The humble home in Tupelo where Elvis Presley was born
The humble home in Tupelo where Elvis Presley was born

Tupelo, Honey!

ELVIS! was born in Tupelo, crowned the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, and became such a legend—and punchline—that the man himself is almost beside the point. Almost.

We’ve been rambling hard during this hottest summer in history (so far), paying our respects at various shrines and reliquaries across the Deep South. But take it from those faithful devotees of yore who crawled on bloody knees across the desert to genuflect at a splinter of the true cross or wash in the healing waters of Fatima—pilgrimages are not supposed to be a stroll in the park. How you get there is where you’re going; at least, that’s what folks way smarter than me say.

So join me now, won’t you, as we wrap up our yatra in Tupelo, Mississippi, a town of not quite 40,000 souls situated about 100 miles southeast of Memphis? This stop on our sacred expedition might not be literary, but it damn sure qualifies as Shakespearean.

Why Tupelo? Well, it was the first city to enjoy electrification courtesy of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Its location along the Natchez Trace Parkway and astride a few railroad lines has lately made it attractive for commercial interests like Toyota. There’s a nearby Civil War battlefield and a 10,000-seat indoor arena that boasts Disney on Ice and WWE extravaganzas. So far, so meh.

Then there’s that set of twins born to Gladys and Vernon Presley in a two-room shack Vernon built himself. Only one baby survived, a real mama’s boy named Elvis.

Ninety years on, twenty bucks lets you gaze upon that Tupelo shanty. It’s been spiffed up a bit since they moved it from the original location to the Elvis Presley Birthplace. Bonus: his childhood Pentecostal church came along to make the site a two-fer attraction. Plus, there’s a very fun Elvis museum—a tad idolatrous, but hey…Elvis!—and the inevitable gift shop where you can drop coin on a commemorative whatever.

Full disclosure: I unironically love the Elvis Birthplace shrine, and judging by the busloads of all-American attraction attenders, I am not the only one. It’s a place to pay respects to Young Elvis, a dirt-poor kid who was, essentially, a genius for a few years in the 1950s. His creative flash—a distinctly personal amalgam of related-yet-distinct strands of southern American music—changed the trajectory of popular music worldwide.

No Elvis, no Beatles. That’s an equation as world-changing as E=mc2.

John Lennon once explained the genius of that Elvis.

“Nothing affected me until I heard Elvis,” the Beatle said. “Without Elvis, there would be no Beatles.”

No Elvis, no Beatles. That’s an equation as world-changing as E=mc2.

The Elvis that matters hinges entirely on the roughly 50 sides he recorded from 1954 to 1958 and the nuclear blast of energy he brought to his live performances. Everything after that is sideshow.

That boy could bust a move, his hip swivel every bit as terrifying to the ’50s morality brigade as Drag Queens are today. (Fun fact: Elvis drag characters are as ubiquitous as Mississippi mosquitoes.) One judge in Jacksonville, Florida, issued a restraining order demanding Elvis the Pelvis tone down his live show. Cops hovered like vultures. Television appearances involved careful camera angles to spare the tender sensibilities of innocents. Spurred by clerical warnings of damnation, cadres of well-scrubbed youth fed Elvis records to the bonfire, a frenzy both profitable for record companies and altogether too reminiscent/prophetic of our nation’s everlasting penchant for incinerating symbols of “degenerate” culture.

And c’mon: He had a voice to die for. From guttural to honey-drip, that Elvis had tone, and he never got enough credit for his phrasing. Every bit as innovative as Armstrong, Sinatra, or Dylan, he pulled at lyrics like a piece of taffy.

Handsome? Honey, please. Elvis turned women (and men) into puddles. Look up “bedroom eyes” in the dictionary: it’s a picture of young Elvis.

But there are deep cultural debts to reckon when it comes to Elvis, especially that he rode to fame playing music deeply rooted in Black culture and that he (and his handlers) made millions from songs written by Black artists who were largely left out of the bounty. Elvis is probably the single most significant factor in the erasure of Black musicians from rock and roll.

Yet it was precisely his kinship to Black music that made Elvis so dangerous. Elvis was selling sex, no question, but so had Sinatra. It was the implicit threat of miscegenation that had the cultural priesthood up in arms. The irony is that to many whites, Elvis was too Black; for Blacks, Elvis was just another white guy who stole their music.

