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Elvis Presley


Memphis, Tennessee ('48-'53)
In 1948, the Presley family was considering leaving Tupelo because of Vernon's inability to find steady, decent-paying employment. Although he and his father had gone to Memphis almost every weekend for the last few years (apparently looking for possible work), Elvis was surprised when the Presleys loaded up their 1939 Plymouth coupe and basically left town overnight. (DeWitt says they left September 12, 1948, Guralnik argues for November 6 and that Elvis knew ahead of time). Elvis had been elected to student council at Milam Junior High School, a sign of prestige and honor. He was gaining popularity in Tupelo. Nonetheless, he accepted the move. Some say this sudden move resulted from Vernon's moonshining activities: he had gotten into trouble with the local authorities because he attempted to set up his own bootlegging business. Elvis remembered, "We were broke, man, broke. We just headed for Memphis. Things had to be better."

The Presleys lived first in a rooming house at 370 Washington Street. Vernon worked at Precision Tool while looking for real housing, and they soon moved into a run-down one-room apartment at 572 Poplar Avenue, where they remained for over a year. They also joined the First Assembly of God church at 1085 McLemore Street. In October of 1948, Gladys began working as a seamstress for Fashion Curtains. While this improved the family's finances, the work was hard and stressed Gladys physically and emotionally. Elvis started attending the Christine School on Third Street in November of 1948. Here he met George Klein, the eventual class president at L.C. Humes High, and a friend of Elvis' for life. A few months later, in February 1949, Vernon found full-time employment at the United Paint Company. It was back-breaking work, loading and unloading cases of paint, but Vernon was determined to keep it to prove he could support his family. Shortly thereafter he applied for public housing assistance.

On Sunday, May 1, 1949, Elvis and his family moved into Apartment 328 of the Lauderdale Courts, a public housing project located at 185 Winchester Street. Interestingly, Guralnik says this move occurred first on September 20, after Elvis had already started his freshman year at Humes High. All in all, it was a happy move: the apartment was not only much cleaner than the one on Poplar Street, but it had a living room, two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a private bathroom. Rent was $35 a month; low enough that Vernon could easily meet it. They also acquired their own telephone. The Presleys lived in the Courts for three and a half years. Soon after the move, however, Vernon's mother and Elvis' grandmother, Minnie Mae Hood, came to live with the Presleys, having been granted a divorce from her husband Jessie D. in 1947. This caused over-crowding in the apartment, leaving Vernon and Gladys with no privacy and creating tensions within the family. Mrs. Presley was more popular than Mr. Presley in the Courts; everyone spoke of her warmth and liveliness. Still, the Presleys kept mostly to themselves. They were like a family set apart, almost sealed off from the people around them. And the absolute focus on Elvis, their only child, sometimes led even family members to feel like outsiders.

Once in Memphis, young teenage Elvis underwent a number of transformations. At his old First Assembly of God church in Tupelo, people were not allowed to see movies or to dance (although it's clear Elvis did both). In Memphis, Elvis rejected these notions. Years later he remarked "I don't like a church where you can't enjoy small pleasures." He began to pursue his true passion: music. Beale Street in Memphis was the place to hear it all, and Elvis did. Early on, he was impressed by the guitar and piano accompaniments of the blues acts he heard, because they packed such power. As a teenager, Elvis witnessed such blues greats as B.B King and Arthur "Big Boy" Cruddup. In addition to the blues, Memphis was a major center for hillbilly and country music, as well as early rock and roll ("Rocket 88", considered to be the first rock and roll song, was recorded and released by Sam Philipp's Sun Studio in 1951), all of which would combine in the 50's into the kind of music known as rockabilly. Elvis listened to a lot of this emerging music on the numerous Memphis radio stations, including WHBQ, the home of Dewey Phillips' infamous "Red, Hot, and Blue" radio show.

The scene in Memphis reflected other new aspects of the music business as well, specifically the rise in small local record labels. Sun Studios, which made Elvis famous, was only one of many such studios. These studios allowed many performers to cut records who, without access to the great labels of the period such as RCA, Decca, or Capitol, normally would have been unable to do so.

