From Tupelo to Memphis
FIRST SETTLED BY WHITES in the 1830s, the wooded hill country of northeastern Mississippi was a magnet for aspiring yeoman farmers and their families for most of the nineteenth century. Boasting rich black soil, abundant stores of shortleaf pine and hardwoods, fish-laden streams, and plenty of game, it was an ideal locale for subsistence farming. Before the Civil War, it was a region with few slave owners, where farm families pooled their resources and worked tirelessly to eke out a crude but reasonably secure living.1
After the war, the hill country was gradually transformed. Newly emancipated African-Americans, who had been clustered in the cotton-producing Delta, began moving into the area, hoping to acquire cheap land and become yeoman farmers. Railroads connecting the region to Memphis and the port of Mobile were constructed, and with the railroad came entrepreneurs eager to develop the region's resources. Cotton production expanded, and open, unowned lands used by yeomen for hunting, trapping, and the grazing of livestock were bought and enclosed by speculators and wealthy farmers seeking to enlarge their holdings. Forced to adapt to these developments, many yeomen began producing cash crops, especially cotton, to earn their livelihoods.
Over time, however, the price of cotton declined, and increasing numbers of farmers, black and white, became tenants and sharecroppers, renting their land from their well-to-do neighbors and buying, on credit, many everyday goods from merchants who charged them high rates of interest. As the price of cotton and many other staple crops continued to decline in the closing years of the nineteenth century, most tenants and sharecroppers fell into debt. And through new lien laws designed to benefit creditors, landlords and merchants gained a measure of control over the planting decisions of indebted farmers, which they used to ensure that tenants continued to plant cash crops and became even more dependent on them. In short, the commercial development of the hill country, like other areas of the South, resulted in the impoverishment of many of its inhabitants. Even worse, as these trends played themselves out in the 1880s and 1890s, they were accompanied by an upsurge of racial tensions and the passage of new Jim Crow laws that segregated the races and prevented blacks from exercising their voting rights.2
By the early twentieth century, Tupelo, the seat of Lee County, had emerged as one of the region's most important commercial centers. Little more than a dusty crossroads before the Civil War, the town owed its growth to its location at the junction of two railway lines, which gave Tupelo's farmers and businessmen access to markets in four directions and inspired town leaders to establish one of Mississippi's first cotton mills. New neighborhoods were soon built, and the town gained several additional mills and factories, most of them tied to the cotton industry. Tupelo's growth encouraged many rural people to move to the town or to the farmlands on its edge, where they could work as tenants, farmhands, or unskilled laborers. By the 1930s over six thousand people lived within the city limits, and many more lived nearby and were enmeshed in its burgeoning economy. In the eyes of many observers, Tupelo was one of the jewels of the New South, a city that had begun to build an industrial economy out of a foundation in agriculture. It was the first city to be electrified by the Tennessee Valley Authority, and by the late 1930s it had all the hallmarks of an up-and-coming city: large, goods-laden departmentand variety stores, four hotels, numerous restaurants and taverns, two motion picture theaters, a radio station, public schools, parks, a city pool, and a municipal airport.3
BUT FOR ALL its forward-looking features, Tupelo retained a rustic ambience and displayed many of the problems that plagued towns and cities in the early-twentieth-century South. Though one could find a job in Tupelo, even during the depths of the Great Depression, wages in the city, as in the rest of the South, were low, roughly 70 percent of what they were in the Northeast and Midwest. Competition for jobs was also intense, particularly since passage of the Agricultural Adjustment Act. This New Deal law, enacted in 1933, established a system of subsidies to landowners that paid them to take acreage out of production and led large numbers of tenants and sharecroppers to be turned off the land. The need for farm labor also declined as landowners purchased tractors, which enabled them to work their holdings far more efficiently--and with fewer hands--than in the past. These trends not only increased the numbers of applicants for jobs in the factories and mills; they encouraged even more people to move to Tupelo and put pressure on existing housing stock and local relief programs for the unemployed. The economic slump was especially hard on Tupelo's black residents, who made up nearly 40 percent of the population. Confined by law and social custom to segregated facilities and the most menial forms of employment, African-Americans in Tupelo lived in a poor neighborhood called Shake Rag. Most worked as unskilled laborers and domestic servants for middle-class white families. The state's Jim Crow laws were no doubt reassuring to many whites in Tupelo; they certainly kept blacks "in their place," subordinate to whites. But by limiting the aspirations of so large a portion of the city's population, they also limited Tupelo's potential for economic development and ensured that a majority of its residents, including most whites, would remain poor.4
Thanks to the region's low wages and the difficulties faced by tenants and sharecroppers, many whites in Tupelo didn't live much betterthan their African-American neighbors. Aside from the city's entrepreneurial class of professionals, business owners, and well-to-do farmers, the most fortunate whites had jobs in the factories or mills. But during the Depression such jobs were difficult to acquire, and when workers at one of the largest cotton mills struck for higher wages in 1937, the mill's management closed it down, putting hundreds out of work and increasing competition for the jobs that remained. Far more than blacks, poor whites in Tupelo were able to take advantage of local public works jobs made possible by another New Deal agency, the Works Progress Administration. Wage levels for WPA jobs, however, were pegged to local standards and could hardly be counted on to lift a family out of poverty. And with so many people moving to Tupelo from the countryside, there was always somebody willing to work for less or willing to put up with conditions others found objectionable. The same squeeze prevailed in the housing market. By the mid-1930s large numbers of poor whites resided within the city limits, in squalid residential areas near the mills or adjacent to Shake Rag. Others lived on the fringes of town, in small, decrepit shacks they rented from farm owners, for whom they sometimes did odd jobs, including working in the fields during planting or the harvest. Across the railroad tracks was the most degraded residential area of all, the hamlet of East Tupelo, where several hundred sharecroppers and marginally employed unskilled laborers lived in crude shacks without running water or electricity.5
It was in East Tupelo, just above Old Saltillo Road, in a crude two-room shotgun shack, that Elvis Aron Presley was born on January 8, 1935. Elvis's parents, Vernon and Gladys Smith Presley, were young, poor, and uneducated. Both had left school at an early age to enter the local labor market. Despite their poverty, Vernon and Gladys came from well-established families, and by all accounts Presleys and Smiths had lived in the region for several generations. Like so many other poor whites, the Presleys and the Smiths were drawn to Tupelo by the economic opportunities that proximity to the city afforded, and by the mid-1930s some of them were doing reasonably well. Vernon's uncle Noah, for example, owned a grocery store, drove the school bus, and wouldserve as East Tupelo's mayor, while Gladys's uncle Gains Mansell would soon become the preacher of the small Assembly of God church where young Elvis and his parents attended services. Other relatives lived close by and provided the young couple with material and emotional support throughout the early years of their marriage.
