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Elvis Presley: Tupelo

From a jack to a king

Elvis Presley, Tupelo

Fans walk into the small home where Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, on August 14th, 2005.

Carlo Allegri/Getty

THE TWO-ROOM SHACK IS STILL THERE. The East Heights Garden Club looks after it. They make sure the grass is mowed and the bushes trimmed and the paint job respectable. They open the door for a few hours each afternoon, and you can walk through the tiny rooms for a quarter.

The night after Elvis died, people gathered in front of the shack and stared silently at the bouquets of flowers on the porch. The night was soft and moist, and the people spoke in whispers. A surprising number of the cars that pulled into the church parking lot across the street were campers and pickups. Larry Shaw stood off to the side, watching them come and go. He was 22 years old, blond and a local musician. “There’s been people here all night, from all over. You just missed a big shot, the guy who owns the big market down the highway. He was just here, payin’ his respects too,” Larry said. “You know, I keep thinking about little Elvis sitting out on that porch and fooling around with his guitar on a night like this, and his mama sitting in that porch swing there, listening to him. It’s hard to believe he started right there.”

A prim, middle-aged schoolteacher named Sara Wiygul and her daughter Mona, a college student, approached the house. Sara said she had gone to see Elvis at the Tupelo Fair in 1956. “I don’t like the way they’re saying now that he came from poor white trash,” she said, staring at the house. “They were poor all right, but they weren’t trash. If they were trash, he wouldn’t have gotten as far as he did.”

“What was it like at the fair in 1956?” I asked.

“Well,” she hesitated and smiled. “Very exciting.”

“Did people go wild?”

“Yes, I guess you could say they did.”

“Did you?”

“C’mon Ma . . .” Mona said.

“Well uh, not wild, but I enjoyed it.”

A bouncy woman named Pat Nichols, who had dropped by to collect her two sons, said she was also at the fair in 1956 and, “I screamed and hollered, and I’d do it again, too.” She had grown up in the neighborhood and her older brothers played with Elvis. “They all used to ride this pony we had named Dinah. Yes sir, we all grew up here in the ghetto together — and it was a ghetto then, too. Used to be a lot of shacks like this one, but they tore them down. Before they got fancy and started calling this area East Heights, they used to call it East Tupelo and it was the meanest part of town. They all was afraid to come over here, our boys was so mean. Not that they raped or murdered or anything. . . . We was just the most southern part of town, if you get what I’m saying,” and she drove off into the soft night as others arrived to stand vigil at the house.

The drowsy little town Pat Nichols remembered, dappled with loblollies and draped in kudzu vines, is long gone. Less than 6000 people lived in Tupelo when Elvis was born in 1935, and more than 27,000 do now. Even during the Depression, though, the town was a commercial center known for its civic boosterism and its relative moderation when it came to the race issue — clearly a town with a future if the times ever got better. In 1948, just before the boom times began, Vernon Presley found work in Memphis and moved there with his young family, part of the mass migration out of the rural South and into the big cities. But during the past 20 years, the migration has turned around and small cities like Tupelo have flourished. There is an air-conditioned shopping mall downtown now, a string of fancy hotels, an airport and even a couple of Chinese restaurants. Tupelo has become suburbanized and homogenized. If it weren’t for the barbecue stands along the highways, the preponderance of pickup trucks and the way the natives speak, it might easily be New Jersey.

Over in East Heights, most of the shotgun shacks (“You could stand in the front door and shoot a shotgun out the back door.”) have been replaced by graceful brick ranches where the new executives live. The First Assembly of God Church, which Elvis attended as a child, has moved from a shack to a modern, if modest, brick building. The young pastor, Dean Tilley, arrived in town only a few years ago, but he proudly leads visitors down to the basement to see the old pulpit where Elvis did his first singing.

