Along the Tennessee-Mississippi border, where the mighty river defines most everything—commerce, kin, culture—there’s something else that’s equally pervasive. This is the birthplace of Rock & Roll and the blues, where everyone’s a musician and native voices melt over you like brown sugar and butter. Music lives here, rich in gospel and rhythm. This is also Elvis country, and his legacy is everywhere.
The King’s legend lives on. Elvis is still very much alive in the hearts and minds of those who live in and around Tupelo, Mississippi, where he was born, and Memphis, where his home Graceland is located. Here Elvis is not some mythic hero. Instead, he’s a local boy who did well, never forgot where he came from, and remained friendly with folks he grew up with, long after he dominated pop culture.
United Church Homes operates three senior housing communities in the area—Ashbury Court, Austin Run Estates and Southern Pines—and several residents knew Elvis personally and were eager to disclose their stories.
Elvis: A Friendly Neighbor
Ashbury Court resident Esther Howell lived down the street from Elvis, who visited her home all day, every day, shooting marbles and playing with her younger brothers. While the South was deeply segregated in the early 1940s, most everyone in Tupelo was poor, and poverty was the common experience for many blacks and whites.
Elvis often spent the day at Esther’s house, eating, playing, or taking baths with her brothers in a tin tub on the back porch. He even often begged to stay or sleep overnight with her family, but Esther’s mom kept shooing Elvis to go home. As an only child, Elvis was reluctant to head home since it was always more fun playing at Esther’s.
Looking Up at the King
Imagine being photographed standing near the King of Rock and Roll, and not ever knowing it for decades. One day, Libby (Smith) Faulkner, also of Ashbury Court, went out to eat with her husband. He took a seat near a wall filled with Elvis memorabilia. When he glanced at the wall, he spotted a picture of his wife when she was about 16 at a concert in Tupelo. When he told her about it, Libby was amazed, recalling she had been there, but unaware the photo even existed. This photo is today an iconic image hanging in Graceland, showing Elvis singing directly to the adoring fans at his feet. Libby is in the front row, her blond hair shining, face lifted up in admiration for the King.
Talking about the photo prompted Libby to remember another detail. A friend helped her secure tickets to the only concert she ever attended. Libby heard the person sitting next to her hurling insults toward Elvis, despite holding tickets to watch him perform. She was offended that someone would be so rude, and breathlessly told the off ending party exactly what she thought. When she was done, a quiet lady sitting near her leaned over and thanked Libby for speaking her mind. The lady then introduced herself and her husband— Gladys Love and Vernon Presley—Elvis’s parents! What a memory!
Inside His Entourage
Elvis attended L.C. Humes High School in Memphis. While there, he tried out for a talent show. Mary Ruth Forbes from Southern Pines remembers, “My brother was a great musician. I had promised him I would sing in the talent show audition and he would play the piano. But Elvis went first. He was like a King holding court. After he sang, I couldn’t even open my mouth. I never got on another stage after that moment.”
It was not her only encounter with Elvis. Mary Ruth married a man from the same high school, Buzzy Forbes, who was friends with Red West, one of Elvis’s closest friends and bodyguards. They often attended his shows and visited him at Graceland. “He had to do everything after midnight,” says Mary Ruth. “He would rent the movie theater, the fair rides and the roller-skating rink. He couldn’t ever get any privacy, so he took everyone with him.”
Mary Ruth often took her daughter with them on their trips to Graceland. When Mary Ruth’s baby was particularly noisy one day, Elvis said to her, “Gimme that baby!” After handing her over, Elvis continued to mock the baby’s noises until both baby and Elvis were making enough noise to cause a racket!
A Passing Fancy
Janice Logan, a resident at Austin Run Estates, also recalls how she once encountered Elvis. She was enamored with his beautiful face and charming personality. Once she saw him riding his motorcycle near the soda shop where she worked. Janice ran out to the street, giggling like a schoolgirl, crying out, “Hi, Elvis!,” while he was stopped at a red light. He waved and was off with the green light. Janice was fortunate to get so much attention from Elvis, considering that Natalie Wood was riding with him on that day. Janice was smitten then and remains so today.
Dottie Heaton, also of Austin Run Estates, was also just a young girl when she met Elvis. Dottie rode go-carts with him when he came to the local Memphis high school to race with friends. Years later when Elvis visited the doughnut shop her mother managed, Elvis said he remembered Dottie’s bright blue eyes. What more could a girl ask for?
The Horse Whisperer
Kathy Morrow, another Austin Run Estates resident, was a very big part of Graceland. Her parents oversaw the ranch there, procuring and taking care of the horses. Kathy lived at Graceland ranch before Elvis bought the house in 1957. Her family worked for the original owners who built the house in 1939, and when they moved, her family remained to take care of the stables.
She recalls giving Elvis a tour of the house when he was there with his parents to purchase the home. He was curious about the henhouse and when she went in to bring out a baby chick, bumblebees followed, stinging both of them horribly. “Elvis got very sick and had to go to the doctor after that,” Kathy laughs.
Kathy remembers when Elvis wanted seven horses to help teach some of his co-stars how to ride for a movie they were filming. She procured the horses and spent all night teaching everyone how to ride. She has many memories of the kindness that Elvis showed her, stating he was a good, generous and humble man.
These are the United Church Homes residents who knew Elvis from boyhood to neighborhood, from fan to family. The experiences may vary, but the common thread is that they remember Elvis with crystal clarity, as though it were yesterday. They are animated and engaged.
It is heartwarming to see people reminisce and witness folks connecting to someone who distinctly changed the world. Elvis never forgot his roots or his community. He belonged to everyone. He was not just an icon or a legend, but a real person that no tour of Graceland can ever show. He might have been the King, but Elvis was clearly a man of the people. For this, his memory will linger on for these residents.