By now, the story of Elvis Presley is widely known: a humble lad from Tupelo invents rock and roll and becomes a Hollywood star, an icon of the American dream, and ultimately, bloating into a parody of himself, a victim of his own success. Peter Guralnick told the legend best in the definitive Last Train to Memphis (1994) and Careless Love (1999). While it's agreed that Presley was a singular talent who successfully melded the influences of disparate cultures to create and popularize a brand new sound, "rock and roll would surely have appeared without Elvis," Ponce de Leon writes; but it may not have had the resonance and impact that the figure of Elvis made with it. Reacting to the time and the place--America in the 1950s--promoter Tom Parker saw the potential the new mass media afforded for making Elvis more than a regional star, and the "emerging purchasing power of teens" fueled his rise. Whereas Guralnick provided detail, Ponce de Leon distills Elvis' context. Benjamin Segedin
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.
About the Author
Charles L. Ponce de Leon teaches history at the State University of New York, Purchase, and is the author of Self-Exposure: The Emergence of Celebrity in America, 1890-1940. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
CHAPTER 1From Tupelo to MemphisFIRST SETTLED BY WHITES in the 1830s, the wooded hill country of northeastern Mississippi was a magnet for aspiring yeoman farmers and their families for most of the nineteenth century. Boasting rich black soil, abundant stores of shortleaf pine and hardwoods, fish-laden streams, and plenty of game, it was an ideal locale for subsistence farming. Before the Civil War, it was a region with few slave owners, where farm families pooled their resources and worked tirelessly to eke out a crude but reasonably secure living.1After the war, the hill country was gradually transformed. Newly emancipated African-Americans, who had been clustered in the cotton-producing Delta, began moving into the area, hoping to acquire cheap land and become yeoman farmers. Railroads connecting the region to Memphis and the port of Mobile were constructed, and with the railroad came entrepreneurs eager to develop the region's resources. Cotton production expanded, and open, unowned lands used by yeomen for hunting, trapping, and the grazing of livestock were bought and enclosed by speculators and wealthy farmers seeking to enlarge their holdings. Forced to adapt to these developments, many yeomen began producing cash crops, especially cotton, to earn their livelihoods.Over time, however, the price of cotton declined, and increasing numbers of farmers, black and white, became tenants and sharecroppers, renting their land from their well-to-do neighbors and buying, on credit, many everyday goods from merchants who charged them high rates of interest. As the price of cotton and many other staple crops continued to decline in the closing years of the nineteenth century, most tenants and sharecroppers fell into debt. And through new lien laws designed to benefit creditors, landlords and merchants gained a measure of control over the planting decisions of indebted farmers, which they used to ensure that tenants continued to plant cash crops and became even more dependent on them. In short, the commercial development of the hill country, like other areas of the South, resulted in the impoverishment of many of its inhabitants. Even worse, as these trends played themselves out in the 1880s and 1890s, they were accompanied by an upsurge of racial tensions and the passage of new Jim Crow laws that segregated the races and prevented blacks from exercising their voting rights.2By the early twentieth century, Tupelo, the seat of Lee County, had emerged as one of the region's most important commercial centers. Little more than a dusty crossroads before the Civil War, the town owed its growth to its location at the junction of two railway lines, which gave Tupelo's farmers and businessmen access to markets in four directions and inspired town leaders to establish one of Mississippi's first cotton mills. New neighborhoods were soon built, and the town gained several additional mills and factories, most of them tied to the cotton industry. Tupelo's growth encouraged many rural people to move to the town or to the farmlands on its edge, where they could work as tenants, farmhands, or unskilled laborers. By the 1930s over six thousand people lived within the city limits, and many more lived nearby and were enmeshed in its burgeoning economy. In the eyes of many observers, Tupelo was one of the jewels of the New South, a city that had begun to build an industrial economy out of a foundation in agriculture. It was the first city to be electrified by the Tennessee Valley Authority, and by the late 1930s it had all the hallmarks of an up-and-coming city: large, goods-laden departmentand variety stores, four hotels, numerous restaurants and taverns, two motion picture theaters, a radio station, public schools, parks, a city pool, and a municipal airport.3