Gladys and Vernon were in many ways typical of young Tupelans their age. Born in 1912 on a farm in neighboring Pontotoc County, Gladys was dark, pretty, and vivacious, with an enterprising streak that led her to assume important responsibilities after her father died when she was twenty. When she met her future husband, she was working, alongside dozens of other young women from similar backgrounds, as a sewing machine operator at the Tupelo Garment Plant, a local factory that produced work shirts. Vernon, four years her junior, was quiet, even sullen, a hard worker but seemingly without ambition--not a surprising attitude given the hardships that poor young men like himself encountered as they grew to maturity and recognized the difficulties that lay ahead if they hoped to own their own farm or business, like Uncle Noah. He was very handsome, though, and it was his looks that first attracted Gladys.
They met at a church function and soon after ran off to a neighboring town where, lying about Vernon's age to the county clerk to make him appear older, they were married. She was twenty-one; he, only seventeen. When they returned home, they lived with friends and relatives. Gladys went back to work at the Tupelo Garment Plant until she became pregnant and medical problems forced her to quit. Vernon continued working as a laborer and sharecropper for a farmer named Orville Bean, who owned most of the land around East Tupelo and relied on families like Vernon's to work it for him. Bean later lent them $180 to buy the materials to build a small shack next to the slightly larger one where Vernon's parents, Jessie and Minnie Mae, lived. Constructed by Vernon, his brother Vester, and their father, the small house was completed in December 1934, and a month later Gladys gave birth to twins. The first, Jesse Garon, was stillborn and was buried in an unmarked grave in Priceville Cemetery, not far from the family's home.The second, Elvis, survived. As he grew up, he was taught to revere the memory of his twin and attribute his own survival to mystical forces that had marked him for a special destiny. In later years Elvis would occasionally visit his brother's grave and contemplate why God had decided that he--and not Jesse--should live.
The Presleys were a close-knit family. And, as an only child, Elvis was showered with attention. They were surrounded by kin who helped them when Vernon was between jobs or was forced to leave the area to secure employment, as he did on several occasions during the late 1930s and early 1940s. The focal point of their life was church and the religious revivals that were often held in Tupelo during the hot summer months before the harvest. The Presleys and the Smiths were Pentecostals, a relatively new denomination that had been popular in the South since the turn of the century. Derided by well-to-do evangelicals as "Holy Rollers," Southern Pentecostals venerated the Holy Spirit, and their faith was expressive and enthusiastic. Pentecostal services involved lots of singing, hand clapping, and emotional reveries in which congregants would speak in tongues. It was a faith that relied on the charismatic abilities of preachers. But with its emphasis on individual experience and the ability of the Holy Spirit to reach the soul of every person, no matter how lowly, it was also democratic and attractive to the poor, promising them deliverance from worldly travails. The Pentecostal movement was also distinctly biracial, and though the small Assembly of God congregation that the Presleys were a part of was all white, in keeping with social custom, the revivals drew blacks, too, and the regular services conducted by white preachers like Gladys's uncle were influenced by African-American religious practices. During the early decades of the twentieth century, the years of Jim Crow and white supremacy, the movement "remained almost uniquely open to exchange between blacks and whites," the historian Edward L. Ayers observes. Through its rituals whites like the Presleys were not merely exposed to black influences; they were immersed in a religious milieu in which black and white elements were hopelessly entangled, though few whites recognized this at the time.6
A consoling faith like Pentecostalism was useful and compelling to the Presleys, especially when they were confronted with hard times. The young family experienced a severe blow in November 1937 when Vernon, Gladys's brother Travis, and another man were charged with altering a check from Orville Bean in order to buy a hog. Lacking money for bail, Vernon and Travis remained in jail until their trial and conviction in May 1938, when they were sentenced to three years at the notorious Parchman prison. Though Vernon was released in early 1939, in response to a petition from his neighbors and a letter from Bean, his eight-month absence was deeply unsettling to Gladys and their son. Without Vernon's income, they lost their house and had to move in with relatives. Gladys and little Elvis visited Vernon at Parchman on several occasions, enduring a five-hour bus ride in order to spend a couple of hours with him. Yet seeing his father in prison was traumatic for Elvis, and during Vernon's incarceration Elvis and Gladys became closer than ever, forging a special relationship that would endure for the next twenty years. Having Vernon taken away in this fashion upset Gladys, too. She began to worry constantly, even obsessively, about what might happen to Elvis if she let him out of her sight. The experience was particularly humiliating for Vernon. It sullied his reputation in Tupelo and made the Presleys more determined than ever to achieve a measure of respectability--to make it impossible for anyone to suggest that they were "white trash," a stigma that haunted even the most hardworking of poor whites in the early-twentieth-century South.7
When Vernon returned from Parchman, he took a job with the Works Progress Administration as a laborer on a local sanitation project. The regular paychecks enabled the family to rent their own place and buy an old truck. As the United States geared up for war, and employers with defense contracts began hiring workers in increasing numbers, Vernon took jobs that required him to leave Tupelo during the week and return home only on weekends. This widened his horizons and made him aware of opportunities available to unskilled laborers outside the northeastern Mississippi hill country, in places like Memphis, Birmingham, and the port cities of Mobile and Gulfport. In 1943,at the height of wartime mobilization, he moved Gladys and Elvis to the Gulf Coast, where he took a job in a shipyard; homesick, they returned after a month. But with so many men in the service or working in distant cities, there were plenty of jobs in Tupelo--though none paid as much as unskilled work outside the region. Vernon was hired as a deliveryman for a local grocer, and with the addition of income he had earned from out-of-town jobs, the Presleys gained some economic security and were able to buy a small house on Berry Street in East Tupelo.8
These were comparatively good years for the Presleys. With Vernon working close to home and Gladys supplementing the family's income by performing odd jobs that still allowed her to look after Elvis, the Presleys were able to put food on the table and provide their son with decent clothing and a few toys. Despite their limited means, they spoiled Elvis and encouraged him to feel special, the center of their little world. Eager to escape the harsh, often unfair judgments of their social betters, they raised him to be polite and deferential, and from an early age he made a good impression on teachers and other authority figures. He played with other children, at home and at school, but he was quiet and shy and often kept to himself. He remained very close to his mother, who always seemed to be watching out for him--and worrying when he was playing away from home. By the time he was twelve, he had already begun to chafe at the restraints she sought to place on his freedom, yet he was reluctant to assert himself. Grateful for the emotional security provided by his parents, he rarely strayed far from home or engaged in behavior he knew his parents would disapprove of. Elvis was a good boy, and his parents had every reason to believe that he would make them proud.
