Recently, we had a fabulous trip tracing part of the Civil Rights Movement Trail. While mapping out the route, Elvis Presley’s name kept appearing in my research. Soon, I found out why. “The King of Rock and Roll” was born in Tupelo, a city in northeast Mississippi between Birmingham, Alabama and Memphis, Tennessee. When fame and fortune came into his life, he lived in Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee. Tupelo and Memphis, both located in the deep south, are approximately 120 miles apart. My thought was Why not connect the dots?
Despite never having been an Elvis fan, I had watched several of his movies as a child. I assumed it would be fun to see his birthplace and Graceland. There was only one problem: I was the only one in the family who wanted to do that. Assuming that it wasn’t the best program for our 11-year old, the three of us agreed that we would make quick stops to see only the highlights of each place.
To our surprise, we enjoyed both locations and spent more time than we anticipated. Why? Because Elvis Presley’s childhood was touching, his life was driven, and his legacy was long-lasting. Read on to find what grabbed our attention and why anyone traveling through the South should add both places to their itinerary.
Elvis Presley’s birthplace: the house
Elvis grew up in a loving, working-class family that struggled with money for years. In 1934, his father, Vernon Presley, borrowed $180 for materials to build a two-room house (bedroom and kitchen only) which, a few years later, was taken back because he failed to make loan payments.
We visited the house. The rectangular building had the rooms arranged one behind the other and doors at each end. This type of house was called a “shotgun shack” because a bullet fired through the front door would go right out the backdoor without hitting a wall. The old, cast iron stove in the kitchen is the only original piece in the humble property. The simplicity of the restored house, including the detached bathroom, revealed the family’s financial struggles.
In that modest cottage, Elvis Presley was born to Vernon and Gladys Presley on January 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi. His twin brother, Jessie Garon, was stillborn.
The local tour guide, who was sitting in the bedroom, had actually known the Presleys. She knew neat anecdotes about the kids who lived in Tupelo in the 1940s, including Elvis.
Elvis Presley’s childhood
The Presley family lived in different houses in Tupelo until Elvis was 13 years old when they moved to Memphis. During those years, money was always tight for Vernon and Gladys, but love and care never failed.
Music came into Elvis life early. He discovered gospel music at the Assembly of God Chapel where the family attended church services. Closed to the public for more than a half-century, the building was restored and moved to the Elvis Presley Birthplace. In the small community of Tupelo, he also experienced black bluesmen, and through radio programs, he fell in love with country music. At ten years old, Elvis had his first public musical performance in a youth talent contest held in Tupelo. He won the fifth prize.
I was personally intrigued by one event in Elvis’ life which happened on his 11th birthday. When his mom took him to a store to shop for a gift, he wanted a rifle. Concerned about his safety, Gladys denied his wish. Elvis wasn’t happy. The salesman, trying to minimize the conflict, recommended they look at a guitar. Irritated and disappointed at first, Elvis accepted the suggested present after his mother made clear that it was his only choice. Little did either of them know that day would change the course of their lives forever. Do moms often know what is best for their kids? I think we do.
From that date on, Elvis was often seen in town with his guitar in hand. Meanwhile, Vernon and Gladys Presley started dreaming of a better life, and so did Elvis. He was still a penniless kid in Tupelo when he promised his parents that one day, he would give them a beautiful house. In 1948, the Presleys packed their belongings and moved to Memphis, Tennessee.
What else to see at Elvis’ Birthplace
The Center is well thought out. Although it covers a little bit of his successful career, it focuses on his childhood in Tupelo. We started at the Walk of Life – a circle of inscribed granite blocks around the original shack where Elvis was born which tells Elvis’ life’s events from 1935 to 1977. Meters away, we found the life-size “Elvis at 13” statue.
There are more areas to explore. The museum displays a personal collection of Janelle McComb, a long-time friend of Elvis Presley and his family. Most of the exhibits contain objects, photos, graphics, and audiovisual presentations that focus on the first 13 years of the “The King of Rock and Roll.” The Memorial Chapel, built with his fans’ contributions, was Elvis’ ideal place for meditation and prayer. Last but not least, the Story Wall is where Elvis’ childhood friends share stories of their lives as young boys in Tupelo.
Note: Tickets are required to enter the house, chapel, and museum. Guests can walk on the grounds free of charge. Click here for more information.