There is no denying that Elvis distilled an essentially Black art form into an expression that the (mostly white) youth of America was primed for. (Black folks had been rocking out for years by then; it just wasn’t called “rock ’n’ roll” yet.) But I view Elvis, in his early period at least, as an innocent, a poor kid with minimal education and a ton of talent and charisma doing what came naturally to him. The exploitation and appropriation are well documented—and occasionally overstated—but Southern music had always been a free-wheeling exchange between poor folks of all races. I contend young Elvis was not a calculating thief. He was just responding to the influences around him. It’s called being an artist.

It was his manager, Colonel Tom Parker—as slithery a villain as any Dickensian fever dream—who turned Elvis into a commodity, a transformation that set young Elvis on the road to becoming ELVIS! and, eventually, as much a punchline as a human being.

There’s no telling exactly when Elvis realized what he had become and the moral implications this entailed, but Elvis was too damned smart to misunderstand the dimensions of his Faustian bargain. Once he did—and once he accepted the terms—ELVIS! divorced Elvis from himself.

Col. Tom Parker with Elvis
Col. Tom Parker with Elvis

It is no small irony that the era when he was considered the greatest threat to good moral order coincided with the final years of his innocence.

Colonel Parker’s marketing of Elvis was the prototype for the star-making conveyor belt that has run on overdrive ever since (cf. Taylor, Michael, Whitney, Gaga, Taylor, Madonna, even dim pretenders like Creed or Jason Fucking Aldean). The template includes the impulse to slap the star’s name on anything that can be manufactured cheaply and sold in bulk, along with the common practice of management controlling creatives through flattery, death-march scheduling, and manipulation of chemical dependencies. Parker checked all the boxes.

Even so, Elvis manifested the essential energy and charisma—and that suggestion of sex always close to hand—that defined “rock star” as a cultural entity. In the end, he was an easy punch line. In the beginning, Elvis was the Big Bang.

Things changed once Elvis was drafted into military service in 1958. Whether his number came up randomly or due to rumored manipulation, his induction and service were stage-managed to maximum PR advantage. From the moment they sheared his famous hair, the threat to American morality transformed into Patriot Poster Boy.

When he was discharged, the Colonel recast Elvis in a whole new light: Hollywood. In movie after movie—all unwatchable without ironic detachment—Elvis morphed into the sorta-bad boy who would be redeemed by the love of a nice girl before the last reel ended. (Even if that nice girl was a nun!)



World-changer Elvis was gone. In his place we got a cardboard Hollywood line-reader whose music grew increasingly irrelevant. In 1963, when John Lennon appeared on BBC’s Juke Box Jury program to hear the latest Elvis song, “Devil in Disguise,” his verdict was “…he sounds like Bing Crosby now...I don’t like him anymore.”

Oh, how sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless Beatle child. But by then, Lennon’s gang were the ones inspiring kids to strap on guitars and rock out. Elvis might inspire someone to change the channel showing one of his movies, but not much more.

As the ’60s turned the corner to the ’70s, Elvis the musician grew tired and dreary (the poverty porn of “In the Ghetto” or the insufferable “My Way,” which even Sinatra recognized as “self-indulgent” treacle). Hollywood lost his phone number. He played long, lucrative stretches in Vegas and toured basketball arenas—including the first ever globally “streamed” concert, Aloha From Hawaii via Satellite in 1973. Add that to the template.

As the ’70s wore on, concert video evidence is just plain depressing. His voice was shot, and his kung fu kicks and other stage antics left him gasping for breath between songs. His sparkly white jumpsuit became more sausage casing than clothing. By the end, Elvis could barely stay on his feet for an entire concert.

1973 Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite - Elvis Presley (C.D 2016 E.U RCA Records VPSX-6098-1)

But even though Elvis devolved into caricature, he remained a global phenomenon, arguably the most famous American alive right up to the day he was found dead of heart failure, at age 42, on a bathroom floor in Graceland.

Good Career Move

One story goes that an industry bigwig, upon hearing that Elvis was dead, remarked simply, “Good career move.”

True or apocryphal, it encapsulates the sort of cynical exploitation that led Elvis to an early grave. Artists are easier to exploit when they are dead…none of that pesky creative nonsense to gum up the wheels of commerce. Dead Elvis was the perfect commodity: a quiescent avatar of a simpler time, he could now be airbrushed and repackaged ad infinitum, with nary a peep from the product himself.

