Gotta Find My Baby!

May 02, 2022

Elvis Before Fame (1935 - 1954)

Elvis Aaron Presley is a name that has been enshrined in the entertainment world for all his achievements and exploits since his discovery until his untimely death at age 42, on August 16, 1977.

But even today - and even among his fans - little is known about the King of Rock's life before July 19, 1954, when his first professional recording, "That's All Right (Mama)", a cover of Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup's classic, hit the market and began his climb to worldwide fame.

This post seeks to clarify facts about Elvis Presley's life between January 8, 1935 and the year 1954.

The following text, with some edits, was taken from the Elvis Presley Photos website.


Toward the end of June 1934, Gladys knew she was pregnant. At some point in the fifth month, she was sure she was going to have twins—she was unusually large, could feel two babies kicking, and had a family history of twins on both sides of the family. Gladys earned $2 a day at the Tupelo Garment Company, while Vernon worked several odd jobs, including one on the Orville S. Bean dairy farm.

With $180 borrowed from Bean after Gladys became pregnant in the spring of 1934, Vernon began building a home for the family, where they moved in December of that year. Elvis' birthplace was built by his father, Vernon, with the help of his brother, Vester, and father, Jessie, whose relatively spacious four-bedroom house was next door. Located along a road that transported residents between Tupelo, Mississippi, and Birmingham, Alabama, it nestled among a group of small rustic houses along Old Saltillo Road. The house had no electricity (it was connected but not used due to cost) or indoor plumbing and was similar to dwellings built in villages at the time.

The house where Elvis was born has been renovated and turned into a museum and tourist spot


Just before dawn on January 8, 1935, Elvis Aron Presley was born. Gladys had a second child that morning, a stillborn twin identical to Elvis named Jesse Garon. Elvis would be her only child. After the birth Gladys was close to death and was taken, along with Elvis, to Tupelo Hospital. After returning home, some of her family and friends noticed that she was overprotective of her newborn son, almost paranoid, afraid that something bad would happen to him.

In the mid-1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, East Tupelo was a haven for contractors and factory workers whose meager resources still far surpassed those of Elvis' parents. Vernon and his wife not only had to borrow $15 from Social Security so that Dr. William Robert Hunt delivered Elvis and his stillborn twin, but their neighbors and friends also had to provide them with diapers. Due to this poverty, the proud parents were only able to take the first photo with their son in 1937, after saving for a few months.

Gladys, Vernon and Elvis in his first photo; 1937


Elvis' family life was turbulent during his early years, largely due to his parents' poverty and financial circumstances; however, Elvis grows up within a close-knit, working-class family made up of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins ​​who lived close together in Tupelo. There is little money, but Vernon and Gladys do their best to support their son, who is the center of their lives.

On November 16, 1937, Vernon, along with Gladys' brother Travis Smith and friend Lether Gable, were indicted for forgery. A check Orville Bean had written to Elvis' father had been altered. Vernon had sold a pig to Bean and received a check for only $4 - a much smaller amount than he had expected. Vernon was furious, since he needed the money, so the trio came up with the idea of ​​making the check value closer to the deserved.

Court records do not include details of the amount the check was amended to, but Elvis historian Elaine Dundy says that based on recollections of people she spoke to, it was fourteen or forty dollars. According to Vernon's old friend Aaron Kennedy, the check was not altered, but forged by placing a blank one over Orville Bean's and tracing his writing. Either way, obviously, none of the men had any idea how a bank operates to prevent this fraud.

Great pressure was placed on Orville Bean by the East Tupelo community to show leniency to offenders, but to no avail. A bond was set at $500 for each man. On January 4, 1938, only two bonds were deposited for Travis and Lether Gable. Oddly, records show that Vernon's father, JD Presley, and JG Brown were sureties for Travis Smith, but not for Vernon, who spent six months in custody awaiting trial. Apparently, JD had never liked his own son, having kicked him out of the house at age 16.