His great passion was music. This was not unusual, for the South in the 1930s and 1940s was awash in it. Emanating from the radio, churches and revival tents, juke joints and honky-tonks, even ordinary people's homes, the strains of hymns, gospel, country, folk music, and the blues were inescapable, as much a part of the atmosphere as the hot, humid summer air.9 Elvis's first exposure to music was at church and at the Pentecostal revivals that were common in Tupelo during hischildhood. Here he learned to sing and to appreciate the stirring sounds of gospel, the music that would always remain his first love. But like other white Southerners, he also became an early fan of country music, which in the 1930s was in its early stages of development and was played by ordinary people as well as professional musicians. Derived from Anglo-American folk tunes, genteel parlor music, and, through the influence of Jimmie Rodgers, black spirituals and blues, country music was ubiquitous in the Tupelo neighborhoods inhabited by working-class whites, and the success enjoyed by professional musicians like Mississippi Slim, a local star who had his own radio show on Tupelo's WELO, inspired many young people to pick up guitars and learn to play.10 On Saturday afternoons the Presleys would go down to the courthouse to hear such aspiring professionals and regular people like themselves perform in WELO's amateur broadcast show. Among the children who lined up for their turn at the microphone was Elvis, who slowly became accustomed to singing in front of a crowd.
This experience paid off. In October 1945, at the age of ten, Elvis won fifth prize in a children's talent show held at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show, an annual event in Tupelo. Entered into the contest by his fifth-grade teacher, who had heard him sing at school and was impressed with his voice, Elvis delivered a poignant a cappella rendition of the Red Foley ballad "Old Shep." Several months later, on his eleventh birthday, he received a guitar as a gift and quickly learned to play, getting advice and informal instruction from relatives and from Mississippi Slim, whose radio show preceded the WELO amateur hour. By the seventh grade he was taking his guitar everywhere, even to school, where he would sometimes play for classmates at recess and lunch. They weren't especially impressed, but they did feel sorry for him when some toughs at the school cut his guitar strings, and they took up a collection to buy him new ones.
Music was a refuge for Elvis, providing him with moments of joy and transcendence, a sense of accomplishment, and, when he performed in front of people, an opportunity to stand out from the crowd. Yet it could do little to shield him from the hard economic facts thatbore down on his family. By the summer of 1946 the wartime labor shortage that had worked to Vernon's advantage had ended, and he found it increasingly difficult to supplement his pay from his delivery job with extra work. The Presleys lost their house and moved to a rental close to Shake Rag; by the fall of 1947 they had moved again, to another rental designated for whites within the black district. Though Elvis, like virtually all white Southerners, had been exposed to African-American culture from an early age, it was during this period, when he lived but a stone's throw from black churches and raucous juke joints blaring blues and R&B, that his familiarity with it deepened. For reasons that remain murky, the Presleys--and especially Elvis--emerged from this experience humbled, with a more tolerant and sympathetic attitude toward African-Americans, particularly the hardworking, God-fearing tradesmen and petty proprietors who were their immediate neighbors. Maybe it came from close contact, closer than most white Southerners in the era of Jim Crow ever experienced. Maybe it came from being poor and seeing themselves reduced to living with African-Americans and recognizing the things they had in common. Or maybe it was simply an accident of nature, the peculiar response of an individual human being to a situation that was highly unusual, that wasn't supposed to happen. Whatever the reason, it made Elvis Presley different from most of his white contemporaries and made it possible for him to become a musical pioneer.11
By November 1948 things had not improved much for the Presleys. Vernon was still employed as a deliveryman and Gladys was working as a seamstress, but because of their reduced income the family had been forced to take out a number of small loans to make ends meet. Facing the prospect of continued underemployment, Vernon and Gladys decided to move to Memphis. They had been considering such a move for some time. "One day we just made up our minds," Gladys later told a reporter. "We sold off our furniture, loaded our clothes and things into this old car that we had, and just set out."12 As Vernon knew from firsthand experience and from relatives who had already moved there, Memphis was booming, even more prosperous than it had beenduring the war. It was a place where he and Gladys could get decent, secure jobs, and where Elvis might be able to continue his schooling and perhaps even finish high school, something very important to Gladys.
