Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presleyby Peter Guralnick, J. Charles
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Elvis Presley has been one of the most vivid & enduring myths of American culture. This is the first biography to go past that myth & present an Elvis beyond the legend. Based on hundreds of interviews & nearly a decade of research, it traces the evolution not just of the man but of the music & of the culture he left utterly transformed, creating a completely fresh portrait of Elvis & his world. This volume tracks the first 24 years of Elvis life, covering his childhood, the stunning first recordings at Sun Records, & the early RCA hits. These were the years of his improbable self-invention & unprecedented triumphs, when it seemed that everything that Elvis tried succeeded wildly. But in 1958, he was drafted into the army & his mother died shortly thereafter. The book closes on that somber & poignant note. Drawing frequently on Elvis own words & on the recollections of those closes to him, Guralnik offers an emotional, complex portrait of young Elvis Presley.
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TUPELO: ABOVE THE HIGHWAY
VERNON PRESLEY was never particularly well regarded in Tupelo. He was a man of few words and little ambition, and even in the separate municipality of East Tupelo, where he lived with his family "above the highway," a tiny warren of houses clustered together on five unpaved streets running off the Old Saltillo Road, he was seen as something of a vacant, if good-looking, even handsome, ne'er-do-well. East Tupelo itself was separated by more than just the geographical barrier of two small creeks, corn and cotton fields, and the Mobile & Ohio and St. Louis & San Francisco railroad tracks from the life of a parent city which was hailed in the 1938 WPA Guide as "perhaps Mississippi's best example of what contemporary commentators call the 'New South.' "East Tupelo, on the other hand, was a part of the New South that tended to get glossed over, the home of many of the "poor white" factory workers and sharecroppers who could fuel a vision of "industry rising in the midst of agriculture and agricultural customs" so long as the social particulars of that vision were not scrutinized too closely. "Over the years of its existence and even after its merger with Tupelo [in 1946]," wrote a local historian, "East Tupelo had the reputation of being an extremely rough town. Some citizens doubt that it was worse than other small towns, but others declare it to have been the roughest town in North Mississippi. The town had its red light district called 'Goosehollow.'... By 1940 the tiny community of East Tupelo was known to have at least nine bootleggers."
In 1936 the mayor of East Tupelo was Vernon Presley's uncle, Noah, who lived on Kelly Street above the highway, owned a small grocery store, and drove the school bus. Noah's brother, Jessie, Vernon's father, was relatively comfortable as well, if not as upstanding a member of the community. He owned his own home on Old Saltillo Road, just above Kelly Street, and he worked fairly steadily, even if he had a reputation as a hard drinker and a "rogue." Vernon, by way of contrast, showed little drive or direction. Though he worked through the Depression at a succession of odd jobs (milkman, sharecropper, WPA carpenter, day laborer), he never really seemed to make a go of it, and he never seemed to particularly care about making a go of it either. Closemouthed, recessive, almost brooding at times, "dry" in the description of his friends, Vernon did appear to care deeply about his little family: his wife, Gladys Smith, whom he married in 1933; his son, Elvis Aron Presley, who was born on January 8, 1935; the twin, Jesse Garon, whom they had lost. He built a home in preparation for the birth, a two-room shotgun shack next to his parents' four-room "big house," with the help of his father and his older brother, Vester (who in September 1935 would marry Gladys' sister Clettes). He took out what amounted to a mortgage of $180 from Orville Bean, on whose dairy farm he and his father occasionally worked, with the property remaining Bean's until the loan was paid off. There was a pump and an outhouse in the back, and although East Tupelo was one of the first beneficiaries of the TVA rural electrification program, the new home was lit with oil lamps when he and Gladys moved in in December 1934.
Gladys Presley, everyone agreed, was the spark of that marriage. Where Vernon was taciturn to the point of sullenness, she was voluble, lively, full of spunk. They had both dropped out of school at an early age, but Gladyswho had grown up on a succession of farms in the area with seven brothers and sisterstook a backseat to no one. When she was twenty, her father died, and she heard of a job at the Tupelo Garment Plant that paid two dollars a day for a twelve-hour workday. There was a bus to pick up the girls who lived out in the country, but not long after starting work she decided to move to town, and she settled herself and her family on Kelly Street in the little community above the highway, in East Tupelo, where her uncles Sims and Gains Mansell already lived and Gains co-pastored the tiny new First Assembly of God Church that had sprung up in a tent on a vacant lot. That was where she met Vernon Presley. She saw him on the street, and then she met him at a typically charismatic, "Holy Roller"-type church service. In June 1933 they ran off with another couple and got married in Pontotoc, Mississippi, where Vernon, still a minor, added five years to his age and claimed to be twenty-two, while Gladys reduced hers by two, to nineteen. They borrowed the three dollars for the license from their friends Marshall and Vona Mae Brown, with whom they moved in for a short time after the marriage.