On May 25, 1938, Vernon, Travis and Lether are sentenced to three years at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman. On February 6, 1939, Vernon is released from prison with a suspension of the last six months of his sentence, granted on condition of continued good behavior. This leniency is the result of a petition from the citizens of Lee County and a letter from Bean, the document having been signed by Governor Hugh White.

In his book, "Day By Day", Ernst Jorgensen affirms:
"Gladys is unable to keep up with the payment schedule of her home, causing the family to lose it, and she and Elvis are forced to move in with relatives."

In his "Last Train To Memphis", Peter Guralnick says:
"During the brief period that Vernon was in prison, Gladys lost her house and briefly moved in with her in-laws next door."

This is contradicted by Elaine Dundy in her book "Elvis and Gladys" which states: "These are difficult times for mother and child. Understandably, in view of Jesse Presley's attitude toward his son, Gladys became increasingly uncomfortable living next door to her father-in-law. At some point during Vernon's prison sentence, Gladys moved in and stayed with her cousin Frank Richards."

Whatever the reason the Presleys never returned to the house Vernon had built, the stories differ on this and how the house ceased to be their property.

Elvis in 1939


On May 16, 1940, Vernon, Gladys and Elvis, along with their cousins ​​Sales Presley, his wife Annie and their daughter, live in Pascagoula, a port near Biloxi on the southern tip of the Mississippi on the Gulf of Mexico. Vernon and Sales found work on a project to expand the Pascagoula shipyards. On June 20, missing family and friends, both families returned to East Tupelo. For a time, the Presleys share a house on Reese Street with Vester and Clettes. On November 3, Vernon receives a full suspension of his sentence and takes Gladys and Elvis to live in a rented house at 510 1/2 Maple Street. In January 1941, Elvis would enter first grade at East Tupelo Consolidated School.

In 1942, during World War II, while Vernon was away helping to build a POW camp, Gladys was admitted to the hospital. In the words of Leona Moore, now a retired nurse working at the Tupelo Hospital at the time: "The truth is, she had a miscarriage." This explains why Gladys never had another child; she tried and unfortunately failed. Elvis was supposed to remain an only child.

From the age of eight, in 1943, Elvis would spend many Saturday afternoons at the Tupelo Courthouse, from where WELO Radio broadcasted Saturday Jamboree, an amateur program that started at 1 pm and ran until 4:30 pm and had audiences of up to one hundred and fifty people. Anyone could sing or play on the show, and Elvis did so many times, with "Old Shep" being just one of many songs he sang.

On August 18, 1945, Vernon buys a new four-bedroom house on Berry Street in East Tupelo, previously owned by Orvile Bean. The price is 2 thousand dollars, with an advance of 200 and monthly installments of 30 dollars, plus 6% interest. A month later, as he entered fifth grade, Elvis, along with the rest of the boys, hoped that, of all the teachers, he would not get Mrs. Oleta Grimes (daughter of Orville Bean). She had a reputation for being tough, the one no one could get away with, and she fell into the Elvis crowd.

At the beginning of this school term, Mrs. Grimes asked the students if any of them would like to say a prayer. Elvis got up, prayed and then went straight to his version of "Old Shep". Mrs. Grimes was very impressed. "He sang so sweetly," she told Elaine Dundy. She took him to the school principal, Mr. Cole, and Elvis sang again. Mr. Cole was equally impressed. This was a few weeks before the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show held in Tupelo. Elvis was promptly enrolled.

October 3, 1945 was children's day at the fair at Fairgrounds, in the middle of the big city. Ten-year-old Elvis sings "Old Shep" at the young talent contest. The show is broadcast by WELO. Legend has it that, wearing glasses and standing on a chair to reach the microphone in front of several hundred people, Elvis won second place, which would have given him $5 and free entry to all rides at the fair. However, he may have placed fifth, but he probably didn't win an award. By his own recollection, Elvis took fifth place and received a punishment from his mother, probably for taking one of the more "dangerous" adventures.

