Last Updated on May 10, 2023

Born in poverty and raised amidst adversity in Tupelo, Mississippi, little did Elvis Presley know that he was destined for greatness. But he was determined to succeed and ultimately became one of the world’s most beloved entertainers.

Elvis in Tupelo, Mississippi learned to sing, play guitar, and dream of a brighter future – and despite the odds against him, he never lost sight of that dream.

This is the story of the boy who would become the King of Rock’ n’ Roll and the town that gave him his start.

In Tupelo, I studied how Elvis’ formative years forged the iconic legend. I visited the humble two-room shack where Elvis took his first breath, and I discovered the people and places integral in developing his unique sound and style.

The Elvis’ Tupelo Driving Tour made this possible, and is available online or at the Tupelo Visitor’s Center.

The Presley Family in Tupelo, Mississippi

In 1934, East Tupelo was a separate municipality regarded by some as the “roughest town in north Mississippi.” This where our story begins.

The Great Depression weighed heavily on the rural South, and times were hard. At only 18 years old, Vernon Presley borrowed $180 from his employer and built a small home to share with his wife, Gladys.

The Presleys struggled financially, as did everyone in East Tupelo’s impoverished working-class community. Men were eager to get jobs as day laborers working on farms, railroad lines, or carpentry. Gladys Presley worked in the Tupelo Garment Center to help support the household while pregnant with her twin boys.

Tupelo Elvis House

Elvis Presley Toledo house birthplace.
Elvis Presley Tupelo house birthplace. Photo by Gwyn Goodrow

Imagine this young couple, weary and unable to afford proper medical care when their twins were born in the early morning of a wintry day. Their firstborn, Jessie Garon Presley, did not survive. The childbirth was complicated, and Gladys was soon hospitalized with their surviving son, Elvis Aron Presley, born on January 8, 1935.

The birthplace of Elvis Presley is a small and simple shotgun-style house. It contains only two rooms with an open fireplace separating the bedroom from a modest kitchen – no indoor plumbing or electricity.

It is from his humble abode that Elvis Presley first faced the world.

Elvis’ time in his birthplace home was short-lived. When he was still a toddler, Vernon was incarcerated due to a forgery conviction. Gladys was forced to leave the home when young Elvis was just three years old.

He probably recognized anxiety and fear in his mother during this time. That may be why he was so close to his mother and always wanted to provide for her. While there are conflicting stories on where Gladys and Elvis lived after the eviction, the Presleys never returned to live in the birthplace house.

Elvis: Tupelo, Mississippi

During one of the most devastating tragedies in its history, Tupelo demonstrated its resilience and strength. A tornado wreaked havoc on the town on April 5, 1936, killing more than 200 people and leaving countless injured and homeless. The Willis Heights and Gum Pond neighborhoods were among the hardest hit, and this horrendous event left an indelible mark on Tupelo’s heritage.

Despite the destruction, residents of Tupelo joined forces and rebuilt their beloved town. This environment would have impacted Elvis’ view of family and faith. Even though he was only a year old at the time, the tornado forever changed the culture of Tupelo and its residents. Perhaps the tornado and hometown perseverance inspired his famous words:

“When things go wrong, don’t go with them,” Elvis Presley.

Gospel Music Influences at the Assembly of God Church

Elvis Tupelo Mississippi Assembly of God Church.
Elvis Tupelo Mississippi Assembly of God Church. Photo by John Goodrow

The vibrant Pentecostal sermons, soul-stirring choir music, and harmonious gospel quartets at the Assembly of God Church were an integral part of the Presley family’s routine. This one-room church served as a place of worship and a hub for community social activity. Congregants spent hours singing hymns, and the fellowship extended long into the night.

At home, Elvis immersed himself in the rich world of gospel and country music through the radio (powered by a car battery). Both genres proved to be major influences on his future career.

Fortunately, the Assembly of God church building still stands today. It is open for individual and group tours, with an immersion experience that allows visitors to absorb the religious influences that played such a pivotal role in Elvis’ life.

Early Education at Lawhon Elementary School

Undoubtedly, elementary school years swayed Elvis’ thoughts in the early 1940s. At Lawhon Elementary School, he established relationships with students and teachers who helped shape his upbringing and love of music.

During the morning assembly, Elvis even sang with his classmates on the auditorium stage.

His 5th-grade teacher was so impressed with his singing that she entered Elvis in the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show, where he was a competition award winner.

Slide On in at Mud Creek

As I stood on the banks of Mud Creek, I could almost feel Elvis’ lingering presence. Here he experienced freedom and joy while surrounded by nature and his closest companions. It’s easy to imagine Elvis and his friends romping through the fields or his laughter echoing off the rocks as he plunged into the muddy waters.

Even though times have since changed, this creek remains a key part of Elvis’ story. Fans come here as a reminder of simpler days gone by, not only because of Elvis but to find the connections we share through friendship and fond remembrances of our own carefree childhood moments.