Gladys had a difficult pregnancy and toward the end had to quit her job at the Garment Plant. When she came to term, Vernon's mother, Minnie, a midwife named Edna Martin, and one other woman attended her until the midwife called the doctor, sixty-eight-year-old William Robert Hunt. At about four in the morning of January 8, he delivered a baby, stillborn, then thirty-five minutes later another boy. The twins were named Jesse Garon and Elvis Aron, with the rhyming middle names intended to match. Aron (pronounced with a long a and the emphasis on the first syllable) was for Vernon's friend Aaron Kennedy, Elvis was Vernon's middle name, and Jesse, of course, was for his father. The dead twin was buried in an unmarked grave in Priceville Cemetery, just below Old Saltillo Road, and was never forgotten either in the legend that accompanied his celebrated younger brother or in family memory. As a child Elvis was said to have frequently visited his brother's grave; as an adult he referred to his twin again and again, reinforced by Gladys' belief that "when one twin died, the one that lived got all the strength of both." Shortly after the birth both mother and child were taken to the hospital, and Gladys was never able to have another baby. The physician's fifteen-dollar fee was paid by welfare.
Elvis grew up a loved and precious child. He was, everyone agreed, unusually close to his mother. Vernon spoke of it after his son became famous, almost as if it were a source of wonder that anyone could be that close. Throughout her life the son would call her by pet names, they would communicate by baby talk, "she worshiped him," said a neighbor, "from the day he was born." He was attached to his father as well. "When we went swimming, Elvis would have fits if he saw me dive," Vernon recalled. "He was so afraid something would happen to me." And Gladys told of a house fire in East Tupelo, when Vernon ran in and out of the burning building trying to salvage a neighbor's belongings. "Elvis was so sure that his daddy was going to get hurt that he screamed and cried. I had to hold him to keep him from running in after Vernon. I said right sharp, 'Elvis, you just stop that. Your daddy knows what he's doing.'" Elvis' own view of his growing up was more prosaic. "My mama never let me out of her sight. I couldn't go down to the creek with the other kids. Sometimes when I was little, I used to run off. Mama would whip me, and I thought she didn't love me."
In that respect, and in every other, there was not much out of the ordinary about the young Presley family. They were a little peculiar, perhaps, in their insularity, but they were active in church and community, and they had realistic hopes and expectations for their only child. Vernon was, in his own view, a "common laborer," but Gladys was determined that her son would graduate from high school.
In 1937 Gladys' uncle Gains became sole preacher at the Assembly of God Church, which was now housed in a modest wood-framed structure on Adams Street built primarily by Gains. Many in the tiny congregation later recalled a very young Elvis Presley throwing himself into the hymn singing with abandon, and Gladys liked to tell how "when Elvis was just a little fellow, not more than two years old, he would slide down off my lap, run into the aisle and scramble up to the platform. There he would stand looking at the choir and trying to sing with them. He was too little to know the words... but he could carry the tune and he would watch their faces and try to do as they did."
It was shortly thereafter that the life of the Presley family was forever changed, or at least diverted from what might have been a more predictable course. Vernon, Gladys' brother Travis, and a man named Lether Gable were charged on November 16, 1937, with "uttering a forged instrument" altering, and then cashing, a four-dollar check of Orville Bean's made out to Vernon to pay for a hog. On May 25, 1938, Vernon and his two companions were sentenced to three years in Parchman Farm.
In fact, he remained in prison for only eight months, but this was a shaping event in the young family's life. In later years Elvis would often say of his father, "My daddy may seem hard, but you don't know what he's been through," and though it was never a secret, it was always a source of shame. "It was no big disgrace," said Corene Randle Smith, a childhood neighbor. "Everyone realized that Mr. Bean just made an example of him, and that he was on the up-and-up, except maybe that one little time." But it seemed to mark, forever, Vernon's view of himself: few enough saw him as a solid provider before this incident; he could no longer see himself in that role in its aftermath.
During the brief time that he was in prison, Gladys lost the house and moved in briefly with her in-laws next door. There was no love lost between Gladys and Jessie, though, and soon mother and child moved to Tupelo, where Gladys lived with her cousins Frank and Leona Richards on Maple Street and got a job at the Mid-South Laundry. The Richards' daughter, Corinne, retained vivid memories of the forlorn mother and son. When Elvis played ball with the other children out in the street, Corinne said, Gladys was "afraid that he would get run over. She didn't want him out of her sight. She had always been lively, but after [Vernon] went to prison she was awful nervous." To writer Elaine Dundy, Leona recalled Elvis sitting on the porch "crying his eyes out because his daddy was away." On weekends Gladys and her son frequently rode the Greyhound five hours each way to visit Vernon at Parchman.
Vernon, Travis, and Lether Gable were released from jail on February 6, 1939, in response to a community petition, and a letter from Orville Bean requesting sentence suspension. The Presleys continued to live with Gladys' cousins for a brief time, and all three experienced what Leona Richards called "action nightmares," sleepwalking episodes that none could recall in the morning. They soon moved back to East Tupelo, going from one small rented house to another.
