The Story of Elvis’ Childhood

Elvis Age 4 1939 Vintage Photo
Elvis Age 4 – 1939

What you know of Elvis living in a mansion in Tennessee was nothing like his humble beginnings. Elvis didn’t have a ton of money starting out. In fact, his parents didn’t really have any money. And his childhood was much of a struggle, but little did he or his family know that one day he would make it out of low-income housing and into a life of luxury.

Elvis Aaron Presley was born in a two-room, shotgun shack in Tupelo, Mississippi on January 8th, 1935. The home was built by his father Vernon with the assistant of Elvis’ Uncle Vester. Throughout the mid-30s, plenty of people in East Tupelo were poor and working in factories. These people even had more funds than Elvis’ family. In fact. Elvis’ parents, Gladys and Vernon, relied on their $15 welfare check to pay for the birth of Elvis along with Elvis’ twin who didn’t make it. They had to rely on friends and neighbors to supply them with diapers.

Prior to Elvis’ birth, his mother earned $2 per day at a garment company while Vernon completed odd jobs like working on a dairy farm. Vernon borrowed $180 from Bean shortly after Gladys’ pregnancy in order to build a home. They moved into the home in December after their house was built. In the front yard, they even had chicken and cows.

Elvis Age 10 in 1945
Elvis Age 10 – 1945

The lack of material items didn’t affect how Elvis felt about his family because he had a dedicated father and a loving mother who cared about his more than anything. They ended up building a close bond with their son. She was very overprotected and followed her son everywhere. She went to church with him at the First Assembly of God Church. This is where Elvis discovered music. When he was only two years old, he was already developing his love for performing. He would get off his mother’s lap and stand before the congregation and try to sing with the hymns.

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He didn’t socialize much during his first three years of life and never strayed far from home with his mom. In May of 1938, his father was caught and taken to prison over altering a check he got off of Orville Bean. He ended up being sentenced to three years in the Mississippi State Penitentiary but only spent eight months there. When this happened, Bean took the Presley’s house, which caused the mother and son to need to find a temporary home.

Elvis – 1937

While Vernon was in prison, Gladys struggled to make enough money to support her and her son. She did laundry and worked as a seamstress. During this time, Elvis was having separation anxiety from his father going to a correctional facility. Right after Elvis’ fourth birthday, they went to visit Vernon in the state penitentiary. The family was still living with Frank and Leona Richards. The family then moved to Vernon’s older brother Vester’s house.

Elvis During His Teen Years in Tupelo Mississippi

Elvis 1954 During Career Launch
Elvis 1954 During Career Launch

When Elvis was between the ages of 13 and 15, he was a student at Milam Junior High School. Each day, he brought his guitar to school in order to showcase his talents. He played for everyone and anyone who would listen in the lower part of the school during lunch. During these years, he lived in Tupelo, Mississippi. He was in a colored neighborhood and was obviously influenced by his surroundings.

Even at that young age, Elvis knew how to perform. He would embellish his performances by adding what was known as “race music.” This is any type of sound that was common in African American music such as rhythm, blues, and jazz. Not everyone enjoyed the musical styling of their peer. In fact, for much of his classmates, his music was a turnoff. Sometimes, his peers would cut his guitar strings just to prove a point. There were a few who did enjoy his vocalization of country standards. At the time, none of his fellow students realized just how much potential he had or just how famous he would become.

None of his schoolmates were fazed that he was leaving for Memphis, Tennessee. The family was very poor at this time and had no real reason to stay in Tupelo, so the family decided to move. They sold what little furniture they had and left with nothing but their clothes and a few other personal belongings. When they arrived in Memphis, they were living in a rooming house on Washington Street. They then moved to another rooming house on Poplar Avenue. They ate and slept in one room. They had to share a bathroom with three other families.

The father applied for public housing to try to better their lives, which led them to an apartment in Lauderdale Courts. The two-bedroom residence had a living room, kitchen and private bathroom, but cost them $35 in rent each month. It was home to many other young families. It was conveniently located near theaters and stores.

Young Elvis
Young Elvis

At this age, he didn’t have any idea about what he wanted to do with his life. His main focus was just making enough money to support him and his family, so they lived an easier life. When he began school at L.C. Humes High School, he never let on that he was talented with music for fear it would be like before. He did share his talents with three boys who he instantly became friends with. Instead of showcasing his musical abilities, he focused on arts and workshop.

