Fans can’t get enough of The King
By Meghan Holmes
Photography by Marianne Todd
Connie Tullos, a longtime tour guide at the Tupelo Hardware Store, pointed to a duct tape weathered X affixed to the shop’s wooden floor. “You’re standing at the very spot where Elvis bought his first guitar,” she says, smiling broadly. “Every day people from all over the world travel here to stand there.”
Directly ahead, an acoustic guitar hangs on the wall behind her. “This isn’t 'the' guitar, but this is what it looked like,” she says. “Elvis asked his mother for a .22 rifle, and she said 'No.' He ended up with an instrument instead, and the rest is history.”
Every year, tens of thousands of people come to Tupelo to trace Elvis’ path to stardom via an Elvis Driving Tour, with 12 spots around town, including Elvis’ childhood home, various performance venues and favorite childhood haunts. The Tupelo Hardware Store occupies spot No. 6 on the tour, an imposing, multi-story structure built following a tornado in the spring of 1936 (the fourth deadliest in United States history).
“This is a family-owned hardware store, which the Booth family started across the street 91 years ago this year,” says employee Owen Sparks. “They moved to this location during a decade-long construction boom that came after the tornado, which killed hundreds of people, although it missed downtown.” The space feels older than its 75 years, with features like a 100-year-old elevator salvaged from an area hospital and custom-fitted into the building.
“It’s really like a step back in time,” says Sparks. “The squeaky wooden floors, the big, high ladders, the exposed beams. Back then all the buildings downtown looked like this.”
The building remains a functioning hardware store but also makes room for guitars and assorted Elvis memorabilia, something you’ll find in businesses unrelated to Elvis around town. Across the street, a barber shop has attached a cutout figure of Elvis, hips contorted mid-twist, to their street-facing windows above a posted hours sign.
“Down Main Street there’s also a statue where Elvis performed at the Mississippi/Alabama State Fair,” says Tullos. The statue, celebrating Elvis’ homecoming performance at the fair (he also performed there at age 10) is modeled after Roger Marshutz’s famous photograph “The Hands” and faces east towards Elvis’ birthplace. “You can get your picture taken holding his hand with the hardware store in the background,” she says.
Then there are the guitars. Sculptured guitars, painted by Tupelo Public School District students, have been erected adjacent to nearly every Tupelo attraction and serve as reminders of the city’s musical legacy, especially Elvis. More than 30 sculptures currently stand at spots like the Tupelo Automobile Museum and Johnnie’s Drive-in (Elvis' favorite burger joint), as well as along the corridor leading to Elvis’ birthplace.
The Elvis Presley Birthplace & Museum is another popular spot along the driving tour, and one locals refer to simply as “The Birthplace.” Its serene park and museum is much changed from the low income area once crowded with small shotgun houses where Elvis’ father, Vernon, built the family home. Elvis was born January 8, 1935, and lived in Tupelo until he was 13, when his father moved the family to Memphis in search of better economic opportunity. During his time in Tupelo he was exposed to gospel through services at the Assembly of God church as well as watching and listening to bluesmen in the Shake Rag community, a historically African American neighborhood in Tupelo where Vernon delivered groceries.
Shake Rag was largely bulldozed in the 1960s and the BancorpSouth Arena now occupies most of the area where Elvis listened to blues guitarists like Willie C. Jones, Charlie Reese, Tee-Toc, and Lonnie Williams. “It may be impossible to prove that Elvis learned some of his signature guitar licks and singing style in Shake Rag,” said Tupelo Daily Journal writer M. Scott Morris, “but the oral history of the area has no shortage of Elvis sightings.”
Other spots along the Elvis tour include the county library, the county courthouse, the junior high school he attended, the grocery store he frequented and the drive-in where he routinely enjoyed a cheeseburger and R.C. Cola.
Mississippi is laden with historic music markers, but Elvis is the only artist to have a dozen spots dedicated to his childhood. It is a testament to the worldwide (and local) enduring popularity of the King.
When Elvis died in 1977, President Jimmy Carter said, “His music and his personality, fusing the styles of white country and black rhythm and blues, permanently changed the face of American popular culture. His following was immense, and he was a symbol to people the world over of the vitality, rebelliousness and good humor of his country.” In the coming years, Elvis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Elvis also holds the records for most songs charting Billboard’s Top 40 and Top 100 charts, with the respective totals at 104 and 151. These statistics still fail to encompass the impact he’s had around the world.
Visitors to Tupelo enjoy the Elvis tour year round, but the town becomes overrun with Elvis aficionados and tribute artists during the Tupelo Elvis Festival. The event runs through the first weekend in June and features a tribute artists competition (don’t dare say 'Elvis impersonator' in Tupelo), as well as a reenactment of Elvis’ guitar purchase at the hardware store, among other Elvis-themed performances and events.
There is also a Tupelo Elvis Fan Club (Tullos is the president elect) celebrating the life and times of the King of Rock 'N' Roll. The group meets monthly to develop a new generation of Elvis fans and plan charitable work which funds scholarships for area students skilled in song and dance. Club members also organize a yearly “Dancing with the King” event, a weekend in March when participants attend a sock hop and dance competition and an extensive Tupelo tour with Elvis historian Roy Turner.
All the events and tributes surrounding Elvis illustrate what most people already know – his legacy continues to influence millions. “You wouldn’t believe the people I’ve met in this store who’ve come to Tupelo because of Elvis,” says Tullos, back at the Tupelo Hardware Store. “His music has traveled around the world – and it all started here.”