In 1940 they moved briefly to Pascagoula, Mississippi, near Biloxi on the Gulf Coast, with Vernon's cousin Sales and his wife, Annie, and their children. Vernon and Sales had found work on a WPA project to expand the Pascagoula shipyards, and the two families stayed six or eight months until Sales and Annie announced that they were heading home. Vernon bravely declared that he thought he and his family would stay, but he caught up with Sales on the road before Sales and Annie had gotten very far, and both families headed back to Tupelo together. They moved in for a time with Vernon's brother, Vester, and his wife, Clettes (Gladys' sister), then continued the cycle of temporary jobs and even more temporary abodes, with the First Assembly Church serving increasingly as their social as well as moral focus. In the fall of 1941 Elvis started school at the seven-hundred-pupil East Tupelo Consolidated (grades 1 through 12), on Lake Street, across Highway 78, about half a mile away. Every day Gladys walked Elvis proudly to school, a small towheaded youngster accompanied by his dark-haired, flashing-eyed mother, the two of them clasping hands tightly when they got to the highway, a picture of apprehensive devotion.
"Though we had friends and relatives, including my parents," Vernon recalled, "the three of us formed our own private world." The little boy was as insular in his way as his parents. Apart from family, his few friends from that period have painted him as separate from any crowdthere are no recollections of a "gang," just isolated memories of making cars out of apple crates, playing out behind someone's house, going fishing once in a while with James Ausborn, who lived over by the school. "Mrs. Presley would say to be back at two, and he'd get worried, keep looking at the sun, say, 'I believe it's about two o'clock. We better go.' "He was a gentle boy, his father said; "[one time] I asked him to go hunting with me, but when he answered, 'Daddy, I don't want to kill birds,' I didn't try to persuade him to go against his feelings." Once he learned to read he loved comic books; they captured his imagination he loved the brightly colored pages and the forceful images of power and success. "Elvis would hear us worrying about our debts, being out of work and sickness," his mother recollected proudly, "and he'd say, 'Don't you worry none, Baby. When I grow up, I'm going to buy you a fine house and pay everything you owe at the grocery store and get two Cadillacsone for you and Daddy, and one for me.'" "I [just] didn't want him to have to steal one," said Vernon.
For the most part he failed to distinguish himself in any way. At school he was "an average student," "sweet and average," according to his teachers, and he himself rarely spoke of his childhood years, except to note that they had not been easy and, occasionally, to recall moments of rejection. With his father, toward the end of his life, he reminisced about the time Vernon had taken him to see his first movie, "and we couldn't let the Church know anything about it." The picture that you see of him with his third-grade class shows a little boy standing apart, arms folded, hair neatly combed, his mouth inverted in that familiar pout. Everyone else the Farrars, the Harrises, Odell Clarkseems connected somehow, grouped together, smiling, arms around each other's shoulders. Elvis stands apartnot shunned, just apart. That is not the way any of his classmates ever remembered it, but it is how the picture looks.
There are a multitude of semiapocryphal stories from these years, most based on the kind of homely memories of childhood that any of us is likely to possess: who focuses upon the classmate who is out of the picture, why should anyone have noticed Elvis Presley in particular or committed to memory his every utterance, noted his views on issues of the day, or even imagined that he would ever come to anything? The war was going on, but it seems never to have impinged upon memories of growing up in East Tupelo, except, perhaps, to have provided opportunities for employment. In 1942 Vernon worked on the construction of a POW camp in Como, Mississippi, forty miles from Memphis. The following year, like so many other men looking to help out their family, he actually moved to Memphis, to work in a munitions plant, and that is where he stayed throughout the war, coming home only on weekends. "I'd tramp all over town looking for so much as a single room. I'd find one, and first thing they would ask is, 'You got any children?' And I'd say I had a little boy. Then they'd shut...the door." On August 18, 1945, with the war barely over, Vernon used the savings that he had accumulated from his war work to make a down payment of two hundred dollars on a new home on Berry Street, once again owned by Orville Bean, and around the same time, with his cousin Sales' sponsorship, became a deacon in the church. This was undoubtedly the high point of the Presleys' life in East Tupelo.
Obviously this is not the whole picture, but in the absence of time travel, what collection of random snapshots could provide one? One of the most common stories to have made its way down through the years is that the Presleys formed a popular gospel trio who sang in church, traveled about to various revival meetings in the area, and generally stood out in people's memories as a foreshadowing of what was just over the horizon. It is not difficult to understand where the story would come from: the Presleys, like every other member of the small congregation, did sing in church; they did go to revival meetings; Vernon and Gladys most likely sang "quartet-style" with Sales and Annie in church and at home. But the story that they formed any kind of traveling trio is most likely not true. As Elvis himself said in a 1965 interview, "I sang some with my folks in the Assembly of God church choir [but] it was a small church, so you couldn't sing too loud," and he told Hollywood reporter Army Archerd that he "trioed" with his mother and fatherbut only as part of that same congregation. There is no mention on his part of anything resembling "professional" experience and no credible contemporary witness in the face of relatives (Corinne Richards), childhood friends and neighbors (Corene Randle Smith, whose mother was Elvis' Sunday school teacher), and the minister who taught him to play guitar (Frank Smith, Corene's husband) who recalled otherwise or found the suggestion highly implausible.
