Elvis Presley: The Early Years
By Christine Wilson
1935: Elvis is born
Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, on January 8, 1935, in a two-room shotgun house in East Tupelo, then a separate municipality that some called the “roughest town in north Mississippi.” Though poor, Elvis’s parents, Gladys and Vernon Presley, were not unlike many others in Mississippi at that time, for the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. The unemployment rate in the United States in 1935 was 20.1 percent.
Times were hard in the U.S., especially in the South, when Elvis Presley entered this world. To be born poor then was not unusual. What was unusual about Elvis at his birth is that he was a twin. His twin brother, Jesse Garon, did not survive, making Elvis what is called today a “twin-less twin.” Elvis was cherished by his family, but psychologists say that losing a twin can deeply affect the baby’s mother and the surviving twin. Elvis no doubt later yearned for a brother to help him through the rough spots of his life — of which there were many. Elvis later changed his middle name, Aaron, to Aron, to more closely match his twin’s middle name (Garon). Elvis’s mother — a strong and supportive presence in his life — told the young Elvis that a surviving twin gets the strength of both children, and all evidence indicates that, in this case anyway, she was right
The shotgun house Baby Elvis called home, the “Birthplace Home of Elvis Presley” in Tupelo, was built by his father, his uncle, and paternal grandfather. It is visited by thousands of people from all over the world. (“You can take this birthplace and put it in my living room at Graceland,” Elvis later said.) But what these thousands of visitors do not realize is that Elvis lived not only in that two-room shotgun but in houses all over Tupelo.
They lost the shotgun house in 1938 when Elvis’s father and two other men went to Parchman Farm — the Mississippi State Penitentiary— to serve eight months for altering a four-dollar check. Elvis and his mother moved in with relatives in Tupelo. His father’s imprisonment was traumatic to three-and-a-half-year-old Elvis, who, according to a cousin, would sit on the porch “crying his eyes out” for his daddy. Often Elvis and Gladys took the bus to Parchman on the weekends to visit him. After release from Parchman, Vernon, as a day-laborer, had to continue to support his mother as well as his family; as a consequence, the Presleys were to become renters, like many families, moving from one affordable space to another. The constant in their lives was church — Vernon and Gladys had met at the Assembly of God Church and they continued to attend church there, where music was becoming a big attraction to little Elvis.
The next year, at age four, Elvis, overhearing his parents fret about paying the bills, revealed his specific plans for looking after his family — in style. He announced for the first time (there were many similar announcements to come) that he was going to buy two Cadillacs, one for his mother and father and one for him.
1941: Elvis starts school
Elvis started elementary school at the East Tupelo Consolidated School on Lake Street. He was termed “sweet and average” by his teacher. His mother walked him the half mile to school each day. He got his first guitar lesson from Frank Smith, the new young pastor at the church they attended, and apparently Elvis took to these lessons more than he did those at school. A photograph taken in 1941 when he was six-years-old shows Elvis and his parents looking straight into the camera, not posing or smiling, but rather looking with pride toward the photographer. Gladys Presley has a look of optimism. Vernon Presley, a handsome man, is wearing a leather jacket, his large, strong hand draped around the shoulder of a thin, growing Elvis. The dashing Vernon may have been one of the inspirations for Elvis’ later flair. (Elvis and Gladys author Elaine Dundy reports that Elvis was also a huge fan of the comic-book superhero Captain Marvel Jr., and copied his hairstyle and outfits.)
Oleta Grimes, one of his teachers, was impressed by Elvis’ musical talent and took him to the principal, who entered Elvis, age ten, in a radio talent contest at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair. On the appointed date, Elvis surprised his mother by going onstage and climbing up on a chair to reach the microphone to sing “Old Shep” in front of several hundred people. He won fifth prize, according to Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick. The next year, when Elvis wanted a bicycle Gladys Presley talked him into a less expensive item, a guitar for $12.95 from the Tupelo Hardware Company, not only because of its price but also because the overly protective mother feared Elvis would hurt himself on a bicycle. He began taking the guitar with him to school every day, sometimes playing a little music — gospel music — for his friends.