The Presleys were not the only people to come to this conclusion. Since the early twentieth century, and particularly since World War II, Memphis had become an increasingly attractive destination for migrants from all over the Mississippi Valley and the hill country surrounding it. With a vibrant manufacturing sector, rail connections to points throughout the United States, and a growing population eager for goods and services, Memphis offered poor, working-class Southerners well-paying jobs and an environment conducive to small business. It was a real city, with amenities and attractions that made Tupelo seem quite provincial. More important, in the 1940s it was a cultural crossroads, a place where migrants from farms, villages, and small towns, blacks as well as whites, were confronted with new circumstances, and where the customs and values they had brought with them were gradually transformed into a new urban-industrial way of life. Living in densely packed neighborhoods, working in factories and on the myriad construction sites that had sprung up around the city as farmlands were cleared to make way for new industrial and suburban development, buying virtually everything they consumed at local stores, including chain stores like the Memphis-based Piggly Wiggly, newcomers to Memphis experienced a life that differed markedly from the one they had led in rural areas--or even in small cities like Tupelo.13
Living in Memphis could prove bewildering, but many newcomers were entranced and excited by the city's opportunities and decidedly modern pleasures. For most, industrial employment meant higher incomes and more free time than was the norm for farmworkers. The latter was especially valuable, allowing working-class Memphians to spend their leisure hours at home with family and friends or patronize the city's many restaurants, diners, nightclubs, bars, and theaters. There was no shortage of things to see and do, and thanks to the city's booming economy, which boosted the wages of blue-collar workers, including the growing number of African-Americans able to acquire unskilled manufacturingand construction jobs, many of its pleasures were within reach of the majority. Of course, the city remained segregated, and there were far fewer economic opportunities for blacks than for whites. But most African-Americans who moved to Memphis from the countryside found the city to be a pleasing new home, far better than the poor, often oppressive hamlets they had left. For blacks, the focal point of the city was Beale Street, a raucous, freewheeling commercial district where businesses catering to African-Americans were clustered and where, at night, the sound of rhythm and blues spilled out from the nightclubs into the street.14
The Presleys settled into a rooming house close to where Gladys's brother Travis and his family had also moved, and soon Gladys and Vernon found jobs--Gladys as a sewing machine operator, Vernon as a laborer at a munitions factory. They enrolled Elvis in the eighth grade at Humes High School, where, on his first day, he was so intimidated by the large classes and whirlwind of activity that he returned home after less than an hour, nervous and "bug-eyed," Vernon recalled. But he soon became accustomed to his new surroundings, just as his parents became accustomed to theirs. Tired of living in a cramped single room and having to share a hall bath with the house's other tenants, the Presleys applied for public housing. In September 1949, after a four-month wait and an official interview at their rooming house with a social worker, who judged them "very nice and deserving," their application was accepted, and they moved to the all-white Lauderdale Courts, a large cluster of two-story apartment buildings and grassy courtyards built during the New Deal and run by the Memphis Housing Authority. 15 For thirty-five dollars a month, roughly what they had been paying before, they now had two bedrooms, a living room, and their own bath. "Gladys was so thrilled with the Lauderdale Courts place," Elvis's cousin Billy Smith recalled. The apartment became a gathering place for Presleys and Smiths who had moved to Memphis, and Gladys presided over it with pride and good humor. "She was always jolly. Always laughing and carrying on."16
Moving into the Courts also provided the Presleys with a newcommunity of people very much like themselves. The complex was full of young families eager to make a success of life in Memphis, raising children and teenagers open to the city's sights, sounds, and experiences. The Courts couldn't have been more conveniently located, particularly for the women, who were responsible for shopping, or for their children, who quickly discovered the exciting new world just beyond their doorstep. Main Street, with its stores and movie theaters, was a mere two blocks away. The city's central commercial district was also within walking distance; a bit farther south, also accessible by foot, was the exotic bustle of Beale Street. And just north of the Courts was a major highway that connected Memphis to cities to the east and the west, making the neighborhood and the entire north end of downtown a natural stopping point for salesmen, truck drivers, and servicemen passing through the city.
It was a vibrant, dynamic place to live, and teenagers like Elvis sought to make the most of it. Though Gladys tried her best to keep him on a tight leash, as she had in Tupelo, this was more difficult in Memphis, where attractions beyond home and neighborhood had a powerful allure, and Elvis found plenty of things to do and see after school and on weekends. He made new friends among the many teenagers who lived in the Courts, and together they played football, explored downtown Memphis, and attended the picture shows. One of their favorite destinations was Beale Street, where Elvis liked to window-shop and was dazzled by the flamboyant styles of clothing for sale at the Lansky Brothers men's store. As he soon learned, this was where many professional musicians bought their outfits. At first, it was mostly black rhythm-and-blues musicians like B. B. King and Rufus Thomas who bought their clothing there, the longtime owner Bernard Lansky noted. But then, when white country artists began noticing what African-American performers were wearing, "they used to come in ... and buy the same things."17
After moving to the Courts, the Presleys enjoyed a period of stability and relative prosperity. Taking advantage of the postwar boom, which encouraged workers to seek better opportunities, Vernon took a new jobonly a few blocks from home, and in 1951 Gladys was hired as a nurse's aide at a nearby hospital. Elvis also began working, first as an usher at a movie theater after school; then, in the summer of 1951, as a drill press operator at Precision Tool, a munitions plant where his uncle Travis was employed. Eventually, in early 1953, Elvis's senior year at Humes, the Presleys were forced to move out of the Courts; their income exceeded the maximum allowable to qualify for public housing--despite a back injury Vernon had sustained that kept him out of work intermittently. They rented an apartment across the street, enabling Elvis to keep in touch with the friends he had made since his arrival from Tupelo.