When he was a teenager, Elvis enjoyed country music like Sleepy Eyed John and gospel like the Blackwood Brothers. He made friends with a few other tenth graders who shared his love for music. They spent many summer evenings performing country music. He was even getting the attention of some females including his first two girlfriends, Betty McMahan, and Billie Wardlaw.

Elvis Presley, The King

Elvis Presley was no ordinary musician.  He was referred to constantly as “The King of Rock and Roll”, or “The King”, and even to this day is still known worldwide by his first name “Elvis”.  Elvis Presley is the best selling solo artist in history, having sold around 600 million albums worldwide.  One of the most popular musicians of all time, he was inducted into multiple music halls of fame and was nominated for 14 Grammys.  He also received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.  He greatly increased the popularity of rock & roll, is the number one influence of most rock & artists still to this day, is widely recognized within popular culture as the most significant cultural icon in the modern era.

The Origins of Elvis Presley

Elvis was born in Tupelo, Mississippi on January 8, 1935.  His family grew up in relative poverty but he loved music and often brought his guitar to his junior high school, playing and singing during lunchtime much to the delight of his classmates.  He was a music fanatic, and described by friends as “Crazy about music.”  By the time he was 12 years old, he had already played on the radio twice.  When he was 13 years old, the family moved to Memphis, Tennessee.  They lived in public housing for a while.  And while he was already a music fanatic, his music teachers did not appreciate his talent at the time, awarding him a “C” in music class.  Little did they know however, that a King was in their midst.

He spent a lot of time in the African-American community on Beale Street, the heart of the Memphis Blues scene, where he was heavily influenced by the style of African-American blues artists he found there. Some of his many musical influences were Sister Rosetta Thorpe, Jake Hess, Hank Snow,  Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Ted Daffan, Jimmie Rodgers, Jimmie Davis, and Bob Wills.  He regularly attended the monthly All-Night Singings where he listened to gospel music that was influenced by American spiritual music.  He also broke color barriers and attended many blues venues.  By the time he graduated high school, Elvis already knew that music was his destiny.

Elvis Becomes the King of Rock & Roll

Elvis The King Album Cover
Elvis The King

In 1954 Elvis walks into the offices of legendary Sun Records and is hired by Sun boss Sam Phillips.  By 1955 he is a regional star with his own sound, and had already performed from Tennessee to West Texas.  He was known for blending R&B, country, and blues, and was difficult to categorize in those days.  Little did people know that Elvis was to be one of the strongest influences on this new type of music the future would call “Rock & Roll”.  In 1955 he was voted Most Promising Male Artist at the Country Disc Jockey Convention, and his contract was sold to RCA.

RCA was the first to finally get Elvis exposed to on a national level, getting him booked on CBS’s Stage Show for six appearances.  He recorded his first hit: “I Forgot to Remember to Forget”, which reached the top of the Billboard Country Chart.  RCA released Presley’s first self-titled debut album, which became the first rock-and-roll album to the top of the Billboard chart, and held that position for 10 weeks.  It was thus that “The King” was born.

The Legacy of Elvis and the Popularization of Rock and Roll

Elvis without a doubt heavily influenced popular music and popular culture.  He did this by being central to the popularization of rock & roll music, which had become a cornerstone of youth culture and youth rebellion.  He helped earn rock & roll a central position in mainstream American culture and due its multiracial origins, helped African-American music find wider acceptance and appreciation of black music and black culture.  In the words of Little Richard: “He was an integrator. Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn’t let black music through. He opened the door for black music.”

He became world famous and to quote President Jimmy Carter: “His following was immense, and he was a symbol to people the world over of the vitality, rebelliousness, and good humor of his country.”  He also redefined what it meant to be a celebrity in the early ages of mass communication.  To this day, his name, image, and likeness are instantly recognizable all across the globe.  Some even say that Elvis was the single biggest cultural influencer in the 20th century.  He is considered by most rock & roll artists to be their number one influence. He had 10 albums on the Billboard chart and 7 on the Billboard country chart. He also had 18 hit singles on the Billboard chart and 11 hit singles on the Billboard country charts.  He also had countless hit albums and hit singles of the UK billboard tracks as well.

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