Tupelo, Mississippi: Celebrating Elvis's Birthday in January (And All Year Long)

by  Evelyn Kanter | Dec 30, 2014
Tupelo, Mississippi
Tupelo, Mississippi / The best photo is earned/iStock

Fans of the King of Rock and Roll often flock to Graceland -- but it isn't the only place where the crooner is memorialized.

The Mississippi city of Tupelo, where Elvis Presley was born, celebrates its native son year-round, especially on his birthday, January 8.

This year, which would have marked the King's 80th, will be extra festive with three days of events. The annual birthday party at the Elvis Presley Birthplace Museum, with free birthday cake, is followed by a sing-along of songs in Elvis movies at the Link Centre theater. The Elvis love-in continues with a special performance of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra on Saturday, and the play “Graceland” about his life after Tupelo. The Gumtree Museum of Art opens an Elvis-themed art exhibit.

Tupelo is in the middle of the 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway, the National Scenic Trail linking Natchez to Nashville that began as a Native American trail.  There are nature trails, swamp bogs, remains of pioneer homesteads and graveyards, and Indian mounds along the route. The trail’s headquarters are in Tupelo, and the Parkway Visitor Center is just about the only thing in town that isn't Elvis-related.

Even if you miss Elvis’ annual birthday bash, Tupelo is all Elvis, all the time.

The Elvis Birthplace is a far cry from the opulence and excess of his later life. His parents were sharecroppers, and the small two-room wooden shack was built by his father, uncle, and grandfather. The house is a mix of original family furnishings and period-accurate items, including old 33 rpm records by musicians who influenced him, including Tennessee Ernie Ford.

The family moved to Memphis when Elvis was 13, and the ’39 Plymouth they drove is at the birthplace complex, too. It also includes a small, modern memorial chapel that’s a popular spot for weddings, and a larger Elvis Presley Museum. There are no sequined and beaded Las Vegas jumpsuits, just a young man’s flowered shirts, corduroy and denim jackets with impossibly wide '60s lapels and shoulder pads, and early awards for gold and platinum record and cassette tape sales.

Elvis bought his first guitar, in 1946, for $7.90, at Tupelo Hardware. An “X” on the old wooden floor marks the spot where he stood to pick it out with his mother.  He originally had wanted a .22 caliber rifle, and she had wanted to buy him a bicycle. Lucky for us, he chose a guitar instead. Elvis fans, from Prince to Prince Albert of Monaco, have made the pilgrimage to Tupelo Hardware to soak up the vibes. The store has been family-owned since 1926, and the staff, several of whom have worked there for decades, are happy to chat about their legendary customer.

Not far, at Johnny’s Drive-In, there’s a small marker on the wooden booth where Elvis liked to sit. Not surprisingly, the walls are decorated with vintage posters and newspaper clippings, mostly about Elvis. His favorite burger is still on the menu -- a doughburger: ground meat stretched with flour that helped stretch lean post-war budgets.

Surprisingly, there’s just one Elvis car in the Tupelo Auto Museum, and it’s a Lincoln, not the Cadillacs he is usually identified with. This is an outstanding collection of restored vintage vehicles, including one of only 48 Tucker models ever produced, and the 1886 three-wheel contraption made by Gottlieb Daimler that is generally regarded as the world’s first motor car.

The center of town is dominated by a larger-than-life size Elvis statue, based on a popular photo of him, microphone in one hand and reaching out to fans with the other. It also commemorates his “coming home” concert in 1957 at what was then the town fairgrounds.

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