“Can’t pay the rent. I got a heart full of dreams and a lot of memories”
Lyrics from Poor Boy from the 1956 film Love Me Tender
I obtained my most respect for Elvis and his career by learning about his life before the fame. He came from humble beginnings and rose to become one of the greatest (in my mind the absolute greatest) entertainer of all time. Elvis started a new genre of music and set the bar to new musicians who would not have had a chance had it not been for Elvis. Taking a look at the history of Elvis’s life before the fame, during the fame, and even after his life shows just how influential and inspiring he was. Elvis really was living an American dream that most people would never know about.
“A poor little baby child is born in the ghetto”
Lyrics from In The Ghetto
Elvis Aron Presley was born January 8th,1935 in a two-bedroom shack his father Vernon Elvis Presley and Uncle Vester built in Tupelo, MS. He was born 30 minutes after his twin brother Jesse Garon Presley, who was still-born. Their mother, Gladys Love Presley and Vernon buried Jesse the next day at Priceville Cemetery. Vernon constantly struggled to find work, and with the new family member, it was essential to find income. Vernon and Vester had built this shack after borrowing money from Vernon’s boss.
On November 17th, 1937, Vernon was indicted on one count of forgery and placed on a $500 bond. This price was impossible for the Presley’s to afford. Vernon changed the amount on a check from his boss from $3.00 to $8.00 and then cashed it. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 3 years at Parchman Farm State Penitentiary. Since Vernon had borrowed money from his boss to build the house, it left Gladys and Elvis without a home and forced into Vernon’s parents’ home. Vernon was released January 4th, 1941 and struggled to find work. The family constantly moved around while Vernon tried to find work.
(Recorded years later)
October 3rd, 1945 Elvis entered his first talent contest during “Children’s Day” at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show. Elvis was so little, he had to stand on a chair to reach the microphone and sang Old Shep acapella. He won second place, a five-dollar prize, and a free ticket to ride all the rides at the fair. By his next birthday, he was torn between wanting a bicycle or a .22 caliber rifle. On January 8th, 1946, at the age 11, Elvis received a guitar. Over that year, his uncle Vester gave him guitar lessons.
“I nearly ’bout starved to death down in Memphis. I run outta money and luck”
Lyrics to Guitar Man
Elvis’s father Vernon still struggles to find work. Almost penniless, Vernon packs up the family and hopes for a better life in Memphis, TN. Gladys’s brothers find Vernon a job at the Precision Tool Company and the Presley’s start a life in an apartment on Poplar Avenue. Somehow, Vernon loses yet another job in 1949 and applies for public assistance to pay for rent. The Memphis Housing Authority finds them a two-bedroom apartment in a housing project.
“We were broke man. We just left overnight. Things had to be better”
Quote from Elvis, later on in life, regarding the quick move to Memphis, TN
With the constant struggle for his father to find work, Elvis begins working in September of 1950 as a sophomore. He works in the library at his high school, Humes High School. Elvis also works at night as an usher at Loew’s State Theater. Because of the late hours, Gladys has Elvis quit since she worries about him being out too late. June of 1951, Elvis joins ROTC at his high school and begins working at Loew’s again. He is fired shortly after getting into a fistfight with fellow usher over a female coworker. Though he had high hopes of being on the football team, he was cut when he refused to cut his hair.
Elvis takes on a job at Marl Metal, which is a metal fabricator, but his mother forces him to quit. This time, Gladys insists because his grades are slipping and Elvis has just started his senior year of high school. Because of the family’s lack of income, Gladys begins working as a nurse’s aide, but with the combined family income, it disqualifies them from the public assistance housing and by November they are told to move. The family rents two rooms in a home, but after two more moves, they finally find themselves settled in an apartment in April of 1953.
Elvis sings in the Humes High School Band Annual show and the audience responds positively, despite Elvis constantly getting mocked for carrying a guitar and dressing and styling his hair differently from the others in his class. Graduating June 3, 1953, Elvis majored in Shop, History, and English. The very next day he accepted a job with Parker Machinists Shop.
(actual recording from Memphis Recording Service)
July 18th, 1953 is when Elvis’s musical journey truly began. Walking through the doors of Sam Phillip’s Memphis Recording Service to make a record, Elvis accompanied himself on the guitar while singing My Happiness and That’s When Your Heartache Begins. Marion Keisker was working in the studio and turned on the studio tape machine when she hears him sing. She takes down his phone number and address and passes the information along to Sam.
That’s When Your Heartache Begins
(actual recording from Memphis Recording Service)
Elvis changes jobs in September of 1953 and begins working as a truck driver with Crown Electric. With this new path, Elvis decides to become an electrician and studies on it when he is not out exploring the music scene. Elvis continues to wait for a phone call from Sam Phillips saying his dreams are about to come true, but Vernon constantly pushes Elvis to be realistic. Still having hope, things change for Elvis in 1954. 1954 is just the beginning of what will become of Elvis Presley.