Home is where the heart is, goes the old song from Elvis Presley. If we are to rely on folk who knew him, the King always loved his home, Tupelo, Mississippi. In fact, he loved the Magnolia State and although he became The King, he never forgot his roots.
If he had lived, Elvis would have turned 85 years old this year on Jan. 8. His second cousin, the late Harold Ray Presley, talked about the plethora of Presleys in the area, especially in East Tupelo, in an oral history taken in 1999. Elvis was 11, maybe 12 years older than the late sheriff of Lee County. They both attended Lawhon Elementary School, although years apart and had the same teachers. Harold Ray stayed and became the sheriff. Elvis went on to Memphis, and most people know the rest.
Janelle McComb, in an oral history on file at the University of Southern Mississippi, told Marty Ramage in 2000 that Elvis loved his hometown, especially his birthplace in East Tupelo. Yet, she added this, “But I think that even his daughter – I’ve had the privilege of her sitting in his little chair in his birthplace, and I think she’s always amazed to get that feeling, ‘my dad came from this.’”
Most know the story: Born of humble beginnings in a shotgun shack built partially by his father, Vernon, the boy walked into the Tupelo Hardware Store with his mama, Gladys, to buy a gun but decided on a guitar instead. (Thank you, Debbie Brandenburg for this succinct way of putting the beginnings story we’ve all used). He lived in Tupelo until he was 13, then moved to Memphis. Already, he’d performed with friends in the housing project where he and his family lived.
Later, during his senior year in high school, Elvis entered the Humes High School Annual “Minstrel” Show and took everyone by surprise. Later that year, 1953, he walked into Sun Records to record a song for his mother’s birthday. Sam Phillips heard him. In 1954 he cut another record, but some of the experts said he had no aptitude for singing. So, he drove a truck. Phillips wanted someone to crossover from country to rhythm and blues, to develop a broader audience. He found that somebody in Elvis.
His star rose quickly. The Milton Berle Show, Hound Dog, and Ed Sullivan, to name a few. But he didn’t forget home. On Sept. 26, 1956, he played two concerts at the Mississippi – Alabama Fairgrounds. Councilman Buddy Palmer, a percussionist and fan of the 1950s, says if you walk toward the back of the parking lot on the southwest end of City Hall, you’ll stand about where the stage was that day. Elvis was surrounded by about 100 National Guardsmen as teenage girls swooned. One of those girls was a 14-year old Tammy Wynette, who hailed from Itawamba County.
In 1957, Elvis returned for another concert. This time, WTVA had begun its operations. In an oral history taken in 2000, the late Frank Spain explained the King never came to the station, but WTVA carried the concert live that year – with a total of 15 people on staff.
That he loved Mississippi is evidenced by a telegram Janelle McComb referred to in her telling of her friendship with Elvis. Shortly after the tornado cut a swath through McComb, Mississippi, in 1975, Elvis sent a telegram to his manager, Col. Tom Parker, saying he wanted to help the city. He did. The concert was called “The Spirit of Jackson,” held in May after the tornado in April. Fans packed the Mississippi Coliseum, and Elvis raised more than $100,000 for tornado relief.