Elvis's interest in music deepened while living in Memphis. He was thrilled to discover that several other boys who lived in the Courts also played instruments. And as he became comfortable with them, he began to join their informal jam sessions. He was especially impressed with some of the older guys, who taught him new songs and guitar techniques. His most important source of new music, however, was the radio. The range of music played by Memphis radio stations was a revelation to him. Besides the gospel and country-and-western that had dominated the airwaves in Tupelo, Memphis stations played the mainstream pop music that was the rage in other parts of the country, including the records of crooners like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin. Elvis developed a liking for such smooth pop, and he soon began to include pop ballads in the small repertoire of songs he enjoyed playing and singing for friends. Memphis was also a center of "Negro appeal programming," radio shows specifically directed at the large number of African-Americans who resided in the city and the region beyond its borders. It was the home of WDIA, the "Mother Station of the Negroes," the first station in the United States to devote all its airtime, every minute of the broadcast day, to music, news, and public affairs shows targeted at a black audience. This was the spot on the dial to which Elvis and his friends turned--often surreptitiously--to listen to B. B. King spin R&B records and play his own music live on the air, or hear spirituals and gospel broadcast from services at the local black churches. For music with an even harder edge, there was thewildly popular Red, Hot, and Blue, Dewey Phillips's late-night show on WHBQ, which showcased the latest rhythm and blues. Phillips, a white man with a hyperkinetic, slang-filled delivery, was lionized by Memphis blacks and a celebrity on Beale Street. In the early 1950s his show began to attract substantial numbers of white listeners, mostly working-class teens like Elvis.18
During his high-school years Presley listened to just about anything he could get his hands on, making few distinctions about genre or the race of the musicians who made it. He began frequenting the local record stores, including Poplar Tunes, a large store that stocked a wide variety of rhythm-and-blues discs issued by independent labels like Memphis's own Sun Records. But his favorite store was Charlie's, a much smaller establishment three blocks from the Courts. It was owned by a man who appreciated true music lovers, and he allowed Elvis and other teenage boys to hang out and listen to records--even if they didn't have enough money to buy any. This was the place where Elvis really became familiar with R&B and developed the vast knowledge of it that, in later years, would so impress people in the music business. Yet his first love remained gospel, a music that was central to family gatherings and that he and his parents would often sing for fun. He enjoyed attending the monthly All-Night Gospel Singings held at Ellis Auditorium, where the South's most renowned white professional quartets would perform. These concerts were major entertainment spectacles. Deftly combining religiosity with the glitz of show business, they were organized by professional promoters and drew thousands of fans, not unlike the multi-artist tours of country acts that regularly passed through the city. Elvis was especially fond of the Statesmen, perhaps the most innovative of the professional gospel groups. Influenced by black quartets and rhythm-and-blues performers like Roy Hamilton and Clyde McPhatter, the Statesmen put on a dazzling show, complete with flashy suits and an expressive performing style, denounced by conservative preachers, that included leg movements that Elvis later appropriated for his own act.19
Presley was unusual in the wide range of his musical tastes. Whilethe majority of his white peers liked country music and gospel and much of the mainstream pop that dominated network radio shows like Your Hit Parade, only a small number shared his interest in black music. Yet as music industry commentators like Billboard's Paul Ackerman were beginning to note, white interest in rhythm and blues was increasing. This was particularly true among working-class teenagers who were at least partly drawn to the music by a need to differentiate themselves from their parents. The new interest in black music among working-class white teens may well have encouraged them to alter their racial views and acquire a measure of sympathy for the fledgling civil rights movement, as the historians Pete Daniel and Michael Bertrand have argued. 20 But even if listening to black R&B had no influence on their racial views, the fact that increasing numbers of whites were enjoying music designated for blacks angered conservative white supremacists. As one segregationist--writing in 1956, when white interest in R&B had reached an unprecedented level--put it, "alien forces" seeking to "mongrelize our youth and destroy our American Way of Life" were using the "entertainment field" to carry out their sinister objectives.21
The rhythm-and-blues records played by Dewey Phillips and available for sale at many of the local record stores were just what many working-class white teens were looking for, a perfect soundtrack for life in Memphis. Tantalized by the prospects of freedom and the new economic opportunities available to working-class people in the city--symbolized by consumer goods like ranch houses, cars, and fancy clothing--yet constrained by the tedium of high school or menial industrial employment, they eagerly responded to a music that was energetic and expressive, that celebrated good times and provided a release from the psychic fetters of the rule-bound workaday world. More important, as they came of age and sampled the new freedoms available to them, their interest in R&B acquired an additional significance, as a marker that set them apart from their parents as well as from their more straitlaced peers who listened to country, gospel, and pop but were unwilling to defy regional racial etiquette by listening to music made by blacks. Encouraged by their new circumstances to defy parental andcommunity authority and embrace a new, expressive individualism, many working-class white teenagers turned to rhythm and blues not merely for fun but for a kind of transcendence.22
Elvis was no different. Once he became comfortable in Memphis and at Humes, the shy, awkward teenager began to assert himself more, escaping from the constraints that the perpetually worried Gladys tried to impose on him. With both of his parents working outside the home, and Elvis earning money from after-school jobs, he had the means as well as the opportunity to achieve some freedom. When he wasn't working as a movie theater usher or at one of the factory jobs he held during his high-school years, Elvis played music with his friends, went to the movies, hung out at record stores, or ogled the flashy menswear at Lansky's. Like many white teens, he hid his interest in rhythm and blues from his parents, and his continued affection for gospel, country, and pop kept them from noticing anything unusual about his musical tastes. Despite the many temptations that beckoned, Elvis stayed out of trouble. He studiously avoided the boozing, carousing, and petty crime that some of the other boys engaged in. Ashamed of his father's prison spell and inspired by his parents' determination to achieve respectability, he was deferential and well behaved at school and in the presence of employers, displaying the humble, respectful manners that poor folk had long used to gain acceptance.23
The only unusual thing about him was his looks. By the middle of his junior year, Elvis had begun to cultivate an eccentric appearance. Emulating the truck drivers who passed through the city and Captain Marvel, Jr., his favorite comic book hero, he grew sideburns and began combing his hair into a luxurious pompadour, using lots of Vaseline and hair oil to keep it properly styled. With the extra money he earned after school, he bought flashy clothes--mostly shirts--at local department stores and at Lansky's. His frequent window-shopping expeditions attracted the attention of the stores' owners, and they encouraged his interest in the "high-style" clothing worn by professional musicians and an increasing number of urban blacks. The resulting look defied easy categorization. It was undeniably macho, but not in a proletarian kindof way. Indeed, from the vantage point of the young, denim-clad toughs who embodied working-class masculine style in postwar Memphis, Elvis's look was too swanky and redolent of the black dandies who cavorted on Beale Street. But African-Americans were not his only source of inspiration. He was also trying to pattern himself after certain Hollywood movie stars, especially self-styled "pretty boys" like Tony Curtis, one of his favorite actors. One thing was certain: the look he was struggling to develop was undeniably modern and urban, visual proof of his identification with his new home and the comforts and conveniences he associated with it, a new world of consumer goods that, in the heady atmosphere of postwar America, seemed accessible to anyone, regardless of background or upbringing. Drawing on the welter of new influences he had been exposed to since moving to Memphis, including music and the movies, Elvis's new look allowed him to advertise his sense of individuality without having to act out and risk the opprobrium of authority figures.24
If Elvis's new look perturbed his parents--and it may well have, considering its associations and the aura of effrontery it exuded--they didn't pressure him to tone it down. Privately, however, his uncle and aunt Travis and Lorraine Smith expressed their disapproval, and warned their children that Elvis would pay a price for his eccentricity. Their son Billy Smith remembers them predicting, "Somebody's going to beat the hell out of him and peel them nigger outfits right off his hide!"25 Vernon and Gladys were no doubt aware of this possibility as well, and it probably increased Gladys's fears for his safety. But regardless of his appearance, he remained the apple of their eye, and it is very likely that their unconditional love and devotion bolstered his resolve to proclaim his sense of uniqueness.
