Elvis Aaron Presley 1935-1953 : The Early Years of a Legend
About the end of June 1934, Gladys knew she was pregnant. Some time around her fifth month she was sure she was having twins - she was unusually large, could feel two babies kicking and had a family history of twins on both sides of the family. Gladys was earning $2 a day at the Tupelo Garment Company, while Vernon worked at various odd jobs, including one on the dairy farm of Orville S. Bean.
With $180 that he borrowed from Bean after Gladys became pregnant in the spring of 1934, Vernon set about constructing a family home, and he and Gladys moved in that December.
Elvis' birthplace was built by his father, Vernon, with help from Vernon's brother Vester and father, Jessie, whose relatively 'spacious' four-room house sat next door. Located above a highway that transported locals between Tupelo and Birmingham, Alabama, and nestled among a group of small, rough-hewn homes along Old Saltillo Road. The house had no electricity (It was connected but it was not used due to the cost) or indoor plumbing, and was similar to housing constructed for mill villages around that time.
January 8, 1935, not long before dawn, Elvis Aaron Presley was born. Gladys delivered a second son earlier that morning, a stillborn identical twin named Jesse Garon. Elvis would be their only child.
After the birth Gladys was close to death and both her and Elvis were taken to Tupelo Hospital.
After Gladys and Elvis returned home, it was noticed by family members and friends that she was overprotective of her new born son. Paranoid that something bad would happen to him.
Gladys' mother, 'Doll' Smith died in 1935 and was buried next to her husband Bob Smith, again in an unmarked grave. So like Elvis, Gladys lost her mother at a young age. Gladys was 23, Elvis 22.
Although Gladys had really been on her own since her father died when she was nineteen in 1931 as he mother, Doll had been bedridden from tuberculosis for many years.
Read more about Vernon and Gladys Presley
These were the humblest of beginnings.
In the mid-1930s, in the middle of the Great Depression, East Tupelo was a haven for poor sharecroppers and factory workers whose meager resources still largely outstripped those of Elvis' parents. Not only did Vernon and his wife, Gladys, rely on welfare to pay the $15 that Dr. William Robert Hunt charged for delivering Elvis and his stillborn twin brother, Jesse Garon, but neighbours and friends also had to provide them with diapers.
Elvis' birthplace on the Old Saltillo Road, East Tupelo.
Confusion over the correct spelling of Elvis' middle name has existed since Dr. Hunt logged the name 'Elvis Aaron Presley' in his ledger after the birth. The birth certificate issued by the state of Mississippi shows the spelling 'Aron', which is also found on his draft notice. Elvis' gravestone in the Meditation Gardens at Graceland, however, is engraved with the more common spelling 'Aaron'. Alternate spellings of names were typical in the era of the Depression, particularly in rural communities where educational opportunities were limited and the written word was less significant than it is now. Since the Presley's chose Elvis' middle name to honour their friend and church song leader Aaron Kennedy, it is likely that 'Aaron' was the intended spelling.
Gladys, Elvis & Vernon Presley 1937.
Elvis' family life was turbulent during his early years, largely due to the poverty and financial circumstances of his parents, Vernon and Gladys, however, Elvis grows up within a close-knit, working class family, consisting of his parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, who all live near one another in Tupelo. There is little money, but Vernon and Gladys do their best to provide for their son, who is the center of their lives.
Elvis Presley 1939
Elvis Presley 1942
Elvis Presley 1943
Elvis Presley 1945
Seventh grade, Milam Junior High
Elvis Presley : ROTC Memphis
Elvis : Teenager
January 7, 1936, Noah Presley is elected Mayor of East Tupelo. Noah was Jesse's brother, (Elvis' grandfather's brother.)
November 16, 1937, Vernon along with Gladys' brother, Travis Smith and a friend Lether Gable were indicted for forgery. A check that Orville Bean had made out to Vernon had been altered and the culprits stood accused by Bean.
Vernon had sold Bean a hog and received for it, a check for only $4 - a sum much less than he had expected. Vernon was furious; as the hog was worth much more, and he had been counting on the money. There is no record of how the deal was arranged or for how much.
Vernon talked it over with Travis and Lether and an idea emerged, since Vernon 'had been sold short', why not make the check closer to the amount deserved? Courthouse records do not include details of how large a sum of money the check was altered to, but iElaine Dundy says that based on the memories of the people she talked with, it was either fourteen or forty dollars.
According to Vernon's old friend Aaron Kennedy, he thinks the check was not altered but forged by putting a blank check over Orville Bean's and tracing his writing on to it. In any case obviously none of the men had any idea of how a bank operates to prevent such fraud.
