Elvis: Always on their minds

It is half a century since Elvis Presley played a homecoming concert in his birthplace of Tupelo, Mississippi. Andy Gill joins the celebrations
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The Independent Culture

An imposing three-storey redbrick building, rather like a giant shoebox resting on its side, the Tupelo Hardware Company commands an important location at the junction of Main Street and Front Street in Tupelo.

Inside, it's an Aladdin's cave of DIY delights, the kind of shop that died in Britain long ago, under the onslaught of warehouses and chainstores. Suspended from rails on the ceiling, a pair of 15ft stepladders coast up and down behind the counters at each side of the shop, affording access to vertiginous shelves bearing everything a working man might need, apart from a cold beer: hoes and spades, hammers and screws, buckets and pans, and a hundred thousand other implements. One display-case features dozens of artfully-arranged penknives and hunting knives; another, drill bits of all sizes; and there, carefully fastened to two cupboard doors, are hundreds of bullets, ranging from snubby little pellets to lethal bolt-sized chunks of metal. Established in 1920, the shop is, according to its motto, "Known For Values".

As with much of the American South, that plural is appropriate. The South is full of conflicting values. It's a source of constant amazement to visitors how such effusive hospitality can coexist alongside the more sinister undercurrents of racial and financial antipathy that still divide Southern communities, with appalling trailer-park poverty no more than a bullet's flight from bourgeois gentility. In this region, before the town expanded to its present size, that divide used to be marked by the boundary between comparatively well-off Tupelo and poor East Tupelo, which is where the town's main claim to fame, Elvis Presley, was born on January 8th, 1935.

Mindful of the tourism possibilities afforded by this connection with the world's most famous entertainer, Tupelo has in recent years begun to mark the association in whatever ways it can: there's an Elvis Presley Boulevard, of course, and the little shack in which he was born is now a museum. And there are a series of bronze plaques at various Elvis-related locations such as the Assembly of God Pentecostal church of which he was part of the congregation, Milam Junior High, the school he used to attend, and Johnnie's Drive-In, the diner where he learnt such dangerous dietary habits. There's even one marking the site of the Mayhorn Grocery, where Elvis presumably bought his peanut butter and bananas. Another sits outside the Tupelo Hardware Company, and it's one of the more important ones. For this was where, in 1945, the 10-year-old Elvis Presley bought his first guitar. Under the circumstances, the shop's manager Howard Hite can perhaps be forgiven his melodramatic moment - "he walked on this same floor, he came through those same doors" - as he relates the story.

"Elvis had originally come to buy a bicycle," explains Howard, "but when he spotted a .22 rifle hangin' on the wall up there, he decided he wanted the rifle instead of the bicycle. Well, his mother Gladys said 'No', and Elvis got real upset and started cryin' 'cause his mother wouldn't buy him the rifle. Mr Forrest Bobo tried to think of some way to calm Elvis down, 'cause he was so upset. There just happened to be a Kay guitar on this top shelf right here, so Mr Bobo took it down. His mother said, 'I'll buy you the guitar instead', and Elvis agreed.

According to a letter typed and signed by Bobo on the shop's headed notepaper - copies available, a dollar apiece - the guitar cost just $7.25 plus a two-per-cent sales tax. From such acorns do great oak trees grow, one muses, as Howard Hite corrects his original account. "Actually, we say 'where Gladys bought her son his first guitar'. We're not allowed to use the name Elvis, 'cause it's an infringement of copyright."

Just then, Elvis pulls up outside in a pink and cream 1949 Cadillac (the one with the giant chrome nosecones on the front, like Madonna's stage bra). It's not the real Elvis, of course, but one of a clutch of Elvis impersonators who are in town, like myself, for the 50th Anniversary Re-enactment Show commemorating Elvis's 1956 homecoming concert. As the legend goes, the Presleys had sunk so low that when they left Tupelo for Memphis, nobody realised they had gone. But it was a big deal for both the town and Elvis himself when he came back for the first time as a star to play an outdoor show at the town fairground.

To mark the anniversary, there's going to be a parade, a documentary about the 1956 show, an exhibition of Elvis movie posters, and a concert featuring several fake Elvises performing the exact same set. Bizarrely, this particular fake Elvis is immediately surrounded on the sidewalk by throngs of Presley fans wanting autographs and photos, as if in getting closer to him they are somehow getting closer to the King of Rock'n'Roll. Oops! Sorry, I'm not allowed to say that, because like "Elvis" and "Elvis Presley", the phrase "King of Rock'n'Roll" is also apparently a registered trademark of Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc.

