Visiting the birthplace of Elvis Presley the past two days gives me a new perspective into the life of the greatest entertainer in history.
For some reason, even realizing Elvis didn’t live in his birth house very long, I somehow equated that iconic two room house with all of his childhood.
The Presley’s were poorer than poor. They were desperate.
As President of the Texas Chapter of the Official Elvis Presley Fan Club in the mid to late 1970s, I had a bit of an inside advantage gathering information for writing articles back then.
I was fortunate to briefly interview Elvis, a life changing event for 20 year old me, in 1976. But I was also blessed to meet and interview Harold Loyd (Elvis first cousin) and Charlie Hodge (friend who lived at Graceland).
Meeting Uncle Vester Presley, first cousin Billy Smith, girlfriend Linda Thompson, a cook in the kitchen, and a secretary in the office out back, was an honor, but did I not interview them.
Although I’ve ventured to Graceland at least a dozen times, this was my first visit to Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo. It’s a wonderful experience as it offers a less rushed and more reflective environment. In many ways it’s more meaningful as it allows the serious fan (or researcher) to understand Elvis at a deeper level: his roots and childhood.
I’d bring donuts and coffee or hamburgers to the front gate guard house at Graceland in ’76. During the middle of the night Loyd explained that his mother, Rhetha, and Gladys were sisters from a family of eight siblings. During the interviews, Loyd remained loyal and protective of Elvis. He would skirt around any questions that might place his cousin in a bad light. In 1992, he clarified what he would not dare reveal during the 1976 conversations.
‘Our grandparents, the father and mother of our mothers, were Bob and Doll Smith’, Loyd said. ‘We were about as poor as you’ve ever seen and Grandma was sick with TB (tuberculosis) most of the time. Grandpa Smith sold moonshine to make ends meet because there were no jobs and Grandma needed help to be cared for, especially with all those eight kids’.
“Grandpa died when I was three-years-old (in 1931).” Loyd recalled. “Everybody tells me Momma and Aunt Gladys were as close as any two sisters could ever be-very close.”
“And even though they were young and moved out of the house just to survive, they stayed close to each other. Well, when Grandma died, the same year Elvis was born (1935), it was kind of a relief for the two sisters.”
“Not many people know this, but Aunt Gladys was a singer too,” Loyd smiled. “She was always doing odd jobs, being a maid and looking after children, so she could buy material to sew clothes for her brothers and sisters. She was always taking care of everybody. She sewed nightgowns for her mother who had to stay in bed all the time with TB.”
“But her favorite thing was just to sing and dance,” Loyd added. “Grandpa would let Aunt Gladys and my mother go to the dance hall there in Tupelo and everybody tells me could do every dance there was at the time: the Charleston, Lindy Hop, Jitterbug.”
“And her voice was just amazing. She would sing all the time. That is some of my best memories, listening to Aunt Gladys sing and sometime Elvis and I would sing with her. It’s no wonder he was the best ever singer.”
In 1976, the public did not know about Vernon being imprisoned for a a forged check. The information did not come out until after Presley’s death, as the few family members that did know, kept it very quiet to protect his image. In 1992, Loyd was able to set the record straight:
‘What I couldn’t tell you was that Vernon was in jail’, Loyd revealed. ‘He was sent to the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, but that was after he already spent six months in the Tupelo.”
“Travis Smith, the brother of mine and Elvis’ mothers, along with Vernon and a man named Lether Gable got involved in selling a hog to someone but was only paid $4-not at all what the hog was worth in them days—so Vernon got mad and put a ‘1’ in front of the ‘4’ or a ‘0’ behind the ‘4’ to make it either $14 or $40′.
“Uncle Travis told me Uncle Vernon just downright forged a check, so I heard the story both ways,” laughed Loyd. “Anyways, Vernon spent some good time in prison and Elvis was just a little one about three to five years old.”
Vernon and Gladys Presley chose Elvis’ middle name to honor their friend and church song leader Aaron Kennedy.
Kennedy claimed the check that landed Vernon in prison was not altered but forged by putting a blank check over Orville Bean’s and tracing his writing on to it.
“Doll” Smith was buried next to her husband Bob, both in unmarked graves just like others who couldn’t afford a tombstone, including Elvis’ twin brother Jesse Garon Presley.
So like Elvis did in 1958 at age 22, Gladys lost her mother when she was only 23.
Although Gladys had really been on her own since her father died (she was just 19), she acted as the default mom because of Doll being bedridden from tuberculosis for many years.
Other notes from Tupelo:
The day before Elvis’ first birthday, his great Uncle Noah Presley was elected Mayor of East Tupelo. His brother, Jesse (who helped his sons Vernon and Vester build the two room shotgun house Elvis would be born in) was proud that Noah was elected and was hopeful the Presley name might raise some in stature in the community.
But when his son Vernon, Gladys’ brother Travis, and Lether Gable were indicted for forgery on November 16, 1937, Jesse was very upset.
