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East Tupelo, Mississippi ('32-'48)
A lively woman full of spunk, Gladys Love Smith loved to sing and dance and was generally the life of any party. She was also four years older than the good-looking Vernon Elvis Presley, whom she met at the First Assembly of God church a week after he had turned seventeen. Nonetheless, a whirl-wind courtship ensued, and they eloped on June 17, 1933, getting married in Pontotoc, Mississippi, less than eight weeks after they started dating. Vernon, still a minor, lied on the marriage license, claiming to be twenty-two, while Gladys reduced her age by two years, to nineteen. Shortly thereafter, Vernon built the now-famous 2-room shot-gun shack in East Tupelo, the Presley's first home. Vernon's cousin Sales Presley and his wife Annie often came over to visit, and Annie became one of Gladys' best friends. Gladys' sister, Clettes, married Vernon's brother Vester in September 1935.
A year after their marriage, Gladys became pregnant. It was a difficult pregnancy, attributable in part to the fact, the doctor told her, that she was going to have twins. Gladys and Vernon were very excited about their impending family, and chose Jesse and Elvis as possible names, Jesse in honor of Vernon's father and Elvis because it was Vernon's middle name. On Tuesday, January 8, 1935, in their little shack at 306 Old Saltillo Road, Gladys, attended by the doctor William Robert Hunt and a midwife named Edna Martin, gave birth to two boys. Jesse Garon was still-born at about 4:00 a.m., but Elvis Aron (pronounced with a long A to rhyme with Garon) made his first appearance in the world about 35 minutes later. Because of the difficulty and pain of pregnancy and the loss of the first twin, this experience traumatized Gladys. She lost some of her care-free nature, becoming irritable and anxious. She discussed the birth often, and the memory of Jesse Garon was always very strong for all the family members. "When one twin died," Gladys believed, "the one that lived got all the strength of both." As a young boy Elvis was told that the bad side of his personality made him take the wrong path: when Elvis decided the right way, it was due to his brother's spirit (see DeWitt, Elvis: The Sun Years, 46). Elvis was also told from quite young age that he was special: God chose him to survive. This led Elvis to feel guilt over the death of his brother. He is said to have visited Jesse's grave, an unmarked site in Tupelo's Priceville Cemetery, often as a child, and he made references to Jesse throughout his life.
Elvis, as has often been commented upon, was unusually close to his mother. Throughout her life he called her by pet names such as "Sat'n", and the two often talked to each other in baby talk. Gladys served as both mother and father when Vernon was away (an increasingly frequent occurrence) - she was his source of security. Both parents were very deferential to Elvis, and often bought him things not in keeping with their low level of money, in order to mask the poverty and insecurity in their lives. Gladys especially constantly worried about her son and was extremely protective of him.
The early years of Elvis' life were hard ones. Gladys' mother, Doll, whom Gladys cared deeply for, died before Elvis was two, leaving her distraught. Vernon also had a difficult time finding steady employment. Not the most responsible of men, Vernon lost job after job. Although, as Peter Guralnik mentions, Vernon was always trying to find ways to support his family- he didn't simply remain unemployed and let it go at that- his lack of a responsible work ethic made it harder for him to get work, especially in the small town of Tupelo, where his reputation spread quickly. Elvis never openly denounced his father, but I feel Vernon's irresponsibility affected Elvis forcefully in many ways: he grew even closer to his mother and developed an almost obsessive-compulsive attitude toward work. (In 1945, at the age of ten, Elvis was already off hunting down part-time work, looking to deliver groceries. He launched a number of little business adventures, including selling fruit discarded by supermarkets, as a way of earning extra money and helping out his family. This drive to escape poverty is what brought Elvis fame and fortune: his determination led him to work harder and longer than most around him. Such diligence let him succeed where others failed. Always known for his perfectionism, Elvis spent hours and hours honing his skills, becoming essentially a workaholic. He loved his father, but was determined not to be like him.)
