ABOUT THIS STORY: This article is the second in a series produced under a partnership between the Daily Journal and the Mississippi Hills National Heritage Area. Additional articles will appear in future editions of the Journal.
By Todd Childs
Special to the Journal
TUPELO – Sitting across a table from Joe “Bitsy” Savery, a bright-eyed, tastefully dressed gentleman in his early 80s, it’s easy to let your mind conjure an image of the man his childhood acquaintance, Elvis Aaron Presley, might have been had their circumstances been different or, perhaps, more the same.
The fact is that though these two boys were both born in the storied landscape of the Mississippi Hills, they started their lives in two different worlds and walked divergent paths that would cross at key points in their respective journeys.
Bitsy, so-dubbed because of his size at birth by a particularly descriptive nurse, grew up in an affluent family in the city of Tupelo, which had made history in 1934 as the first city to purchase electricity from the Tennessee Valley Authority and even hosted President Franklin Roosevelt in November of that same year. Elvis had been born to parents who struggled to earn a living literally “on the other side of the tracks” in the more hardscrabble east Tupelo that, among other dubious distinctions, had reportedly served briefly as a hideout for gangsters Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker during their legendary run from the law.
While Bitsy had attended Church Street Elementary School, lauded at the 1939 World’s Fair as an ideal educational facility, and Presley had attended Lawhon Elementary School located a few miles away, they would meet for the first time at Milam Junior High School when they were in the sixth grade.
“There was a building we called ‘the shed’,” recalls Savery, “where we parked our bikes and where kids played when it rained. At times, I brought my lunch and Elvis usually brought his. So, we would sit outside by the shed and eat our lunch together.”
Like all kids they played together, marbles and such. “Elvis was athletic, “ he recalls. “He was always picked in the first group for sports and I was usually picked last. He was never picked last.” (Ironically, Bitsy would go on to earn a scholarship to play football at Ole Miss. “Well, I was red-shirted at Ole Miss,” he modestly emphasizes. “I didn’t play that much, but I was on the team until I got married. You weren’t allowed to be on the team if you got married.”)
The two schoolmates were just that and seldom saw each other outside of school. However, Savery does remember a rare occasion when the carnival was in town and he encountered his friend on the street.
“I had never seen Elvis downtown before,” he recalls. “He wanted us to sneak him into the carnival. So, we tried to go in through a back fence, but the guard caught us.” It would not be the last time Elvis had to sneak in or out of a place, but the reasons would certainly change.
Elvis soon left Milam and in 1948 moved with his family to Memphis where the now fabled conversion from pauper to king would begin.
“We just came back to school and Elvis wasn’t there,” Savery remembers wistfully. And that was the last he heard of his friend until a mid-1950s road trip brought a familiar name back to mind.
“It was 1954 or ’55 and Hubert Gaither, a football teammate, and I went on a trip out west, “ he recalls. “We pulled into a drive-in to get a hamburger somewhere along our route and they had a nickelodeon. Hubert put a nickel in and then he said, ‘Look at this! Elvis Presley has a record on here. You reckon it’s really him?’ I said, ‘Naw, it’s not him.’ But we put a nickel in anyway. It was Elvis, of course.”
While Bitsy had been unable to sneak his friend into a carnival years before, his father, J.M. “Ikey” Savery, would bring Elvis to the fair. Ikey was in charge of the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show, which was held annually in Tupelo on the grounds where the Fairpark District is located today. He had known Col. Tom Parker from a national fair association with which the two had both been affiliated and called Parker to see if Elvis would consider returning to perform in his hometown.
“I still have the unlisted numbers for both Elvis and Colonel Parker that my dad used,” Bitsy said.
Ikey talked at length with both Col. Parker and Elvis’ father, Vernon. Vernon asked Ikey if he was Bitsy’s dad and, when it was confirmed, proceeded to inquire after Bitsy before contract negotiations got too serious.
“Everybody told my dad that no one could get Elvis, but for Elvis it was more than just a show. It was about coming back home. He only played one county fair in his entire career and that was Tupelo.”
Elvis scheduled two performances for the 1956 show. A few days before the shows, Ikey informed Bitsy that there would be dinner guests between shows. The Presleys would dine with the Saverys at their home before the evening concert. Elvis and his parents had made the drive from Memphis in separate cars as throngs of people lined the highway to catch a glimpse of the returning hero’s entourage.
“I remember seeing a beautiful Lincoln Continental pull into our driveway and there sat Elvis in the back seat with a brunette on his left side and a blonde on his right,” Bitsy relates with a slight chuckle. “That’s something you don’t forget, seeing a man with two dates.”
Vernon and Elvis’ mother, Gladys, arrived a short time later. Elvis’ devotion to his mother would be legendary as all aspects of his life became fodder for reporters and biographers, but Bitsy remembers that being absolutely apparent even then. “You could just feel Elvis’ love for Gladys. He opened doors for her, helped her into her seat and the way he looked at her, you could just feel it.”
Seated in the Savery dining room that evening, a few miles and a far cry from the shotgun shack where Elvis had lived just a few years earlier with his parents, were Bitsy and his wife, his brother, Mitchell, and his wife, Ikey and Mrs. Savery (Beulah Bell), Vernon, Gladys and Elvis, who dined on a large honey and cinnamon baked ham topped with molasses along with sweet potato casserole and a variety of other regional offerings.