BUT FOR ALL its forward-looking features, Tupelo retained a rustic ambience and displayed many of the problems that plagued towns and cities in the early-twentieth-century South. Though one could find a job in Tupelo, even during the depths of the Great Depression, wages in the city, as in the rest of the South, were low, roughly 70 percent of what they were in the Northeast and Midwest. Competition for jobs was also intense, particularly since passage of the Agricultural Adjustment Act. This New Deal law, enacted in 1933, established a system of subsidies to landowners that paid them to take acreage out of production and led large numbers of tenants and sharecroppers to be turned off the land. The need for farm labor also declined as landowners purchased tractors, which enabled them to work their holdings far more efficiently--and with fewer hands--than in the past. These trends not only increased the numbers of applicants for jobs in the factories and mills; they encouraged even more people to move to Tupelo and put pressure on existing housing stock and local relief programs for the unemployed. The economic slump was especially hard on Tupelo's black residents, who made up nearly 40 percent of the population. Confined by law and social custom to segregated facilities and the most menial forms of employment, African-Americans in Tupelo lived in a poor neighborhood called Shake Rag. Most worked as unskilled laborers and domestic servants for middle-class white families. The state's Jim Crow laws were no doubt reassuring to many whites in Tupelo; they certainly kept blacks "in their place," subordinate to whites. But by limiting the aspirations of so large a portion of the city's population, they also limited Tupelo's potential for economic development and ensured that a majority of its residents, including most whites, would remain poor.4Thanks to the region's low wages and the difficulties faced by tenants and sharecroppers, many whites in Tupelo didn't live much betterthan their African-American neighbors. Aside from the city's entrepreneurial class of professionals, business owners, and well-to-do farmers, the most fortunate whites had jobs in the factories or mills. But during the Depression such jobs were difficult to acquire, and when workers at one of the largest cotton mills struck for higher wages in 1937, the mill's management closed it down, putting hundreds out of work and increasing competition for the jobs that remained. Far more than blacks, poor whites in Tupelo were able to take advantage of local public works jobs made possible by another New Deal agency, the Works Progress Administration. Wage levels for WPA jobs, however, were pegged to local standards and could hardly be counted on to lift a family out of poverty. And with so many people moving to Tupelo from the countryside, there was always somebody willing to work for less or willing to put up with conditions others found objectionable. The same squeeze prevailed in the housing market. By the mid-1930s large numbers of poor whites resided within the city limits, in squalid residential areas near the mills or adjacent to Shake Rag. Others lived on the fringes of town, in small, decrepit shacks they rented from farm owners, for whom they sometimes did odd jobs, including working in the fields during planting or the harvest. Across the railroad tracks was the most degraded residential area of all, the hamlet of East Tupelo, where several hundred sharecroppers and marginally employed unskilled laborers lived in crude shacks without running water or electricity.5It was in East Tupelo, just above Old Saltillo Road, in a crude two-room shotgun shack, that Elvis Aron Presley was born on January 8, 1935. Elvis's parents, Vernon and Gladys Smith Presley, were young, poor, and uneducated. Both had left school at an early age to enter the local labor market. Despite their poverty, Vernon and Gladys came from well-established families, and by all accounts Presleys and Smiths had lived in the region for several generations. Like so many other poor whites, the Presleys and the Smiths were drawn to Tupelo by the economic opportunities that proximity to the city afforded, and by the mid-1930s some of them were doing reasonably well. Vernon's uncle Noah, for example, owned a grocery store, drove the school bus, and wouldserve as East Tupelo's mayor, while Gladys's uncle Gains Mansell would soon become the preacher of the small Assembly of God church where young Elvis and his parents attended services. Other relatives lived close by and provided the young couple with material and emotional support throughout the early years of their marriage.Gladys and Vernon were in many ways typical of young Tupelans their age. Born in 1912 on a farm in neighboring Pontotoc County, Gladys was dark, pretty, and vivacious, with an enterprising streak that led her to assume important responsibilities after her father died when she was twenty. When she met her future husband, she was working, alongside dozens of other young women from similar backgrounds, as a sewing machine operator at the Tupelo Garment Plant, a local factory that produced work shirts. Vernon, four years her junior, was quiet, even sullen, a hard worker but seemingly without ambition--not a surprising attitude given the hardships that poor young men like himself encountered as they grew to maturity and recognized the difficulties that lay ahead if they hoped to own their own farm or business, like Uncle Noah. He was very handsome, though, and it was his looks that first attracted Gladys.They met at a church function and soon after ran off to a neighboring town where, lying about Vernon's age to the county clerk to make him appear older, they were married. She was twenty-one; he, only seventeen. When they returned home, they lived with friends and relatives. Gladys went back to work at the Tupelo Garment Plant until she became pregnant and medical problems forced her to quit. Vernon continued working as a laborer and sharecropper for a farmer named Orville Bean, who owned most of the land around East Tupelo and relied on families like Vernon's to work it for him. Bean later lent them $180 to buy ... --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.