1948: Elvis moves to Memphis
In the fall of 1948 the Presley family was on the move again, and this time they decided to leave Tupelo and go north, to the city of Memphis, Tennessee. It turned out to be a lucky move for an ambitious and musical young man. It was an optimistic time for the country: the Second World War was over, and unemployment was down nationally to 3.9 percent. For Elvis and other music lovers, 1948 was notable because Columbia Records introduced the 33 1/3 LP (“long-playing”) record.
In Memphis, after a time, the Presleys were able to get a downtown apartment through the housing authority at Lauderdale Courts, a 433-unit complex. They had plenty of room there, and Elvis made friends in this town full of music with other young people who were interested in music. Nearby were Beale Street and the Ellis Auditorium, offering national acts. The Handy Theatre was offering all the practitioners of “city blues” — Wynonie Harris, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and others — as well as jazz. The Blackwood Brothers, the top gospel group in America, had just moved to Memphis.
What music was not live in Memphis was on the radio. Famed disc jockey Dewey Phillips at WHBQ was playing blues as well as rhythm and blues, or R&B; B.B. (The Blues Boy) King was playing more blues at WDIA; the country blues — Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, and the rest — was coming in from West Memphis; and WHHM had country music covered.
At Humes High newcomer Elvis reinvented himself — or perhaps he was just being a teenager of the 1950s. He set himself apart, styling with such fashion elements as dress pants (often with a stripe down the side) a bolero jacket, and sideburns. Elvis was a contemporary of film actor James Dean, after all, and a huge fan of Rebel Without a Cause. He apparently shopped for some, if not all, of his clothes down on Beale Street.
He took his guitar to school there too — when some rough kids cut the strings on it, other classmates chipped in and bought him a new set. Elvis took more guitar lessons, tagged along with his guitar teacher and played in his band, had a steady girlfriend, and worked odd jobs after school and summers. Jerry Schilling, a friend of the teen-age Elvis, describes him as a “voracious reader,” “very spiritual,” and “a lovable rebel.”
1953: Elvis graduates high school
In April of 1953 Elvis performed as one of twenty-two acts in the Humes High “annual minstrel show.” In the first volume of his biography of Elvis, Last Train to Memphis, Peter Guralnick quotes him: “Nobody knew I even sang. It was amazing how popular I became after that.” Elvis graduated from high school that year and eventually got a job driving a supply truck for Crown Electric. In 1953, an armistice had ended the fighting in the Korean War, and unemployment was 3.0 percent.
In August 1953, eighteen-year-old Elvis went down to the Memphis Recording Service on Union Avenue, home of Sun Records and run by Sam Philips, friend of disc jockey Dewey Phillips, to make a record. Like Elvis, Sam Phillips was passionate about music, especially the music “that white people liked but weren’t sure whether they ought to or not.” Elvis cut a record that day for $3.95, and Phillips told him he’d call him back. Phillips didn’t call, though, and in 1954 Elvis went back and cut another record. On Saturday, June 26, 1954, Elvis got a call from Marion Keisker, who worked at Sun Records, in a story that is now world famous, asking if he could “be here by three.” “I was there by the time she hung up the phone,” Elvis said later.
That first session didn’t work out so well, but during July Elvis and guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black — after a slow start — hit on something while they were just fooling around. It was a speeded-up version of Mississippi crooner Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right,” and when Phillips heard it, he interrupted them, asking “What was that?” They could not tell him exactly, so they just played it again. It was exactly the music Sam Phillips had been looking for, although he had been unable to tell them how to get there.
Memphis DJ Dewey was sold on the music too, and when he played it on his Red, Hot, and Blue radio show at WHBQ, the listeners went wild. Dewey was kept busy on the telephone taking request after request for the song.
When the debut single of “That’s All Right” was released — with “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the flip side — it sold like crazy, and a national phenomenon was born. Elvis was nineteen.
The group appeared for the first time on the Louisiana Hayride, a live Saturday-night country music radio show, on October 16, 1954. The next year Elvis signed the now-famous RCA contract — for an unprecedented $40,000 — and RCA re-released the five Sun Records singles on its label.
1956: 60 million watch Elvis on TV
Several high-profile television appearances followed, and in the fall of 1956, Elvis performed twice on The Ed Sullivan Show. The first, on September 9, 1956, drew sixty million viewers, more than eighty percent of the national TV audience.