On November 16, 1937, Vernon and two other men, Travis Smith and Lether Gable, were arrested and charged with forgery: Vernon had altered a check he'd received from his employer Orville Bean as payment for a pig. Reports as to both the original and altered amount vary: DeWitt claims Vernon changed it from $4 to $40, Stanley says from $3 to $8, and Guralnik puts the final amount at less than $4. Whatever the true figure, Vernon ended up sitting in jail for six months before Bean even decided to prosecute him. Then on May 25, 1938, he was sentenced to 3 years in the state penitentiary, known as Parchman Farm. This was very hard on Gladys and little Elvis, who were left without financial support. She lost the house, and Elvis and his mother moved in with her in-laws next door. Still, Gladys was supportive of Vernon, and she and little Elvis often traveled the five hours each way by Greyhound to Parchment Farm to visit his daddy. Finally released on February 6, 1939 (interestingly, Stanley says Vernon was in prison until January 4, 1941), Vernon came out of the experience better off than when he'd gone in: not only was he more physically fit due to the long hours of labor, but he'd learned to work regular hours in a responsible manner. Still, Vernon's ability to maintain employment remained an issue. Elvis had begun to sleepwalk during this period, an affliction which followed him throughout his life. Some say Gladys and Vernon also suffered from sleepwalking episodes, suggesting a hereditary origin to Elvis' disorder.
In 1940, the Presleys, along with Sales and Annie, moved briefly to Pascagoula, Mississippi, because Sales and Vernon had found work on a WPA project. Staying only six or eight months, the Presleys were back in Tupelo by 1941. There, the First Assembly Church served increasingly as their social as well as religious focus. Elvis liked church, especially the music; his love for gospel music remained with him throughout his life. In an interview he commented, "Then there was the preachers and they cut-up all over the place, jumpin' on the piano, movin' ever' which way. I guess I learned a lot from them".
In the fall of 1941, Elvis began school at the East Tupelo Consolidated School on Lake Street, about half a mile away from his home. Gladys proudly walked her son to school each day. Although well-liked, Elvis is remembered as having spent most of his time alone. The Presleys as a whole were known for their insularness. Guralnik notes that in several school photos of the very young Elvis, he seems somewhat apart. "Not shunned," Guralnik says, "just apart". (See Guralnik, Last Train to Memphis, 16). East Tupelo actually had an exceptionally strong educational system at this time, and Gladys pushed Elvis to do well. Although she loved her husband, she knew Vernon was a dreamer, and Gladys didn't want Elvis to be like him.
Vernon had been excused from serving in World War II because he was the sole economic support for his family. In 1942, Vernon worked on the construction of a POW camp in Como, Mississippi, 40 miles from Memphis. He actually moved to Memphis during the war, coming home only on weekends, because he had found work in a munitions plant. It is also thought Vernon made extra money by running moonshine whiskey between Memphis and Tupelo. Unknown to most people, Gladys got pregnant again in the winter of 1942-1943, but suffered a painful miscarriage. Elvis was with her in the hospital when this happened.
Church was not the only place Elvis encountered music in Tupelo: Shakerag, a black slum somewhat close to Elvis' own home, was always alive with music of various kinds, which he loved. Elvis also listened to Tupelo's radio station WELO, which sponsored the "Black and White Jamboree", a kind of amateur hour. A local talent by the name of Mississippi Slim, who played all sorts of music, also worked at the station. He was Elvis' first role model. Slim had a noontime show called Singin' and Pickin' Hillbilly which led into the Jamboree. Elvis went to the station almost every Saturday afternoon to see it. On May 5, 1944, at the age of nine, Elvis made his first public appearance on the Jamboree, where he sang `Old Shep', receiving a ribbon as a prize. Through these various music sources, Elvis was exposed to gospel, hillbilly, and blues tunes quite early in life.
A year after his `debut' on the Jamboree, Elvis got up and sang in front of an audience of several hundred at the annual Mississippi-Alabama State Fair and Dairy Show in the middle of downtown Tupelo. Through the encouragement of his fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Oleta Grimes, Elvis' principal, Mr. Cole, entered Elvis into the WELO radio talent contest for Children's Day, held Wednesday, October 3, 1945, at the same fair. Gladys and Elvis walked there together; Vernon was absent. Gladys remembered, "Elvis had no way to make music, and the other kids wouldn't accompany him. He just climbed up on a chair so he could reach the microphone and he sang `Old Shep'." Elvis won second prize in this contest, which consisted of $5 and free carnival rides all day long. This fair was also where Elvis got his picture taken in the Western booth.
For his eleventh birthday, Elvis received a $7.75 guitar. (DeWitt claims Elvis actually got his first guitar at age nine, but I find Guralnik's argument, that the only reason 10-year-old Elvis had sung unaccompanied in the state fair was due to lack of a guitar, more convincing. Stanley also concurs with Guralnik.) Elvis had wanted a rifle or a bicycle, but Gladys convinced him otherwise. Reverend Frank Smith, the 21-year-old preacher at the First Assembly Church, taught young Elvis his first chords on the guitar, and his own uncle Vester also strummed with him a bit. Smith said he got Elvis to sing in church once in a while, but Elvis remembered otherwise, saying, "I took the guitar, and I watched people, and I learned to play a little bit. But I would never sing in public. I was very shy about it, you know." Interestingly enough, most people agree the piano was actually Elvis' strongest instrument throughout his life, but I found no clues as to where he learned it.