What is not only plausible but clearly the case is that Elvis himself, on his own and without reference to anyone else's dreams, plans, or imaginings, was drawn to music in a way that he couldn't fully express, found a kind of peace in the music, was able to imagine something that he could express only to his mother. Still, it must have come as a surprise even to Gladys when Elvis Presley, her shy, dreamy, oddly playful child, got up and sang in front of an audience of several hundred at the age of ten at the annual Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show at the Fairgrounds in the middle of downtown Tupelo.
It came about, evidently (though here, too, the story is unavoidably muddled), after he sang "Old Shep," the Red Foley "weeper" about a boy and his dog, at the morning prayer program at school. His teacher, Mrs. Oleta Grimes, who had moved in two doors down from the Presleys on Old Saltillo Road in 1936 and was, not entirely coincidentally, the daughter of Orville Bean, was so impressed by his singing that she brought him to the principal, Mr. Cole, who in turn entered the fifth-grader in the radio talent contest sponsored by local station WELO on Children's Day (Wednesday, October 3, 1945) at the fair. All the local schools were let out, teachers and children were transported to town by school bus and then marched from the courthouse lawn down the hill to the Fairgrounds, where they were guests of the fair. A prize was given to the school with the greatest proportional representation, and there were individual prizes in the talent contest, from a $25 war bond down to $2.50 for rides. The five-day-long fair included a livestock show, cattle auctions, mule- and horse-pulling contests, and poultry competition, but the Duke of Paducah and a Grand Ole Opry Company which included Minnie Pearl and Pee Wee King were advertised as well. Annie Presley, Sales' wife, recalled the fair as the highlight of both Presley families' social year, when the two couples would share a baby-sitter and go out together for the fair's last night.
The newspaper did not cover the children's contest or even list the winner of the competition. Over the years there have been a number of claimants to the throne, but to Elvis Presley it mattered little who actually won. "They entered me in a talent show," he said in a 1972 interview. "I wore glasses, no music, and I won, I think it was fifth place in this state talent contest. I got a whipping the same day, my mother whipped me for somethingI don't know, [going on] one of the rides. Destroyed my ego completely." Gladys gave a more vivid account in 1956, minus the whipping. "I'll never forget, the man at the gate just took it for granted I was Elvis' big sister and sold me a schoolkid's ticket same as him. Elvis had no way to make music, and the other kids wouldn't accompany him. He just climbed up on a chair so he could reach the microphone and he sang 'Old Shep.' "He probably had his picture taken in the western booth, too, just as he would two years later, complete with cowboy hat, chaps, and western backdrop. Although, somewhat surprisingly, there seems to have been little awareness of his triumph among friends and classmates, and he evidently did not sing at the fair again, Elvis always spoke of the event, without embroidery, as the first time he sang in public, and the whipping is a more convincing detail than the conventional story, which has Vernon listening in on the contest on his delivery-truck radio.
It was not long after the contest that he got his first guitar. The chronology can be argued any way you like (and has been), but it appears likely that he got the guitar for his eleventh birthday, since in all of Elvis' own accounts and in most of the early publicity accounts as well he sang unaccompanied at the fair simply because he did not have a guitar. In many of those same accounts he was supposed to have gotten the guitar as a birthday present, and the 1956 TV Radio Mirror biography has him getting his first guitar the day after a storm which frightened Gladys and him (the tornado of 1936 had been a traumatic event that literally flattened Tupelo, killing 201 people and injuring more than 1,000). In fact there was a small tornado on January 7, 1946, the day before his eleventh birthday. In any case Elvis wanted a bicycle, he said, and the only reason he ended up with the guitar was because his mother was worried that he might get run over, not to mention the fact that the guitar was considerably less expensive (he got the bicycle not long afterward anyway). "Son, wouldn't you rather have the guitar?" Gladys concluded. "It would help you with your singing, and everyone does enjoy hearing you sing."
His uncle Vester, who played frequently in honky-tonks and at country dances and had a great appreciation for country music, and Gladys' brother Johnny Smith taught him a few chords, but it was the new pastor, twenty-one-year-old Frank Smith, who provided the greatest influence. Smith, who had come to Tupelo from Meridian, Mississippi, for a revival in early 1944 and then returned to stay when he married the Presleys' fifteen-year-old neighbor Corene Randle later that year, distinctly recalled the little boy coming to him with the guitar he had just acquired. "I always played the guitar, and I guess he picked up some from that, because a couple of years [after Smith's arrival] he got a guitar and really applied himself. He bought a book that showed how to place your fingers in position, and I went over to his house a time or two, or he would come to where I was, and I would show him some runs and different chords from what he was learning out of his book. That was all: not enough to say I taught him how to play, but I helped him." From his newfound knowledge Elvis started playing for the "special singing" portion of the service, although Smith had to call him up to get him to perform. "I would have to insist on him [getting up there], he didn't push himself. At the special singings we might have someone do a Blackwood Brothers type of quartet number, different ones in the church would get up or maybe somebody visiting would sing, but there were no other kids to sing with him at that time. He sang quite a few times, and he was liked."