Some of his classmates were not so tolerant. His new look was particularly offensive to the jocks who dominated social life at his high school. "It was that hair ... it got him into all kinds of trouble," said Red West, a Humes student who later became one of Elvis's closest friends. "If he had a regular haircut [a crew cut] like the rest of us, he probably wouldn't have been bothered. But I guess the other kidsthought he was trying to show off or something."26 They teased him mercilessly and threatened to hold him down and cut his hair. Yet Elvis refused to be intimidated. Not a very good athlete--athletics were the key to popularity at Humes--or the kind of student who made the honor roll, he became even more determined to maintain his unusual appearance. According to West, it was as if Presley decided, "If I can't be like you guys, then I'm gonna be someone else."27 He stuck close to his friends, and his warm, unassuming manner won over some classmates who at first were put off by his appearance. Obedient and polite, he also earned the respect and affection of his teachers, despite being a mediocre student. After graduation, several prospective employers were similarly impressed. Gladys Tipler, the owner of an electrical contracting business, was warned about his appearance by the employment agency that sent him over for an interview. She found him so modest, well-mannered, and devoted to his family, however, that she hired him as a deliveryman on the spot.
Presley was never a popular student at Humes, but during his senior year he gained a reputation for something other than his loud clothing and long, painstakingly combed hair. The occasion was a talent show, the "Annual Minstrel," in which Elvis sang and accompanied himself on the guitar. His performance was well received and surprised most of his classmates, who had never known about his interest in music. After this warm reception, he brought along his guitar and performed again at his homeroom picnic, attracting a small group of boys and girls who clustered around him as he sang plaintive ballads in the style of the popular crooners of the day. For the first time a wider public began to think of Elvis as a musician. And the Humes yearbook, published at the end of the semester, listed him among seniors who seemed destined for careers as "singing hillbillies."
Presley graduated in June 1953, fully expecting to assume the responsibilities of adulthood. The previous year he had already held down what amounted to a full-time job, working the swing shift at a furniture factory, but his parents had made him quit when they heard from his teachers that he was falling asleep in class. In the months beforegraduation, Elvis filled out some applications and interviewed at a state employment office. In the interviews he expressed an interest in becoming a machinist. His need for full-time employment was pressing. Vernon's back problems had grown worse, keeping him out of work for weeks at a time, and the family needed Elvis to provide a steady paycheck. After several rejections and a short stint as a temporary worker, he landed the position with Precision Tool. Yet he disliked the job and his co-workers, who, like the jocks at Humes, taunted him about his hair. He quit in March 1954 and, a month later, went to work for Gladys and James Tipler at Crown Electric, ferrying electrical supplies to construction sites around Memphis. He became close to the Tiplers, and they encouraged him to go to night school to become an electrician. This was a real opportunity for Elvis, a potential route to middle-class respectability. Some of the older boys he knew from the Courts were already well on their way toward such a future, and it is conceivable that if Elvis had applied himself to his work and to night school, his life would have turned out like theirs: hard work and steadily increasing pay, perhaps even the assumption of supervisory responsibilities, and maybe, if he worked hard enough, a chance to start his own business, like the Tiplers. For working-class Southerners from Tupelo, this was success, and it was precisely the future that Gladys and Vernon had hoped for for their son when they moved to Memphis.
Presley's inclinations to settle down and apply himself to work were reinforced in the spring of 1954 by his having his first serious girlfriend, Dixie Locke, a sophomore at a rival Memphis high school. Elvis met Dixie in January at a function at the First Assembly of God Church in South Memphis, where he and his cousin Gene Smith attended worship services and Bible classes. Though the Presleys prayed at home and considered themselves devout, they had not gone to church regularly since moving to Memphis, and it is not surprising that Elvis, the family member most comfortable in their new surroundings, was the first to seek out a congregation that his parents might also eventually join. The principal reason for Elvis's and Gene's interest in going tochurch, however, was not religion. It was to meet girls. The congregation they joined was large and still growing; among its members were the renowned Blackwood Brothers gospel quartet--Gladys's favorite singing group--and the congregation's choir was well known throughout the city. The minister specialized in fiery denunciations of worldliness and sin, and encouraged congregants to display their faith openly, in the ecstatic, enthusiastic manner common among Pentecostals. Dixie's family were committed, God-fearing people, and their approval of Elvis as a suitor was attributable to his modesty and sobriety, and the interest he expressed in leading a wholesome Christian life. These professions of faith were not hypocritical. As much as Elvis enjoyed the worldly pleasures available in Memphis and saw church as a means of enhancing his love life, he was also serious about religion and committed to trying to live up to evangelical standards of respectability.28
Elvis and Dixie began dating and soon were very close. Vernon and especially Gladys accepted her into the family, and she spent a lot of time at the Presley home. She and Elvis went roller-skating or to the movies and on the weekends enjoyed picnics at local parks. Elvis would often bring along his guitar and serenade her. "He sang songs that were popular and a lot of the old blues-type songs; he did some of the old spirituals, too," Dixie told Elvis's biographer Peter Guralnick. Occasionally, his singing attracted the attention of friends and bystanders, including some of Dixie's friends who thought he was strange. "Right from the start it was as if he had a power over people ... It wasn't that he demanded anybody's attention, but they certainly reacted that way--it didn't matter how rough they were or whether they even acted like they were going to be interested or not, they were, once he started singing ... He loved being the center of attention."29 Elvis and Dixie shared a love of gospel music and regularly attended the All-Night Gospel Singings at Ellis Auditorium, sometimes with Elvis's parents, where the Blackwoods would perform. From time to time they would also sneak off with some of the other kids from Bible class to a nearby "colored" church to hear the impassioned singing and oratory. Elvistook Dixie to her high-school prom, and they were soon talking about getting married after Dixie graduated from high school in 1956.