Although music was already by this time his consuming passion, Elvis was also interested in art, music, history, and literature. He got involved in many school organizations and sports. Simply put, Elvis loved school. He loved to read, especially comic books, because of their images of power and success. Many times his grades, which were mostly B's, didn't accurately reflect his abilities, especially since he worked at jobs most of his high school career. This is important to emphasize, because Elvis' intellectual interests and abilities were not only not understood by his family and friends, but were later downplayed, especially by Colonel Parker. The "Hillbilly Cat" label, while promoting his rockabilly image, led many people to falsely believe Elvis himself was an uneducated backwards country boy, which is simply untrue.
Between 1943-1945, the Presleys were constantly on the move. Surprising everyone, Vernon bought a home on August 18, 1945, paying the $200 down payment with money he'd saved from his work during the war. He ended up losing it, however, when he couldn't meet the mortgage payments. In 1946 the Presleys moved into town, a move they considered a real come-down. Living first on Commerce Street, they were then forced to move to Mulberry Row, the least desirable spot in Tupelo which was located next to the city dump. Alcoholism on Vernon's part has been cited as a possible cause for his inability to adequately provide for his family (see DeWitt). In spite of the rough living conditions, living in the city allowed Elvis to attend Milam Junior High, which was a very good school. Nonetheless, the Presley's poverty was visible: in his sixth-grade photo, Elvis is the only child in overalls. Later in life Elvis almost never wore jeans, despite their popularity, because, it is said, they reminded him too much of being poor. In the 1930's and 1940's, jeans and overalls were signs of poverty.
The Presleys were scorned for their lack of money and Vernon's inability to keep a job. They moved around during the course of 1946, and Gladys went back to work at the Mid-South Laundry. By the time Elvis started seventh grade, they had finally moved to a real house at 1010 North Green Street. This house was one of the 3 "white" houses in a black neighborhood, a rather questionable location, but it was also next door to a black church. Elvis was undoubtedly quite influenced by the loud and rocking gospel music he heard there. There were also church revivals in this neighborhood held periodically which lasted for three or more days, full of singing and playing.
It was in seventh grade that Elvis started bringing his guitar to school every day. Most classmates remember he was sort of a loner; serenity and solitude were important to Elvis. One of Elvis' teachers, Mrs. Camp, got Elvis to sing in several classrooms, and he rose in popularity both because of his music and because he was a good student. In September of 1948, Elvis was elected to Student Council, a sign of honor. That same fall, some `rough' boys cut Elvis' guitar strings, but his eighth-grade classmates chipped in and bought him new ones, another testament to his popularity. According to DeWitt, Elvis had begun casually dating a couple years before this, at the age of ten, a not abnormal age in the 1940's for people in the South. His first girlfriend was Caroline Ballard, with whom he went to see movies at the Strand Movie Theater. One of the more famous pictures of young Elvis shows him at age 15 on the front steps of the Lauderdale Courts, his future Memphis home, with Betty McCann. Did Elvis have girlfriends in Milam Junior High as well? I don't know.
The fall of 1948 brought the most drastic change in Elvis' life to date: his family moved to Memphis. Vernon and Elvis had often visited Memphis on the weekends in the late 40's; it is believed Vernon was both looking for jobs and continuing to run moonshine. Other family members had moved to Memphis, as well. Still, the move caught Elvis by surprise. On Friday, November 5, 1948, Elvis' last day of school in Tupelo, he gave a little concert, and the next day they left. Later he said, "We were broke, man, broke, and we left Tupelo overnight. Dad packed all our belongings in boxes and put them in the trunk and on top of a 1939 Plymouth. We just headed for Memphis. Things had to be better". An interesting note: DeWitt states the Presleys left Tupelo in September, 1948, because Vernon had gotten into trouble with the local authorities over his moonshine operations, and that they were living in Memphis a full two months before they enrolled Elvis back in school. I have read at least one other source which also claims September, not November, as the month in which the Presleys moved. Whatever the truth, by November 1948 the Presleys were in Memphis, a city which had a profound effect on young Elvis and his passion for music.
Elvis' memories of Tupelo always remained fond ones
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