Fortunate Son: The Life of Elvis Presley

Fortunate Son: The Life of Elvis Presley

by Charles L. Ponce de Leon

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Elvis Presley was celebrity's perfect storm. His sole but substantial contribution was talent, a fact Charles L. Ponce de Leon is careful to demonstrate throughout his wonderfully contextual Fortunate Son. Even as the moments of lucidity necessary to exercise that talent grew rarer and rarer, Elvis proved his musical gifts right up to the end of his life.

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Elvis Presley was celebrity's perfect storm. His sole but substantial contribution was talent, a fact Charles L. Ponce de Leon is careful to demonstrate throughout his wonderfully contextual Fortunate Son. Even as the moments of lucidity necessary to exercise that talent grew rarer and rarer, Elvis proved his musical gifts right up to the end of his life. Beyond that, however, he was fortune's child. Fortunate Son succinctly traces out the larger shifts that repeatedly redefined the cultural landscape during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, using Elvis's life to present a brief history of American popular culture during these tumultuous decades.

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Fortunate Son

The Life of Elvis Presley

By Charles L. Ponce de Leon

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2006 Charles L. Ponce de Leon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70733-0


From Tupelo to Memphis

FIRST SETTLED BY WHITES in the 1830s, the wooded hill country of northeastern Mississippi was a magnet for aspiring yeoman farmers and their families for most of the nineteenth century. Boasting rich black soil, abundant stores of shortleaf pine and hardwoods, fish-laden streams, and plenty of game, it was an ideal locale for subsistence farming. Before the Civil War, it was a region with few slave owners, where farm families pooled their resources and worked tirelessly to eke out a crude but reasonably secure living.

After the war, the hill country was gradually transformed. Newly emancipated African-Americans, who had been clustered in the cotton-producing Delta, began moving into the area, hoping to acquire cheap land and become yeoman farmers. Railroads connecting the region to Memphis and the port of Mobile were constructed, and with the railroad came entrepreneurs eager to develop the region's resources. Cotton production expanded, and open, unowned lands used by yeomen for hunting, trapping, and the grazing of livestock were bought and enclosed by speculators and wealthy farmers seeking to enlarge their holdings. Forced to adapt to these developments, many yeomen began producing cash crops, especially cotton, to earn their livelihoods.

Over time, however, the price of cotton declined, and increasing numbers of farmers, black and white, became tenants and sharecroppers, renting their land from their well-to-do neighbors and buying, on credit, many everyday goods from merchants who charged them high rates of interest. As the price of cotton and many other staple crops continued to decline in the closing years of the nineteenth century, most tenants and sharecroppers fell into debt. And through new lien laws designed to benefit creditors, landlords and merchants gained a measure of control over the planting decisions of indebted farmers, which they used to ensure that tenants continued to plant cash crops and became even more dependent on them. In short, the commercial development of the hill country, like other areas of the South, resulted in the impoverishment of many of its inhabitants. Even worse, as these trends played themselves out in the 1880s and 1890s, they were accompanied by an upsurge of racial tensions and the passage of new Jim Crow laws that segregated the races and prevented blacks from exercising their voting rights.

By the early twentieth century, Tupelo, the seat of Lee County, had emerged as one of the region's most important commercial centers. Little more than a dusty crossroads before the Civil War, the town owed its growth to its location at the junction of two railway lines, which gave Tupelo's farmers and businessmen access to markets in four directions and inspired town leaders to establish one of Mississippi's first cotton mills. New neighborhoods were soon built, and the town gained several additional mills and factories, most of them tied to the cotton industry. Tupelo's growth encouraged many rural people to move to the town or to the farmlands on its edge, where they could work as tenants, farmhands, or unskilled laborers. By the 1930s over six thousand people lived within the city limits, and many more lived nearby and were enmeshed in its burgeoning economy. In the eyes of many observers, Tupelo was one of the jewels of the New South, a city that had begun to build an industrial economy out of a foundation in agriculture. It was the first city to be electrified by the Tennessee Valley Authority, and by the late 1930s it had all the hallmarks of an up-and-coming city: large, goods-laden department and variety stores, four hotels, numerous restaurants and taverns, two motion picture theaters, a radio station, public schools, parks, a city pool, and a municipal airport.

BUT FOR ALL its forward-looking features, Tupelo retained a rustic ambience and displayed many of the problems that plagued towns and cities in the early-twentieth-century South. Though one could find a job in Tupelo, even during the depths of the Great Depression, wages in the city, as in the rest of the South, were low, roughly 70 percent of what they were in the Northeast and Midwest. Competition for jobs was also intense, particularly since passage of the Agricultural Adjustment Act. This New Deal law, enacted in 1933, established a system of subsidies to landowners that paid them to take acreage out of production and led large numbers of tenants and sharecroppers to be turned off the land. The need for farm labor also declined as landowners purchased tractors, which enabled them to work their holdings far more efficiently—and with fewer hands—than in the past. These trends not only increased the numbers of applicants for jobs in the factories and mills; they encouraged even more people to move to Tupelo and put pressure on existing housing stock and local relief programs for the unemployed. The economic slump was especially hard on Tupelo's black residents, who made up nearly 40 percent of the population. Confined by law and social custom to segregated facilities and the most menial forms of employment, African-Americans in Tupelo lived in a poor neighborhood called Shake Rag. Most worked as unskilled laborers and domestic servants for middle-class white families. The state's Jim Crow laws were no doubt reassuring to many whites in Tupelo; they certainly kept blacks "in their place," subordinate to whites. But by limiting the aspirations of so large a portion of the city's population, they also limited Tupelo's potential for economic development and ensured that a majority of its residents, including most whites, would remain poor.

