I couldn’t let the day go by without saying at least a few words about Elvis. Today is his 75th birthday and I am watching a TCM marathon of Elvis shows. On the tube, paused so I could blog, is “Viva Las Vegas.” I just watched Elvis perform the title song. It’s obvious that the director asked him to tone down his sexy moves; there’s barely a suggestion of hip action. But wow can he wiggle that torso and strut like the rooster that he was.
I’ve been doing some reading about Elvis again, reminding myself what most of us know about his legendary rise from rags to riches. His parents Vernon and Gladys Presley were dirt poor. Vernon couldn’t keep a job very long. He was a drinker. He was 17, Gladys was 21 when they eloped and moved in with his parents. Eighteen months later, their son Elvis was born on January 8, 1935, in a two-room house in Tupelo, Mississippi, a house Vernon built just for the birthing. The house had no indoor plumbing or electricity.
Elvis had an identical twin brother, Jessie Garon, who was stillborn. Thirty-five minutes later at 4 a.m., Elvis Aron (later Aaron) was born.
Elvis was told from the beginning that he was special. God had spared his life while Jessie had died. Gladys became an overly protective parent from the get-go. Elvis remained her only child, though she miscarried another child about ten years later. Both she and Vernon doted on Elvis. Gladys walked Elvis to school every day until he entered high school. She made him carry his own fork and spoon so he wouldn’t pick up any germs from using cutlery once used by others.
Vernon was a terrible breadwinner. He couldn’t keep a job, probably because of his drinking. When Elvis was three, Vernon received payment for a pig from his farmer landlord Orville Bean. Vernon decided that he hadn’t been paid enough for the pig so he altered the amount of payment on the check. He was arrested for forgery and sent to prison for under a year. Interestingly, Orville Bean was instrumental in securing an early release for Vernon.
Meanwhile, with Vernon in prison, Gladys and Elvis had no income. They lost their home and had to move in with relatives. The experience so traumatized little Elvis that he began to sleepwalk.
And so it went. For the first twenty-one years of his life, Elvis lived a hand-to-mouth existence. Elvis, Gladys, and Vernon moved from place to place living sometimes with relatives, or living on public assistance in substandard dwellings, cheek-to-jowl. When Elvis was a teenager, Vernon moved them into such a crummy apartment complex that they had to share the bathroom with the other tenants. The bathroom was disgusting. Elvis refused to bathe there and ended up getting cleaned up at the high school or not at all.
There was never enough to eat. It’s possible an usher at a movie theatre where Elvis worked got fired for giving Elvis food.
The family moved to keep just one step ahead of their creditors or the police. Vernon ran moonshine while picking up an odd job here or there. He never made enough money to take care of his family because he didn’t stay with the job. Vernon was frequently absent from home. Elvis and Gladys grew closer at those times and Elvis was definitely the man of the house. Gladys could count on him. Early on, Elvis began to refer to his parents as “his babies.”
Elvis keenly felt the responsibility of taking care of his mother. They were very close. They spoke to one another in baby talk. Elvis called his mother “Sat’n.” Gladys was as impulsive as Vernon was reckless. Gladys was everything to Elvis and he to her.
Elvis’ musical talent was cultivated in the rich gospel tradition of the Southern Christian Church. The Presleys might have been poor but they could still go to church. They faithfully attended the Assembly of God church in Tupelo where Pentecostal worship was practiced. Dance was not allowed by the church, but those Pentecostals sure loved to sing. The experience formed his musical foundation. Elvis recalled watching the preacher belting out a tune and wildly jumping up on the piano. The preacher’s passion for music was electric – and Elvis was paying attention.
Elvis’ musical talent was first recognized by his fifth-grade teacher, Oleta Grimes, who, coincidentally, was the daughter of Orville Bean. She heard the moving way Elvis sang the sad ballad “Old Shep” and brought him to the attention of the school principal, who entered Elvis into a talent contest at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show. Wearing a cowboy suit and standing on a chair, Elvis, without accompaniment, sang a sad song about a boy’s love for his dog. He won second place and received a free pass to ride all the rides at the fair.
Watch a youtube recording of Elvis singing “Old Shep,” 1956 below:
Shortly after that, Elvis asked his parents to give him a bicycle. Gladys was afraid for his safety so she bought him a bicycle instead. A preacher from the Assembly of God church where they were faithful members, family members, and friends pitched in to give Elvis informal guitar lessons. He soon learned to play the piano. By 7th grade, Elvis took his guitar along with him to school.
One night during Elvis’ high school years, Vernon upped and moved the family from Tupelo to Memphis, Tennessee, where Elvis’ subsequent visits to Beale Street exposed him to jazz and blues and more rockabilly. Elvis began to work on his image. He didn’t wear jeans like the other boys in school; jeans were what poor people wore (and overalls), and Elvis definitely did not want to be poor. He always had a job in high school and saw that he dressed well. He wore dress pants, often in his favorite colors, pink and black. He sometimes sported a black bolero jacket. He bought his flashy clothes at Lansky Brothers on Beale Street. He wore his collar up, his hair longer than the others. He dyed it black, slicking it back with thick gunk. He let his sideburns grow long. In the eleventh grade, the coach kicked Elvis off the football team for refusing to cut his hair (1952).
Elvis worked as an usher at the Suzore #2 Movie Theatre which let him watch a lot of shoes. In his 1953 Hume High School senior picture, you can see that Elvis has put a permanent wave in his hair. He was copying Tony Curtis, who was the biggest star of his day. He had just completed the mega-hit, “Houdini.”
Music was Elvis’ passion. He was determined to express himself, his individuality, through his wild clothes and hair and, eventually, his music. He hung out at record shops. He visited Sun Records which had its home in Memphis. In his senior year, Elvis began to pick up local gigs with established local bands. He entered local music contests. Elvis wanted to make something of himself. Then, in 1956, he made it – big. The hot new talent went to New York to do a recording session.
Elvis loved to read and was especially wild for Marvel Comics. He admired Captain Marvel. In his Las Vegas live performances, he often wore jumpsuits with lightning bolts as his trademark – like Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel and his lightning bolt exuded power and success.
From the most humble beginnings to the dizzying heights of fame and fortune rose Elvis Aaron Presley. He continues to fascinate – and to sell records. He remains the best-selling solo artist in the history of popular music. Gifted at vocals, guitar, and piano, he was known as the King of Rock and Roll, or simply The King. Elvis didn’t like to be called The King. He felt it was sacreligious. Elvis had talent, good looks, charm, sensuality, and a genuinely good sense of humor. He was the star of 44 films – not very good films, I grant you, but very popular ones – countless live concerts and TV performances, and has sold over 1 billion records. He was nominated for 14 Grammy Awards, winning 3, and inducted into 4 Halls of Fame.
Now that I’ve done my part in paying tribute to the Great Elvis, who left us so much joy with his unmatchable voice and moves, I can return to watching “Viva Las Vegas!” But not without saying, “Viva Elvis!”
Continue with Part 2 of my tribute to Elvis: Elvis Sings Gospel
Readers, I’ve written many posts on Elvis. Look down the right sidebar to Categories/People/Elvis. Enjoy!