Gary & Tupelo: Where stars are born

TUPELO – One’s the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and the other’s the King of Pop, and both left rich musical legacies.
Elvis Presley’s influence on fans around the world continues nearly 32 years after his death on Aug. 16, 1977. There’s reason to believe the late Michael Jackson’s music will have a similar, long-lasting impact on his fans.
Officials in his hometown of Gary, Ind., are studying ways to honor Jackon’s memory, and they might look South for inspiration on how to proceed.
“I really think that Gary and Elvis’ hometown should come together,” said Mayor Rudy Clay of Gary. “They can give us some pointers on how to get this done.”
There’s been no direct contact, but officials in both cities have expressed interest in exchanging ideas.
“We’ve already been talking about getting into contact with them,” said Dick Guyton, executive director of the Elvis Presley Memorial Foundation. “We’ll be glad to talk to them and give them any assistance they need.”
Their plans
Elvis had a hand in shaping his hometown memorial. He donated proceeds from a 1957 concert in Tupelo to the city to buy the land where the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum is located.
Presley spoke with Janelle McComb, the foundation’s first executive director, about building a chapel on the grounds, Guyton said. Those plans were jump-started after Elvis’ death.
“He wanted a place where people could go and meditate,” Guyton said.
Clay said Jackson discussed making a contribution to Gary, a town of more than 100,000 people located near Chicago.
“Michael was in Gary in 2003,” Clay said. “He wanted to have a performing arts center. We’re going to make sure we have one.”
About a year ago, Gary officials met with Jackson’s father, Joe Jackson, about building a museum dedicated to the Jackson Five.
“Of course, Michael passed, so now we’re going to step that up,” Clay said.
Replica house
Gary is in the process of setting up a board of directors to oversee its tribute to Jackson. The city owns about six acres of land to build a museum and performing arts center. Current plans involve building a replica of Jackson’s childhood home at that site.
“Once the museum is built and we have a replica house inside the museum, I think that will be where most of the people go,” Clay said.
He said the city plans to apply for a Community Development Block Grant to turn Jackson’s neighborhood into “a cultural, historical preservation district that will include the house.”
In Tupelo, Guyton said part of the appeal of the birthplace is its location.
“It’s in the original neighborhood,” he said. “It let’s people see the area as it is, even though it’s several years later. They get that connection to where he grew up.”
Guyton said tourism traffic at Elvis’ childhood home has benefited because of Tupelo’s proximately to Elvis’ adult home, Graceland in Memphis.
Gary won’t get such a benefit from Jackson’s Neverland Ranch in California.
“But Michael was a child star when he lived in Gary, so that might help them,” Guyton said.
Whatever memorial the city of Gary eventually constructs, Guyton said it’s important to keep the fans involved. The chapel that Elvis wanted was funded by the people who loved his music.
“When Elvis died, fans wanted to do something for him,” Guyton said. “A lot of the money to build the chapel came from fan clubs around the world. Janelle McComb visited fan clubs, and I think she even went to Europe. She channeled their effort, so to speak.”
Making it happen
Work on Elvis’ memorial in Tupelo has been done in stages over the years.
“You don’t just go out and borrow a whole bunch of money expecting to get it back soon,” Guyton said, “but it will come back eventually.”
In Gary, financial questions have yet to be settled, and no ground has been broken. But Clay said there’s a will to act.
“We’ve been moving at a pace here that we’re going to step up and try to make this happen,” he said. “Not only try, but we’ve got to make this happen because this is Michael’s hometown.”
People in Tupelo are ready to help if needed.
“What we’d like to do is maybe visit Elvis’ hometown,” Clay said, “and see maybe how they did it and get some pointers from them.”
Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or

M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

Click video to hear audio