Elvis Presley: Life in Memphis
During the first years in Memphis, Elvis was still entering his school talent contests. At the age of 18, he did his first demo acetate disc. His success rose rapidly. In his early 20s, he was everywhere: radio, television, and cinemas, working as a musician and actor, becoming one of the world’s most popular entertainers.
The years of struggle were over. At the age of 22, the caring Elvis fulfilled his promise and bought his parents a stunning 13.8-acre property on the outskirts of Memphis. The place was already named Graceland, and for 20 years, he called it home.
We were surprised to find out that Graceland is the second most visited home in America, second only to the White House in Washington, DC. That day we were three of the 600,000 people who visit Graceland every year.
The mansion took us through Elvis’ life from his humble beginnings to his rise as a superstar. Throughout the self-guided tour, we visited different rooms of the mansion, except for the second floor, which is off-limits. The preservation of Graceland depicts the style in 1977 when Elvis passed away.
Starting in the elegant foyer, we moved to the right to check the living room decorated with a white couch and wall mirrors. The music room was further back. We had a glimpse of a grand piano and a bulky TV. His parents’ bedroom was adjacent to the living room. Moving to the left side of the lobby, we walked through the well-lit dining room which featured a crystal chandelier above the dining table. The kitchen was located directly behind it. Although outdated, the house was still impressive on the main floor.
Downstairs, the style changed. It was tacky. The small Pool Room had the entire walls and ceiling covered with pleated, heavy-patterned fabric. It felt claustrophobic. The TV Room had interesting media equipment including multiple television sets and stereos, but the decor was still puzzling. Painted mainly in yellow and black colors, the room had a lightning bolt on one of the walls, which according to the audio, was Elvis’ statement of “taking care of business in a flash.”
The Jungle Room was inspired by the 1960 Elvis movies filmed in the Hawaiian Islands. This room was a bit cheesy, with natural stone walls, an indoor waterfall, and Polynesian decor. In the Trophy Building, we learned about the Presleys’ modest beginnings and the well-off years of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. It shows memorabilia like Priscilla’s wedding dress, showy suits once worn by the singer on stage, videos, jewelry, awards, Elvis’ police badge collection, Lisa Marie’s childhood toys, and much more.
The Trophy Building leads outdoors to the kidney-shaped swimming pool, and just beyond that, the Meditation Garden. It was Elvis’ private retreat. This final stop is where Elvis and family members (his parents, his grandmother, and his stillborn twin brother) are laid to rest.
The exhibition halls and airplanes
I highly recommend getting the “Elvis Experience Tour” tickets. It will not only take you to Graceland but also several massive exhibition halls (with some of Elvis’s most valuable possessions) and the rock star’s two private planes.
My jaw dropped when we saw Elvis’ automobile collection. It was beyond imagination. Remarkable machines such as Rolls Royces, Lincolns, a Stutz Blackhawk, BMWs, and Cadillacs, as well as motorcycles, golf carts, and boats filled two large rooms. His famous, custom-painted pink Cadillac (which later he gave to his mother even though she didn’t have a driver’s license) was there too. In the following rooms we saw an extensive collection of his superb wardrobe, mementos of his time in the army, photos taken throughout his life, video footage, movies, hundreds of gold and silver records, and more.
The sight had more to see and enjoy than we had expected. The 1970s outdated house with several bulky TVs was intriguing, and so were all the memorabilia in the exhibition halls. Looking at the wealth and comfort of Graceland, I couldn’t stop thinking about Elvis’s simple birthplace in Tupelo. I became a respectful fan of his love for his family, his driven personality, and all his accomplishments.
Planning your trip
- Before the trip, give your child some insight on Elvis’ legacy.
- Lines can be long. Save time by buying online tickets in advance. A regular ticket will only take you to Graceland. The additional options available include the exhibition halls and airplanes.
- The admission fee includes transportation from the main entrance to the house and a headset/iPad enabling a self-guided tour of the mansion
- Touring the house can take from one to two hours depending on your pace and how much of the details you want to check out. You may add another two hours to see Elvis’s two custom airplanes and the exhibition halls.
- There are no bathrooms in the house. Make sure kids use one in the pavilion before getting on the bus.
- Hours of operation vary by season. Click here for additional information.