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Tupelo, Mississippi – Birthplace of Elvis Presley

By Doreen Kerby

I had never seen women dancing in a public washroom but it sure was fun. A TV screen up on the wall had Elvis Presley singing “Blue Suede Shoes”. There he was, dressed in his stunning white America-Eagle jumpsuit, tanned and slim, at the height of his career. He sure had us dancing. Elvis’s music does that!

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“Aloha from Hawaii” was the first worldwide live concert ever broadcast and it was beamed to one billion people. With that famous show he raised $75,000 for cancer research.

Elvis was born in Tupelo, located in northeast Mississippi. It is a small city with 35,000 people proud to claim Elvis Presley as their native son.

The Elvis Presley Birthplace is the city’s main attraction and is the centerpiece of the 15-acre Elvis Presley Park. Elvis was born on January 8, 1935. His twin brother Jesse was stillborn. A tiny little marker in Priceville Cemetery designates his grave. a Elvis Presley’s home was a little two-room bungalow built by his father but when he was two his dad was sent to prison for forging a cheque. Vernon was paid four dollars for selling a pig. He knew he had been underpaid and in his anger, changed that figure to $14.00. He was sentenced to three years in jail but with the help of the community, a petition asking for reduced time brought his time down to nine months. Unable to make the payments, the house and car were repossessed so Gladys and Elvis moved in with relatives.

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The Museum features an extensive collection of memorabilia, most of it donated by a very close family friend, Janelle McComb. Fortunately, she was not only a collector but also an Elvis Presley fan. Because cameras and film were expensive the family had no photos of his early years. His school, friends, and church captured some pictures.

Near the house is a life size bronze statue of Elvis at 13 holding a guitar in his left hand. That guitar was always with him. When he was 11, his mother took him to the Tupelo Hardware to buy him a birthday gift. He got his eye on a 22- caliber rifle but his mother didn’t want him to have a gun. This upset Elvis but the clerk diverted his attention to a guitar and he walked out of the store, happy with his $7.91 gift. Gladys told him, “You just take that home with you and learn to play it. You might be famous some day.”

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His minister taught him a few chords to get him started. Rev. Frank Smith remarked on how well behaved Elvis was and said, “His voice was a gift from God. Many have copied him, he copied nobody. His movements, his singing gyrations, those were his way. They didn’t come from the church or other singers. He just kept at what he had begun in East Tupelo and did it his way.”

Living on Mulberry Alley, near the Fair Grounds, opposite “Shake Rag” the black community, he was exposed to the Southern gospel that became part of his repertoire.

The newest addition to the Park is the Assembly of God Church that Elvis attended as a child. Visitors can experience a church service through a multi-media presentation that lasts 15 minutes. The sermon is spirited and the music lively. It was here that Elvis began to sing hymns in church. In 1945 he sang “Old Shep”, a song about a boy and his dog, at the Mississippi Fair where he placed fifth.

When he was 12 he began listening to country greats like Jimmie Rogers, Bob Wills, and Grand Ole Opry. When Elvis was 13, in 1945, his parents packed their belongings in their old Plymouth and headed to Memphis hoping that life would be easier there.

Five years later, then a truck driver, Elvis paid $4.00 to record two songs for a birthday gift for his mother. Sun Records liked what they heard and his career took off and he never looked back.

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The highlight of our visit was a performance by the Tupelo Unity Choir, a Black Gospel group, like those Elvis would have experienced. It was wonderful and we wished it would never end.

Elvis blended the blues with country, pop and gospel. Here was a white man singing music that was essentially black music. And in so doing he made 500 million records and 33 films. Though raised in poverty he became a millionaire many times over. His life in Graceland reflected that wealth.

For more information contact: www.elvispresleybirthplace.com