It was to Dixie that Elvis confessed his dream of becoming a professional musician--though at the age of nineteen, with full-time work and the prospect of night school and a career as an electrician on the horizon, it was no more than a dream, the sort of fantasy that young people often entertain on the eve of their entry into a life of adult responsibilities. In fact, Presley had begun fantasizing about it long before he met Dixie. It may have first occurred to him when he and the other boys at the Courts began to play music together and he became aware of the thriving music scene in Memphis, where opportunities for professional musicians were plentiful and country and gospel stars were local celebrities who embodied an altogether different ideal of the good life--a life in the spotlight, as the center of attention, with all the material rewards that postwar America had to offer. The chances of ever making it in the music business, however, were so remote that Elvis never did anything about it--not until his performance at the Humes "Annual Minstrel," which finally inspired him to seek out opportunities that might get him a break. Energized by the positive response he had received, and the fact that so many of his classmates now thought of him as a musician--not just some quiet guy with loud clothes and a weird hairstyle--he decided to give the music business a shot. Fearing rejection and the disapproval of his parents, who were determined to see him go into a secure and respectable line of work, he didn't tell anyone about his plans, and during the last few weeks of his senior year, as he began plotting how he might be discovered, he went about looking for full-time employment as if nothing had changed.
In the summer of 1953, shortly after graduation and during a period when he hadn't yet found a full-time job, Elvis paid a visit to the Memphis Recording Service, a studio not far from his neighborhood where anyone could record an acetate for the modest fee of $3.98 plus tax. In later years, Elvis would suggest that his intent was merely to make a record for his mother's birthday, and this account would become central to the myth of his serendipitous "discovery." Yet as PeterGuralnick has noted, Gladys's birthday had passed several months before, and if all Elvis had wanted to do was make a record of his own voice, he could have gone down to the department store on Main Street where his musician friends from the Courts made theirs. In Guralnick's view, Presley's visit to the small studio on Union Avenue was a calculated act inspired by ambition. He went there to be noticed, to attract the attention of a man who had recently been written about in the Memphis papers--the proprietor of the Memphis Recording Service and of a fledgling label, Sun Records. Not content to wait passively for his lucky break, he went to impress Sam Phillips.
Phillips, a native of rural Alabama, was a true visionary, but in the summer of 1953, when Elvis first visited his small storefront studio, he was struggling financially and frustrated by the hackneyed conventions of the music business, which discriminated against any music that deviated from the commercial mainstream. Only thirty, Phillips had grown up around black people on his father's farm and from an early age had developed a deep affection and fascination for their music and culture--an interest that gave him a reputation as a crank and eccentric in the years before World War II, when the vast majority of white Southerners eschewed the music of blacks and embraced country music instead. As a teenager, he had gotten into the radio business, and when he moved to Memphis in 1945, he landed a job as an announcer and programming engineer at the local CBS affiliate. But Phillips soon grew tired of playing big-band music and began looking for new opportunities. Convinced that audiences in the South could be made to share his love for the music of African-Americans, he opened a recording studio in 1950 that specialized in it. With the dedication of an archivist and the savvy of an entrepreneur, Phillips began recording all kinds of black music, from ragged country blues no different from what he had heard as a boy to the new electrified R&B that had become the rage on Beale Street and in the black districts of Midwestern cities like St. Louis, Kansas City, and Chicago. He leased some of these recordings to independent labels like Chess and RPM that produced "race music" for the growing African-American market; others he kept for posterity, relics of a Souththat was being obliterated by postwar suburbanization and economic development, what the historian C. Vann Woodward called the "Bulldozer Revolution." To make his new business pay, he hustled for work providing sound systems for public events and encouraging people to come in and use his facilities. "We record anything--anywhere--anytime," his business card read. "A complete service to fill every recording need."30
Derided by fellow whites for his interest in "nigger music," Phillips eventually left his radio job to devote all his time to his studio. In 1953 he started his own label, Sun Records, to capitalize on the increasing popularity of rhythm and blues--not just among blacks but also among working-class white teens. Among Sun's first releases were records by Rufus Thomas and Little Junior Parker, and Phillips was confident he could make a profit by tapping into the same market that was proving so successful for other independents. Expecting the market for white pop to continue to grow, the major labels--RCA, Columbia, Decca, Capitol, Mercury, and MGM--were not especially interested in making "race records" anymore, even though demand for them was growing. So the establishment of Sun made economic sense. With so much of the market conceded to independent labels, there was plenty of money to be made there. But founding the label also provided Phillips with a venue to articulate his vision and help musicians express feelings that were often stifled by the pressures to conform to existing formulas. "I went into the studio to draw out a person's innate, possibly unknown talents, present them to the public, and let the public be the judge," Phillips told a journalist in the early 1970s, after he had become a legend. "I went with the idea that an artist should have something not just good but totally unique. When I found someone like that, I did everything in my power to bring it out."31
