Steven Ward headshot
By Steven Ward
January 2023

Had he lived, Elvis Presley would have turned 88 this month. We took a trip to his birthplace.

Photos by Chad Calcote

If you’ve ever visited Graceland in Memphis and thought Elvis Presley’s longtime home was gaudy, overly grand, or even pretentious, it all makes sense when you start at the beginning.

Elvis Presley was born in a tiny, 300-square-foot, two-room house in Tupelo that his father Vernon and his uncle Vester built with $180. Vernon Presley had to borrow the $180 from his employer.

The home was built in 1934. Elvis was born on January 8, 1935. Had he lived to 2023, The King of Rock and Roll would have turned 88 this month.

Roy Turner, the executive director of the Elvis Presley Memorial Foundation and head of The Elvis Presley Birthplace Park in Tupelo, said he believes the best way to tackle the history of Elvis is to start at Chapter 1.

“Because this is how it all began. Come here first and then go to Graceland,” Turner, 70, said on a recent Friday at the park.


That’s exactly how Scottish sisters Geri Forbes, 59, and Edna Clark, 64, approached their big recent trip to America to investigate the life of their favorite singer.

Forbes and Clark — who live in Glasgow — planned their international trip to celebrate Forbes’ 60th birthday. The pair was walking around the park on a Friday and were slated to visit Graceland on the following Sunday.

“I’m so glad you did it this way and get to see his birthplace first,” Turner told the sisters after meeting them near the “Elvis at 13” statue.

Forbes and Clark’s mother was a huge Elvis Presley fan and played his music constantly when they were growing up in Glasgow.

“This has been amazing. The trip of a lifetime for us,” Forbes said.

Turner said visitors from Scotland were the norm. On the same day, a family from Liverpool, England were also touring the park.

Turner said the park sees between 60,000 to 80,000 visitors a year with half of that amount coming from other countries.

What to See

The Elvis Presley Birthplace Park consists of the house, a museum, a chapel, a gift shop, the “Elvis at 13” statue, the “Elvis Becoming” statue, The Fountain of Life, The Walk of Life, a “Memphis Bound” car feature, a story wall, a theatre, picnic pavilion, amphitheater, and the Assembly of God Church.

There would probably be no Elvis Presley without that church.

The church was where Elvis was first exposed to traditional, Southern Pentecostal gospel music as a child.

A minister at the church, Brother Frank Smith, taught Elvis how to play D, A and E chords on his first guitar, Turner said. Elvis sang his first gospel song, “Jesus Loves Me” as a child in that same church.

The church was moved from its original location to the park.

A mixture of white gospel music, black gospel, Mississippi blues, and the country music Elvis grew up on while listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio on Saturday nights set the musical template for Elvis’s brand of rock and roll

The most popular site at the park is the home where Elvis was born.

The City of Tupelo bought the home and surrounding property in 1957. Elvis wanted a park for the neighborhood children and donated the proceeds from a 1957 concert at the Tupelo Fairgrounds for the park. The house is in its original location and has been restored to its original condition with period furniture.

Turner said Elvis was born in the house and lived there until he was 3.

The family was kicked out of the house because Vernon Presley had to go to prison. Vernon Presley served nine months at Parchman Penitentiary on forgery charges but was later pardoned.

The Presley family moved around in Tupelo after that and then, eventually, to Memphis, where they lived in different homes until moving into Graceland.

Turner said the last time Elvis visited his hometown was in 1971.

“When Elvis was married to Priscilla, they came to Tupelo five times. Usually on a Sunday. They would drive around and look at Elvis’s childhood haunts,” Turner said.

The Elvis Expert

Turner grew up in East Tupelo and went to the same school Elvis did.

Turner never met Elvis but was a fan — not a super fan — of his music and movies growing up.

Obsessed instead with Marilyn Monroe, Turner became the local Elvis historian after a visit with a British author who came to Tupelo in 1981 to write an Elvis Presley biography.

Elaine Dundy moved to Tupelo for five months to write a book about Elvis. She needed a local on the ground to help her with research and history. Someone gave her Turner’s name.

“I love history and genealogy research. So, she hired me to help her with the book,” Turner said.

Dundy published the book, “Elvis and Gladys” in 1985.

From that time on, Turner was the Elvis go to guy in Tupelo.

In 2001, Dundy told Turner she was getting older and wanted to set up a charitable trust in Tupelo to “expose all the little elvises to the arts,” he said.

Dundy died in 2008 and in 2009, The Elaine Dundy and Roy Turner Endowment for the Arts was created.

Turner was named executive director of the Elvis Presley Memorial Foundation in 2021.

Getting to come here every day? It’s not a job. Are you kidding? This isn’t work. This is wonderful.

— Turner said.

For more information about the Elvis Presley Birthplace Park, visit the Elvis Presley Birthplace website or call (662) 841-1245.

Happy Birthday Elvis!

“Thank you very much”

Elvis Chapel
Elvis statue at age 13
Jukebox in Elvis Presley museum
Elvis Hill Statue
Elvis Church
Elvis Presley front of house where he was born
Elvis Statue
Birthplace of Elvis Presley sign outside
Category: Feature

Get The Latest Edition