That year American teenagers began to buy the new portable transistor radios, a boon to spreading the new music, especially rock and roll, to young fans. When Elvis played the Mississippi-Alabama Fair in 1956, a hundred National Guardsmen were on hand to control the crowds of fans — especially the girls, who screamed out of control when Elvis sang. Scotty Moore told him why: “It was your leg, man. It was the way you were shaking your left leg.” Later a reporter asked Elvis if he thought he might get rid of some of that “wiggle,” and Elvis replied, “Well, sir, you take the wiggle out of it, and it’s finished.”
Elvis Presley went on to sell more than 500 million records worldwide and to revolutionize American popular music. Despite his fame — and a hot temper — his friend Schilling writes that Elvis chose “ninety percent of the time to be a nice guy.”
And, Elvis Presley kept the promise he made at age four — he bought his family a Cadillac and went on to buy many more. He never forgot his hometown of Tupelo, either: during the 1950s-60s he generously donated funds to create a ball park, swimming pool, and community center.
Christine Wilson is director of publications for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and managing editor of the Journal of Mississippi History, the quarterly publication of the Mississippi Historical Society.
That Somethin' Has Captivated Fans Over U.S.
By ROBERT JOHNSON
Press-Scimitar Staff Writer. February 5, 1955
One sultry night last July, Dewey Phillips flicked a turntable switch with one of his cottin' pickin' hands and sent a strange rhythmic chant spinning out from WHBQ. "Well, that's all right, Baby . . . that's all right, Baby . . ."
The record ended. Radio, like Nature, abhors a void, and Mr. Phillips hastens to fill the breach. "That'll flat git it," he said authoritatively.
That same night, Sleepy Eye John over WHHM loosed the other side of the record on his admirers ─ and the same voice which had been reassuring Baby now sang plaintive praise of "Blue Moon of Kentucky"
Time didn't exactly stand still, but something happened. Bob Neal of WMPS played the record too. The pop jockeys, entranced by something new, began slipping "That's All Right" and "Blue Moon" in among the more sophisticated glucose and bedlam of Teresa Brewer, Nat Cole and Tony Bennett. In less than a week, a momentous change began for a young teen-ager, working on an assembly line, who liked to sing and play the guitar.
His name: Elvis Presley.
Elvis' first record was on the Sun label of Sam Phillips' small but ambitious Memphis Recording Service, 706 Union. It wasn't the first time that Sam's Sun had created a good sized ripple in the frenzied circles of record business. Sam is largely responsible for a new trend in the field which the trade publications call R&B (for rhythm and blues) and country (or hillbilly) music, and for making Memphis the R&B capital, as Nashville is for rustic rhythm.
Within a Week
Within less than a week, Sam was frantically and happily trying to press enough copies of Elvis' debut platter to catch up wait a 6000 back-order which hit him before the record had even gone on sale, before it had been released in any market outside Memphis.
And overnight, a restricted but indubitable mantle of fame settled about Elvis, as the record went spinning out across the country ─ 100,000 . . . 200,000 . . . 300,000 . . . still going. Within a month, Elvis was invited to appear on hillbilly heaven, Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. Veteran entertainers kept him singing backstage, after the show.
On Juke Box Jury
The record was played on Juke Box Jury. "Blue Moon" had been written and first recorded some years earlier by a famous, Grand Ole Opry entertainer, Bill Monroe of Kentucky. Tennessee Ernie Ford, on the Juke Box Jury that night, drawled: "If ole Bill Monroe hears this, he'll just take his li'l ole country band and head back for the hills." Monroe himself, far from being offended, sent Elvis a note of thanks. After Elvis brought it out, six other companies made it with their stars.
Billboard gave Elvis' first record an 85 score, very high, on both sides. Over a 15 week period, only one other record in the same category had an equal rating, and that was by the established star, Webb Pierce. Sam Phillips still hasn't figured out which was the big side. "That's All Right" was in the R&B idiom of negro field jazz, "Blue Moon" more in the country field, but there was a curious blending of the two different musics in both.
Sun brought out two more Elvis records ─ "I Don't Care" and "Good Rockin' Tonight"; "Milk Cow Blues Boogie" and "You're a Heartbreaker." Billboard's annual poll of disk jockeys for 1954 landed Elvis in the list of Ten Most Promising artists on the strength of them. Ruben Cherry of Home of the Blues said: "Just three records, and every one has been a hit. People have come in to buy them who never bought records before."