Great pressure was put on Orville Bean by the community of East Tupelo to show leniency toward the offenders, to no avail. A bond for bail was fixed at $500 each. On January 4, 1938 only two bonds were filed for Travis and Lether Gable. Oddly the records show, Vernon's father, JD Presley and JG Brown stood sureties for Travis Smith but not Vernon.
At least there is no record of such so it appears that Vernon spent six months in custody awaiting trial. JD had apparently never liked Vernon.
He had kicked him out of home at 16.
May 25 1938, Vernon, Travis and Lether are sentenced to three years in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman for forging the check.
In his book, Day By Day, Ernst Jorgensen states, 'Gladys is unable to maintain the repayment schedule on their home causing the family to lose this house, and she and Elvis are forced to move in with relatives'.
This is contradicted by Elaine Dundy in her book, Elvis and Gladys, which states; These are hard times for mother and son. Understandably, in view of Jesse Presley's attitude toward his son, Gladys had grown more and more uncomfortable living next door to her father in law. At some point during Vernon's prison sentence, Gladys moved out and stayed with her first cousin Frank Richards. Whatever the reason, the Presleys never return to the house Vernon built, stories differ as to the reason and how the house left their ownership. You can read more about this in Elvis and Gladys.
February 6 1939, Vernon is released from Prison with a six month suspension of their sentence, granted on condition of continued good behaviour. This leniency is the result of a 'petition of the citizens of Lee County and on a letter from Mr. O. S. Bean, the party on whom the checks were forged'. The document is signed by Governor Hugh White.
May 16, 1940, Vernon, Gladys and Elvis along with their cousins Sales Presley his wife Annie and their daughter are living in Pascagoula, a port near Biloxi at the southernmost tip of mississippi on the Gulf of Mexico. Vernon and Sales had found work on a WPA project to expand the Pascagoula shipyards.
June 20, Homesick for family and friends both families returning to East Tupelo. For a time the Presleys shared a two-family house on Reese Street with Vester and Clettes.
November 3, Vernon is granted an indefinite suspension of his sentence.
November 6 1940, The Presley's are now living in a rented house at 510 1/2 Maple Street in East Tupelo.
1941, Elvis enters first grade at the East Tupelo Consolidated School.
1942, During World War II, while Vernon was away helping to build a prisoner of War camp for the WPA, Gladys was admitted to hospital. In the words of Mrs Leona Moore, now a retired nurse, who was working at the Tupelo hospital at the time, 'The truth is she had a miscarriage'. This explains why Gladys never had another child, she had tried, and unfortunately failed.
Elvis was to remain an 'only child'.
1943, From the age of eight, Elvis would spend many Saturday afternoons at the Tupelo Courthouse from where WELO broadcast it's Saturday Jamboree, an amateur program which started at 1pm and went till 4.30pm.
It had live audiences composed of up to a hundred and fifty people. Anyone could sing or play on the program and Elvis did many times. 'Old Shep' being just one of the many songs he sung.
August 18, 1945, Vernon purchases a new four room house in Berry Street, East Tupelo from Orvile Bean. The price is $2000, with a down payment of $200 and monthly installments of $30 plus 6% interest.
Entering fifth grade, Elvis along with the rest of the boys, hoped that of all the homeroom teachers, he wouldn't get Mrs Oleta Grimes (Orville Bean's daughter). She had the reputation for being hard, the one you couldn't get away with anything (Like her father?) - but Mrs Grimes was the one he got.
At the beginning of that school term Mrs Grimes asked her pupils if any of them would like to say a prayer. Elvis got up and said one and then went straight into his rendition of 'Old Shep'. Mrs Grimes was highly impressed. 'He sang it so sweetly', she told Elaine Dundy. She took him to the school Principal, Mr Cole, and again Elvis sang 'Old Shep'. Mr Cole was similarly impressed. This was a few weeks before the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show, held in Tupelo. Elvis was promptly entered.
October 3, 1945, It is children's day at the annual Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show at the Fairgrounds in the middle of town. Ten-year-old Elvis stands on a chair at a microphone and sings 'Old Shep' in the youth talent contest. The talent show is broadcast over WELO Radio.
Second prize is $5.00 and free admission to all the rides at the fair.
Legend has it that, wearing glasses and standing on a chair to reach the microphone in front of several hundred people, Elvis won second place. Elvis' prize supposedly consisted of free passes for all of the rides at the fair plus five dollars -- Elvis did wear glasses for a short time in the fifth grade.
However, Elvis did not place second at the fair.
He may have placed fifth, but probably did not win a prize. By his own recollection he wins fifth place but gets a whipping the same day from his mother, probably for going on one of the more 'dangerous' rides.
