Johnnie’s Drive-In in Tupelo, Mississippi, is the kind of mom-and-pop diner that looks like it hasn’t changed since the mid-1950s when it was the favourite eating spot for a local school kid named Elvis Presley.
Sounds of a superstar
It’s still doing good business, and every lunchtime table was taken as I enjoyed the local specialty, a doughburger and fries. Presley preferred their cheeseburgers, and kept coming back for them even when he became famous. A photo of him hung above what was his favourite booth.
A tall, slim man in his 70s entered and asked if he might take a seat at my table. “Sure,” I said, and we were away into conversation in that casual American manner. His name was Guy Harris, and when he told me he was one of Presley’s best friends, I figured that everybody in Tupelo of a certain age would probably claim that. But in Harris’ case it was true. His mother delivered Presley when he was born in a shotgun shack on 8 January 1935, the same tiny two-room house I’d just seen at the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum, which is what brings music fans like me to Tupelo.
It was my third visit to Tupelo and the King’s birthplace, but the first time I’d met anyone who actually knew Presley. I was embarrassed to ask the questions Harris must have been asked 10,000 times before, but this was my chance. So what was Presley like?
“Nothing stood out about Elvis,” Harris said. “There wasn’t no-one more surprised than me when he did what he did. Elvis was no different from any of the rest of us, back then. We’d go swimming together in the creek, just hang out, like kids do. There wasn’t a lot to do, growing up in Tupelo. I was raised across the highway behind that bank on Adams Street.”
Harris pointed over my shoulder, through the diner’s window.
View image of Clockwise from top: a sign from Johnnie’s Drive-In; Elvis and Guy pose for a photo; the Assembly of God Church
“We grew up together. My folks were Baptists and we went to the Baptist Church, but Elvis and his family went to the Assembly of God Church, which they now have at the Birthplace and Museum.”
The church had been brought to the museum since my last visit. Sitting in the pews, I watched a video projected onto the front and side walls, showing what it must have been like when Presley went there on Sundays with his parents Gladys and Vernon, and nervously began to sing in public for the first time.
He was so shy that he had to be coaxed to sing on stage.
The young Presley was not the extrovert and flamboyant Vegas showman he would later become. On a previous trip to Memphis I’d learned that as a teenager he was so shy that he had to be coaxed to sing on stage at an end-of-term high school concert. Within two to three years he was the most famous person in the world, and wealthy in a way that would be unimaginable to the country boy from Mississippi.
“My mother Faye was there when the twins were born,” Harris said, showing the closeness between the two families. Elvis had a twin brother, Jesse Garon, who was stillborn before Elvis Aaron entered the world on 8 January, 1935. “My mother was good friendswith Gladys, Elvis’ mom. Because Jesse was stillborn and she couldn’t have no more babies after that, Gladys was real protective of Elvis.”
So what else did they do apart from going swimming in the creek?
“If we had a few cents we’d go to the movies. When we went to see his first movie, Love Me Tender, we couldn’t believe it. A few years earlier me and him’d go to watch westerns together at 10 o’clock on a Saturday morning. Now we’re watching this dude up on the screen!”
View image of A painting shows Elvis Presley, centre, as a young child flanked by his parents Gladys and Vernon Presley (Credit: Credit: Gary Coronado/The Palm Beach Post/Alamy)
Harris took out some old photos, their corners folded from having been shared so many times. An old black-and white snapshot showed him and Elvis as teenagers. Another in fading colours showed them at Graceland, Presley’s home in Memphis.
“We’d sit around the piano and play gospel songs at Graceland. We’d go visit him there, time to time. Elvis never forgot his true friends.”
View image of A portrait of Elvis Presley hangs above guitars sold at the Tupelo Hardware Store (Credit: Credit: Gary Coronado/The Palm Beach Post/Alamy)
Harris shared a photo of his great-grandson, too.
“He’s six years old and he’s already a big Elvis fan. I’m gonna have to give him some of my Elvis photos someday. He’d get a real kick out of that.”
Another photo showed Guy standing behind Presley and his wife Priscilla.
“That was the last time I saw him. It was 1970, when he came back to Tupelo and was made an honorary sheriff. I got a kick out of that, Elvis being made a sheriff.”
As we left, I asked Guy what work he went into.
“The police,” he laughed. “I’m a retired police captain.”
View image of A statue of Elvis Presley at his Tupelo homecoming concert in 1956 (Credit: Credit: Dimitry Bobroff/Alamy)
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