BY 1953 Phillips had become convinced that black R&B held a special allure for many white teenagers and that the racial boundaries that segmented the popular music market--and encouraged Southern whitesto see country as "their" music--were beginning to crumble. When they crumbled, he believed, white Southerners would not only listen to black music but come to appreciate its rich heritage, just as he had. This process of discovery, in turn, would spark a broader reconciliation between the races and allow all Southerners to acknowledge their distinctive regional culture, a culture that was a product of blacks as well as whites and defied the segregationist logic of Jim Crow laws. When pressed by business associates to cite evidence for his bold, seemingly foolhardy predictions, Phillips often mentioned the popularity of radio programs like Dewey Phillips's Red, Hot, and Blue and the increasing numbers of young whites who were buying race records and venturing into the clubs on Beale Street. (Sam Phillips and Dewey Phillips were not related.) But were these anything more than passing fads? And would they have such far-reaching consequences? As Phillips himself recognized, the white South remained implacably racist. Even before the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which compelled the desegregation of Southern schools and gave impetus to the civil rights movement, conservative whites had begun to resist the renewed efforts of Southern blacks to achieve equal citizenship. And white leaders committed to maintaining the racial status quo were acutely sensitive to developments--like white interest in R&B--that might imperil their ability to keep the races apart. In other words, for all the forces arrayed in Phillips's favor, seeming to point toward an increase in the white audience for R&B, others were arrayed against him.32
Yet, like a true evangelist, Phillips remained undaunted. After all, the country music popular with whites already bore the influence of blacks, even if few whites realized it, and he was certain that the impediments to white acceptance of black music were artificial and would eventually fall, enabling all Southerners to embrace their shared cultural heritage. Before this could occur, he conceded, the color line in music would have to be blurred. Given the power of white racism, only a white musician could accomplish this, someone "with the Negro sound and the Negro feel," who could effectively express the passion and originality of black R&B and put it into music so infectious that reluctantwhites would have no choice but to accept it. If Phillips found such a person, he and his label would profit handsomely. "I could earn a billion dollars," he was alleged in later years to have quipped, in interviews in which he stressed his business acumen. Such remarks have not only become part of the lore of Presley's career; they have also given Phillips an undeserved reputation as a cynical mercenary and have obscured the fact that making money was not his sole objective. Though eager to make a success of his studio and provide for his family, Phillips was also, in his own way, committed to remaking the South. And part of the frustration he felt in the summer of 1953 was prompted by a recognition of the obstacles that lay in his path. Would he ever find a white musician who could help him realize his vision?
When Elvis Presley, guitar in hand, first appeared at the Memphis Recording Service, there was nothing about him that made Phillips or his assistant, Marion Keisker, think he was the one Sam was looking for. It was a hot Saturday in July, and, without air-conditioning, the small waiting room was stuffy and uncomfortable. Elvis was greeted by Keisker, a local radio personality who had become Phillips's devoted friend and accomplice. He asked about making an acetate and, while waiting for his turn, inquired whether she knew of a band that needed a singer. "What kind of singer are you?" she asked him. "I sing all kinds," he replied. "Who do you sound like?" His retort took her by surprise: "I don't sound like nobody." It was an unusual answer and might have been taken as cockiness were it not for his modest, deferential manner, which instantly endeared him to Keisker.
When his turn arrived, she ushered him into the studio, while Phillips manned the controls in the booth. The first song he sang was a pop ballad, "My Happiness," a hit from the late 1940s that he had played regularly for friends. The second was another ballad, which the Ink Spots had made popular in the early 1940s, "That's When Your Heartaches Begin." Neither suggested the range of Elvis's tastes, and his singing was merely adequate. But there was something unusual about his voice, and after he finished, Phillips conceded he was an "interesting"singer. "We might give you a call sometime," he told Elvis as the latter was leaving, and he had Keisker take down his name and address, noting beside it that the young man was a "good ballad singer."33
Yet weeks and months passed and Phillips never called. In the fall Elvis would stop by from time to time to make small talk with Keisker and ask again about bands needing a singer. In January 1954 he came in and made another acetate, hoping perhaps that this would remind Phillips of his talent and availability. Once again, however, Elvis's hopes were dashed as time passed without any word from him. Phillips was not Elvis's only option. In the spring, as his romance with Dixie was blossoming, Presley tried out for a spot with the Songfellows, a junior gospel quartet composed of boys he knew from church, including the younger brother of one of the Blackwoods. Much to his dismay, he was rejected. The experience was deeply disappointing to Elvis; one of the Songfellows even had the temerity to tell him that he couldn't sing. And it was several weeks before he mustered the courage to tell Dixie. Despite this setback, Presley tried yet another option. In May he heard from a musician friend whose country band was looking for a singer. He and Dixie went down to a local nightclub, where he auditioned for the bandleader, Eddie Bond. He performed two songs alone, accompanied only by his guitar, and though Dixie thought he did very well, the result was another rejection. In later years Elvis would claim that Bond told him he would never make it as a singer and should stick to driving a truck. "Man, that sonofabitch broke my heart."34
By June 1954, then, Elvis Presley's hopes for a career in music were fading. He had pursued several possibilities, but none had panned out, and his new job with Crown Electric had opened his eyes to the prospect of becoming an electrician, a potentially lucrative career during the construction boom of the 1950s. With a steady girlfriend and the strong likelihood of marriage within the next couple of years, Presley had reached the end of his youth. Yet Vernon and Gladys's boy had not merely grown up. Having moved from Tupelo to Memphis, he had become a different person from the one he would have been if the familyhad stayed in Mississippi. And it was this new person--forged in the crucible of postwar Memphis--that would soon rocket to fame and help to transform American culture. Though still anonymous, one of thousands of young working-class Southerners who dreamed of a career as an entertainer, he had already absorbed many of the influences that would shape his career. Even more important, he had developed the unique sense of self that, with the right encouragement, would blossom onstage and on-screen.
Copyright © 2006 by Charles L. Ponce de Leon