The Tupelo journey takes you straight into the heart and soul of Elvis, and it begins at the Elvis Presley Birthplace, where a rich and complex portrait emerges, in the recently renovated museum, a memorial chapel built from funds donated by fans, a gift shop and a park where the engaging, story-telling homage includes statuary, a fountain, a “walk of life” and a “story wall.” Recently redesigned by the Memphis firm Design 500, the museum uses the extensive collection of personal memorabilia, including clothing and unpublished photographs donated by Janelle McComb, a lifelong Elvis friend, as a springboard for an in-depth exploration of Elvis’s boyhood that provides the narrative and the context that many fans have yearned for in understanding both the real person as well as the true musical innovator.
When you arrive face to face with the two-room shotgun house where Elvis Aaron Presley came into the world in the wee hours of a cold January morning in 1935, in a birth filled with joy and sorrow, light and darkness, sound and silence…a fullness that still seems to reverberate in the quiet of this humble structure. If you feel wonder that such an improbable journey could begin at such an improbable place, you are not alone. For many, the Birthplace moment is one of awe and inspiration. (And there are many who experience the moment—approximately 50,000 fans come from all over the world every year.) “Some people are just shocked. They really can’t believe that somebody like Elvis could be born here,” says Dick Guyton, executive director of the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Park, where the house is located.
As visitors move from the tiny house to the rest of what awaits in the 15-acre Birthplace complex, and as they go on to explore the city that was once Elvis’ home, deep surprise becomes deep appreciation and a true understanding of how Elvis became, in a word, Elvis, one of the greatest and most influential musical artists of our time. For it was in Tupelo, where Elvis lived for the first 13 years of his life, that an extraordinary set of circumstances and influences would come to bear on one extraordinary child. In Tupelo, you will learn so much…about the hardship and the want, of course, the loss present from the beginning, when Elvis’s twin brother Jesse Garon died in childbirth on that cold morning. In those days, times were hard; money and jobs were scarce. And yet what you will also discover is that there were riches everywhere in this remarkable town, in the music and rhythms of Tupelo life that the boy king would take and make into his own. From his mother Gladys’s Pentecostal church, he would take the soaring gospel songs into his soul. From Shakerag, the now legendary African-American neighborhood, he would absorb the seductive sounds of the blues. And in Mississippi Slim, a musician with a radio show called the Singin’ and Pickin’ Hillbilly on Tupelo station WELO, Elvis would find a hero and a mentor who would encourage the young boy to make his first performance at the Black and White Jamboree, a kind of amateur hour broadcast every Saturday from Tupelo’s Courthouse lawn.
“This museum answers so many questions that people have about Elvis,” Guyton says. “What was life like when he lived here? What was the neighborhood like? The buildings? The people? What music did he listen to?” In the museum, visitors experience the sights and sounds of Elvis’s Tupelo—the music, the lonesome train whistle, the hum of the garment factories and the compelling stories of Gladys and Vernon Presley. Out in the garden, “Elvis at 13,” a life-size statue, depicts the young Elvis as he was the year the family prepared to depart for Memphis. A fountain commemorates Elvis’s Tupelo years, while a 42-block granite walkway pays tribute to each year of Elvis’s life, and a “story wall” offers the deeply personal reminiscences of 11 of Elvis’s childhood friends. That story wall is a particularly moving moment for many, according to Guyton. “I’ve seen people stand in the pouring rain to read every single one of those stories.”
Tupelo’s self-guided Early Years Driving Tour also begins at the birthplace and leads visitors to important sites in Elvis’s formative years, including the same hardware store where Elvis bought his first guitar. He wanted to buy a shotgun, but Gladys convinced him otherwise, and today, you can still see the original case that held guitars in 1945. In fact, with its wide plank floors and towering ceiling, Tupelo Hardware has changed little since those days, and friendly employees are delighted to tell the story. Indeed, all over the city, those who knew and loved Elvis are more than happy to share their remembrances, often touching, sometimes funny and always fascinating. Each June, the entire city (along with more than 10,000 visitors) turn out for the Elvis Presley Festival, a weekend-long celebration of Elvis’s life and work, and in August, Tupelo celebrates Elvis fans with the Annual Fan Appreciation Day. The Festival and Fan Day are great times to visit, of course, but anytime you’re ready to meet the real Elvis, heart and soul, Tupelo is happy to welcome you and facilitate your visit in any way. We know Elvis, and we know you’ll find the genuine article right here in Tupelo.