Thanks to the region's low wages and the difficulties faced by tenants and sharecroppers, many whites in Tupelo didn't live much better than their African- American neighbors. Aside from the city's entrepreneurial class of professionals, business owners, and well-to-do farmers, the most fortunate whites had jobs in the factories or mills. But during the Depression such jobs were difficult to acquire, and when workers at one of the largest cotton mills struck for higher wages in 1937, the mill's management closed it down, putting hundreds out of work and increasing competition for the jobs that remained. Far more than blacks, poor whites in Tupelo were able to take advantage of local public works jobs made possible by another New Deal agency, the Works Progress Administration. Wage levels for WPA jobs, however, were pegged to local standards and could hardly be counted on to lift a family out of poverty. And with so many people moving to Tupelo from the countryside, there was always somebody willing to work for less or willing to put up with conditions others found objectionable. The same squeeze prevailed in the housing market. By the mid-1930s large numbers of poor whites resided within the city limits, in squalid residential areas near the mills or adjacent to Shake Rag. Others lived on the fringes of town, in small, decrepit shacks they rented from farm owners, for whom they sometimes did odd jobs, including working in the fields during planting or the harvest. Across the railroad tracks was the most degraded residential area of all, the hamlet of East Tupelo, where several hundred sharecroppers and marginally employed unskilled laborers lived in crude shacks without running water or electricity.

It was in East Tupelo, just above Old Saltillo Road, in a crude two-room shotgun shack, that Elvis Aron Presley was born on January 8, 1935. Elvis's parents, Vernon and Gladys Smith Presley, were young, poor, and uneducated. Both had left school at an early age to enter the local labor market. Despite their poverty, Vernon and Gladys came from well-established families, and by all accounts Presleys and Smiths had lived in the region for several generations. Like so many other poor whites, the Presleys and the Smiths were drawn to Tupelo by the economic opportunities that proximity to the city afforded, and by the mid-1930s some of them were doing reasonably well. Vernon's uncle Noah, for example, owned a grocery store, drove the school bus, and would serve as East Tupelo's mayor, while Gladys's uncle Gains Mansell would soon become the preacher of the small Assembly of God church where young Elvis and his parents attended services. Other relatives lived close by and provided the young couple with material and emotional support throughout the early years of their marriage.

Gladys and Vernon were in many ways typical of young Tupelans their age. Born in 1912 on a farm in neighboring Pontotoc County, Gladys was dark, pretty, and vivacious, with an enterprising streak that led her to assume important responsibilities after her father died when she was twenty. When she met her future husband, she was working, alongside dozens of other young women from similar backgrounds, as a sewing machine operator at the Tupelo Garment Plant, a local factory that produced work shirts. Vernon, four years her junior, was quiet, even sullen, a hard worker but seemingly without ambition—not a surprising attitude given the hardships that poor young men like himself encountered as they grew to maturity and recognized the difficulties that lay ahead if they hoped to own their own farm or business, like Uncle Noah. He was very handsome, though, and it was his looks that first attracted Gladys.

They met at a church function and soon after ran off to a neighboring town where, lying about Vernon's age to the county clerk to make him appear older, they were married. She was twenty-one; he, only seventeen. When they returned home, they lived with friends and relatives. Gladys went back to work at the Tupelo Garment Plant until she became pregnant and medical problems forced her to quit. Vernon continued working as a laborer and sharecropper for a farmer named Orville Bean, who owned most of the land around East Tupelo and relied on families like Vernon's to work it for him. Bean later lent them $180 to buy the materials to build a small shack next to the slightly larger one where Vernon's parents, Jessie and Minnie Mae, lived. Constructed by Vernon, his brother Vester, and their father, the small house was completed in December 1934, and a month later Gladys gave birth to twins. The first, Jesse Garon, was stillborn and was buried in an unmarked grave in Priceville Cemetery, not far from the family's home. The second, Elvis, survived. As he grew up, he was taught to revere the memory of his twin and attribute his own survival to mystical forces that had marked him for a special destiny. In later years Elvis would occasionally visit his brother's grave and contemplate why God had decided that he—and not Jesse—should live.