The problems that this legal stranglehold might pose become apparent when one visits the Elvis Presley Birthplace Museum, which features the two-room shotgun shack in which he was born, surrounded by the inevitable gift-shop, a timeline water-feature, a bronze statue of a dungareed 13-year-old Elvis toting his seven-dollar guitar, and a chapel paid for by fan-club contributions. Not a club, or a bar, or a diner, something more indicative of Elvis's career, but a chapel. It is a strangely sombre place, more like a cemetery than a birthplace, and it is only when I enter the chapel that I realise the only music you can hear here is the gentle drone of organ music. Unlike Graceland, where it's virtually impossible to avoid the stuff, the Birthplace Museum has not been licensed to play Elvis's music, thus imposing a shroud of gloomy piety over the place. The impression is that one is not visiting the birthplace of an entertainer, but of a saint.

Inside the shotgun shack - so called because if you open the front and back doors, you can shoot a shotgun right through without hitting anything - are a few sticks of furniture similar to those the Presleys might have had, a few photos, and a copy of Kipling's "If", which Elvis had to learn by heart at school. The house was built in 1934 by Elvis's father, grandfather and uncle for $180, which they borrowed from the dairy farmer who owned the land, one Orville Bean. Three years later, unable to keep up the loan payments, Mr Bean evicted them, and they moved in next door with Elvis's grandparents. Many years later, Elvis bought the house and surrounding land, and gifted it to the town.

After a photo on Elvis's porch swing, I chat to two childhood chums of his, James Ausborn and Guy Harris. The latter, whose new Nikes and chunky gold bling seem more appropriate for a rapper, tells of happy days spent playing with Elvis, making illicit visits to the swimming-hole at a nearby creek.

"We got caught there several times, and we paid for it," he chuckles, "but we still had a good time. We didn't wear no clothes when we went swimming - you couldn't go home in wet clothes! We got in trouble some - it wasn't like we were bad or nothin', we were just mischievous is all. We'd make little wagons out of apple-crates and wheels, and ride 'em down these hills here, over Mr Bean's property. We all had a good time. We'd have parties, too, Someone's parents would let them have kids over for a party, and we'd play spin the bottle, and walk round the block holdin' a girl's hand, things like that."

James, who's a little shorter than Guy, used to go fishing and play with Elvis. "We'd sit on that big hill up yonder," he recalls. "Back then you could see out over Tupelo, it wasn't growed up as fast as it is today. Me and him'd sit there and drink an RC Cola, maybe eat a bar of candy, and decide what we was gon' do the next day. Sometimes we'd go fishin', sometimes we'd go wadin' in that lil' ol' creek down there. We'd go to Johnnie's Drive-In and get a cheeseburger once in a while when we had the money. Sometimes we'd go to the movies downtown - we liked Westerns mostly. Elvis really loved his guns and things - that's why we had that picture made at the fair, of us in cowboy outfits."

More pertinently, James would accompany Elvis on his trips out to the district known as Shake Rag, where the future superstar first encountered black music. "Shake Rag was a bad place," says Ausborn. "That was where the black people stayed, they wouldn't let white people in there. The black guy who got * * me and Elvis in there, he was a great guy, he carried us up into Shake Rag and we'd sit on the porches up there and listen to black musicians sing. Elvis got the black music from there. Then he went from here to Memphis, got up on Beale Street, and he got more of everything - I think that's one thing that made him big, 'cause he does it all. Except this, what you call it, this music that's comin' in now? He didn't do none of that, only Southern."

James can remember visiting the nearby grave where, Elvis believed, his stillborn twin brother Jesse was buried. "We'd sit by this grave that didn't have no marker on it, and he'd cry about it and say, 'If it wasn't for me, my brother would be living: if I'd have died, he would have lived'. That's the attitude he had."

James's older brother was Mississippi Slim, a DJ on Tupelo's Radio WELO, and he helped teach Elvis the rudiments of the guitar. "My brother was on WELO for nine years, the Saturday programme, and I got Elvis on there two times," says James. "He sang 'Old Shep' and 'God Bless My Daddy', and that evening my brother told me, 'Y'know what? Elvis has got a dang good voice, a good voice, but he can't carry a tune worth a flip!'.

"I went in service over to Guam and Korea, stayed there two years, and when I got back Elvis had just got his first record out. My brother picked me up at Memphis, brought me home, and told me, 'You remember that boy you used to run around with, that you got on my programme and I said couldn't sing? He has put out a record and is climbin' to the top. I'm gonna have to go back on the air and take back everything I said about him!'. And he did."

