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Little Town in Mississippi Draws a Crowd

  • Ted Landphair

Elvis's birth home is now nicely painted, and it looks a lot nicer than the days when Elvis's father could not afford to make bank payments on it

Elvis's birth home is now nicely painted, and it looks a lot nicer than the days when Elvis's father could not afford to make bank payments on it

The King of Rock 'n' Roll, Elvis Presley, was born 75 years ago, on January 8th, 1935, in a two-room house in the town of Tupelo in the piney woods of the deep southern state of Mississippi. So this time of year, and again in August on the anniversary of the King's death, pilgrimages of Elvis fans descend upon that furniture manufacturing center of some 34,000 people.

Surprisingly, you don't see a lot of Elvis markers there. There is one sign that says The King is Up Ahead, but that's for an automobile dealership. Visitors are able to take a self-guided Elvis Presley driving tour. One stop is the Tupelo hardware store where Elvis got his first guitar. The folks there say Elvis had wanted a rifle. But his mother, Gladys would have none of it. She stood him on a keg and let him play around with a guitar. He loved it, and Mrs. Presley bought it for him for $7.95.

Sculptor Michiel Van der Sommen created this life-size bronze statue, in Tupelo, of Elvis at about age 13

Sculptor Michiel Van der Sommen created this life-size bronze statue, in Tupelo, of Elvis at about age 13

The modest home where Elvis Aron Presley was born has been restored to its look of the 1930s. The back room is a simple kitchen, with an old-fashioned ice box, washtub, table and chairs, and a baby's high chair. And in the front room, which was both the Presleys' bedroom and living room, there's a bed, a dresser, and an early picture of Elvis and his mom and dad.

Elvis's father, Vernon, who worked at odd jobs around town, had built the house with $188 that he borrowed and was not able to pay back. So when Elvis was three years old, the bank took the house, and the family moved elsewhere in Tupelo. In 1948, they sold all their possessions and moved up the road to Memphis, Tennessee.

Nine years later, already a star, Elvis returned to Tupelo and performed at the county fair. He gave all the proceeds from the concert to the city to buy his birthplace.

This was, and remains, the hang-out of choice for Tupelo families and young people - The jukebox still rocks with Elvis tunes

This was, and remains, the hang-out of choice for Tupelo families and young people - The jukebox still rocks with Elvis tunes

One spot on Tupelo's Elvis driving tour is Johnnie's drive-In restaurant, where Elvis and his friends bought cheeseburgers, French fries, and blueberry pie whenever they could scrape together the money.

Elvis looked nothing like we remember him, with the sideburns and slick hair swept back. As one of his high-school buddies told us on a visit to Tupelo, Elvis had short hair, just like, "ever'body else back in them days." The friend added that nobody there at Johnnie's in the early 1950s would have believed that the fellow who sang in church and banged awkwardly on a guitar would, a few short years later, be the King of Rock 'n' Roll.

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.

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