Smith put no particular stock in music other than to glorify the Lord and never found it anything but painful to have to dredge up the memory of teaching an eleven-year-old how to play the guitar when this was scarcely relevant to his life's work. Yet even to him Elvis' commitment to music was clear-cut, not just from his singing in church but from the trips that he, the Smiths, and many other East Tupeloans would make to town on Saturday afternoon to attend the WELO Jamboree, a kind of amateur hour which was broadcast from the courthouse. "A whole crowd went down, grown-ups and kids. You got in line to perform, it was just something to do on Saturday. And he would go to the radio station to play and singthere was nothing to highlight him, really, he was just one of the kids."
WELO had begun broadcasting on South Spring Street, above the Black and White dry goods store, on May 15, 1941. There were a number of local talents involved in starting up the station, including Charlie Boren, its colorful announcer, and Archie Mackey, a local bandleader and radio technician who had been instrumental in establishing Tupelo's first radio station, WDIX, some years earlier, but the hillbilly star of the station in 1946 was a twenty-three-year-old native of Smithville, some twenty miles to the southeast, Camel Lee Ausborn, who went by the name of Mississippi Slim. Ausborn, who had taken up guitar at the age of thirteen to pursue a career in music, was inspired by Jimmie Rodgers, though Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb became almost equal influences in the forties. Probably his greatest influence, however, was his cousin Rod Brasfield, a prominent country comedian, also from Smithville, who joined the Opry in 1944 and toured with Hank Williams, while his brother, Uncle Cyp Brasfield, became a regular on the Ozark Jubilee and wrote material for Rod and his comedy partner, Minnie Pearl. Though Mississippi Slim never attained such heights, he traveled all over the country with Goober and His Kentuckians and the Bisbee's Comedians tent show and even played the Opry once or twice, largely on the strength of his cousin's connections. Just about every prominent musician who passed through Tupelo played with Slim at one time or another, from Merle "Red" Taylor (who furnished the fiddle melody for Bill Monroe's "Uncle Pen") to college-bound youths like Bill Mitchell (who in later life, after a career in politics, would win many national old-time fiddle contests), to weekend pickers like Slim's uncle Clinton. "He was a good entertainer," recalled Bill Mitchell, "put on a pretty good show, love songs with comedy (he came from a family of comedians)it was a pretty lively show. The people really enjoyed it." In addition to a regular early-morning program on weekdays, Slim had a noontime show every Saturday called Singin' and Pickin' Hillbilly that served as a lead-in to the Jamboree, on which he also appeared. This was where Elvis first encountered the world of entertainment.
Archie Mackey's memory was of a young boy accompanied by his father. "Vernon said that his boy didn't know but two songs," said Mackey, another Jamboree regular, who claimed that he had Elvis sing both, with Slim accompanying him on guitar. Some have suggested that Slim was reluctant to play behind an "amateur" and that announcer Charlie Boren practically had to force him to do so, while others have sought credit for first carrying Elvis to the station. It's all somewhat academic. Like everyone else, he was drawn by the music and by the show. He was not the only child to perform, though according to Bill Mitchell most of the others were girls. And, it seemed, none of the others felt it like he did.
"He was crazy about music," said James Ausborn, Slim's kid brother and Elvis' schoolmate at East Tupelo Consolidated. "That's all he talked about. A lot of people didn't like my brother, they thought he was sort of corny, but, you know, they had to get a mail truck to bring all his cards and letters. Elvis would always say, 'Let's go to your brother's program today. Can you go up there with me? I want him to show me some more chords on the guitar.' We'd walk into town on Saturday, go down to the station on Spring Street [this was the broadcast before the Jamboree], a lot of times the studio would be full but my brother would always show him some chords. Sometimes he would say, 'I ain't got time to fool with you today,' but he'd always sit down and show him. Then maybe he'd sing him a couple of songs, and Elvis would try to sing them himself. I think gospel sort of inspirated him to be in music, but then my brother helped carry it on."
Music had become his consuming passion. With the exception of a couple of playmates who shared his interest, like James, or who might have looked up to him for it, no one really noticed. His uncle Vester, who said that his mother's people, the Hoods, were "musicians out of this world," never noticed the transformation. Frank Smith saw him as one of the crowd, not really "eager" for music "he just liked it." Even his parents might have missed this development in their closely watched son: "He always knew," said Vernon, as if he and Gladys had ever doubted, "he was going to do something. When we didn't have a dime, he used to sit on the doorstep and say, 'One of these days it'll be different.'"
If you picture him, picture someone you might have missed: a wide-eyed, silent child scuffling his feet, wearing overalls. He stands in line in the courtroom, waiting his turn to tiptoe up to the mike. His small child's voice carries a quavering note of yearning other children get up and do letter-perfect recitals, big burly men frail on their beat-up guitars, but Elvis cradles his like a bird. After the broadcast is over, as the crowd slowly dissipates, the little boy hangs around on the outskirts of the group, watching Mississippi Slim and the other musicians pack up. He walks out behind them onto the courthouse square, with the statue of the Confederate soldier facing the Lyric Theater, the movie house that he and his friends never go to because it costs fifteen cents, a nickel more than the Strand. He hangs around on the edge of the crowd, nervously shifting from one foot to the other, desperately sidestepping every offer of a ride back to East Tupelo. He is waiting for an invitation, and in his determination to wait he shows the kind of watchful perseverance that is the hallmark of his solitary style. Maybe his friend James will say something to his brother, will suggest that they go off and have a Nehi together. Meanwhile he hangs on every word that is spoken, every glance exchanged: talk of the music, talk of the Opry, what cousin Rod Brasfield had to say the last time he was in town.
