Graceland is one of the top five American homes visited each year. Elvis Presley died there in 1977. Since then, the entertainment company that manages Graceland has expanded the Elvis experience with shops and places to stay and visit. Graceland is one of the major hubs of Memphis tourism and sees more than a half million guests annually. More than 20 million people have visited since it opened to the public.
Most of us know parts of his story. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1935, as a toddler Elvis gravitated to music. His mother, Gladys, remembered he loved church music as a young boy. He tended to slip out of his mother’s arms and dance in the aisle while the church choir performed and, according to some, joined them a time or two.
One of the things the family did most Saturday nights was connect the family radio to a car battery and listen to music from the Grand Ole Opry. Music was almost certainly in his blood. Elvis wanted to be a gospel singer. Growing up, Gladys read Bible stories to him. His life seemed steeped in the church. His gospel recordings are heartfelt and almost bring one to tears.
As in every life, there are turning points. One of the biggest for Elvis came when Elvis’ mother took him to the Tupelo Hardware Store to buy him a birthday present. According to legend, he may have wanted a bicycle or a gun, but Gladys bought him a guitar for $6.98 to celebrate his 11th birthday. Already influenced by several types of music, he began to tinker and learn. By the time he was a late teenager, he became a celebrity in the emerging age of television.
He appeared on the several different popular television shows and made his first movie by the mid-1950s. People wanted to dress like him. With his appearances on “The Steve Allen Plymouth Show” in 1956 and “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1957, his fame grew even if there was some controversy regarding how he should be filmed on television because of his swiveling hips.
Elvis was blessed to come of age when James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cook, and Little Richard were transforming music too. Blending the blues, gospel, jazz, and rock-a-billy, they were moving rock and roll into the mainstream.
Presley bought his Memphis home to take care of his parents. His emerging lavish lifestyle related to his poor upbringings. Gladys appears not to have liked the home and wished they were poor again.
Elvis performed his last concert in late June 1977 in Indianapolis. The venue is gone now, but a marker remains commemorating the event. No one knew it might be his last. Elvis promised to see the audience again, but he died a month and a half later at his home.
People disagree about what is the best Elvis song or the best movie or performance. Still, there is no doubt Elvis had a huge hand in bringing rock and roll into the mainstream. Rock and roll played a role in America’s movement into an era of civil rights change in the 1950s and 1960s, and later in the end of the Cold War. When people of differing colors and backgrounds heard and enjoyed the same kinds of music, they became a little more human with one another. Barriers had a chance at breaking.
Accounting for inflation, $6.98 when Elvis was 11 converts to just a little under $100 today. The act of a mother buying her son a birthday present seems like a small act.
Yet, isn’t that what life is about? The thrill in a small act that might pay dividends for someone down the road of life?
Gladys’ gift to her son when he was a young boy changed history.
Where will you give in this upcoming year? What will your small acts be?
Brent Tomberlin is a social studies instructor at South Caldwell High School and Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org