Johnnie’s Drive-In Tupelo, Mississippi

The Elvis Booth at Johnnie's Drive-Inn
The Elvis Booth at Johnnie’s Drive-In. Photo by John Goodrow

Johnnie’s Drive-In is a beloved Tupelo institution where locals eat and meet, and the ‘regulars’ welcome hungry visitors and Elvis fans alike. The restaurant serves a unique dish called the “doughburger,” a hamburger meat patty mixed with dough or other starchy fillers and then fried. Initially created out of necessity during tough times when meat was scarce, doughburger recipes have been passed down for generations and have become a traditional meal in the South.

Inside Johnnie’s Drive-In, a piece of Elvis’s history comes alive at The Elvis Booth. With his famous 1956 photo displayed above, fans mimic his pose at the moment when he was on the cusp of stardom.

It made me so happy to be there – the warm, Southern hospitality coupled with hearty food and generous portions makes it easy to see why even the “King of Rock’ n’ Roll” would return here for lunch.

This is still a simple place. When visiting Johnnie’s Drive-In, bring your checkbook or cash as credit cards are not accepted.

Birthday Gift Guitar at Tupelo Hardware

Tupelo Hardware Elvis Souvenirs.
Tupelo Hardware Elvis Souvenirs. Photo by Gwyn Goodrow

In the heart of the town lies a hardware store with a special place in music history: Tupelo Hardware. It’s where young Elvis Presley received his first guitar for his eleventh birthday. The store, in operation since 1926, has become a landmark for Elvis fans.

As I walked through its doors, I could almost feel the excitement of Elvis holding his new guitar.

The air is thick with the scent of old wood and musty hardware, and the shelves are stacked high with an eclectic mix of tools, nuts and bolts, and other odds and ends. But a framed artwork named “The Magic Moment” stands out above the counter.

“The Magic Moment” depicts young Elvis holding his brand-new guitar. It’s a powerful image that captures the boy’s hesitant first chords as his mother and the shopkeeper look on in the background.

You will find Elvis Screwdrivers and discover regional travel books and must-have Tupelo Hardware Company (THC) branded items such as t-shirts and caps. It’s a charming blend of practical hardware and pop culture that reflects the unique history of this small Mississippi town.

Saturday Jubilee at the Lee County Courthouse

When we ponder Elvis Presley’s rise to stardom, we often think of vibrant stage performances and memorable hits like “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock.”

But his first performances were less dramatic. Each week at the Lee County Courthouse, the Saturday Jamboree talent show gave young performers like Elvis a chance to showcase their skills. Elvis often sang “Old Shep,” a mournful country song about the love between a boy and his faithful dog.

This talent show radio broadcast is the platform where Elvis first impressed listening audiences with his unique voice and style. The courthouse is a beautiful copper-domed building, and it’s easy to imagine the excitement that must have filled the air during those Saturday performances.

The Homecoming Concert at Fair Park

Elvis returned to Tupelo in September 1956 for the Mississippi-Alabama State Fair and was met with “Elvis Presley Day” accolades. This event is known as “The Homecoming.” A festive parade and two concerts were a massive success, drawing in thousands of Elvis fans. This performance was the largest crowd Elvis had ever performed for in Mississippi and cemented his stature as a rising star.

After the concerts, Elvis donated money to the city. Remembering the hardships of his early years, he asked them to purchase the birthplace house and 15 acres to build a park for the children of East Tupelo.   

At age 21, Elvis’ generosity made a difference for the families still living in east Tupelo. Fans visiting Fair Park (only two blocks from the Tupelo Visitor’s Center) will recognize the statue replicating of “The Hands” photo from the 1956 event. Visitors’ outstretched arms can reach upwards as adoring fans re-imagine that celebratory day when Elvis returned as a hometown hero.

Perhaps it was fate.

“When I was a boy, I always saw myself as a hero in comic books and in movies. I grew up believing this dream,” Elvis Presley.

To truly understand the man behind the legend, visit Tupelo, Mississippi. Although he only lived there for a few years, the city attracts millions of Elvis’ fans worldwide.

The Elvis’ Tupelo Driving Tour is an insightful way to explore the city through the eyes of a young Elvis Presley. The tour includes 14 stops at significant places, and bronze placards explain the profound impact of each site.

These include his birthplace, the church, and the hardware store where he got his first guitar. Tourists enjoy lunch at Johnnie’s Drive-In, just like Elvis did when he was growing up, or pause to appreciate Fair Park’s “Elvis Homecoming Statue” and learn how Elvis supported his hometown, even after he moved to Memphis.

Elvis Presley’s childhood stories have left their mark on Tupelo, and it’s no surprise that music fans from around the world flock to this town to learn about his early years. The city of Tupelo has done an exceptional job preserving and restoring the locations where Elvis lived, learned, and performed.

Experience the allure of Tupelo through its blend of nostalgic charm and musical history. It’s the ultimate destination for any Elvis Presley fan, offering a glimpse into his early formative years.

Author

  • Gwyn Goodrow

    Gwyn Goodrow is a happy explorer who seeks to uncover the human connection with each journey. Through her creative lens and interest in cultures, she illuminates compelling stories. Every adventure promises something new.