Baby Boomers

How Elvis Became a Guitar Man

Walking into Tupelo Hardware, I wondered how Elvis Presley felt when his mother Gladys took him there for his eleventh birthday, on January 8, 1946.

It wasn’t too long after his very first public performance, singing “Old Shep” at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair children’s talent competition the previous October 3rd.

October 3, 1945

Forrest L. Bobo, was working at the hardware store and remembered Elvis “wanted a 22 cal. rifle and his mother wanted him to buy a guitar.”

“I showed him the rifle first and then I got the guitar for him to look at,” Bobo wrote in 1979. “I put a wood box behind the showcase and let him play with the guitar for some time.”

Today, an X marks the spot where Elvis made the transaction. It was nice to stand and ponder how that location changed history.

“X” marks the spot.
Photo: Jack Dennis

“Then he said that he did not have that much money, which was only $7.75 plus 2% sales tax. His mother told him that if he would buy the guitar instead of the rifle, she would pay the difference for him.”

“The papers have said that the guitar cost $12.50 but at that time you could have bought a real nice one that amount. The small amount of money that he had to spend had been earned by running errands and doing small jobs for people.”

Elvis has pure raw talent and passion, but he needed help developing his musical gifts.

Enter Frank Smith. Local pastor, neighbor and guitar picker.

Smith would always remain humble about how much credit to take for teaching Elvis guitar.

“I would show him some runs and different chords (D, A and E) from what he was learning in his book. That was all: not enough to say I taught him how to play, but I helped him.”

“That was all.” What a striking reflection.

How many people played guitar within a three mile radius of the Presley house in East Tupelo in the mid-1940s? We’ll never know.

Here’s the better question. How many people took the time to teach a younger musician what they knew about playing guitar?

We know at least one did, and his name was Frank Smith.

One mentor’s “that was all” may be another person’s “that was everything.”

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