The next day's parade is a rather sorry affair, even allowing for Tupelo's backwoods status. The procession opens with a couple of cops doing tight turns on their Harleys, then some fire trucks, before the syncopated rhythms coming over the hill herald a troupe of drummers and majorettes. Then just about anything goes: a string of Corvettes and various classic cars; skateboarding kids and forces veterans; Miss Tupelo, Amy Bright; a tiny replica of Elvis's porch swing on a flatbed truck; a team of kids towing a tiny replica of a boxing ring containing a boxer; Mrs Tupelo, Tracy Boone; a solar power racing team; the Elvis Shoe Man, who is a local weirdo towing a child's truck containing shoes; and several more beauty queens including, for all I know, Old Grandma Tupelo. Finally, Elvis himself rides by, waving from the big pink Cadillac. Then within minutes, all the bystanders have taken up their garden furniture and gone.

That night's concert is, by comparison, a roaring success. The white-bearded, 75-year-old rockabilly legend Sonny Burgess shows that age is no barrier on stage, as he peels off diamond-hard guitar licks with his tight band, The Legendary Pacers. Then the show reaches its climax with the re-enactment of the 1956 set, as each Elvis impersonator steps up in turn to sing a song, their performances punctuated by recordings of the real Elvis's actual between-songs patter from the original show. They're all pretty good, too, as are The Dempseys, tonight's Scotty Moore, Bill Black and DJ Fontana; but the real stars are The Jordanaires, their harmonies as immaculate as ever throughout. When the set ends earlier than expected, they step into the breach and do a few a cappella gospel numbers that are simply sublime, the highlight of the entire evening.

The next day, I travel to Memphis, the bus cruising out past the billboards with six-foot photos of convicted sex offenders, and the KFC marquee offering the tantalising prospect of "livers - $2.99", following the route the Presleys must have taken all those years ago. Maybe they were heartened as they passed the Sherman Pentecostal Church, a single-storey shack not much bigger than the home they left behind. Memphis, of course, is much more experienced at exploiting the Elvis legend, and it has the added advantage of being the home of Elvis Presley Inc, and thus freely able to indulge in his music, his image, and his name. The result is an almost unstoppable corporate force: Graceland has become, since Elvis's death, the second most popular tourist attraction in the entire country.

It makes for an instructive contrast with Tupelo, where the self-effacing humility of the Birthplace Museum invites religious interpretation. With none of his music allowed to be played at the birthplace, and no information about the musical influences - the blues, gospel and country music - that helped create him, it's as if Elvis had come down to Earth complete, pure and fully-formed, a divine spirit.

The shotgun shack makes the most modest of mangers for one of such humble origins - even if, as Ausborn claims, it has been moved 20ft to accommodate the new access-road - and Gladys, of course, has already assumed Madonna-like status in the Elvis legend, with his feckless daddy Vernon virtually written out of the story, an embarrassment to be overlooked like that cuckolded carpenter of long ago.

And when you finally get to Graceland, it becomes clear that Elvis died for our sins - notably the sins of pride and greed. While the nearby Sun Studios has treated its remarkable legacy with admirable restraint and affection, the Graceland complex has become the world's greatest monument to American excess, the trailer-park equivalent of the Pyramids or Angkor Wat. As one passes through the Jungle Room, with its waterfall and tacky furnishings, through the downstairs lounge with its three televisions permanently on, and out into the former racquetball court that now contains all of Elvis's ludicrous Las Vegas outfits and so many gold discs that they have become literally meaningless, it's hard to suppress a wave of nausea at such a monstrous aggregation of kitsch. Okay, you don't expect Old Masters and first editions, but neither do you expect quite the level of ickle-fluffy-wuffy trash that has washed up here, on the higher reaches of the American Dream.

It may just be the most depressing place I have ever visited, this rock'n'roll Golgotha, with its accompanying museum of ridiculous cars, and its two huge jet planes parked across the road. By comparison, the quiet restraint of Tupelo seems to embody more of the purity of Elvis's original dream of simply making music, before forces beyond his control swept it, and him, into the maw of Hollywood and Las Vegas.

I take comfort in recalling what his old childhood chum Guy Harris had said a few days before, as he stood looking fondly at an old school photo he'd brought along, with Elvis at the far left in his grubby dungarees. "He wasn't any different from me, or any of those kids you see right there," said Guy. "We were all on the same level. And me and him were still on the same level when he died." Amen to that.

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