He soaks it all in. While others allow themselves to be distracted, his nervous attention never wanders; his fingers are constantly drumming against his pants leg, but his gaze bores in on the singer and the scene. Does he hang around with Slim? It's hard to imagine where. He dreams of being Slim. He dreams of wearing a western shirt with fancy pockets and sparkles and a scarf around his neck. Slim knows all the Opry stars. He knows Tex Ritterthe boy has heard the story a dozen times, but he doesn't mind if he hears it one more time from James: how Tex Ritter was making a personal appearance over in Nettleton with one of his movies, and Slim said to his little brother, "You want to go? You talking all the time about Tex Ritter, I'll show you that me and him is friends." So they went over to Nettleton, where Tex played a few songs before they showed his film, and then he signed some autographs. He had his six-guns on. Then all of a sudden he looked out and said, "I'll be damned, there's old Mississippi Slim sitting out there in the front row," and he stopped everything he was doing and went out and shook his hand. Then he said, "You come on right up here, and why don't you do a song for us." When he shook James' hand, James thought his hand was going to break, that was the kind of grip old Tex Ritter had. That was exactly the way it happened.
"I took the guitar, and I watched people," Elvis recalled, "and I learned to play a little bit. But I would never sing in public. I was very shy about it, you know." Every Saturday night he would listen to the Opry. He and Gladys and Vernon, his cousin Harold (whose mother, Rhetha, has died and who lives with them part of the time), maybe Grandma Minnie, too, now that Grandpa has lit out and she is living with them mostlyyou had just better not run down the battery before the Saturday-night broadcast. The adults laugh and exchange glances at some of the jokes and tell half-remembered stories about the performers: Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb, the Willis Brothers and Bill Monroe, here's that Red Foley to do "Old Shep" that Elvis sung at the fair. The music can carry you off to faraway places. But no one really knows. Daddy loves him. Mama will take care of him. There is nothing in his life that they do not know except for this. It is his secret passion.
IN THE SUMMER of 1946 the Presleys moved from East Tupelo to town. Vernon was not able to keep up payments on the Berry Street house and sold itor transferred the paymentsto his friend Aaron Kennedy. They moved first to Commerce Street, and then to Mulberry Alley, virtually next to the Fairgrounds and opposite Tupelo's teeming black quarter, Shake Rag, which abutted the Leake and Goodlett Lumberyard, on East Main Street, where Vernon worked. The house was just a shack, one of three in the little alley, but it was moving into town that was the real comedown. In East Tupelo the Presleys had risen to a level of respectability that they might never have expected to attain. They were at ease among family and friends who shared the same background and experience. In Tupelo they were scorned, like virtually anyone from above the highway, as poor white trash. To Ernest Bowen, whose father's woodworking shop was just across the alley and who had only recently gone to work as city salesman for L. P. McCarty, a wholesale grocer, the Presleys were the kind of family who moved every time the rent came due. When Vernon went to work for L. P. McCarty delivering groceries to all the little corner stores in the surrounding region, Bowen's opinion was not improved any. "He had no ambition whatsoever. It didn't bother him if they threw him out of his little househe's going to get another one. Many times the salespeople would get together and would give samples, canned food, to Vernon. He was a sorry sort, what we call a real ne'er-do-well." Bill Mitchell, on the other hand, who got his first real job around this time, also driving for L. P. McCarty, and who, like Bowen, had tangential musical connections with Elvis (Bowen became the longtime general manager at WELO within a few years of the Presleys' departure for Memphis, while Mitchell recalled playing fiddle behind the boy in Mississippi Slim's band on the Jamboree), remembered Vernon's kindness and taciturn nature as well as his blinding lack of ambition.
It's doubtful if either ever really knew Vernon or his family: certainly they would have had no way of imagining their hopes and dreams, and for all the pictures that we get of Vernon as an improvident loafer, there appears never to have been a time that he was not working or actively in pursuit of work. He supported his mother, after all, and he had taken in Gladys' sister's boy. When Elvis went to visit his cousin Willie Wileman (Willie's grandmother was Minnie's sister, and he was later to become a versatile and well-known musician in the Tupelo area), he was the sophisticated city cousin. From Willie's point of view: "All of us were country kids. We wore overalls, and he wore pants and a shirt. We would ride bicycles togetherhe would always get out and mix and mingle. But he was a city dude!"