The summer after his freshman year, Vernon bought Elvis a push lawn mower, which Elvis used to solicit jobs at $4 per yard. He and his friends also sold fruit discarded by supermarkets in order to earn money. Elvis loved to work. But he also did the things other teenagers did, including playing football, going to movies, and eating shakes and hamburgers. Elvis quickly discovered the Suzore #2 movie theater, which was near the Courts. The Suzore featured Saturday afternoon bargain matinees at which Elvis, a long-time lover of movies, became a regular. Tony Curtis was one of the screen stars Elvis actively emulated- his senior photo features Elvis with a home permanent, meant to imitate Curtis' curly black hair.

Sometimes he slipped into the ghetto to listen to the black music. In these early Memphis years, Elvis avidly pursued his musical interests, listening and learning all he could. He was already practicing his future hits "I Need You So" and "Hound Dog", and had listened to Franklin McCormick's version of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" way back in 1953, in a record shop on Beale Street. He loved the group The Ink Spots, whose songs "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin" were the first he ever recorded. He often hung out in record stores, finding new and old songs alike. Anyone who had a guitar became Elvis' friend. In addition, Elvis loved gospel music of all kinds, and it was this music which brought him actively into the First Assembly of God church. As a sophomore, he discovered the Odd Fellows Hall, a place where country and gospel performers alike performed. This was the first place he saw Bill Black play. He also met up with Doug Poindexter, whose group The Starlite Wranglers featured Scotty Moore on guitar.

At the Lauderdale Courts, Elvis befriended Evan "Buzzy" Forbess, and soon met Buzzy's friends Paul Dougher, Farley Guy, and Jim Denson. Johnny Black also lived there- his older brother Bill became Elvis' bass player. Elvis and his friends roamed around Memphis, exploring the many sights and sounds. Elvis also held many parties at his Lauderdale apartment, where he often played his guitar and sang (although he was so shy he usually would only do so with the lights out). Elvis often amazed his friends by knowing all the words to every song. Gladys supported Elvis in his musical endeavors. At one point she asked Jim Denson's mother if Jim's older brother, Jesse Lee, known around town for his guitar playing, would give Elvis guitar lessons, which Jesse, somewhat reluctantly, agreed to. Every Saturday and Sunday Elvis showed up for his lessons- often they went down into the basement below the Courts to play, so as not to disturb others.

His first girlfriend in the Courts was Betty McMahan, whom he is sitting next to in one of the more famous photos of the young King. He often took her to the Suzore. Billie Wardlaw, Betty's friend, became Elvis' girlfriend after Betty started dating someone else. Billie said of Elvis, "Elvis was a great kisser, and since we were always playing spin the bottle in the dark, he didn't let his shyness get in the way." Elvis liked being around girls- even though he may not have admitted it, he felt more comfortable around them. And the women liked him, too: he exuded a kind of aching vulnerability which made them want to care for him.

In November, 1950, Elvis was hired as a part-time usher at Loew's Theater. A few months later, in January of 1951, Vernon was laid off from work due to back problems. Elvis therefore worked 35 hours a week for almost a year, despite school, using his earnings to help his family. He was fired from Loew's after getting in a fight with another boy, but soon started working at the Malco Theater. As a student, Elvis went rather unnoticed his first two years at Humes High. Although he played for his friends in the Courts, Elvis didn't reveal his musical interests to very many people at Humes until eleventh grade, when he once again began toting his guitar to school. Like others, he listened to Dewey Phillips on WHBQ. Elvis also listened to lots of other Memphis stations and was exposed to a large variety of music, everything from the blues to country to gospel to rhythm and blues.

As a sophomore, Elvis joined the ROTC. Although he loved it and especially enjoyed wearing his uniform, he quit after a year due to lack of time. He also liked reading history and literature books, and became a library volunteer worker. Elvis read voraciously. Comic books were among his favorite, because of their images of power and success, and he long admired Captain Marvel. Many people believe the lightning bolt Elvis used as his 70's trademark came from Marvel's costume. In high school, however, his friends didn't understand his enthusiasm for books, and so he turned to reading in private. Elvis hid his great love for reading for the rest of his life - he often brought trunks of books with him on tour, something which only a few knew about.