Rare color photo of Elvis at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair & Dairy Show
on October 3, 1945


On January 8, 1946, Elvis' eleventh birthday, Gladys buys his first guitar at the Tupelo Hardware Store, at a cost of $7.90. According to store owner FL Bobo, Elvis really wanted a rifle, but his mother was adamantly against it and convinced him to keep the guitar she could afford - and Elvis couldn't - instead of the rifle she didn't want and could not buy. In the end, after some thought, Elvis gladly accepts the guitar. Other versions of this story claim that it was a bicycle he wanted. For a country boy in particular, the sound of a rifle seems more likely, mainly given Elvis' penchant for it later on.

July 18, 1946: Just eleven months after purchasing the house on Berry Street, Vernon "sells" it - actually just transferring title to friend Aaron Kennedy for $3,000 to avoid foreclosure proceedings. Immediately, Aaron grants Orville Bean a deed of trust, which is the same thing as a mortgage. The Presleys move to Tupelo, first to Commerce Street, then to Mulberry Alley, a small alley that ran alongside the fairgrounds, just across from the city's black neighborhood, the "Shake Rag".

In September of that year, Elvis enters the sixth grade of Milam Junior High School. He sings a song at the invitation of Ms. Camp, who remembers: "He was so good that the children were silent and satisfied with him."

In 1947, when Elvis was twelve years old, Mississippi Slim let him sing on two occasions. Slim, a country singer, was Elvis' first musical hero. "He was crazy about music... That's all he talked about," recalls James Ausborn, Mississippi Slim's younger brother.

There was a small problem with his first appearance. Slim had announced that a young boy, Elvis Presley, would be there, but when the time came, he had such a bad case of "stage fright" that he couldn't get inside. He went the following week and on at least one occasion was supported by Slim as he sang.

In September of the same year, when Elvis enters seventh grade, the family is living at 1010 Green Street in Tupelo, a designated white-only house in a respectable, "colored" neighborhood.

On November 6, 1948, when Elvis was in 8th grade, the Presleys moved to Memphis, Tennessee, about 80 miles northwest of Tupelo, and lived in boarding houses downtown for most of the following year. On his last day at Milam, at the request of the class, the teacher gave Elvis thirty minutes to perform. The last song he sang was the traditional "Leaf On a Tree".

In Memphis, he is enrolled in eighth grade at Humes High School as Elvis Aaron Presley. On September 20, 1949, the Presleys receive approval to live in Lauderdale Courts, a 66-building, 433-unit public housing project on the north end of downtown Memphis.

Rare photo of Vernon and Elvis in 1948


Elvis' musical horizons widened during his high school years. He took advantage of the many ways to listen to music in Memphis - radio, church, record stores, nightclubs and more, and also played in a band with four other boys from Lauderdale Courts.

During his freshman year at Humes High School, Elvis also began to focus on his appearance. He let his hair and sideburns grow longer and donned wild, flashy clothes that made him stand out, especially in the conservative and conformist Deep South of the 1950s. He wore dress pants to school every day - everyone wore jeans, but he wore dress pants. And he wore a coat and a scarf like a tie, like he was a movie star. Of course, he got a lot of criticism for that, because he stood out so much. People thought that was really weird. It was as if he was already portraying something he wanted to be.

Life remains difficult. Vernon and Gladys go from job to job. Elvis works in various places to help support himself and his parents. The Presley-Smith clan remains united and Elvis and his family participate in the Assembly of God's Church. The teenager remains known for singing with his guitar. He buys his clothes on Beale Street, a black stronghold, and absorbs the Blues and Gospel he hears there. He is also a regular audience member at the white and black services held downtown.

At age 13, Elvis forges a marriage certificate very impulsively and obviously very passionately, copying his parents' original and putting his name and that of Magdaline Morgan. Elvis had met Morgan at the Assembly of God. He writes "September 11" as his "wedding" date, something Magdaline expressed great surprise to discover nearly 50 years later.

