From my earliest visits to Tupelo to research the phenomenon of Elvis who lived there for his first thirteen years I was struck by how may pivotal, positive signal post there were in these formative years. For me the most fateful – the event most determining the course of his early life – took place in the Mississippi-Alabama Fair held every September in Tupelo. It was a time of joy and excitement for the children. Better than Christmas, they said, because it lasted for a whole week…
from Elvis and the Mississippi – Alabama Fair By Elaine Dundy April 7, 2005
(THIS ESSAY APPEARS IN THE NEW EXPANDED EDITION OF The Rebel & The King by Nick Adams, includes 33 photos and an introduction by historian Roy Turner. Published by WaterDancer Press, available on Amazon or signed copy by Allyson Adams can be ordered at http://www.TheRebelAndTheKing.com Buy Book)
I look at two photos of Elvis when he sang at the fair, first at the age of 10 and second when re returned in triumph 11 years later. And before my eyes is living proof that it is the ugly duckling who turns into a swan. Of his 10 year old self Elvis, grown, would comment casually that he wore glasses, thought he came in firth in the children’s talent contest at the fair, and was sure he got a walloping for going on rides when he was forbidden to. In the photograph there are the eyeglasses alright. More revealing are his clothes. His ill-fitting trousers are obviously hand-me-downs. In fact, he is wearing suspenders to keep them up.
11 years later at 21, Elvis the Swan is Elvis Complete who had become the ecstasy of the teenagers and the agony of their parents. It was all in place: his pompadour and sideburns, his spectacular clothes, his features full formed. The Swan is rocking, rotating, vibrating his body at breakneck speed to the beat of his heart, his golden voice finding new meaning to each song. What’s more his return to the Fair was celebrated as “Elvis Presley Day” and there was even a parade on Main Street.
Before I went to Tupelo I expected Elvis’ first years to be downtrodden and poverty stricken. The truth turned out to be different. By circumstance and temperament Elvis was a go-getter who made his own luck. Of the positive things first on the list was his mother Gladys. The right child had the right parent. Both realized it was Elvis’ talent that would fulfill their desires. Both were forceful dreamers whose needs dovetailed. Intuitively Gladys knew when to hover protectively and when to let him go. She walked him to and from school so he wouldn’t play hooky. But, alone, after school, he would hitch the long mile to the country radio station WELO where he closely watched the performers and learned from them.
Looking back old timers remember Gladys, a beautiful 16 year old dancing a wild Charleston. She had a fine voice, fire, and the instincts of a performer. Recalling her in action they agree, “Elvis got it honest, Gladys had rhythm.” Another inspiration to him was in the singing and sermons at the Holiness Assembly of God Church which the Presleys attended. Further, he joined the Lee County Library, a step almost unheard of for a boy his age. Most significant was the little 5-street section where the Presleys lived whose inhabitants were referred to disparagingly as “Them folks Above-the-Highway”. Yet his tiny impoverished community on the wrong side of the tracks survived by mutually sharing good fortune. The one existing Kodak owned by Elvis’s neighbor, Corene Smith, became the communal camera that everyone used, as did the few privately owned radios on those streets. The community also survived by practicing the art of good manners with an almost ritualized politeness and having an attitude of optimism-in-spite-of-everything. Plainly this formed Elvis’ character in future years when he was known for his generosity and consideration of others. Had Elvis spent his first 13 years in an urban setting, the Presley’s poverty would have been experienced as far more hopeless and humiliating.
There were some down times of course, particularly when Elvis’s father, Vernon, forged a check during the Depression. He was caught and offered to make restitution to Orville Bean, an unforgiving hard-hearted businessman who refused to accept it, which sent Vernon to prison for 9 months. This landlord continued to torment Elvis’ father in all their future transactions. Yet, Elvis emerges from this debacle as head of his family. He becomes the sole breadwinner at the age of 19, calling his parents his “babies.”
Which brings us to the Mississippi – Alabama Fair: How did Elvis get to be entered in the first place? The children were selected from the schools in the area. But at this point Elvis was not known for his voice as were the other aspirants, notably Shirley Jones who, even younger than Elvis, won first place. What happened that day at the fair was that for the first time Elvis sang in public. It was not to a small audience in an obscure nightclub, nor to an invisible one on radio, but for him a live audience, an exhilarating one in a grandstand that seated 2000. It was a turning point for him, a green light that in retrospect made him come back to re-experience the excitement 11 years later.
Interestingly it was Mrs. J. C. Grimes, his strict 5th grade homeroom teacher, who played a major part in launching Elvis. At morning devotions, one day she asked for a volunteer to say a prayer. Elvis rose, said a prayer and without dropping a stitch segued into the ballad, Old Shep, about a boy and his dog. Mrs. Grimes was impressed, “He sang it so sweetly it like to make me cry.” She is quoted as saying. Uncharacteristically softened, she took him to Mr. Cole, the principal, who upon hearing Elvis sing was similarly taken. Thus, Elvis was promptly entered into the contest. It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of Mrs. Rime’s encouragement at that moment in Elvis’ life. Not only did she have the honor of being Elvis’ first academic booster but if she had not singled him out, Elvis would not have been entered. Elvis was aware of his debt to Mrs. Grimes and at times would visit her when he returned to Tupelo.
But what lifts the story from being merely an ordinary good deed anecdote, is who Mrs. Grimes was besides his teacher. She was none other than the daughter of Orville Bean, the hard hearted landlord, who virtually put Vernon in prison when Elvis was three and began looking after his mother, comforting her with the words “There, there, my little baby.”
On a deeper level, in helping Elvis Mrs. Grimes put an end to the grim, deadly pattern of what Euripides and Shakespeare decreed as the sins of the father being laid upon the children. In other words, the first generation, Vernon and Orville Bean fell into the roles exploited and exploiter. But in contrast, in the second generation, Vernon’s son and Orville’s daughter, played out the reverse roles of supporter and supported turning it into a true-life morality play; or a part of the universal human comedy; or of the stuff that miracles are made.
Written by Elaine Dundy who is the best selling author of Elvis and Gladys available on Amazon Buy Book