In the summer of 1951, the summer before his junior year, Elvis went to work for Precision Tool. He was eventually fired after his employers discovered he was not yet 18. Elvis kept his badge, badge #78, even though he wasn't supposed to: he'd liked the job. As a senior, Elvis started working part-time in September, 1952, for Marl Metal Products, a furniture-assembling plant. He worked from 3:00 to 11:30 p.m. every day, a heavy work load for a high school student.

Because his work was causing his grades to slip, Gladys forced Elvis to quit so that he could focus on school. She herself had gone back to work as a nurse's aide in November 1951 at St. Joseph's Hospital. One time, after Gladys told Elvis about the rich patients at the hospital, one of whose husband drove a pink Cadillac, he laughingly promised he'd buy her a new pink Caddy when he got rich, a promise he didn't forget.

By eleventh grade, Elvis appeared to have gained some self-confidence. He brought his guitar to school again. He changed his hair, wearing it long and somewhat greasy. He even tried out for football. Some of the boys on the team ganged up on Elvis in the locker room, however, threatening to beat him up if he didn't cut his hair. The coach eventually kicked him off the team because he refused to do so, although others suggest that at 6 feet and 150 pounds, Elvis was considered too small to play. In addition to his noticeably different hair, Elvis began dressing in a more distinctive manner. Where others wore jeans, Elvis wore dress pants, often in his favorite colors of pink and black. He often wore a black bolero jacket he had bought at Lanksy's clothing store on Beale Street, one of his favorite haunts which featured the latest new hip styles. Elvis seemed determined to be himself, to express his individuality through his wild clothes. Others thought he was a freak, but Elvis was aiming for his own style.

Elvis started going to Charlie's, a little record store next door to the Suzore #2. It was a favorite hangout for teens who were really into music. Henry's Record Shop was another hangout spot for Elvis, especially since black musicians gathered there as well. From them Elvis acquired immense knowledge of urban Memphis blues. Billy "The Kid" Emerson, Charlie Feathers, Little Junior Parker, and Malcolm Yelvington's Star Rhythm Boys were among the many musicians who influenced young Elvis. He collected as many records as possible, and spent a lot of time watching television. He was always studying the music scene, on whatever medium available. At noon on any given free day, Elvis went down to the WMPS studio for the High Noon Round Up, emceed by d.j. Bob Neal, his future manager. He became a regular at the All Night Gospel Singings, held in the Ellis Auditorium just up the street. It was here he first saw the Blackwood Brothers perform. Elvis was very drawn to quartet music, an interest reflected years later in his choice of the Jordannaires as his back-up group. He particularly liked the Ink Spots and the Statesmen. Music, more and more, became the focus of his life.

Elvis performed in the December 1952 Humes High Christmas talent show, singing his favorite, "Old Shep". He was the only act awarded an encore. This show increased his popularity at Humes, and in turn Elvis gained more self-confidence. Although Elvis had made some friends at Humes, including George Klein and Red West, many of his best friends in his high school years went to South Side High, including Ronald Smith, Johnny Burnette, Kenneth Herman, and Barbara Hearn, whom Elvis dated for a while. Ron and Elvis got along especially well because they were both very into music.

The Presleys had been notified in November of 1952 by the Memphis Housing Authority their income was high enough (at $4,133 a year) that they no longer qualified for public housing. Vernon received an eviction notice on November 17th, stating they had to be out by February of 1953. On January 7, 1953, the day before his eighteenth birthday, Elvis and his family moved into a flat at 698 Saffarans Street, smaller and more expensive than their Lauderdale Court home. This was a depressing situation for the Presleys. This particular apartment shared a bathroom with the other residents, a bathroom so dirty that Elvis developed an aversion to bathing, showering when only absolutely necessary and wearing large amounts of Aqua Velva. Perhaps as a consolation, Vernon bought Elvis a 1941 light green Lincoln Zephyr for $50. This was Elvis' pride and joy: he drove it all over town.