Elvis once said, “We used to go to these religious singin’s all the time. There were these singers, perfectly fine singers, but nobody responded to them. Then there was the preachers and they cut up all over the place, jumpin’ on the piano, movin’ ever’ which way. … I guess I learned from them.” Pastor Tilley, who doesn’t seem quite the type to cut up, said things have calmed down a bit at the church. The Wednesday night revivals have been replaced by Bible classes. They still talk in tongues, though. “It’s language from heaven,” he explained. “You don’t roll around and lose control like some people think. You are perfectly conscious of what you are doing. I can stop it whenever I want, just by closing my mouth.”

The Presley house is just around the corner from the church, on what used to be called Old Saltillo Road but is now Elvis Presley Drive. Mrs. Virginia Boyd, an efficient, gray-haired woman, is the curator of the house. She is director of the East Heights Garden Club, which restored the house in 1971 and has maintained it since then. The club is the sort of organization that might have passed a resolution censuring Elvis 20 years ago, and Mrs. Boyd admits she wasn’t always a fan. “The rock ‘n’ roll movements were different, something we’d never seen before … but he was obviously a fine young man working hard to become successful in his career.”

On the morning they buried him in Memphis, Virginia Boyd opened the little house early and people began to file through. The tiny bedroom where Elvis was born and his twin brother died was in front, and the kitchen in the back, and that was all. On the kitchen table, the Garden Club was selling souvenirs: postcards, bumper stickers, plastic guitars, pennants. Just outside the door, the Tupelo Daily Journal was selling reprints of its special death front page with the banner headline, THE KING IS DEAD. Throughout the morning, florist vans brought flower arrangements, and Mrs. Boyd placed them on the front porch with the others. Several were shaped like guitars, and one was a blue telephone with the words, JESUS CALLING.

Behind the house was the cinderblock Elvis Presley Youth Center and the Elvis Presley Park, much of which had been donated by the man himself. According to the local kids, the youth center had been pretty much a bust in recent years. On this day, though, a Parks Department crew was setting up a podium and folding chairs for a memorial service that would be held in the afternoon. People began to arrive hours before the service was to start, and one of the first to sit down was Rosemary Coggin.

She was small and pert, with bright red hair and jade green eyes. She said she was a farmer’s wife and an Elvis fan from the start. “I was about ten years old when he hit it big. My daddy was a sharecropper — we lived in a house like that,” she said, pointing to the Presley house, “and so I couldn’t get an Elvis skirt and I couldn’t afford to see him at the Tupelo Fair, but I always felt he was singing to me. My mama disapproved of the gyrations, but eventually she came around. It’s funny — I was too young to understand that all those movements were sexy. They just felt good. Now I have daughters and they have crushes on Elvis. One of them said she wanted to put flowers on his grave. My husband doesn’t mind the way we feel; he understands.

“I remember I came in the other day and my boy says Elvis died and I thought he was kidding, and I was about to tell him you shouldn’t kid about things like that when it hit me that he might not be kidding. Then I felt like being alone and listening to his records, but I had to cook dinner. I wanted to grieve alone. That’s why I came here myself today, to grieve alone.”

Then she said, “You know, the Beatles made me feel left out. I got married young and I was pregnant when they arrived. And there they were with their neat little hair and their neat little suits, and there I was all fat and everything. But Elvis never made me feel left out. He always made me feel like I was as pretty as Priscilla. He made a lot of us feel that way. I don’t know if you Northerners can ever really understand how it was for us down here. …”

Rosemary was right. Elvis’ whole routine — part choirboy and part outlaw — had always made more sense in the South. In a way, he and Mississippi had grown up together: from poverty to anathema to commercial respectability in 20 years. Mississippi just seemed a bit more comfortable with respectability than Elvis had.

The Tupelo memorial service was as respectable as those things get — a parade of ministers and politicians — and therefore not very moving. The only good part was when Larry Montgomery, a uniformed policeman, sang “Love Me Tender” and “Precious Memories.” It was a bright, hot afternoon, but not unbearable. The crowd was large, but not overwhelming. The mood was respectful, but there were few tears. Rosemary Coggin had brought a whole box of Kleenex with her, but didn’t use a single one.


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