In the fall of 1946 Elvis started a new school, Milam, which went from grades 5 through 9 and was about half a mile from Mulberry Alley. He failed to make much of an impression on any of his sixth-grade classmates, but that would hardly have been surprising, irrespective of social status, given Elvis' own cautious, watchful nature. Despite Willie Wileman's testimony, in the sixth-grade-class picture he is the only child in overalls, the only one visibly struggling to put on a happy postwar face, the only one whose expression gives any harbinger of a different kind of future. He looks curious, optimistic, at ease with himselfbut no more a part of the group picture than he was in the earlier school snapshot. His seventh-grade classmate Roland Tindall moved to town himself from Dorsey, Mississippi, the year before and had encountered the same sort of dislocation. "It was unbelievable, the change, from leaving all my friends, the people I had grown up with and known from well, you just knew everyone. Then, to come to Tupelo and have three classes of one grade, I mean in this time you can't really comprehend it. I wanted to go back to the country." To Elvis it was altogether bewildering and, at the same time, no more bewildering than anything else that was happening in his life. He was watching, he was waitingbut he didn't know for what.
The Presleys moved around some in the next year, and Gladys went back to work at the Mid-South Laundry. By the time Elvis started the seventh grade, they were living on North Green Street, closer to school and in a respectable enough neighborhood, but in a respectable colored neighborhood. Unlike Shake Rag, which had a Catfish Row kind of appearance and was destined to be obliterated in the first urban renewal project to be carried out in the state of Mississippi, in 1968, North Green Street ran right up against one of the "better," more exclusive, white sections of town and consisted, for the most part, of neatly kept one- and two-family homes. Although the house that they rented was designated as one of two or three "white" houses in the area, they were surrounded by black families, black churches, black social clubs, and black schools (the Lee County Training School, where Ben Branch taught music for years before moving to Memphis and joining the Stax horn section, was just down the hill). To friends and relatives this was a matter of some note this was not South Tupelo, for example, where all the mill workers and factory hands livedand not all of their old friends came to visit the Presleys in their new home, but it was nothing so shocking or out-of-the-way that it would prevent Gladys' sister Lillian and her family from occupying the same rental when Gladys and Vernon left.
It was in his seventh-grade year that Elvis started taking his guitar to school every day. Although teachers in later years would recall the early manifestations of a child prodigy, many students viewed his playing more dubiously, dismissing it with the same faint wrinkle of distaste with which they would greet déclassé fare of any sort ("hillbilly" music and "race" music probably fell into the same category in this regard). Others, like Roland Tindall, admired him for what they saw almost as a declaration of faith. "Elvis would bring his guitar to school, as far as I know, from the very beginning of the school year. At that time the basement of Milam was like a recess area, you went there during lunch hourit was all open down there for the children to stay out of the wet and cold. Many times Elvis and a boy named Billy Welch would play and sing down there, and we would stay inside just to hear them. Once in a while Elvis might perform for an activity period in the classroom, but only occasionally, because those type of children didn't believe in country music and that was what he sang. He told us he was going to the Grand Ole Opry. Not bragging: he just made the statement." "He brought his guitar to school when it wasn't raining," said James Ausborn, Mississippi Slim's brother, who had recently moved to town himself. "He'd bring his guitar swung over his back and put it in his locker till lunchtime. Then everybody would set around, and he would sing and strum on that guitar. All he talked about was music- not the Opry so much as gospel music. That was what he sung mostly."
A classmate, Shirley Lumpkin, told Elaine Dundy, author of Elvis and Gladys, "The nicest thing I can say about him was that he was a loner," and another classmate, Kenneth Holditch, recalled him to Dundy as "a sad, shy, not especially attractive boy" whose guitar playing was not likely to win any prizes. Many of the other children made fun of him as a "trashy" kind of boy playing trashy "hillbilly" music, but Elvis stuck to his guns. Without ever confronting his denigrators or his critics, he continued to do the one thing that was important to him: he continued to make music.
Neither Roland nor James ever visited Elvis at his home on North Green Street, although James continued to go to the radio station with him and, occasionally, to the movies. Roland, by his own account, was not a social person. "All the socializing I did was at school, but we were very close friends there. At Christmastime in the seventh grade he gave me a little truck, and he gave Billy something of a similar sortit was one of his own toys. I remember that impressed me, that he wanted to do something so badly that he would give us one of his toys when he couldn't afford anything else."
Frank and Corene Smith visited shortly before the Presleys left Tupelo for good, but by then they, too, had fallen somewhat out of touch with their old parishioners, and Vernon and Gladys were not attending church as regularly either. Because the house that they were renting was clearly reserved for white people, to the Smiths the Presleys "were not living in the black community," a distinction that Vernon and Gladys would certainly have made themselves, but a distinction that might have been lost in a real sense on their twelve-year-old son. Living across Main Street from the jumble of crooked alleyways and tumbledown shacks that made up Shake Rag, he would have to have sensed something of the life, he could not have missed the tumultuous bursts of song, the colorful street vendors' cries, he would have observed it all with intense curiosity, and he might have envied the sharp flashes of emotion, the bright splashes of color, the feelings so boldly on display. But he was forever sitting at the gate; there was no entry point for a stranger, there was no way in.