His core fan base never wavered, but it grew older and, perhaps more critically, more rural and economically insulted. Despite the garish trappings of Graceland and Las Vegas—and the private jets and all the arm candy he could shake a dick at—Elvis became an icon for people “just like him.” (Not unlike the weird cult of Trump, although at least Elvis had contributed something worth admiring.) Neglected white folks from the sticks who couldn’t catch a break identified with this nice boy from Tupelo who loved his mama, grew up in the church, and married a woman everybody wanted to believe was his childhood sweetheart.

About that. Elvis met Priscilla, ten years his junior, in 1960 during his Army stint. She was just 14, he was 24, so the childhood part is at least half-accurate. Seven years later he married this native of…wait for it…Brooklyn, New York, in a quickie ceremony in Vegas, with the ratio of media to friends skewed to the business side of the scale. Never mind that Priscilla largely grew up in Europe; to the faithful, she was forever one of them, even as the King and his Queen divorced only five years later.

Elvis Presley was a flesh and blood incarnation of the Great American Novel. His story has it all: humble beginnings, a lightning flash of fame. A sinister villain who spoils our noble hero. The lonely and ignoble death.

Their marriage produced a bona fide Princess: Lisa Marie Presley, who later married—I shit you not—both Michael Jackson and Nicolas Cage, who not for nothing is a killer Elvis impersonator. Lisa Marie was also a Scientologist who died an early death from heart failure in the bathroom.

Dickens should have such imagination.

Elvis Presley was a flesh and blood incarnation of the Great American Novel. His story has it all: humble beginnings, a lightning flash of fame. A sinister villain who spoils our noble hero. The lonely and ignoble death. Hubris avenged.

It’s dad-gummed epic, as broad in scope as Dickens or Tolstoy, as cursed as Gregor Samza. Huck Finn on a great adventure who ends up Gatsby. Presley is—forgive me—Melville’s whale, a symbol so unique and vast that every reader might project their own distinctive interpretation on the saga.

As movie legend John Ford said, given a choice between history and legend, “print the legend.” (Fun Fact: Ford probably never really said that. But it’s a legend.) ELVIS! the legend has long since become the predominant figure, but Elvis the man remains close enough in memory to poke his head out, too. As easy as it is to jape at Punchline Elvis, it was that kid in the ’50s we ought to hold in memory, even as we concede that fact and legend are inextricably entwined.

And in the End...

Yeah, Graceland is way more popular than Tupelo: It is the second most visited home site in America, just behind the White House. Attendance numbers have been in steady decline to the point where went into default last year, which led to yet another chapter of lawsuits swirling around Dead Elvis.

Graceland bears the stamp of Punchline ELVIS!, that panty-sniffing drug addict who showed up at Nixon’s White House hoping to be deputized as—irony alert—some sort of federal drug enforcement agent. An isolated germophobe prone to fits of rage and hallucinations, unsure who he could trust among the users and sycophants around him, staggering the halls and shooting out televisions for sport.


Graceland evokes the ghost of ELVIS! right down to the verging-on-tacky gravesite that still draws thousands of visitors per year.


As weird and wonderful as Graceland is, it is the ELVIS! Ozymandias, where “a shattered visage lies, whose frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command” mock the larger-than-life Punchline Elvis. Unlike the Birthplace, it’s damned hard to embrace Graceland unironically.

I prefer the Tupelo shrine. A page on the Birthplace website, “The Innocence of Elvis,” captures the prevailing vibe. Visitors here are not reminded of the dark chapters, though there are surely some who also treasure the white jumpsuit era. The Birthplace represents the flesh and blood mama’s boy, a backwoods Assembly of God kid doing what he knew how to do best, a bona fide creative eruption who loved music and figured out a way to knock people sideways. A boy who wanted to make his mama proud.

In the beginning, Elvis was an artist. I’ll tip my hat to that.

Go. Listen.


About the author

 | Website

Chattanooga-based writer/musician Rob Rushin-Knopf, Salvation South’s longtime culture warrior, blogs about culture at Immune to Boredom and appears regularly as one-half of the near-jazz duo RoboCromp.

Leave a Comment