While the whole world loved him, he loved the south
Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, and moved to Memphis, Tennessee, when he was 13.
He began his singing career in 1954 and by 1956 he was an international sensation. With a sound that both uniquely combined his diverse cultural musical influences and challenged the social and racial barriers of the time, he ushered in a whole new style of American music and was a magnetic force in pop culture.
But it was Southern influence that truly inspired the king of rock and roll. His Southern heritage was evident in his sense of family, faith, and fellowship. An only child, Elvis was widely known as a mama’s boy. The family grew up very poor, and that experience influenced every part of him, even after the stardom. The one constant during his early years was the Assembly of God Church, a born-again Christian denomination where Elvis first gained his appreciation for gospel and soul music. When his parents couldn’t afford the bicycle he had asked for, they settled on a guitar. This gift would change his life, becoming his constant companion. At 18, he was already in love with music when he stopped by The Memphis Recording Service, home of the Sun label, to record a demo tape as a birthday gift for his beloved mother, Gladys. In November of 1955, Elvis signed a recording contract with RCA records. Shortly after, the Elvis Presley phenomenon was born.
“There are several unbelievable things about Elvis, but the most incredible is his staying power in a world where meteoric careers fade like shooting stars.” —Newsweek, August 11, 1969
When life around him became increasingly distracting, and he became desperate for solid roots, Elvis purchased Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. Although he had various homes in California and spent a great deal of time on the road with his work commitments, Graceland was always home base―a grounding force in the life of the worldly star. Elvis loved the South and was widely considered a Southern gentleman. No matter where he was in the world, he always talked about home; the foods he loved, the people, and, most of all, the music.
In 1959, while stationed in Germany, Elvis met 14-year-old Priscilla Ann Wagner. Although they wouldn’t marry until 1965, there was an instant attraction. Priscilla followed Elvis to the States and lived with him at Graceland. Their daughter, Lisa Marie, was born the year after they married. It was crucial to Elvis that his daughter be raised in the South. Elvis relished his Southern upbringing and felt most at home being with his family and friends back in Memphis. Although certainly better known for his musical tastes, his love for simple cuisine was indicative of his modest upbringing. He particularly loved fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, or peanut butter and 'nanner sandwiches, according to Are You Hungry Tonight? a cookbook of his favorite recipes.
But his Southern charm was expressed through more than just his music. Everyone who worked with the star shared the same sentiment: Elvis was a true Southern gentleman. Still saying “yes ma’am” and “no sir” into adulthood, Elvis was remembered by his co-stars from movies and TV shows as a man who treated everyone with respect. Grand Ole Opry star Minnie Pearl recalled an “almost timid politeness.” Even after his death, many remember an unshakable Southerness about his loyalty to his rural Dixie roots, despite his wealth and fame.
Words by Jamie Primak Sullivan
Photos provided by The Estate of Elvis Presley