January 8, 1946, Elvis' eleventh birthday Gladys buys Elvis his first guitar at the Tupelo Hardware Store at a cost of $7.90. According to store owner, FL Bobo, Elvis really wanted a rifle, but his mother was dead against that and talks Elvis into a guitar with the offer that she will pay for the guitar, that Elvis can not afford, but she cannot afford the rifle. In the end after some thought, Elvis gladly accepts the guitar. Other versions of this story state it was a bicycle that Elvis wanted. For a country boy, in particular, a rifle sounds does sound more likely, particularly given Elvis penchant for such later in life.
July 18, 1946, Just eleven months after purchasing the house on Berry Street Vernon 'sells' - actually transfers the deed over to friend Aaron Kennedy for $3,000 to avoid foreclosure proceedings. Immediately then, Aaron Kennedy gives Orville Bean a deed of trust, which is the same thing as a mortgage. The Presleys move into Tupelo, first to Commerce Street, then to Mulberry Alley, a small lane running beside the fairgrounds, just opposite the town's black neighbourhood, 'Shake Rag'.
September 1946, Elvis enters sixth grade at Milam Junior High School. Elvis sings a song at the invitation of teacher Mrs Camp who recalls, 'He was so good the children just got quiet and pleased with him'.
1947, By the time Elvis was twelve, 'Mississippi Slim' let Elvis sing on two occasions ... Mississippi Slim, a hillbilly singer was Elvis' first musical hero. 'He was crazy about music... That's all he talked about', recalls James Ausborn, Slim's younger brother. There was a slight problem with his first appearance, Slim had announced that a young lad, Elvis Presley would be on the following week. But when the time came Elvis had such a bad case of 'stage fright' he couldn't do it. he did go on the following week. On at least one occasion, Elvis was backed by Slim while he sang.
September 1947, By the time Elvis enters seventh grade at Milam Junior High School, the family is living at 1010 Green Street in Tupelo, a house designated for whites only in a respectable 'colored' neighbourhood.
September 1948, Elvis enters eighth grade at Milam Junior High School.
November 6, 1948, when Elvis was in the 8th grade, the Presley's moved to Memphis, Tennessee, about 80 miles northwest of Tupelo, and lived in downtown boarding houses for most of the next year.
Index: Elvis Presley's Memphis Addresses
370 Washington Street
185 Winchester Avenue
3764 Elvis Presley Boulevard
On his last day at Milam Junior High, at the request of the class, the teacher gave Elvis thirty minutes to perform before the class. The last song he sang for them was the traditional 'Leaf On A Tree'.
In Memphis, Elvis is enrolled in the eighth grade at Humes High School, as Elvis Aaron Presley.
September 20, 1949, the Presley's received approval to live at Lauderdale Courts, a 66-building, 433-unit public housing project on the north end of downtown Memphis. Elvis' musical horizons broadened during his high school years. He took advantage of the many ways to hear music in Memphis - radio, church, record stores, night clubs, and more, and also played in a band with four other boys from Lauderdale Courts. During his junior year at Humes High School, Elvis also began to focus on his appearance. He let his hair and sideburns grow longer, and dressed in wild, flashy clothes that made him stand out, especially in the conservative, conformist Deep South of the 1950s. 'He would wear dress pants to school every day - everybody else wore jeans, but he wore dress pants. And he would wear a coat and fashion a scarf like an ascot tie, as if he were a movie star. Of course he got a lot of flak for this, because he stood out like a sore thumb. People thought, 'That's really weird'. It was like he was already portraying something that he wanted to be'.
Life continues to be hard. Vernon and Gladys go from job to job. Elvis works at various jobs to help support himself and his parents. The Presley-Smith clan remains close-knit, and Elvis and his family attend the Assembly of God Church. The teenage Elvis continues to be known for singing with his guitar. He buys his clothes on Beale Street and he absorbs the black blues and gospel he hears there. He's also a regular audience member at the all-night white, and black, gospel sings that are held downtown.
At age 13 a very impulsive and obviously very much in love Elvis forged a Marriage License from his parents original placing his and Magdaline Morgan's names on the certificate. Elvis knows Magdaline from the First Assembly of God Church. He writes in September 11 as the date of their 'marriage', something which Magdaline expresses great surprise when she learns of it almost 50 years later.
Elvis Presley and Magdaline Morgan.
Elvis loved comic books, in particular his favourite was, Capt. Marvel Jr. Cousin Harold Loyd remembers that when Elvis was in High School in Memphis the two would swap comic books. 'Sometimes I would borrow some from him. He would let me have them because he knew I would return them in good shape'.
Elvis Presley Social Security Card 1950
By the end of 1952, the Presleys' combined income exceeded the maximum allowed by the Memphis Housing Authority, so the family moved from Lauderdale Courts to a rooming house on nearby Saffarans Street, and then an apartment at 462 Alabama Street, opposite the Courts. Though the Presley's were forced to leave the housing project, they chose to remain in the same neighbourhood.
