Turns out the poor, humble little country boy done himself right good.
And most of his fans skip over that first part of his life. They prefer to remember the King of Rock ʼn’ Roll as he was after he achieved unrivaled fame as a global icon.
Graceland, Elvis Presley’s Memphis, Tenn., mansion, where his tragically young death occurred Aug. 16, 1977 (he was 42), receives six times as many yearly visitors as the Elvis Presley Birthplace in Tupelo, Miss. Second only to the White House, Graceland is the most visited residence in the nation.
But by foregoing a visit to Tupelo, less than 1 1/2 hours away, tourists forfeit insights into Elvis’ beginnings that are equally captivating — perhaps even more so, as they reveal the man’s true soul hidden behind the glitter, floodlights and celebrity gossip.
Elvis Aron Presley was born Jan. 8, 1935, to Vernon and Gladys Presley, who scratched out a hardscrabble existence throughout Elvis’ boyhood. His delivery succeeded by 35 minutes that of his identical twin brother, Jesse, who was stillborn.
His birthplace: a bed in a corner of the two-room shotgun house Vernon had built the previous year with a $180 loan. Shotgun houses were common among the impoverished in the South. They were narrow one-story buildings, not more than 12 feet wide, with adjoining rooms in a row, without hallways, and with outer entrances at the front and back. Each room was lit by a single light bulb.
The house was located in East Tupelo just off Pig Trot Trail “in a ragtag, poor-side-of-town district with more outhouses than trees,” according to roadsideamerica.com.
Three years after Elvis’ birth, the home was repossessed when Vernon could not repay the loan. Vernon and Gladys worked a variety of jobs, moving several times in Tupelo during the next decade before moving to Memphis when Elvis was 13.
The shotgun home still stands in its original location as a centerpiece of the Elvis Presley Birthplace, which also includes the plain wood-framed Assembly of God Pentecostal church Elvis attended in his youth, a memorial chapel, museum and several bronze statues.
The most representative likeness of a young Elvis is the impressionistic life-sized bronze statue of a 13-year-old Elvis depicted in oversized overalls, open-collar shirt and plain shoes, highlighting the poverty and humbleness of those early years. He is carrying the guitar his mother bought him at the local hardware store.
The statue was unveiled in August 2002 and remains one of the most popular photo opportunities at the site.
Brother Frank Smith, Elvis’ boyhood minister, said Elvis was always fascinated with music and guitar playing, particularly Southern gospel. Brother Frank taught Elvis the few chords he needed to play “Old Shep,” the song the 10-year-old sang in his first public radio performance from the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show. He took second in the youth talent contest, winning $5 in fair ride tickets.
Another statue depicts Elvis with mussed hair, oversized clothing and a hole in his sock, sitting on a milk crate and playing his guitar.
Elvis never forgot his beginnings. In 1956 and 1957, he returned to Tupelo to perform concerts at the county fairgrounds and donated the proceeds to the city for a new park. The money was used to purchase 15 acres — including the house where Elvis was born.
In 2021, Tupelo purchased the remaining land around the museum complex, locking it from modern encroachment and preserving the site’s humble rustic milieu, no doubt the way Elvis would have preferred.
Admittedly, the King wrestled demons, some of his own making, but he remained a humble and well-liked personage throughout his life.
Muhammad Ali, certainly no stranger to contrived bravado, extolled Elvis’ personality. “Elvis Presley was the sweetest, most humble and nicest man you’d want to know.”
Frank Sinatra also feted Elvis’ character. “There have been many accolades uttered about Elvis’ talent and performances through the years, all of which I agree with wholeheartedly. I shall miss him dearly as a friend. He was a warm, considerate and generous man.”
One reviewer on tripadvisor.com recounted a conversation with birthplace docent Nina Holcomb, who met Elvis several times. “There was never anything really sinful about whatever he did,” she said. “He was the nicest person you’d ever want to meet.”
But maybe the King himself said it best: “If you let your head get too big, it’ll break your neck.” He always carried a sense of gratitude and sincerely meant his oft-repeated tagline, “Thank you, thank you very much.”
The Elvis Presley Birthplace is located at 306 Elvis Presley Drive, Tupelo, Miss. For more information, call (662) 841-1245, fax (662) 690-6623 or visit elvispresleybirthplace.com.