Shadows of Elvis

Tupelo: The land where Elvis was born and where his gyrating hips caused quite a stir.

By TTM on 06 July 2006 in Travel Articles

If you think Elvis remains the King you are not alone. Earlier this year the prime minster Junichiro Koizumi of Japan, a self-confessed Elvis maniac, who shares the same birthdate of January 8th,  enjoyed a spiritual communion with the rock and roll star at his home at Graceland. He was joined by President Bush and both of them paid homage to the star during a private tour of Graceland led by Precilla Preseley.

Perhaps Koizumi would have enjoyed a more poignant time had he visited Tupelo, the place Elvis was born. This small city so rocking chair relaxed may well seem asleep. Even the slow Southern drawl of the locals is soporific. But in 1956 the city was reawakened to the sounds of a screaming teenage army. Down Main Street came the procession. Dancing and singing all the way to Fairpark where a heartfelt homecoming concert was going to be staged. Youngsters for miles around were turning up to see and hear the city’s most famous son. Many turned up without their parent’s permission. Elvis had returned to his home town a star and they were not going to miss a moment! His gyrating hips had sent shock waves pulsing through the nation and put so many frowned burrows on disapproving faces that to avoid censorship, television stations covering his performances would only show images above the waistline.
Fifty years on and Tupelo was not going to let the 50th anniversary pass unnoticed. Film and newspaper archives were scoured. Members of the audience were tracked down. It took 18 months of careful research to recreatethe homecoming parade and concert. Two of the original backing singers, Jordanaires turned up alongside relatively new if not younger members to provide the vocal backing to three young Elvis look and sound-alikes, Brandon Bennett, Donny Edwards and Jamie Aaron Kelley. A giant black and white poster which captured a moment from the original concert, gently swayed at the back of the stage.

In 1956 most of the audience were teenage girls pressing towards the stage, arms outstretched desperate to touch a hand or even a hem. Fifty years on those young girls have grown and become mothers, even grandmothers. Here they had a chance to turn the clock back, returning to an age when they were impetuous, excitable young things with no cares beyond the moment. Now they were back – a sea of grey-haired ladies pushing up against a metal crush barrier, singing and waving as if their very lives depended on it while renditions of old favourites blared out. The audience sang along loving every moment. Almost without warning it was all over. The performers exited the stage; the spots dimmed and went black. Lights from the Ferris wheel and the fairground stalls glowed bright against the dark blue night sky. The crowds gathered up their possessions, most reflecting on this one evening. Some who were old enough chatted away comparing two near identical events separated by the years.  No tears of joy or sadness. Just warm summertime memories.
What is the plural of Elvis?  Elvi?  Elvins?  During the two days there had been more sightings of Elvis than one could wave a microphone at. Participating in the parade and on stage were four different impressionists plus young ones, old ones, skinny ones and ones who were replicating his bulkier period.  Some were in the audience, some worked on trade stalls.  None were seen serving in a chip shop. But in Tupelo even the dogs are dressed like Elvis.
Yes, this event is just a small part of a bigger picture. To understand how and why you need to visit the city and surrounding area. Some say it began in 1934 when Vernon Presley (Elvis’dad) borrowed $180 from his employer to buy a plot of land to build a home.Others say it started on January 8th 1935 when Gladys Presley gave birth to twins. One was still born; the other was christened Elvis Aaron Presley.
Roughly a hundred miles separate Graceland from Tupelo yet the visitor numbers are markedly different. 600,000 annually tour Graceland whilst about 50,000 make the pilgrimage to the typical two-roomed wooden shotgun style dwelling where Elvis Aaron Presley made his first appearance. So many visitors almost sprint through the building without getting an understanding of the local industry, economics and regional politics.  If they took a little longer they could start to understand how a boy born into poverty could rise to become one of the greatest influences in contemporary music.

The Thirties was a time of segregation and poverty in many southern regions. Tupelo was no exception. The local population was predominately black and employed to work in the cotton fields. Nowadays they would be entitled to all sorts of grants but this was a very different time. In America it was called segregation. In South Africa it was called apartheid. Abuse and attacks on blacks was almost as commonplace as littering is now.  Age and gender of the victims was irrelevant. It was skin colour. With many law officers and members of the judiciary either being actively or indirectly involved, most racial crimes went unsolved or unpunished. Ignoring the prejudices of others Elvis grew up making friends oblivious to their colour or financial status. Elvis unconsciously absorbed a lot of their music influences including gospel and the blues all of which had a lasting influence.
Some say Elvis went into The “Tupelo Hardware Co.” to buy an airgun, others suggest a bicycle. All history shows is his mother paid for his first guitar. Visitors to the store are invited to stand where the young boy made a decision that unknowingly helped launch his career - a career which included 53 gold or platinum singles, 81 gold or platinum albums and 31 films. 
If this year was emotional charged, next year will be particularly poignant. Afterall, 2007 is that year that will mark thirty years since Elvis ‘left the building’ for good.
Fact Box
Currently there are no direct flights from Britain into Memphis.  Plans are under consideration as it is anticipated there will be a large increase in numbers wishing to attend next year’s commemorative events.  Should nothing materialise regular visitors to Memphis suggest flying in to Amsterdam for a straight forwards connection as opposed to changing in the United States. 

Where to Stay in Memphis 
The Peabody Hotel
149 Union Avenue
Tel 901 529 4000
The Peabody offers 464 rooms through 14 floors.  There are 15 suites.  Rooms start at $215 per night through to $1900 for the Presidential Suite.  Even if you are not a guest there, visitors are welcome to see the twice daily duck parade led by the official duck master! 

Eating and Drinking
Beale Street to enjoy the bars and cafes, listening to musicians who have backed some of the all time legends.

Other Legends
Memphis and Mississippi is not just about one man.  The region’s blues and gospel music has influenced a roll call of great artists including Johnny Cash, Dusty Springfield, the Rolling Stones, Jerry Lee Lewis and B.B. King.  To discover more about the musical roots you can visit Sun Studios and the Rock and Soul museum.

Sun Studios
706 Union Avenue. 
Tel 901 521 0664
Memphis Rock and Soul Museum
191 Beale Street
Suite 100
Tel 901 205 2533


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