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Image: Tupelo, Miss., church
Rogelio V. Solis  /  AP
A statue of a 13-year-old Elvis Presley stands before the church he attended as a child in Tupelo, Miss.
updated 1/8/2010 4:16:07 PM ET 2010-01-08T21:16:07

The simple white shotgun shack where Elvis Presley was born is so tiny it could easily fit inside a single room in the opulent Graceland mansion where he spent his final years — maybe in the Jungle Room with its green-carpeted ceiling.

On Friday, Elvis' 75th birthday, much of the focus was on Graceland, the international tourist attraction in Memphis that has become synonymous with the legend since his death in 1977. About three thousand people commemorated the event with his former wife, Priscilla Presley. But hundreds of fans converged on his birthplace in northeastern Mississippi for a different perspective on the man who reshaped popular music by blending elements of black and white, blues and bluegrass, gospel and rockabilly to become arguably its most popular figure, the King of Rock 'n' Roll.

The 15-by-30-foot home in Tupelo, built in 1934 by Presley's father, grandfather and uncle, was on the poor side of town, and his family stayed in the home only until Presley was 2 1/2 because they couldn't afford the payments.

"We are presenting the unknown Elvis, the little boy Elvis," says Dick Guyton, director of the foundation that runs the Elvis Presley Birthplace in Tupelo, a city of 36,000 that sits 100 miles southeast of Memphis.

Inconspicuous start
Visitors to Graceland are loaded onto vans at a visitors' center, driven to the mansion and moved through in herds with a recorded tour on individual headsets. In Tupelo, only a few people at time can walk through the wood-framed home where Presley and his stillborn twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley, entered the world on Jan. 8, 1935.

"It's just so tiny. Inconspicuous as a start, really," says 34-year-old Emma Daubert of Cameron, N.C., who recently visited with her parents, husband and daughter.

The boyhood home sits on a 15-acre site that includes a museum, a gift shop, a chapel with elaborate stained-glass windows, a statue of 13-year-old Elvis and, since 2008, the Assembly of God church the Presley family attended.

When Presley was a boy, Vernon Presley had trouble keeping a job and spent time in prison. Presley's mother, Gladys, had a hard life and kept close watch on her only surviving son, says Guy Harris, a boyhood friend of Presley. The Presleys lived several different places in Tupelo before Vernon moved the family to Memphis in 1948; 13-year-old Elvis played guitar for friends on his last day at Tupelo's Milam Junior High.

Elvis lives!Harris, a 71-year-old retired police officer who still lives near Tupelo, says "there wasn't a bit of difference" in Presley before he became famous and after. Presley came back to his hometown several times to visit friends.

"He never did seem like he was on a higher level than us," Harris says.

The Harrises and the Presleys were so close that Harris' mother was in the room with Gladys when the Presley twins were born, he says. Harris says he, Presley and another friend, Odell Clark, liked to run in the woods and swim in a creek when they were children. Every fall, they'd go to the final Saturday night of the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show in Tupelo.

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One year after the Presleys had moved to Memphis, teenagers Harris and Clark were getting ready for the fair and they heard a knock.

"I went to the door and it was Elvis," Harris recalls. "I said, 'Boy, what are you doing?' And he said, 'It's the last Saturday night of the fair isn't it? I come to go with you.'"

‘A hometown boy’
Presley returned to Tupelo more before he became famous than after. He gave concerts at his hometown fairgrounds in 1956 and 1957. Guyton, who's four years younger than Presley, never met the singer but attended both concerts.

"He was a hometown boy. And I think that, more than anything, made it exciting for a lot of us," Guyton recalls. "Now certainly, I think the girls had other reasons for being excited."

Presley donated money from the 1957 concert to the city so it could buy his birthplace and surrounding acres, which were then up for sale. He wanted municipal leaders to use the space as a park — and Guyton says Presley was miffed that those plans never fully lived up to expectations.

Slideshow: Pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll A local garden club started restoring the tiny home in the mid-1970s, and opened it to the public. The birthplace now gets about 60,000 paying visitors a year and about another 20,000 who simply wander the grounds for free, Guyton says. Admission to the house, museum and church is $12 for adults and $6 for children. Elvis Presley Enterprises says Graceland gets about 600,000 visitors a year.

Guyton most visitors to the birthplace are serious fans who already know about Elvis' career — his music, his movies, his leading ladies. In Tupelo, they learn about his early life, including his love of gospel music.

