Ask anyone what they know most about Tupelo, Mississippi, and it’s a safe bet Elvis Presley will be in the answer. Tupelo was the birthplace of the “King of Rock & Roll” and the home where he began honing his musical chops with a guitar his mother Gladys bought from Tupelo Hardware for his 11th birthday. Friends recall him playing “Old Shep” over and over, as well as a number of gospel songs he learned at the First Assembly of God Church near his austere home.
Elvis was born on Jan. 8, 1935 on the poor side of the tracks to Vernon and Gladys Presley. Vernon was once quoted as saying, "There was almost body no one poorer than my wife Gladys and me." One of Elvis' best pals in
Tupelo, where he lived until his teen years, was a youngster three years younger than himself. Guy Harris’ mother Faye was a best friend of Gladys Presley, Elvis’ mother. When Guy was old enough to hang out with the bigger kids, Elvis began looking out for this youngest member of his first entourage.
“Elvis was sort of like my bodyguard,” Harris said with a smile during a 2016 interview, noting that he looked upon Presley and a couple of the older boys as his mentors – sometimes mentors in mischief. Harris shared tales of regularly sneaking off to a favored swimming hole for some skinny dipping, much to the chagrin of the boys’ mothers. Apparently, Gladys Presley could be protective – justifiably so. Elvis’ twin brother was delivered stillborn. His mother tried to keep close tabs on her only child as he grew.
After Elvis left for Memphis, he’d occasionally show up back in Tupelo to see his friends. After he hit it big, he regularly invited them to Memphis, even introducing Guy to his future wife Priscilla as “my best friend growing up.”
Tupelo is fun to visit. You you can see a lot over the course of just one or two days. The city embraces its favorite son. The showpiece attraction is the Elvis Presley Birthplace. The two-room house where Presley was born is there and the Assemblies of God church he attended was relocated to the property. Guided tours of the house are available, and the church features an uplifting, music-filled presentation that puts you in the pews in the early 1940s. There is also a spacious visitors center with loads of exhibits, walking paths and more. The place sees serious tourist traffic year-round.
An Elvis Guitar Trail includes 25 Elvis-themed guitars marking local attractions, including many that were
important in Elvis’ youth. Close by, you can duck into Johnnie’s Drive-In, Elvis’ favorite diner. Get a hot meal or just a moon pie and RC Cola and sit in Elvis’ booth (if it’s available). A great evening meal option is the quirky Blue Canoe Bar, which features creative dishes and great live music. Tupelo Hardware pays homage to its role in the making of the king and staff can tell you the details of how and where young Elvis got his first guitar. If vintage and antique cars move your needle, you’ve got to spend a couple hours at the Tupelo Auto Museum. There, Elvis’ 1976 Lincoln Mark IV, given as a gift by Presley, is on display, along with more than 100 vehicles dating to an 1886 Benz.
Click on any photo in the galleries to enlarge it
Fried Peanut Butter & Banana Sandwiches
I really enjoyed meeting Harris and sharing fried peanut butter, banana and honey sandwiches (said to be one of Elvis’ all-time favorite foods) with him. One thing stands out when you talk with people around Tupelo and that’s how generous Presley was once he became rich. With humble beginnings, spending time with his friends meant a lot.
Presley liked to employ his friends. Harris said Presley offered him a job as he was finishing high school but Harris had already enlisted in the Mississippi Army National Guard and couldn’t accept his friend’s offer. “That was back in the war days and if you didn’t do something, as soon as you hit the ground running from school, you were on your way to the Army,” Harris said.
That was sometime around 1956. Just a year and half later, Presley was engaged in his own decisions as to how to best approach a likely requirement for military service. He opted to enlist, entering the Army on March 24, 1958. He left active duty on March 5, 1960, and received his discharge from the Army Reserve on March 23, 1964.
Presley served as a member of two different armor battalions while on active duty, the first being Company A, 2d Medium Tank Battalion, 37th Armor, at Fort Hood, Texas. He then served in Germany for nearly a year and a half as a member of the 1st Medium Tank Battalion, 32d Armor.
Harris said they didn’t get to keep in touch while Presley was deployed to Europe. He left the National Guard and took a good job with a furniture manufacturer before taking a position with the Tupelo Police Department. He retired in the 1980s as a captain. He last saw his friend in 1970. Presley died in 1977 at age 42.
As memories of a living Elvis fade with each passing generation, Tupelo is working to sustain awareness and enthusiasm for his role in the formation of American popular music. The city is a key destination in the region now artfully branded as the “Americana Music Triangle.” From New Orleans to Nashville, all along the Natchez Trace and up the Mississippi River to Memphis, diverse cultures collided, creating new fusions of cuisine and sound. Much of the world’s most beloved, transformational music of the last century grew out of this region.
Tupelo is a key stop on the “Gold Record Road.” This driving trail links iconic places, guiding music buffs to well-packaged options where they can learn more about music history and experience some of the best live performances anywhere. Most destinations are within an eight-hour drive of each other. But, day-trippers or people looking to make a weekend out of it, can shrink their options to a smaller footprint with the Americana Music Triangle. These destinations include Memphis and Franklin, Tennessee, Tupelo, Mississippi, and Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Each is fewer than 4 hours by car from each other.