For the last week, American media have reported extensively on the 75th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s birth. But Elvis is an international attraction who generates a lot of press overseas as well.
A group of European travel writers visited Tupelo and Memphis in the fall to learn more about Tupelo’s native son and the community he lived in. Here are a few of their stories, as compiled by the Daily Journal’s Carlie Kollath:
Excerpts from the UK’s Mirror by Brian Hancill:
The cops arrive in a blaze of flashing blue lights – four big guys in black leather on white Harley-Davidsons.
They roll in formation to the front of our coach, make a “wagons roll” signal, then lead us out of the hotel car park, stopping the traffic on U.S. Highway 278 to let us pass.
Welcome to Tupelo, Mississippi, where our mini-motorcade is making a two-mile pilgrimage to a two-room shack: the humble birthplace of Elvis Presley. Tupelo is so happy to see Elvis fans that the local police provide a VIP escort for every coachload of tourists. And the guys on the Harleys expect a busy year as they get into gear for “Elvis 75”.
The town’s main attraction is the Elvis Birthplace Museum, in east Tupelo, a small and peaceful place compared to Graceland. There’s the shack itself – spruced up and standing where it always did. But what used to be a ramshackle street full of hand-built cabins is now a pleasant park with shady trees.
After a turn on the front-porch swing, you walk slowly through the little home, shepherded by a Tupelo matron. Take as long as you like studying the scrubbed but shabby ’30s furnishings and family photos.
Sadly, none of it is original and it all looks a little too respectable. Back then there was newspaper on the walls, no indoor plumbing and no electricity. The Presleys couldn’t afford to have it connected.
Excerpts from London’s Times by Alan Franks:
The small Mississippi town of Tupelo has played the part of poor relative in the story ever since its most famous son found world fame more than half a century ago.
While Graceland, where he died, became the most visited home in the U.S., the Tupelo shack where he was born remained virtually ignored. The town was simply not on the itinerary, even though Presley spent the first 13 years of his life there. It was regularly passed over in favour of a trek to Las Vegas, where he played long residencies, right up to his sad, bloated decline and death in 1977 at the age of 42.
Today Tupelo is on the map, for two main reasons. First, the extent of its influence on Presley’s music has been more widely recognised over the past two decades. Second, the town has tired of the neglect and promoted itself. Two years ago it modernised the museum close to the shack and annual visiting figures are up to 80,000, still small compared with Graceland’s 600,000.
Everyone – town officials, shopkeepers, people in the street – refers to it simply as “The Birthplace”, and to him as “The King”.
Given the terrible merchandising that his image has spawned, the complex is almost tasteful – at the heart is a bronze statue of Elvis, a 13-year-old boy in the dusk of innocence, about to move to Memphis with his parents.
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Excerpts from The Scotsman by Jonathan Wingate:
All around Memphis, Presley’s presence is utterly inescapable – from the sublime cheesiness of Graceland to the charmingly ramshackle town of Tupelo, his humble birthplace.
Naturally, Tupelo would be the first port of call on the Elvis tourist trail. Elvis’ father, Vernon Presley, built the modest-looking two-room wooden house that stands intact to this day. Elvis once said that the house was so small it could easily fit inside his living room at Graceland.
Without the Elvis connection, Tupelo would be just another anonymous little town with little for tourists, but its understated charm lies in the fact that it shows you exactly where he spent the first 13 years of his life before he became the most famous singer in the world.
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Excerpts from the UK’s Daily Mail by Carolyn O’Donnell:
Elvis was born in 1935 in Tupelo, a flat town in Northeast Mississippi with streets as wide as the inhabitants’ smiles. Technically he was from east Tupelo, a short stroll geographically, but a trudge socio-economically, from the upright core of the town’s life. Before the drugs, Priscilla or the private plane with gold-plated seatbelt buckles, Elvis was a poor kid, a rebellious mama’s boy who wanted to make music and money to lift his family out of poverty.
Set among 15 tranquil acres, the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum aims to capture his formative years.
The tiny two-room shack where he entered the world is a humbling confrontation with the Presley’s life on the bottom rung in the rural South. The family lost this dwelling when Elvis was three, while his father Vernon was jailed for forging a cheque.
At the Tupelo Hardware Store, Gladys Presley refused to get her son a rifle, and bought his first guitar instead. The owners of the store are, like most residents of Tupelo, extremely friendly and thrilled to reminisce about anything Elvis related.
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Carlie Kollath/NEMS Daily Journal