Bitsy recalls the meal fondly. “Mom had chosen not to put out place cards, so everyone chose their own seat. Usually when we ate dinner my dad would sit at one end of the table and my mom would sit at the other end. Her chair had a butterfly switch on the floor underneath that she could step on to ring and let the kitchen know if she needed something.
“As we were sitting down to dinner, my dad sat at his usual end of the table, but Gladys took her seat at the opposite end in the butterfly chair. Dad’s eyes darted over to my mother silently urging her not to say anything to Gladys to avoid embarrassment. All of a sudden we heard a buzzing noise coming from the kitchen. It turns out; Gladys had accidentally stepped on the switch.
“Elvis inquired about the sound and my dad just jumped up and ran into the kitchen. Suddenly, I heard a loud noise and knew that my dad had ripped that buzzer off the kitchen wall rather than tell Gladys she was in the wrong seat. When he returned, he acted as though nothing had happened and calmly asked for more ham.”
No one beyond the Saverys had noticed the gaff and by all accounts the meal was a success, says Bitsy. “It was well-known that Elvis loved to eat. After eating a generous amount of the ham, he leaned over and whispered to his mom that she really needed to find out what was on top of that ham.”
As is evidenced by the destruction of the buzzer, Ikey had gone out of his way to make sure Elvis and his family were comfortable while in Tupelo, going so far as to warn Bitsy and his brother not to take any photographs inside the house nor to ask Elvis for his autograph.
“He really didn’t want us in any pictures,” Bitsy explains. “I remember telling my dad how much I liked the ring Elvis had on. Dad said, ‘Don’t you dare tell him you like it because he will probably give it to you.’”
The two families left the Savery home and were escorted along a predetermined route by the Mississippi Highway Patrol as well as Tupelo City Police and Lee County sheriff’s deputies to the venue. “For years,” says Bitsy, “there was a photograph for sale at Graceland’s souvenir shop that was captioned “Elvis and his parents leaving Graceland,” but it wasn’t. It was them leaving our house that day after dinner.”
Bitsy rode to the fairgrounds in the car with Vernon and Gladys past masses of familiar faces and frenzied strangers. He spent the actual concerts backstage away from the waves of screaming fans that, at one point, crowded toward the stage with such fervor that Elvis himself stopped singing and implored them to stop. “I can’t sing with this going on,” he said.
He was later quoted in the press as saying, “Last time I was here, I didn’t have a nickel to get in. Why, I used to sneak into this fair. I got carried out once or twice. Hope I get escorted out today, too.” In fact, he did…and all the way back to Memphis, but not before everyone declared the performances an unqualified success.
Bitsy recalls that after Elvis had left, the contractor for the carnival rides approached his father saying, “Next time you have Elvis here, please give the contract to someone else. All my workers shut down their rides when the concert started because they wanted to see him, too. I didn’t make a dime as long as his show was going on.”
Proceeds for the concert were to be used for a youth center in east Tupelo. Elvis’ passion for the project was evidenced in the grandiosity of the original plans. The center was to include a day-camp area, picnic area, comfort station, two horseshoe pitching courts, a croquet lawn, shuffleboard court, wading pool for children, swings, a badminton court, football field, tennis court, bathhouse and, the centerpiece, a guitar-shaped pool with diving board projecting from the guitar’s bridge.
Plans and budget for the center would continue for the next year and would involve Elvis returning in 1957 for a single, evening performance to finish raising money for the project.
The Saverys once again invited the Presleys to their home, this time for more of a buffet rather than a sit-down dinner. Bitsy, his wife and infant son were living on the second floor of the home at the time occupying a series of rooms to one side of the spiral staircase. The rooms on the opposite side had been made up for Elvis and his parents to use before the show.
When Elvis arrived he went upstairs to rest. “Shortly afterward,” Bitsy explains, “Elvis hollered ‘who is that that keeps beating on the wall?!’ I jumped up to go look and when I got to the stairs, Elvis was coming down with Baby Joe and said, ‘Look what I found.’”
Following the 1957 show, Elvis was once again whisked to a car near the stage and escorted through the back gates of the fairgrounds and back to Memphis. It was the last performance he would ever do in Tupelo and the last time Bitsy would see or speak to him.
Elvis called Ikey a few times after the 1957 concert, presumably to discuss plans for the youth center which, ultimately, received a far more modest realization than had been conceived. Elvis invited Ikey and Bitsy to Graceland. However, his dad always urged Bitsy to stay away.
“There was no particular reason,” he remembers, “but I have never been inside Graceland. Looking back now, I wish I would have gone while he was living and just visited as pals. Seeing the house didn’t really excite me, but a visit with Elvis would have been nice.”
About the author
Todd Childs was born in Ripley and began his professional writing career in 1993 at the age of 17 at his hometown newspaper. His byline has since appeared in numerous regional and national publications.
He worked for 11 years in historic preservation and tourism as director of a National Historic Landmark near Columbus.
He traveled across the South and Europe as an antiques dealer, opening his own gallery in 2002.
In 2006 he joined the staff of Southern Living magazine as a Homes Editor where he stayed until 2009. Currently, he makes his home in Birmingham, Alabama, working as a freelance writer/photo stylist and portrait artist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.