In April of that same year, the Presleys moved from that uncomfortable apartment to the bottom floor of a large house at 462 Alabama Street, where Elvis remained for a year and a half. He often practiced guitar here in front of his grandma, Minnie Mae. Their neighbors, Jeanette and Alfred Fruchter, became good friends with Elvis and his family. On April 9, 1953, the Humes High Band presented its "Annual Minstrel" show in the Humes Auditorium at 8:00 p.m. Elvis performed "Till I Waltz Again With You", and was enthusiastically received by his classmates. He also sang at the homeroom picnic at Overton Park. The picture at left shows Elvis with a classmate at that picnic.

Elvis took Regis Vaughan, a fourteen-year-old freshman from Holy Name School, to his senior prom. They never danced the entire evening, though - he said he didn't know how. He'd started going with her in February of that year, and they were together all spring. Elvis often sang "My Happiness" to her over and over again.

In May of 1953, Elvis joined Ron Smith and his band at the Hi-Hat Club as a guest vocalist. A half year before, on November 15, 1952, Elvis and Ronnie had played at the South Side High School Amateur Show. Ron took Elvis to meet Eddie Bond, who hired Elvis occasionally to sing with Bond's band, the Stompers. One of the first placed Elvis played with Bond was at the VFW hall in Hernando, Mississippi. Such small gigs let Elvis hone his delivery skills and perfect his rendition of certain songs. Even when he didn't play with the band, he often showed up at the Hi-Hat to watch Eddie's band and to stay on top of the action.

May 23, 1953, saw the First Annual Jimmie Rodgers Memorial Festival in Meridian, Mississippi. Only a week before his high school graduation, Elvis traveled there to participate in the amateur singing contest. He finished second in the contest and won a new guitar. It is pure myth that Elvis never performed anywhere before he walked into Sun Studios in the summer of 1954. After high school, Elvis entered every conceivable local amateur contest he could find. He was determined to overcome the poverty he'd grown up in.

Elvis graduated from L.C. Humes High on June 3, 1953, the first Presley to do so. The afternoon of his graduation, Elvis went to the Tennessee State Employment Security Office to get a job. He had to take a General Aptitude Battery test to evaluate his skills. The results of this test reveal Elvis' academic abilities: not only did he score highly in the manual skills area, but his math and English scores were very good (better than his grades from Humes reflected), showing he was qualified for both manual labor and white-collar positions. Elvis took a job at the M.B. Parker Machinists' Shop, and began the very next day. It was boring work, but Elvis found himself with extra money to purchase clothes, go to movies, and eat burgers. Around this time he briefly considered joining the National Guard, because he admired the uniforms and guns.

In July, Elvis talked a lot about making a vanity record. Sun Records, Sam Phillips' recording label, had recently received local publicity because The Prisonaires, a group of con men, had cut a couple of songs there on June 1st. Elvis admired Sam's production skills, and hoped to catch his attention by cutting a song. On July 14th, Elvis got his boss to advance him money on his paycheck so he would have the $3.98 necessary to record at Sam's Memphis Recording Service. For the next three days, he practiced his vocal skills and tried to decide which songs to record. On July 18, 1953, Elvis cut "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin". Marion Keisker, Sam Phillips' well-regarded secretary at Sun Records, was the one who first noticed Elvis when he poked his head in the studio that day: with long greasy blond hair, he looked shy, tentative, but he came in anyway. The infamous conversation that followed ran like this:

  • Elvis: "If you know anyone that needs a singer..."
  • Marion: "What kind of a singer are you?"
  • Elvis: "I sing all kinds."
  • Marion: "Who do you sound like?"
  • Elvis: "I don't sound like nobody."
  • Marion: "What do you sing, hillbilly?"
  • Elvis: "I sing hillbilly."
  • Marion: "Well, who do you sound like in hillbilly?"
  • Elvis: "I don't sound like nobody".

Marion, intrigued by his voice, taped part of the session to play for Sam, and noted down his name, telling Elvis perhaps they would call him. Elvis, excited by his record, played it for his parents, and then gave it to a friend, Ed Leek, with whom it remained until its `rediscovery' in 1988.

The rest of 1953 passed relatively quietly for Elvis Presley. In September he began working at Crown Electric, driving a truck delivering electrical supplies to construction sites. He continued to sing at local bars, including the Hi Hat and the Silver Stallion. He was honing his skills, looking for an opening, waiting for his chance to make it big.

That chance came in 1954.


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