Elvis loved comic books, in particular his favorite: Captain Marvel Jr. Cousin Harold Loyd recalls that when Elvis was in high school in Memphis, the two exchanged comics: "Sometimes I would borrow some from him. He would lend them because he knew I would return them in good condition."

In the meantime, in 1950, Sam Phillips timidly opened the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue.

In late 1952, the Presleys' combined income exceeded the maximum allowed by the Memphis Housing Authority, so the family moved from Lauderdale Courts to a boarding house on nearby Saffarans Street and then an apartment at 462 Alabama Street, across from the courthouse. Although the Presleys were forced to leave the housing project, they chose to remain in the same neighborhood.

As Elvis' passion for music grew, his schoolwork suffered. A variety of As, Bs and Cs during his freshman year at Humes High had degenerated to the point where he became a D+ student. He spent much of his free time going to the movies and record stores. Elvis also attended late-night Gospel singing sessions with his parents at the Ellis Auditorium, where he watched some of the lively moves of more extroverted performers. Gospel encapsulated the spirituality and physicality that were at the heart of Elvis Presley's musical style, but when he sang and played guitar at parties, he was more likely to do a Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, or Perry Como pop number.

Elvis in 1950


On January 19, 1953, Elvis registers with the US Selective Service System. Under the preliminary system, youth in good health were expected to be available from age 18 to serve in the Armed Forces for two years of active duty and then four years in reserve.

On April 9, a few months before graduating from high school, Elvis performed at Humes High's annual Minstrel Show. Sixteenth of a list of 22 performances, listed on the show as "Elvis Prestly", he shocked students, parents and teachers with his performance of Teresa Brewer's "Till I Waltz Again with You". Both Elvis and his classmates interpreted this as the beginning of his rise to fame. Elvis would later say: "It was amazing how popular I became after that."

It was a seminal moment. As a scene from one of his future films, Elvis cast aside his own shy personality in favor of a popular and lively personality, and the quirky-looking young man began to attract the attention of his peers like flames attract moths.

On June 3, 1953, Elvis graduates from Humes High School. Next, he goes to work for the M.B. Parker Machinists - hardly a legend-maker. However, fate was conspiring in his favor, the pieces were falling into place and soon all Elvis Presley's dreams would come true. He was about to make his first recording and go down in history.

Although Elvis' first recording for the Memphis Recording Service, an acetate of the songs "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin", is dated July 18, 1953, it is still disputed. Elvis historian Lee Cotten managed to arrive at the likely date for this session by combining the story of a hot summer Saturday afternoon with a salary advance Elvis received on July 14 of that year to "make the car payment", which had already been paid. (All Shook Up, Popular Culture, Ink., 1985)

It is during this same period, more precisely on August 21, 1953, that Colonel Tom Parker, whose administrative skills have become legendary in Nashville, is dismissed by his only client, country singer Eddy Arnold, and heads to Memphis and the surrounding area in search of his new talent.

Elvis and Rosemary Barraco during graduation picnic; May 1953

The record provided an excellent gift for Gladys, although it is a fact that Elvis' family did not have any record player to play it, which raises in many researchers of the King of Rock's history the question of what would be the real reason for that recording.

Maybe Elvis just wanted to give his mother a gift, but maybe he also knew his potential and wanted to show it to the studio experts. The birthday present version makes even less sense when you know that the recording took place in July and Gladys' birthday was in April. Either way, the Memphis Recording Service would pass up the opportunity on this occasion.

But Elvis would return to record two more songs, "I'll Never Stand in Your Way" and "It Wouldn't Be the Same (Without You)", on January 4, 1954, showing that he had not given up on showing his talent, despite assuring everyone that he just wanted to know how his voice sounded on a record and if it would sound the same as the previous one.

This time the session would cost even more, $8.25, but even so, he was determined to record and probably had the certainty that he would be noticed. It wouldn't be the time yet, but the singer was a mere 5 months away from fame.



Edited from: Elvis Presley Photos and Elvis Presley Index (last two paragraphs)
Photos: Google and Elvis Presley Photos
Research: Elvis Presley Index |
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