Elvis neighbor coached King, saw rise and fall.
By June Robertson Special to Whitehaven Appeal, December 5, 2004
As Whitehaven resident Jesse Lee Denson stood in front of the two-story,
red-brick building at 227 E. Winchester St. that was part of Lauderdale
Courts (pictured right) where his family lived from 1947 to 1969, the
memories came flooding back. "My parents had a mission nearby called the
Poplar Street Mission," recalls Denson, whose parents, Jesse James and
Mattie, were Pentecostal evangelists.
"This is where my mother struck up a friendship with Gladys Presley. The
Presleys were staying in a cramped rooming house and mother helped them to
get a better place in Lauderdale Courts."
Recently refurbished and now known as Uptown Square, the original Lauderdale
Courts were built in 1936 and used as public housing for lower-income
families in need. When Denson met a 14-year-old Elvis Presley for the first
time, he was not impressed.
"He was different from all of the other kids," said Denson. "A bit of a
misfit and scrawny with a bad complexion. He was a good kid, very shy and
never got in trouble." Denson was good at singing and playing a guitar but
was reluctant to assist Elvis when asked.
"I gave in because of Mrs. Presley," said Denson. "She was so sweet, we all
liked her." Practice took place after school several times a week in
Presley's and Denson's apartment or the basement laundry area.
"One day when we were inside the Presley apartment (185 Winchester, Apt.
328), Mrs. Presley told me that my name meant 'gift from God,' " recounts
Denson. "She told me God had sent me to her and from then on she called me
her special son."
According to Denson, Elvis had a huge crush on his sister Virginia, who had
no time for Elvis. "Elvis would hide behind these bushes and watch for
Virginia to come home from school," said Denson. "Most of us went to L.C.
Humes High (pictured right) in those days. We would walk up Jackson Street
until we hit Manassas, quite a good walk."
When Denson left school he sang in Eastern clubs and occasionally saw the
Presleys on visits home. "I kept in touch after the family moved," said
Denson. "Elvis's success took everyone by surprise but we were so glad for
Denson was devastated after learning of Mrs. Presley's death in August 1958.
"It was a tremendous blow," said Denson. "I sure did love that woman, she
was an angel. We had visited with her only months before in her new home on
Audubon Drive. She had looked tired and was not happy that Colonel (Tom)
Parker (Elvis's manager) was keeping Elvis away so much. It just broke her
When Elvis died in 1977, Denson was not as surprised. "I knew what his
lifestyle was like and he worked too hard, but what a tragedy," said Denson.
"All I could think about at the time was that Mrs. Presley got her boy
Denson, a successful singer-songwriter, has written several songs about
Elvis and Gladys (his mother) including "The Mississippi Kid" and "Mrs.
Presley" and Elvis recorded one of Denson's most well-known religious songs,
"The Miracle of the Rosary," in 1972. "If Mrs. Presley had lived longer, we
might have seen a different ending for Elvis," said Denson. "They really
loved each other."