Editor’s Note: Jan. 8 is celebrated as the birthday of the late Elvis Presley. This Thursday, the music icon would have been 74 years old.
As legend has it, Elvis Presley was cruising back into his hometown of Tupelo, Miss., for a benefit concert when he decided to take a look at the tiny shack where he was born. Seeing that the property was for sale, along with several parcels surrounding it, he asked the city of Tupelo to use funds from his show at the local fairgrounds to develop the property into a park for neighborhood children. That was in 1957.
Today, the serene attraction bears very little resemblance to the original landscape. Asked if the property was always so well-kept, the tour guide inside the birth home gives a look of shock, before confiding that this was never the desirable part of town. She is positioned inside the bedroom, about two steps from the front door, and she immediately begins telling the story of that fateful morning of Jan. 8, 1935, at 4:35 a.m. When she’s through, you can take about 10 steps and glance at the fixed-up kitchen area. And that’s the end of the birth home tour.
But the dioramas and archived photos inside the adjacent museum indicate that the whole neighborhood was then a seedy mess. All the decrepit houses around Presley’s birth home have long since been razed. Don’t be fooled by how cute the house looks now — the floor and roof were replaced, the furniture isn’t original and the newspapered walls are now adorned with a perky floral print. There was no electricity or bathroom, either.
Vernon Presley built the home as a teenager with help from his father and brother in 1934. Vernon’s wife, Gladys, gave birth here to twin sons, Elvis Aron and Jessie Garon, but Jessie was stillborn. Vernon had borrowed $180 from his employer to pay for the home but couldn’t pay it back. He was also imprisoned in 1938 for forging a $4 check. So, after two-and-a-half years in the house, the family was forced to move in with Vernon’s parents, who lived next door.
That situation didn’t last either, and the Presleys moved in and out of several homes in Tupelo over the next decade, including some in black neighborhoods, where Presley first absorbed R&B and blues music. The stories about those early years in Tupelo still linger. When he was 10, Elvis received his first guitar from Tupelo Hardware as a birthday gift from his mother. (He had originally wanted a bicycle or a rifle.) A year later, he won second place for singing “Old Shep” in a youth talent contest at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show at the Tupelo Fairgrounds. His earnings? Five dollars and free rides. Some of that cash may have been spent on cheeseburgers and RC Colas at Johnnie’s Drive-In. The restaurant and the hardware store are still in operation.
Elvis played that same guitar at a farewell concert for his classmates at Milam Junior High School just before his family moved to Memphis, when Elvis was 13. If you walk around the perimeter of the birth house, each of the 13 years are marked by granite blocks, noting something that happened to the family that year. A few steps away, a bronze statue called “Elvis at 13″ shows the young man wearing oversized overalls and carrying a guitar. The statue was commissioned by the Elvis Presley Foundation at the request of an Irish fan and stands as the most evocative photo opportunity on the grounds.
From there, things get a little weird. The neighborhood church where Vernon and Gladys met, which the Presley family attended frequently, was moved across the street in August and now rests inside the 15-acre park that encompasses the museum and birthplace. The pews aren’t original since the church had become a private residence at some point along the way, but the building itself remains firmly intact. A tour guide offers insight into the role of the church in Presley’s music — mainly that the minister, Frank Smith, taught Presley the D, A and E chords on the guitar and that the love of gospel music that Presley sang in this church never left him.
The tour guide then retreats to the corner as enormous screens slither out of slits in the ceiling, covering the old windows. By God, there’s gonna be church. With drawling confidences from local thespians, the lengthy multimedia presentation is intended to show visitors what an Assembly of God church service was like in the 1940s.
Once the screens zip back into the roof, tourists can drop by the memorial chapel for a glimpse of Presley’s original Bible. On the way to the museum, there’s a 30-foot wall engraved with remembrances by Presley’s friends and family. In the middle, a fountain flows with 13 spouts at the top, again representing the years he spent in Tupelo, with 29 more spouts on the ground to mark the remaining years of his life.
Aside from the revealing photographs and dioramas, the museum itself is noteworthy because the memorabilia (a few costumes, some photos, etc.) largely comes from the collection of longtime family friend, Janelle McComb. When he was 4, Elvis befriended McComb, who was about 11 years older, and they kept in touch after the Presleys moved to Memphis. When Elvis died in 1977, Vernon asked McComb to write the epitaph for his grave. The museum, which was updated in 2006, takes about 15 minutes to walk through, and unlike the trek through Graceland, nobody’s crying at the end. Instead, visitors are more likely to be quietly humbled to see how one of the world’s most famous entertainers came from such an unlikely place.