Country music had been thought to have more appeal for older people, but the teen-agers picked up Elvis. All at once he had crowds screaming for him. He got a manager, Bob Neal, and a regular job on CBS Louisiana Hayride from Shreveport every Saturday night.
He had more money than he ever saw before. "I got my own office," he said. "It's listed in the phone book ─ Elvis Presley Enterprises, 160 Union."
He also has enough money to buy all the cheeseburgers he wants. When he has music on his mind, he forgets eating, then gets a terrific appetite which may demand eight cheeseburgers and three milk shakes at a sitting. To that new office of his come between 60 and 75 letters each day, most requesting pictures.
Elvis at first sent the pictures for free. Now he charges 25 cents for them: on mass orders they cost 8 cents each. In the past three months he has traveled more than 25,000 miles on personal appearances, played to crowds of 3000. He travels by car with his instrumental teammates ─ Scotty Moore, hot guitarist, and Bill Black, bass, both Memphians. Their schedule for one week ─ New Orleans, Friday; Shreveport, Saturday; Ellis Auditorium in Memphis Sunday; Ripley, Miss., Monday; Alpine, Texas, Thursday; Carlsbad, N.M., next Friday and Saturday. Elvis will be 20 this month, and things are moving fast.
Came From Tupelo
Elvis is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Presley, 462 Alabama. He spent his first 14 years in Tupelo, Miss. The music he heard was mostly negro, with some country influence from his parents' brothers.
When he was 13 Elvis bought a guitar for $12.95. He taught himself to play it, still doesn't read music. At Humes High, he lugged his guitar with him, played it with little urging at any time. The guitar he has now cost $175. He is still peevish about what happened. "The man gave me $8 on the trade-in," he said. "Then he threw it in the waste basket. Shucks, it still played good." Sam Phillips, who had been a WREC engineer seven years ago, had been scouting for talent on the side. He let it be known that he would listen to anyone who wanted to sing or play.
No Big Names
He still will ─ and that even includes children whose mothers think they have talent. "I've never made a record with an established star yet," he said. But Sam has some established stars. He listened to Jackie Brenston's group from Clarksdale, Miss., and recorded his first hit, "Rocket 88." This was genuine, untutored negro jazz, not the white man's music adapted by some of the famous negro musicians. Sam considers Ellington, Lunceford, etc., white man's music.
As word got around, Sam's studio became host to strange visitors. Negroes with field mud on their boots and patches in their overalls, came shuffling in with battered instruments and unfettered techniques. Most tried to impress him with white man's music. Sam out waited them, listened for a wisp of original melody, a happy sound or an unconventional riff. Beale Street boys came, in cool drapes, moaning melodies Handy never knew.
One Big Oversight
B.B. King of Memphis made "My Baby's Gone" and "3 O'Clock Blues" with Sam, his first commercial record. Sam overlooked getting a contract. He didn't forget when Elvis came along. There were Joe Hill Louis of Memphis; the Howling Wolf from across the river; Roscoe Gordon, and others, all introduced by Sam. Phillips brought out "Bearcat," with Rufus Thomas of WDIA, the first Sun Record, about two years ago. It sold 200,000, and he was in business. Since then he has brought out 32 records, now has distribution in every state.
Elvis lugged his guitar into the studio one Saturday afternoon, wanted to make a "personal" record. He sang pop ballads. Sam listened for several hours. "That's All right, Baby" resulted.
In a Class Alone
Sam doesn't know to catalog Elvis exactly. He has a white voice, sings with a Negro rhythm which borrows in mood and emphasis from country style. Marion Keisker, who is WREC's Kitty Kelly and Sam's office staff, calls Elvis "a hillbilly cat."
While he appears with so-called hillbilly shows, Elvis' clothes are strictly sharp. His eyes are darkly slumberous, his hair sleekly long, his sideburns low, and there is a lazy, sexy, tough, good-looking manner which bobby-soxers like. Not all record stars go over as well on stage as they do on records. Elvis sells.
If the merry go-round doesn't start spinning too fast for a 20-year-old, he'll end up with enough cheeseburgers to last a Blue Moon.
Spin 'em again boys.