On North Green Street, "Elvis aron Presley" (as he signed his library card that year) was like the "Invisible Man" he was the boy who lived in Dr. Green's house, he belonged, he had business there. For the first time he was truly in the midst of another world, a world so different that he might as well have stepped right onto the movie screen, and yet he was an unseen, and unsuspected, presencelike Superman or Captain Marvel, unprepossessing in their workaday disguises, but capable of more than anyone could ever imagine, he was just waiting for the opportunity to fulfill his destiny.
You walked by the Elks Club just off Green, where a small combo that patterned itself on Louis Jordan might be playing "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens," or Jimmy Lunceford or Earl "Fatha" Hines might stop in after playing a dance at the Armory on the Fairgrounds downtown. You walked by a bar and barely heard the wailing of the jukebox over the noise of men and women drinking and gambling and signifying the sounds of love. On weekends the churches would be jumping, in a fashion not dissimilar to an Assembly of God congregation when it started speaking in tongues, but with a joyfulness and a sense of celebration, an expelling of emotion that was embarrassing for a closeted young boy to see at close handit seemed sometimes as if they were in the throes of a kind of passion that was not meant to be revealed in public.
Several times a year, in warm weather, a slightly moth-eaten, crudely patched tent would be erected on a vacant lot on the east side of Green for a revival: Friday night, Saturday night, all day Sunday, people would come from all over, dressed up in their finest regalia, the women in pink and yellow and hot fuchsia, wearing fantastic feathered boa hats and carrying their weight without apology, the preachers preaching without anything to hold them back, getting lost in their Bible, chanting, breathing, snorting rhythmically, gutturally, breathlessly, until their voices soared off into song. You didn't have to go inside to get the feeling the sound, the sense, the allure, were all around you. You only had to walk up the street and the street was rocking. Well-to-do white college boys and their dates would come out for the show on Saturday night there was really nothing like it, you had to hand it to the colored people, they really knew how to live. The college boys were strictly tourists, though. If you lived on North Green Street, you breathed it in, as natural as airafter a while you got used to it, it became yours, too, it was almost like being in church.
In the fall of 1948 Elvis started school again. Sometime in the first month or two, a few of the "rougher-type" boys took his guitar and cut the strings, but some of his eighth-grade classmates chipped in and bought him another set. When he announced in the first week of November that he and his family were leaving for Memphis, the other children were surprised but not shocked. People like the Presleys moved all the time. On his last day of school, Friday, November 5, a classmate named Leroy Green recalled to writer Vince Staten, he gave a little concert. The last song he sang was "A Leaf on a Tree" and, according to Green, "most people wouldn't believe this, but I went up to him and I told him, 'Elvis, one of these days you're gonna be famous.' And he smiled at me and said, 'I sure hope so.'"
They moved on a Saturday, Vemon explained, so that Elvis wouldn't miss a day of school. "We were broke, man, broke," Elvis declared in later years, "and we left Tupelo overnight. Dad packed all our belongings in boxes and put them in the trunk and on top of a 1939 Plymouth [actually a '37]. We just headed for Memphis. Things had to be better." According to Gladys: "We'd been talking about moving to Memphis. One day we just made up our minds. We sold off our furniture, loaded our clothes and things into this old car we had, and just set out." Elaine Dundy posited in Elvis and Gladys that Vernon Presley was fired by L. P. McCarty for using the company truck to deliver bootleg whiskey, but Gladys' cousin Corinne Richards recalled prior discussion of the move and saw it as part of a family migration, soon to be joined by other Presleys and other Smiths. In any event, Tupelo was a dead end. What they were looking for in Memphis might have been difficult to articulate, but what they were seeking to escape was perfectly clear. "I told Elvis," said Vernon, "that I'd work for him and buy him everything I could afford. If he had problems, he could come to me and I'd try to understand. I also said, 'But, son, if you see anything wrong going on, promise me you'll have no part of it. Just don't let anything happen so that I'd have to talk to you between bars. That's the only thing that would break my heart.'"
"There were times we had nothing to eat but corn bread and water," recalled Vernon not long before he died, "but we always had compassion for people. Poor we were, I'll never deny that. But trash we weren't .... We never had any prejudice. We never put anybody down. Neither did Elvis."
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Meet the Author
Peter Guralnick has been called "a national resource" by Nat Hentoff for work that has argued passionately and persuasively for the vitality of this country's intertwined black and white musical traditions. His books include the prize-winning two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love. Of the first Bob Dylan wrote, "Elvis steps from the pages. You can feel him breathe. This book cancels out all others." Of the biography as a whole, the New York Times Book Review declared in a lead review, "It must be ranked among the most ambitious and crucial biographical undertakings yet devoted to a major American figure of the second half of the twentieth century." Other books include an acclaimed trilogy on American roots music, Sweet Soul Music, Lost Highway, and Feel Like Going Home; the biographical inquiry Searching for Robert Johnson; and the novel, Nighthawk Blues. His latest book, Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, has been hailed by the San Fransisco Chronicle as "monumental, panoramic...an epic tale told against a backdrop of brilliant, shimmering music, intense personal melodrama, and vast social changes." He is currently at work on a biography of Sam Phillips.
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