Elvis Fans Mark 75th Birthday at His Beginning
January 8, 2010The simple white shotgun shack where Elvis Presley was born is so tiny it could easily fit inside a single room in the opulent Graceland mansion where he spent his final years - maybe in the Jungle Room with its green-carpeted ceiling.
On Friday, Elvis' 75th birthday, much of the focus was on Graceland, the international tourist attraction in Memphis that has become synonymous with the legend since his death in 1977. About three thousand people commemorated the event with his former wife, Priscilla Presley. But hundreds of fans converged on his birthplace in northeastern Mississippi for a different perspective on the man who reshaped popular music by blending elements of black and white, blues and bluegrass, gospel and rockabilly to become arguably its most popular figure, the King of Rock 'n' Roll.
The 15-by-30-foot home in Tupelo, built in 1934 by Presley's father, grandfather and uncle, was on the poor side of town, and his family only stayed in the home until Presley was 2 1/2 because they couldn't afford the payments.
"We are presenting the unknown Elvis, the little boy Elvis," says Dick Guyton, director of the foundation that runs the Elvis Presley Birthplace in Tupelo, a city of 36,000 that sits 100 miles southeast of Memphis.
Visitors to Graceland are loaded onto vans at a visitors' center, driven to the mansion and moved through in herds with a recorded tour on individual headsets. In Tupelo, only a few people at time can walk through the wood-framed home where Presley and his stillborn twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley, entered the world on Jan. 8, 1935.
"It's just so tiny. Inconspicuous as a start, really," says 34-year-old Emma Daubert of Cameron, N.C., who recently visited with her parents, husband and daughter.
The boyhood home sits on a 15-acre site that includes a museum, a gift shop, a chapel with elaborate stained-glass windows, a statue of 13-year-old Elvis and, since 2008, the Assembly of God church the Presley family attended.
When Presley was a boy, Vernon Presley had trouble keeping a job and spent time in prison. Presley's mother, Gladys, had a hard life and kept close watch on her only surviving son, says Guy Harris, a boyhood friend of Presley. The Presleys lived several different places in Tupelo before Vernon moved the family to Memphis in 1948; 13-year-old Elvis played guitar for friends on his last day at Tupelo's Milam Junior High.
Harris, a 71-year-old retired police officer who still lives near Tupelo, says "there wasn't a bit of difference" in Presley before he became famous and after. Presley came back to his hometown several times to visit friends.
"He never did seem like he was on a higher level than us," Harris says.
The Harrises and the Presleys were so close that Harris' mother was in the room with Gladys when the Presley twins were born, he says. Harris says he, Presley and another friend, Odell Clark, liked to run in the woods and swim in a creek when they were children. Every fall, they'd go to the final Saturday night of the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show in Tupelo.
One year after the Presleys had moved to Memphis, teenagers Harris and Clark were getting ready for the fair and they heard a knock.
"I went to the door and it was Elvis," Harris recalls. "I said, 'Boy, what are you doing?' And he said, 'It's the last Saturday night of the fair isn't it? I come to go with you.'"
Presley returned to Tupelo more before he became famous than after. He gave concerts at his hometown fairgrounds in 1956 and 1957. Guyton, who's four years younger than Presley, never met the singer but attended both concerts.
"He was a hometown boy. And I think that, more than anything, made it exciting for a lot of us," Guyton recalls. "Now certainly, I think the girls had other reasons for being excited."
Presley donated money from the 1957 concert to the city so it could buy his birthplace and surrounding acres, which were then up for sale. He wanted municipal leaders to use the space as a park - and Guyton says Presley was miffed that those plans never fully lived up to expectations.
A local garden club started restoring the tiny home in the mid-1970s, and opened it to the public. The birthplace now gets about 60,000 paying visitors a year and about another 20,000 who simply wander the grounds for free, Guyton says. Admission to the house, museum and church is $12 for adults and $6 for children. Elvis Presley Enterprises says Graceland gets about 600,000 visitors a year.
Guyton most visitors to the birthplace are serious fans who already know about Elvis' career - his music, his movies, his leading ladies. In Tupelo, they learn about his early life, including his love of gospel music.
The one-room church was carefully moved up a hill from its previous location, and it was restored with simple wooden pews and a series of movie screens that are lowered from the ceiling along the front and side walls. A film recreates what services were like in the 1930s and '40s.
The small museum shows short films that give context to the Depression-era poverty in which Elvis started his life.
Artifacts include a photo of 10-year-old Elvis with other children who participated in a talent show at the 1945 Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show. He sang "Old Shep" and won $5 for second place.
The museum displays the last silk scarf Presley is believed to have autographed and tossed to a fan at his final concert on June 26, 1977, in Indianapolis. The woman who received the scarf, Mary Diane Abshier of Spencer, Ind., died several years ago, and her husband, Allen, mailed the it to the birthplace.
The museum also features a collection of 1970s clothing and photos from the late Janelle McComb, a Tupelo woman who was 13 years older than Presley and became one of his close friends in the final years of his life.
Guyton says he believes the over-the-top opulence - the big collars, the lacy shirts, the fancy cars - were Presley's reaction to having grown up in poverty. With money, anything went.
"That was ultimately his demise," Guyton says. "Nobody could say no to anything he wanted."
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