The Presleys were a close-knit family. And, as an only child, Elvis was showered with attention. They were surrounded by kin who helped them when Vernon was between jobs or was forced to leave the area to secure employment, as he did on several occasions during the late 1930s and early 1940s. The focal point of their life was church and the religious revivals that were often held in Tupelo during the hot summer months before the harvest. The Presleys and the Smiths were Pentecostals, a relatively new denomination that had been popular in the South since the turn of the century. Derided by well-to-do evangelicals as "Holy Rollers," Southern Pentecostals venerated the Holy Spirit, and their faith was expressive and enthusiastic. Pentecostal services involved lots of singing, hand clapping, and emotional reveries in which congregants would speak in tongues. It was a faith that relied on the charismatic abilities of preachers. But with its emphasis on individual experience and the ability of the Holy Spirit to reach the soul of every person, no matter how lowly, it was also democratic and attractive to the poor, promising them deliverance from worldly travails. The Pentecostal movement was also distinctly biracial, and though the small Assembly of God congregation that the Presleys were a part of was all white, in keeping with social custom, the revivals drew blacks, too, and the regular services conducted by white preachers like Gladys's uncle were influenced by African- American religious practices. During the early decades of the twentieth century, the years of Jim Crow and white supremacy, the movement "remained almost uniquely open to exchange between blacks and whites," the historian Edward L. Ayers observes. Through its rituals whites like the Presleys were not merely exposed to black influences; they were immersed in a religious milieu in which black and white elements were hopelessly entangled, though few whites recognized this at the time.

A consoling faith like Pentecostalism was useful and compelling to the Presleys, especially when they were confronted with hard times. The young family experienced a severe blow in November 1937 when Vernon, Gladys's brother Travis, and another man were charged with altering a check from Orville Bean in order to buy a hog. Lacking money for bail, Vernon and Travis remained in jail until their trial and conviction in May 1938, when they were sentenced to three years at the notorious Parchman prison. Though Vernon was released in early 1939, in response to a petition from his neighbors and a letter from Bean, his eight-month absence was deeply unsettling to Gladys and their son. Without Vernon's income, they lost their house and had to move in with relatives. Gladys and little Elvis visited Vernon at Parchman on several occasions, enduring a five-hour bus ride in order to spend a couple of hours with him. Yet seeing his father in prison was traumatic for Elvis, and during Vernon's incarceration Elvis and Gladys became closer than ever, forging a special relationship that would endure for the next twenty years. Having Vernon taken away in this fashion upset Gladys, too. She began to worry constantly, even obsessively, about what might happen to Elvis if she let him out of her sight. The experience was particularly humiliating for Vernon. It sullied his reputation in Tupelo and made the Presleys more determined than ever to achieve a measure of respectability—to make it impossible for anyone to suggest that they were "white trash," a stigma that haunted even the most hardworking of poor whites in the early-twentieth-century South.

When Vernon returned from Parchman, he took a job with the Works Progress Administration as a laborer on a local sanitation project. The regular paychecks enabled the family to rent their own place and buy an old truck. As the United States geared up for war, and employers with defense contracts began hiring workers in increasing numbers, Vernon took jobs that required him to leave Tupelo during the week and return home only on weekends. This widened his horizons and made him aware of opportunities available to unskilled laborers outside the northeastern Mississippi hill country, in places like Memphis, Birmingham, and the port cities of Mobile and Gulfport. In 1943, at the height of wartime mobilization, he moved Gladys and Elvis to the Gulf Coast, where he took a job in a shipyard; homesick, they returned after a month. But with so many men in the service or working in distant cities, there were plenty of jobs in Tupelo—though none paid as much as unskilled work outside the region. Vernon was hired as a deliveryman for a local grocer, and with the addition of income he had earned from out-of-town jobs, the Presleys gained some economic security and were able to buy a small house on Berry Street in East Tupelo.

These were comparatively good years for the Presleys. With Vernon working close to home and Gladys supplementing the family's income by performing odd jobs that still allowed her to look after Elvis, the Presleys were able to put food on the table and provide their son with decent clothing and a few toys. Despite their limited means, they spoiled Elvis and encouraged him to feel special, the center of their little world. Eager to escape the harsh, often unfair judgments of their social betters, they raised him to be polite and deferential, and from an early age he made a good impression on teachers and other authority figures. He played with other children, at home and at school, but he was quiet and shy and often kept to himself. He remained very close to his mother, who always seemed to be watching out for him—and worrying when he was playing away from home. By the time he was twelve, he had already begun to chafe at the restraints she sought to place on his freedom, yet he was reluctant to assert himself. Grateful for the emotional security provided by his parents, he rarely strayed far from home or engaged in behavior he knew his parents would disapprove of. Elvis was a good boy, and his parents had every reason to believe that he would make them proud.


Excerpted from Fortunate Son by Charles L. Ponce de Leon. Copyright © 2006 Charles L. Ponce de Leon. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Charles Ponce de Leon teaches history at the State University of New York, Purchase, and is the author of Self-Exposure: The Emergence of Celebrity in America, 1890–1940.

Charles Ponce de Leon teaches history at the State University of New York, Purchase, and is the author of Self-Exposure: The Emergence of Celebrity in America, 1890–1940.

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