Partial to Home: Elvis reconsidered


Birney Imes



Near the center atrium of the Tupelo public library there is a display case containing a library card issued in 1948 and a photograph of the young boy to whom the card belonged. The boy was 13 and in the 7th grade at the time. The card bears his signature and that of his mother, Gladys. 


Thursday evening that cardholder's biographer Peter Guralnick stood on a stage positioned directly in front of that display case and told stories about Elvis, the man, his music and his indelible contribution to American music. 


He also spoke about the writing of his two-volume biography of Elvis, "Last Train to Memphis" and "Careless Love," about which Bob Dylan has said, "Elvis steps from the pages. You can feel him breathe. This book cancels out all the others." 


Guralnick has published more than a dozen books about blues and rhythm and blues. His most recent is, "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll" (2015). 


He was this year's speaker in the Tupelo library's Helen Foster Lecture Series, a free, annual event that has brought to Tupelo in its 45 years of existence the likes of Alice Walker, Shelby Foote, Werner Von Braun, David Halberstam, Alex Haley, Pat Conroy, John Grisham and Rick Bragg. 


Guralnick read from text written for the Tupelo audience focusing on Elvis' childhood and early years in Memphis. His talk was interspersed with recordings and asides and followed by a half hour of questions from the audience. 


Guralnick presented Elvis as a living, breathing human, a shy, ambitious kid intoxicated by the profusion of music around him, who rockets to fame and then descends into drugs and reclusion after the death of his mother. 


While the space available here won't allow me to do justice to Guralnick's presentation, I've included excerpts about the young Elvis, anecdotes that defy the stereotypes that obscure Elvis the person. 




As I was driving down McLemore Avenue in South Memphis with a friend of mine named Rose Clayton ... as we were driving along Rose pointed out a boarded up drug store where Elvis' cousin Gene used to work when they were both teenagers. Rose had grown up in south Memphis and she said Elvis would come by and wait on his cousin to get off work, and she would recount how Elvis would sit at the counter and drum his fingers impatiently while waiting on his cousin to get off of work. "Poor baby," Rose said. 


... it was in that moment I suddenly saw something, a real kid, just like any kid you might see today, eager, impatient and totally consumed by music. 


That was the start of my biography; that was the vision I tried to maintain. I don't mean a vision of the adolescent Elvis but a vision of the real Elvis, not the Elvis who has been subsumed by a mountain of myth, but a vision of an artist who steered his life by music, who, like all of us, was very much a product of his time, but at the same time, by absorbing all that he had heard, all that he observed shaped his influences into something that was uniquely his own. 




His earliest and perhaps his greatest love was gospel music. He grew up not just listening but singing with his family and friends in the tiny Assembly of God Church just a couple of blocks from where the Presley family lived on Old Saltillo Road in East Tupelo. ... This is where she (Gladys, Elvis' mother) first met Elvis' father Vernon when it (the church) was no more than a tent on an empty lot. 




Gladys always liked to tell the story of how when Elvis was just a little fellow not more than 2 years old "he would slide down off of my lap and run down the aisle and scramble onto the platform and there he would stand looking at the choir and try to sing with them ...he was too little to know the words but he could carry the tune and he would watch their faces." 




Behind me is Elvis' first library card taken out when he was 13 in the middle of his 7th grade year. ... This was a highly significant step that represented the start of a lifetime of voracious reading. Elvis, like Sam Cooke, was as obsessive a reader as I've ever encountered. He read everything. ... 




There shouldn't be any question that for Elvis it all started in Tupelo. But there is equally little question that Elvis' musical and cultural world kept on expanding once he and his parents moved to Memphis when he was 13. Memphis represented a kind of crossroads, a confluence of so many musical and cultural traditions that we generally don't tend to catalogue but that are as rich as anything that can be found in the most extensively documented historical archive ... 




Memphis' own tradition was nourished by the migration of country people to the city. Rural immigrants, both black and white, from Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, all bringing their own regional influences with them. Memphis was alive with the white gospel quartets singing that Elvis already knew. ... he heard the itinerant street musicians that could be found on Main Street and Beale ... there were the hillbilly shows ... when he had the money and even free symphony concerts at Overton Park. 




Nearly everyone who knew Elvis as a child and as a young man recalls of him polite to the point of reticence. A reserve to the point that caused Sun Records founder Sam Phillips to refer to him as probably the most introverted person that came into my studio. 




Elvis' impact -- forget about his impact on the world, forget about the screaming girls, forget about the superstar aspect of it ... when Jerry Lee Lewis reads a magazine article about Sam Phillips being the man who discovered Elvis Presley, B.B. King, who Jerry Lee also admired. He and his father sell all the eggs on their farm and come to Memphis for an audition with this man who recorded Elvis Presley. ... Johnny Cash came because of Elvis. Roy Orbison came because of Elvis. 




Our route home from the library took us east on Main Street. As we passed city hall, I happened to glance over, and there on the grassy field, perhaps the most prominent spot in the town, was a statue of Elvis mimicking the pose from the iconic 1956 photograph of him performing at the Mississippi-Alabama Fairgrounds in Tupelo. 


Somehow -- and I'm not sure how to put it into words -- my feelings about the man had changed from what they had been two hours earlier. No longer did I see Elvis as the one-dimensional character whose on-stage flamboyance spawned hundreds of impersonators, but rather a shy, ambitious country boy intoxicated by the richness of the music all around him, who absorbed that music and made it uniquely his own. 


Birney Imes ([email protected]) is the former publisher of The Dispatch. 



Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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