Remembering the King: Folks in Tupelo, Miss., mark Elvis’ birthday Jan. 8

On Elvis’ birthday, Tupelo, Miss., insists a pilgrimage must begin here where he did

Speaking in full Mississippi drawl, her eyes as bright as a teenage fan of Justin Beiber, the 60ish Tullos said “the king” — still an uncrowned commoner in those days — wanted a .22-caliber rifle for his 11th birthday.

Gladys Presley said no. Some folks say he put up a fuss.

Not Tullos, who’s vice president of the local Elvis Presley Fan Club and a part-time employee at Tupelo Hardware.

“We say that Elvis turned to Gladys and said, ‘That’s OK, Mama. It’s fine.’ ”

Gladys Presley bought her son a guitar instead. It cost $7.90, according to the bronze plaque outside the store, which is not far from an oversized fake wooden guitar that’s tilted so fans can take their pictures as if they’re playing it.

Tullos, her short blond hair fashionably cut, leaned over the counter, near guitar-shaped cast-iron pans, Elvis books, pencils, T-shirts and other souvenirs, and pointed to an X on the Tupelo Hardware Co.’s wooden floor.

Once white, the taped X is scruffy gray from hundreds of shoe soles that have touched it.

The X is where Elvis and Gladys might have stood, she said, beaming, as those of us listening tapped our toes on the tape.

“Don’t you step on my blue suede shoes ...”

No one knows for sure what kind of shoes Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry wore when they stood in the same spot, both buying guitars at Tupelo Hardware. Tullos said that Prince Albert of Monaco stopped by, too, on his Elvis pilgrimage.

Memphis may be the public mecca for Elvis lore, but folks 100 miles southeast of Presley’s 17,555-square-foot Graceland insist fans should begin their pilgrimages where the king did. That’s in Tupelo, a town with about 35,500 residents in northwest Mississippi, and the birthplace of Elvis Presley.

“No matter what you would do, I depended on you ...”

Elvis’ father, Vernon, borrowed $180, and with the help of his father and brother, built a two-room shotgun cottage in 1934. On Jan. 8, 1935, Gladys gave birth there to two sons: Elvis Aaron and his twin, Jessie Garon, who never took a breath, and was buried in an unmarked grave in Priceville Cemetery.

The Presleys lived in the 450-square-foot home until Elvis was 3, then lived elsewhere in Tupelo until they resettled in Memphis when he was 13.

“Gladys was the strength of the family,” said Dick Guyton, director of the Elvis Presley Foundation, as he stood under the bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling in the bedroom/living room of the house on a chilly October evening. “She worked in a garment factory. Vernon worked as a truck driver and did odd jobs when he could.”

“Don’t worry dear, I’ll be home again.”

Still in its original location, the house is the centerpiece of Elvis’ Birthplace, a 15-acre park, which was funded initially by a concert Elvis gave in his hometown in 1957.

It’s visited by about 80,000 fans each year, about 50,000 of whom pay to go inside the house, church and museum, Guyton said. He added, “It’s about 10 percent of the numbers that go to Graceland. Most come only on day trips.” Which does not please him and others in Tupelo.

None of the furniture in the house is original, but it looks as if it could be. Wallpaper in the bedroom/living room is pink, blue and cream.

There’s a double iron bed, a fireplace with a photo of the family above it. The kitchen has a wash tub, wood stove, table and other necessities.

Plumbing was outside. Now there’s a $4,000 replica of an outhouse with Plexiglass protection near the Presleys’ church, First Assembly of God, which was moved onto the grounds from its location a block away.

Go inside, and it looks like any other country church, wooden pews, a simple altar, posted hymn numbers. The last one though is 531, which translates to $5.31, the amount of a typical Sunday collection, said a guide.

When she shut the church’s front door, lights dimmed and screens dropped in front and on two side walls, and a 15-minute film depicted a lively service, complete with sounds of a crying baby and gospel music. The evangelical preacher got the crowd moving, including a young boy modeled on Elvis.

“Yes, we gather in the chapel, just to sing and praise the Lord …”

The preacher on screen is Memphis Jones, a guitar playing singer, tour guide and expert on Memphis and Mississippi music, as well as leader of the Memphis Jones Trio, which performs regularly at B.B. King’s Blues Club on Beale Street in Memphis, and on request at Elvis’ birthplace in Tupleo.

In between his amplified music, Jones talked about the evolution of Southern music, most of it with roots in Mississippi; it’s something he does on private group tours in Memphis and Tupelo, especially popular around Elvis’ birthday and on the first weekend each June, when Tupelo celebrates its first son.

“Blues developed through a blending of European gospel and traditional African and American Indian vocal styles, with rolling notes,” Jones said from the stage.

Once it left the countryside and moved into nightclubs where locals danced to the sound, it became what we now call rhythm and blues, though it was referred to as “race music” in trade publications. Jones said the R&B name was invented to describe Bill Haley’s and Elvis’ “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” which Big Joe Turner wrote in Kansas City in 1953.

When Elvis still lived in Tupelo, and his daddy went to jail, he would sit on the porch of Mayhorn grocery store, listening to local bluesmen perform, Jones said.

“Essentially, blues mixed with full gospel and became soul on the black side of the street, and mixed with white Southern gospel to become rock ’n’ roll on the white side.

“It was a blending of cultures and anytime you have a blending of cultures, you have art.”

Dick Guyton said those at Elvis’ birthplace feel responsible for Elvis’ music, to make sure it continues to rock ’n roll, so to speak. In addition to the tiny house where “the king” was born, and the church, there’s a new chapel, an auditorium with a movie and a stage for live performances, a bunch of statues and markers, a museum with Elvis outfits and memorabilia. And, of course, a shop.

He’s everywhere, even in the ladies’ room where a video of Elvis onstage plays nonstop. “Don’t Step on My Blue Suede Shoes” rings forth, as Elvis strums his guitar and grins that familiar seductive smile, dimple deepening … while women flush and wash their hands.

“Love him tender, love him sweet?”

Yes indeed. The king lives on.