Her son had finally saved enough money for the bike in the storefront window.
But as Tupelo Hardware clerk Howard Hite tells the tale, when Presley turned around, her son wasn't behind her. "Elvis stopped in front of this counter because he spotted a .22 rifle on the wall. He told his mother he wanted the rifle and she said 'No, you're not going to have the rifle'. So Elvis got real upset."
As the young Elvis and his mother began to argue, the clerk, Forest Bobo, who happened to be a Presley family friend, looked around for a compromise. Hite slides open a cabinet and demonstrates what happened next. "Mr. Bobo opened the door and reached in, pulled the guitar out and handed it to Elvis. He strummed it and played with it a little bit and his mother said 'Elvis I'll buy you the guitar, if you'll take the guitar.' So Elvis strummed it and played with it some more and he turned to his mother and he said 'Yes ma'am, I'll take the guitar.'"
The little boy taught himself to play, and by the time the Presleys moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and Elvis was in high school, he had his own band. That's where Jerry Robbins first met with the man who would someday become a music legend. "He played in the gymnasium in Ripley Mississippi, near my hometown," Robbins recalls. "He wasn't the headliner on the show. He came out in an orange suit, bright orange. And everybody thought he was weird. But when he started singing, they forgot about the suit and people went crazy in that gymnasium."
People went crazy everywhere Elvis Presley played, and he soon became part of Sun Record's "Million Dollar Quartet," along with Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. The four musicians catapulted the independent record label into the big time. But it was Elvis, billed as "a white man who could sing rhythm and blues like a black man," who left crowds wanting more. With a pair of dangerously swiveling hips – too risqué for the time – and songs like Heartbreak Hotel, Hound Dog, and All Shook Up, Elvis took the world stage by storm, earning the nickname, the King of Rock and Roll.
Before long, Elvis Presley was the best-selling solo artist in U.S. history, and he had the greatest number of consecutive hits and spent more weeks on the top of the music charts than any other artist.
Back at Tupelo Hardware store, things are much the same as they were more than 50 years ago when Elvis bought his first guitar. The floor is still polished hardwood, long wooden and glass cases neatly display items the length of the store, and shelves that reach the ceiling loom like giants behind the counters. It looks like any hardware store of a bygone era – that is, until someone mentions Elvis.
Howard Hite says that's when everyone begins to gather and reminisce. "We have somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 people a year that come through our store," he says proudly. "Someone will come through this door every day, and from around the world: Australia, Japan, South American countries, England, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, just from everywhere. And they love Elvis. They adore Elvis."
As if on cue, Andy Mendlin, a dark-haired attorney from Modesto, California, comes in. "I've been trying to walk into this store since I got here," he announces, "because I knew that … everything starts here. It starts at Tupelo Hardware. And from Tupelo Hardware, Elvis made his way to the [children's singing contest at the] Mississippi Alabama [Fair and] Dairy [Show], had a contest there, and then, of course, off to his career at Sun Records. But it all starts at Tupelo Hardware. It starts right here."
When Elvis Presley died in 1977, he had produced $4 billion worth of music and movies. Today, 30 years later, his music still outsells recordings by any other dead musician, bringing in an average of $40 million a year. And it all started with a little wooden guitar that cost $7.90 at a hardware store in Tupelo, Mississippi.