As Elvis' passion for music became all-consuming, his schoolwork faltered. An assortment of A, B, and C grades during his freshman year at Humes had degenerated to the point where he was a straight-C student. He spent much of his free time going to the movies and hanging out in record stores.
He also attended all-night gospel singing sessions with his parents at the Ellis Auditorium, where he would observe some of the more extroverted performers' animated stage movements. Gospel encapsulated the spirituality and physicality that was at the center of Elvis Presley's musical style, yet when he sang and played guitar at parties he was more likely to croon a pop number by Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, or Perry Como.
1952: Humes High: Rare Elvis Photo
Right: This was during one of the Humes High dance functions in August 1952, Elvis had been one of the students to volunteer as an usher, helped setup tables, food, drinks, hence why he is dressed smartly. The other students there are actually 1 year ahead of him.
January 19, 1953, Elvis registers for the U.S. Selective Service System. Under the draft system, young men of good health were expected to be available from age 18, to serve in the military for two years of active duty and then four years in the reserves.
Elvis Presley Reserve Officer Training Corps - Humes High School.
April 9, 1953, a couple of months before he graduated from high school, Elvis performed in Humes' annual Minstrel Show. Sixteenth on a 22-act bill, listed in the program as 'Elvis Prestly', he shocked pupils, parents, and teachers alike with his performance of Teresa Brewer's 'Till I Waltz Again with You'.
Both Elvis and his classmates date this as the beginning of his rise to fame. Elvis later said, 'It was amazing how popular I became after that', referring to the above performance. It was a seminal moment. Like a scene out of one of his future movies, Elvis set aside his own shy personality in favour of a popular and animated persona, and the peculiar-looking young man began to attract the attention of his peers like moths to a flame.
Elvis Presley went with his cousin, Gene Smith, to the 1953 Mid-South Fair. (Larger image of above)
June 3, 1953, Elvis graduates from Humes High School. After graduating, Elvis went to work for M. B. Parker Machinists -- hardly the stuff of legends. However, the fates were conspiring in his favour, the pieces were falling into place, and soon all of Elvis Presley's dreams would come true.
He was about to make his first recording, and make history.
July 18, 1953 Demo Session Sun Studio
Lee Cotten has managed to come up with a probable date for this session by matching the story of a hot summer Saturday afternoon with a salary advance that Elvis received on July 14 in order to 'make a car payment' for a car that had already been paid for. (All Shook Up, Popular Culture, Ink., 1985)
August 21, Colonel Tom Parker, whose managerial skills have now become legendary in Nashville, is let go by his single client, number-one selling country artist Eddy Arnold.
Read more about Gladys and Vernon Presley, Elvis Presleys Mother and Father
Read comments from Elvis' classmates- Humes High, Class of 1953
View more pictures from these years
View pictures of Gladys, Vernon & Elvis Presley
Elvis' middle name, is it Aron or Aaron?
Early Elvis - The Tupelo Years - By Bill Burk
Elvis and Gladys, one of the best researched and most acclaimed books on Elvis' early life, reconstructs the extraordinary role Gladys played in her son's formative years. Uncovering facts not seen by other biographers, Elvis and Gladys reconstructs for the first time the history of the mother and son's devoted relationship and reveals new information about Elvis--his Cherokee ancestry, his boyhood obsession with comic books, and his early compulsion to rescue his family from poverty. Coming to life in the compelling narrative is the poignant story of a unique boy and the maternal tie that bound him. It is at once an intimate psychological portrait of a tragic relationship and a mesmerizing tale of the early years of an international idol.
Paul Simpson: Elvis and Gladys, is a fine biography of the young Elvis and the most important person in his live - his mum. At times, Dundy achieves an astonishing empathy with Elvis and this is one of the few books which genuinely has new things to say about Elvis, detailing his boyish passion for Captain marvel Junior, his Jewish and Cherokee blood, and his 200 mile hitchhike to enter a country music festival when he was just 18. One star off though, for a very weird chapter on Elvis' influences, and for Dundy's obsession with Parker, which leads her to suggest some labyrinthine plots. For all that, a must read. ****
David Neale: Interesting and detailed family history. Probably one of the very best books about Elvis -- superbly researched and written. Good read and a MUST on every fan's bookshelf!
Elvis Day By Day - By Ernst Jorgensen & Peter Guralnick is a complete account of public, private, rare, forgotten, and renowned moments, captured with such detail and immediacy they read like diary entries in a life--from first steps to the first time the young 'hillbilly cat' stepped on stage; from the creation of a revolutionary new sound to the last days of a universally known, tragically misunderstood music legend.
No longer in print. Grab one if you find one.