Heartbreak Hotel and Other Humble Beginnings

On January 8, 1935, in a two-room shotgun house in East Tupelo, Mississippi, a woman named Gladys gave birth to a son, Jesse Garon. The child, unfortunately, was stillborn. Thirty-five minutes later, the second of the twins arrived alive, to the great relief of both mother and father. They named the child Elvis Aron (later spelled Aaron) Presley.

The world would eventually know him simply as Elvis.

But, before all that, beginning from the day of his birth and the heart-breaking loss of his twin, Elvis’s life was one marked by hardship and poverty. His father, Vernon, worked odd jobs to provide for his family, though both money and basic necessities were often scarce. They were often forced to rely on help from neighbors and government assistance. Times were so tough, in fact, that in 1938, Vernon was sentenced to three years in prison for forging a $4 check. Though he spent less than a year behind bars, the family lost their house and were forced to move in with relatives.

Despite the difficult circumstances, Elvis’s childhood was filled with the love of a close-knit family. He had a close bond with both parents but especially his mother, who made him the center of her world after the devastating loss of Jesse. He was also surrounded by cousins, grandparents, uncles, and aunts.

He also had music. It was at the Assembly of God Church in Tupelo, which he attended weekly with his family, that Elvis was first introduced to the deep, soul-touching sounds of gospel songs. He was further inspired by the blues musicians who played around his neighborhood as well as the country music radio programs enjoyed by his family. Music awoke something deep within him, something for which he, from a very early age, already showed a natural talent to pursue.

On October 3, 1945, ten year-old Elvis, at the encouragement of a schoolteacher who’d heard him sing during morning prayers, entered a talent show at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show in Tupelo. Standing on a chair so he could reach the microphone, he belted out a version of Red Foley’s song “Old Shep,” which was broadcast locally over WELO Radio.

He won fifth place. His prize? $5.00 in fair ride tickets.

Even the greatest have humble beginnings. 😉

A few months later, on his 11th birthday, Elvis received his first guitar. It wasn’t the bicycle he had actually wanted (his parents couldn’t afford it), but he accepted the gift gracefully and soon after began lessons with a few of his uncles and a new pastor at his church. Despite his initial hesitation, he soon became taken with the instrument, even taking it to school and playing it during lunchtime, despite the teasing he often suffered at the hands of classmates who viewed him as a “loner hillbilly.”

Elvis began to sleep, eat, and breathe music. He became enthralled with the Mississippi Slim show on WELO. Slim’s younger brother was a classmate’s of Elvis, and he often took him into the station. Slim supplemented Presley’s guitar instruction by demonstrating chord techniques and, when he was twelve years old, Slim scheduled him for two on-air performances. Presley was overcome by stage fright the first time, but succeeded in performing the following week.

But by late 1948, things had become so economically dire for the Presley family, that they were forced to pack up their belongings and head out in search of better opportunities. Loading all their belongings into a trunk, which they strapped to the roof of their 1939 Plymouth, they journeyed to Memphis, Tennessee. But the change of scenery wasn’t the magic fix-all they had hoped for.

The family lived for nearly a year in rooming houses before finally finding a two-bedroom apartment in a public housing complex known as Lauderdale Courts in a poor area in the northern part of the city. Vernon and Gladys continued to struggle with steady employment, instead floating from job to job, while Elvis attended L.C. Humes High School and also worked odd jobs, such as an usher at Loew’s State Theater, Precision Tool, and MARL Metal Products.

But what Memphis lacked in monetary freedom, it more than made up for in musical culture. Elvis continued to practice and improve his guitar skills, studying under a neighbor by the name of Lee Denson, and played frequently around the Courts with other boys, including Dorsey and Johnny Burnette, future members of the rockabilly band The Rock and Roll Trio. He spent a lot of time on Beale Street listening to the blues and was a regular attendee of the all-night gospel sings held downtown. He was a mediocre music student in school but could play by ear; his time spent at record stores, in listening booths, and beside juke boxes taught him more songs by more artists than any class. And by the time he graduated from high school in 1953, he felt confident enough to attempt his first demo, which he did at the Memphis Recording Service. For $4.00, he made a recording of “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” as a birthday present for his mother.

Several demos and band auditions followed, none of them successful, and Elvis continued to work odd jobs around Memphis in order to survive. It wasn’t until Sam Phillips, president of Sun Records, which housed the Memphis Recording Service where Elvis had made his first demo and was always looking for the “next big thing,” invited Elvis to play with two local musicians, guitarist Winfield “Scotty” Moore and bass player Bill Black, to see what happened.

What happened was nothing. The three players didn’t mesh and were unable to find a smooth sound until late into the night when Elvis suddenly broke into a rendition of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right.” Moore and Black joined in. Phillips began recording. Three days later, popular Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips played it on his Red, Hot, and Blue show.

And Elvis’s days of working as a truck driver in the slums of Memphis were soon numbered.

The single set off a wildfire of interest that eventually led to appearances on the Grand Ole Opry and Louisiana Hayride radio programs, as well as an eventual record contract with RCA Records, with which he releases “Heartbreak Hotel” in 1956. It sold over 300,000 copies in its first three weeks on the market and soon reached #1 on Billboard’s pop singles chart, where it remained for 8 weeks. It became the first Elvis single to sell over one million copies, thus earning Elvis his very first gold record award. 

And then, on January 28, 1956, 66 years ago today, Americans got their first look at this unique, soulful, hip-swinging sensation when Elvis, Moore, and Black, as well as drummer DJ Fontana, who joined the band in 1955, made their first appearance on network television on the Jackie Gleason-produced “Stage Show,” starring Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, on CBS. 

The days of Elvis were here.

And American music has never been the same.

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