The one-room church was carefully moved up a hill from its previous location, and it was restored with simple wooden pews and a series of movie screens that are lowered from the ceiling along the front and side walls. A film recreates what services were like in the 1930s and '40s.

The small museum shows short films that give context to the Depression-era poverty in which Elvis started his life.

Artifacts include a photo of 10-year-old Elvis with other children who participated in a talent show at the 1945 Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show. He sang "Old Shep" and won $5 for second place.

The museum displays the last silk scarf Presley is believed to have autographed and tossed to a fan at his final concert on June 26, 1977, in Indianapolis. The woman who received the scarf, Mary Diane Abshier of Spencer, Ind., died several years ago, and her husband, Allen, mailed the it to the birthplace.

The museum also features a collection of 1970s clothing and photos from the late Janelle McComb, a Tupelo woman who was 13 years older than Presley and became one of his close friends in the final years of his life.

Guyton says he believes the over-the-top opulence — the big collars, the lacy shirts, the fancy cars — were Presley's reaction to having grown up in poverty. With money, anything went.

"That was ultimately his demise," Guyton says. "Nobody could say no to anything he wanted."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Elvis Presley (1935-1977)

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  1. Young King

    Elvis Presley with mother Gladys and father Vernon in 1938. Vernon Presley was a sharecropper and truck driver, while Gladys was a sewing machine operator. The couple was married in 1933. Young Elvis Aaron Presley was born on Jan. 8, 1935. (Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Debut album

    Elvis Presley's debut RCA album. Photo taken on January 31, 1955 (RCA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Shake it, baby

    Presley performs during a concert in the mid 1950s. Presley's hip gyrations caused a storm of controversy during early TV appearances on Milton Berle and Steve Allen's talk shows. (Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Thrilling the masses

    Presley sings and dances on stage before a predominantly female audience. The singer attracted hordes of teenage fans, which led one New York Daily News critic to write that pop music "has reached its lowest depths in the 'grunt and groin' antics of one Elvis Presley." (Frank Driggs Collection  / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Silver-screen King

    "Jailhouse Rock" was Presley's third Hollywood movie. He'd already made "Love Me Tender" and "Loving You." Presley made a total of 31 movies. (Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The military years

    Presley received his draft notice on Dec. 20, 1957. He chose not to receive special treatment and was posted in Friedberg, Germany. He returned to the U.S. on March 2, 1960. (Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A wave of success

    Presley starred as Chad Gates in 1961's "Blue Hawaii." The film told the story of a soldier who'd recently gotten out of the army and was celebrating with his buddies in Hawaii. It featured Angela Lansbury in a supporting role. (Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Happy couple

    Presley holds hands with his bride, Priscilla Beaulieu Presley, on their wedding day, May 1, 1967, in Las Vegas, Nev. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Baffling meeting

    President Richard Nixon meets with Presley on Dec. 21, 1970, in Washington, D.C. The meeting between two of the most improbable cultural icons of the 1970s lasted all of 30 minutes, but it has fascinated the nation for years. (White House via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Little Lisa Marie

    Lisa Marie Presley was born Feb. 1, 1968, to Elvis and Priscilla. Lisa Marie has been married four times -- Michael Jackson and Nicolas Cage were two of her husbands. Lisa Marie inherited her father's estate when she was 30. (Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Classic concert

    Presley performs onstage at the International Convention Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Jan. 14, 1973. The "Aloha from Hawaii" concert was broadcast via satellite and reached at least a billion viewers. (Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Life after Priscilla

    Presley with girlfriend Linda Thompson at the Hilton Hotel in Cincinnati, Ohio. Thompson began a relationship with the recently separated Presley in 1972. She lived with him at Graceland for three and a half years. (Tom Wargacki / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Shocking news

    The front page of the Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis, Tenn., delivers the news the day after Presley's death. The main headline reads "Death Captures Crown of Rock and Roll -- Elvis Dies Apparently After Heart Attack." Later it was found that drug use played a role in Presley's death. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Paying homage

    An annual procession through the Graceland estate and past Presley's grave takes place every year on the anniversary of his death (Aug. 16, 1977). The largest gathering to date was in 2002 and estimated at 40,000 visitors. (Ron Galella / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. We'll leave the light on

    Mark Omdahl of North Dakota, dressed as Elvis Presley, sings during a candlelight vigil on the 28th anniversary of Presley's death during Elvis Week 2005 at Graceland. (Carlo Allegri / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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