Death, marketing and myth will forever link Elvis and Memphis, but his real roots lie elsewhere
Elvis Presley was as misunderstood in life as he is in death. Anxious parents in reconstructing America saw him as a rebel because of the music he played and the way he performed it. In fact, he was a young man of old-world courtesies and deeply conciliatory instincts. For the past 30 years he has become a republic’s answer to dead royalty, crudely claimed by the heritage industry as the king of rock’n’roll — synonymous with the energy and affluence of the 1950s. In reality he was a dirt-poor child of the Great Depression who never lost his faith in the redeeming power of church music.
The small Mississippi town of Tupelo has played the part of poor relative in the story ever since its most famous son found world fame more than half a century ago. Had he lived, he would have been preparing to celebrate his 75th birthday next Friday with his family and friends at Graceland, over the Tennessee border in Memphis, the music city credited for rearing him and then releasing him to a mix of swooning adoration and murderous hostility.
While Graceland, where he died, became the most visited home in the US, the Tupelo shack where he was born remained virtually ignored. The town was simply not on the itinerary, even though Presley spent the first 13 years of his life there. It was regularly passed over in favour of a trek to Las Vegas, where he played long residencies, right up to his sad, bloated decline and death in 1977 at the age of 42.
Today Tupelo is on the map, for two main reasons. First, the extent of its influence on Presley’s music has been more widely recognised over the past two decades. Second, the town has tired of the neglect and promoted itself. Two years ago it modernised the museum close to the shack and annual visiting figures are up to 80,000, still small compared with Graceland’s 600,000.
To go in search of Presley’s childhood is a poignant business. At this time of year it also has some eerily Christ-like overtones, as if the old story has been allowed to colour the newer one: the humble premises, the big turbulent life, the early death, the freakish powers, the endless memorialising. Everyone — town officials, shopkeepers, people in the street — refers to it simply as “The Birthplace”, and to him as “The King”.
Visitors go hushed and moist-eyed into the two-room wooden home. The whole thing is just 30ft by 15ft. It was built by his father, Vernon, with a loan of $180. Over the way is the First Assembly of God Church, where he sang as a boy and nursed dreams of growing up to become a member of the Statesmen or the Blackwood Brothers, two of the local gospel groups. Given the terrible merchandising that his image has spawned, the complex is almost tasteful — at the heart is a bronze statue of Elvis, a 13-year-old boy in the dusk of innocence, about to move to Memphis with his parents.
Some of his boyhood contemporaries are still about. So too are the now matronly members of what was reportedly the nation’s first fan club, formed to welcome Elvis for his homecoming concert nine years later at Tupelo’s Alabama Fair and Dairy Show. They remember screaming along with the other 3,000 spectators, and admiring the blue velvet shirt made for him by his mother. Some of them worked extra hours picking cotton until their fingers bled so they could buy new shoes for the show.
A childhood friend, James Ausbon, lived half a block away and played ball with Elvis in the field behind his house, drank Royal Crown Cola together, went down to Jonnies Drive In. They went fishing and rode all over town on bikes. Elvis’s mother trusted James. His brother was a country singer called Mississippi Slim, who had a radio show that Elvis listened to. “I said, what kind of songs do you sing,” Ausbon remembers, “and he said, Old Shep and God Rest My Daddy. My brother would show him chords and sing songs with him, and eventually he let him be on the programme. He said: ‘The boy has a good voice, but he can’t hold a tune.’ We went fishing and he sang all the time. I said, ‘We won’t catch fish if you sing’, and he said, ‘I don’t know. Maybe they will come out by themselves.’ His mother said to me to just keep him out of the water.”
Not far away is Lawhorn School, where Elvis, then a fifth grader, impressed his teacher Oleta Grimes with his singing of Old Shep, the bleak country ballad about a boy whose beloved dog dies. She persuaded him to enter a children’s singing competition. Eleven years later he said he that had come fifth, although his father claimed he was third. Either way, the winner was his classmate Shirley Jones. “He sang different from the rest,” she says today, “but I was used to hearing him at school. I never thought he would become so famous. But I was very proud of him and I still am. Later on he phoned to say that Old Shep, which he had been advised not to sing in the contest, had sold a million copies.”
There is another friend, Guy Harris, whose mother was particularly fond of the young Presley. He recalls finding his mother and Elvis asleep with their heads on the table when the singer had come back to visit and they had started talking about the old days. All these years on the stories have a standardised ring; they tell of a rural idyll, a Mark Twain America of creeks and swimming holes and a whupping from your Ma if you got back dirty. Yet they were dark times. It was a landscape scarred by the Depression. His mother drank. His father and uncle had served eight months in jail for fraud, and the family had to leave their house and move in with relatives.
In some respects the town is remarkably unchanged. After the collapse of the cotton industry it became a centre of furniture production. When that declined, its fortunes were expected to improve with the building of a new Toyota car plant — but then the present recession struck. The project was mothballed at the end of 2008, before the presses had been installed.
The Tupelo Hardware Company in the town centre looks just as it did on the day in 1946 when Elvis walked in with his mother. He wanted to buy a rifle and she wanted him to buy a guitar. She won. It cost $12.50, more than he had scraped together from odd jobs running errands, and she made up the difference. The story is related by the store manager, Howard Hite, behind the counter where the transaction took place. He is related by marriage to the original owner, William T. Booth.
David Wade, a veteran British tour operator who pioneered Presley-related trips to Tupelo, says that the strange thing is there are not more people in the town who remember the young singer. It leads him to the conclusion that the star was a loner from an early age. Go on into Tennessee, talk to members of the so-called Memphis Mafia who were around him in his final years, and it becomes plain that their function was as much to isolate him from the rest of the world as it was to keep him company. Perhaps loneliness was his natural condition, kept from view by the sheer size of his popularity and open-handedness.
Yet one man in Tupelo was clearly close to him. His name is Sam Bell and he, alone of contemporary witnesses from the town, is black. He and Elvis saw a lot of each other in the year before the Presleys left. Bell remembers going to the cinema, the Lyric. “I would go in the black side,” he says, “he would go in the white side, and then, when the movie was on and it was dark, he would climb over the barrier on to my side and sit on the floor so’s they couldn’t see him.” Bell was raised by his grandparents, who took a shine to Elvis. Presley even went to church with Sam and his family, the only all-white person in the congregation. “As a matter of fact, he thought he was black,” Bell says with a laugh. “He said his biggest mistake was that he wasn’t born black.”
During this time Elvis was crossing the railroad into the black community of Shake Rag. Here he heard black men and women singing the blues. When you add this to the influence of gospel and of country music stations coming out Nashville and the other southern towns, with their early intimations of rock’n’roll, you realise how wrong it was to credit Memphis with the making of him. It is often forgotten that all three Grammys won by this most versatile of singers were for his gospel recordings.
But what the producer Sam Phillips heard one night from behind the glass of his control panel at Sun Studios came from an earlier time. It was Elvis fooling around when he thought he wasn’t being recorded. That’s all right Mama, he sang, and he wouldn’t have been singing it in that way if he hadn’t heard the original version by the man who wrote the song in 1946, the black delta blues singer Arthur Crudup.
Why did it all end so sadly? Did this, too, have its origins in the small hours of his life? Why could no one help him? Up the road in the big city, Gerry Schilling, part of the “Mafia”, says: “He was a very hard guy to help. His role was to help you. When he was 40, it was kind of the end for him. He was a teenager to himself.”