Vernon was terrified of his father’s temper. Known as “J.D.,” he’d often get into bar brawls and come home drunk when Vernon was young. When they moved into their new house in December 1934, Gladys was just a few weeks away from giving birth to the twins. The house was a nice Christmas present and her mother-in-law, Minnie was helpful, but she knew Jesse ruled the roost.
Their house was built next door to her in-laws, making it the fifth house in the tight area. They shared a common outhouse. Around the corner from their address at 306 Old Satillo Road, Vester and Clettes Presley and their daughter Patsy lived on Reese Street.
A veteran of WWI, Jesse drifted from job to job sharecropping and lumberjacking in Mississippi, Missouri and Kentucky until he married Minnie Mae Hood on July 20, 1913. Vernon was her first born.
A very proud man, J.D. would walk around town in an expensive ($24) suit and cane trying to appear dapper.
J.D.’s brother, Calhoun Presley once noted that “Jessie worked hard and played hard. He was an honest man, but he enjoyed drinking whiskey and was often involved in drunken bar brawls.”
“He paraded around town like a peacock, with his head in the air and a cane in his hand. Owning expensive clothes was his only ambition in life. He hated poverty and he didn’t want people to know he was poor. He felt that if he wore a tailor-made suit, people would look up to him.”
To make matters worse, J.D. farmed and lived on Orville Bean’s land. Bean was the man Vernon forged the check on.
With son Vernon now in prison after spending almost six months in Tupelo jail, J.D. became resentful towards Gladys. She and Elvis resorted to moving out to stay with her first cousin Frank Richards.
Vernon was imprisoned until a month after Elvis’ fourth birthday. Released on February 6 1939, Vester and Clettes took them in to their small Reese Street home.
Vernon was granted a six-month suspension of his sentence, on condition of continued good behavior. This leniency is the result of a “petition of the citizens of Lee County and on a letter from Mr. O. S. Bean, the party on whom the checks were forged.” The document is signed by Governor Hugh White.
Evidently, if Vernon ever was angry with Orville Bean, he didn’t seem to hold a grudge as he bought a new house from him in Tupelo in 1945.
Note: Elvis’ fifth-grade teacher, was Oleta Grimes, Orville Bean’s daughter. And it was Grimes who was so impressed with Elvis’ classroom performance of ‘Old Shep,’ she took him to the school Principal, Mr Cole. , and again Elvis sang ‘Old Shep’. They made sure he was entered a few weeks later at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show, in Tupelo. He came in 5th place.
By 1942, they moved to Kelly Street, in a rented, small apartment. While Vernon was away helping to build a prisoner of war camp for the WPA, Gladys was admitted to hospital. According to nurse Leona Moore, who was working at the Tupelo hospital at the time, “The truth is she had a miscarriage.”
On May 15, 1943, Vernon came back and moved his family to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, for the WPA work. They went with Vernon’s cousin Sales Presley his wife Annie and their daughter. They resided in Pascagoula, a port near Biloxi at the southernmost tip of Mississippi on the Gulf of Mexico. The returned back to Tupelo on June 20.
Records show that from August 8, 1945 to July 18, 1946, they lived on Berry Street. With 4 rooms now, Minnie Mae Presley moved in. J.D. had left her and moved to Kentucky. The price was $2000, with a down payment of $200 and monthly installments of $30 plus 6% interest.
In 1946 they moved to a rental on
Commerce Street. It was just eleven months after purchasing the house on Berry Street.
Vernon transfers the deed over to friend Aaron Kennedy for $3,000 to avoid foreclosure proceedings. Immediately, Aaron Kennedy gives Orville Bean a deed of trust, which is the same thing as a mortgage.
For a brief time they move back to Gladys’ cousin Frank and his wife, Leona Richards at 510 1/2 Maple Street, in South Tupelo.
In 1947 they lived on Mulbery Alley and by 1948, as Elvis enters 8th grade at Milam Junior High School in September, they lived at 1010 North Green Street, in the Shakerag section of Tupelo. Their house was designated for whites only in a respectable “colored” neighborhood.
“Almost decided overnight,” Elvis explained years later, the Presley’s packed what they owned in a 1939 Plymouth and moved the 80 miles northwest to Memphis, Tennessee.
Elvis Presley Birthplace Today
I had mixed feelings when we walked up to the park in front of the Tupelo City Hall to see the famous statue of Elvis entitled “The Hands.” Someone has climbed on top and tied a cloth mask around his head. We drove miles and I’ve waited since 2012 (when it was dedicated) to see it. If younger, and it hadn’t been raining so hard, I would have climbed up and removed it.
The Elvis Birthplace itself was a beautiful and touching experience. We returned again our second day to spend time around the small lake, waterfall “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” and water fountains.
The area, at the end of the parking lot is called “Reflections.”
Other highlights of our Tupelo stay included visting Johnnies Drive In where Elvis enjoyed cheeseburgers and “ROC” colas, Tupelo Hardware where Gladys bought her son his first guitar and the Civil War Battle of Tupelo monument.
But despite the fun and enjoying ourselves, I still can’t get the image of the mask of that statue off my mind.