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Tupelo, Mississippi, Remembers Elvis - 2002-08-04

It is hard to believe that it has been almost a quarter of a century since the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, died at the age of 42.

On August 16, a celebration of his life and music is scheduled at Elvis’ mansion, Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee. But Tupelo, Mississippi is another southern American city remembering the late singer.

Margaret Kennedy tells us about the places and people close to Elvis.

Elvis is having a longer career in death than he had in life. He still draws a crowd. Each year 600,000 people come to his house, Graceland. Some are loyal fans, others are just curious. They come to see the furniture, the things Elvis owned, everything that is Elvis. This is where he lived and died. Graceland is the cornerstone of tourism in Memphis.

But there’s another house, in another place: Tupelo, Mississippi. Elvis was born in the front room in 1935 and grew up the only child of Vernon and Gladys Presley. The family had constant money troubles and moved to Memphis when Elvis was 13. But Elvis visited Tupelo often. He gave the town the money to buy back the house to build a park. Improvements are still underway with public and private money, like a new statue.

Reverend Frank Smith was the minister at Elvis’ church. Reverend Frank taught him one of the first songs Elvis would sing.

Elvis got his first guitar at the Tupelo Hardware Store. George Booth says his father was running the place then. It hasn’t changed much, even though newer, much bigger hardware stores have come to town.

“We’re standing in front of the sales counter where Elvis and his mom, Gladys, shopped for a birthday present for Elvis when he was ten years old,” says Mr. Booth. “They ended up buying a guitar, but Elvis came in thinking about a bicycle or a rifle.”

The salesman, Forrest Bobo, years later documented his pivotal role in Elvis’ career. “Mr. Bobo wrote this letter, and in it he says that the guitar cost $7.75, plus a two percent sales tax,” recalls Mr. Booth.

You don’t have to search hard in Tupelo to find someone who likes to sing and play guitar. Wayne Hereford, who sings with a popular local group called the Lane Chapel Quartet, says townspeople are proud and amazed by Elvis’ success.

“When I was growing up I couldn’t believe - nobody could make me believe - that Elvis was born in Tupelo, Mississippi,” recalls Mr. Hereford. “I just didn’t want to believe that. I just didn’t feel like a star of that magnitude could come from Tupelo. I’m saying (I thought that) as a kid.”

Black gospel music deeply influenced Elvis.

“They would have these tent meetings from what I’ve been told,” says Mr. Hereford. “They said he would hang out around those. You know, black churches traditionally have a lot of emotion going on.”

At Johnnie’s Drive-In Restaurant, where Elvis liked to go after school, I met Elvis’ boyhood friend, James Ausborn. He well remembers those Black churches.

“There was one church that we went to that had real good music,” he says. “We’d go up there and the window had a broken place, and we’d peep in and listen to them sing on Sunday morning. If we didn’t go to church ourselves, we’d listen to them sing.”

Jack Curtis, who runs the local office of an insurance company, is too young to have known Elvis, but he knows what to do with a pair of sideburns.

“I’ll just take this little mirror here, on the desk,” he explains. “And you just kind of… get them up in here like this. And you would normally have a little transparent glue, onion skin, that you would work with... and you put them on and you got your little sideburns. And I got my little guitar here.”

Jack is one of two Elvis impersonators in Tupelo. “I got some of these moves right here,” he says. “You got them that Elvis went down like this, honey. He did. And then he’d come back on this side.”

Elvis gave two triumphant hometown concerts here. But there is little of that Tupelo left to see. Urban renewal has swept it away.

Suzanne Boone works with the redevelopment group planning a new shopping and entertainment center to satisfy the desire of Elvis fans to visit sites associated with him.

“When people come to visit Tupelo, they know he performed here in 1956 and 1957,” she notes. “And they want to see where did he stand, where did he sing. Over here in this area over which is now a parking lot, but that’s where the grandstands were.”

Tupelo seems a bit baffled about what visiting here means to Elvis fans. What started out as a trickle is now 60,000 visitors a year to the birth site. It’s been 54 years since Elvis moved away, but the influences that shaped him live on in Tupelo.