TUPELO, Miss. - If seeing "G.I. Blues" 14 times makes one an Elvis fan, then Connie Tullos definitely qualifies. Her love for the King of Rock 'n' Roll didn't end once she was past the swooning stage. The septuagenarian is just as enamored of his sensuous lips and swiveling hips as she ever was.
With that in mind, visitors to Tupelo, Elvis's birthplace, would be remiss in not stopping by Tupelo Hardware, where Connie, a store employee, likes to tell of how the once and future king came in to buy something with the money he had received for his 11th birthday.
"Elvis, accompanied by his mother Gladys, came in with the idea of buying a .22 rifle," says Connie. "Gladys, who I like to say was the original helicopter mom, nixed that idea."
According to Connie, she was equally skeptical about his second choice, a racing bicycle. Instead, she suggested a guitar that retailed for $7.75, and persuaded Elvis to give it a strum. After pouting a bit, he acquiesced. When his mother asked if he was OK with the guitar instead of the rifle or bicycle, he reportedly turned to her and said, "That's all right, Mama."
And in that moment the course of musical history was forever altered. (If any of you post-boomers don't know the significance of his remark, ask your parents.)
If people associate a geographic location with Elvis, it's usually Memphis, where he began his meteoric rise to fame and built his beloved Graceland. But it's here in this north Mississippi town on the Natchez Trace that he spent his formative years, and don't think Tupelo isn't aware of it.
I was here for the annual birthday celebration it holds for its most famous son. This past Jan. 8 Elvis would have been 85 (I know, it sounds crazy to me too) and plenty of fans from around the world converged here for a weekend of all things Elvis.
It kicked off with the Ultimate Birthday Tribute at the Elvis Presley Birthplace where Taylor Rodriguez, winner of the 2019 Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Competition in Memphis, sang his heart out to a packed house.
Unlike many Elvis impersonators who come across as bloated caricatures, the 22-year-old Rodriguez embodies the shy sensuality of Elvis in his early years. And the voice - if you close your eyes you can almost imagine you are listening to the King, thanks to Rodriguez's soulful sound.
The Birthplace is a museum complex that chronicles the life of the world's most famous entertainer. There's the two-room cottage that Elvis' father, Vernon, built in 1934 for $180 and where the following year, in a room lit by a single light bulb, Elvis was born.
There's the small church where Elvis found his love for gospel music. He sang in the choir (his first solo was "Jesus Loves Me") and dreamed of becoming a member of the Blackwood Brothers gospel quartet.
A series of steps takes visitors to the top of a small hill crowned by the immensely moving "Becoming" statue. It depicts Elvis as a pensive youth holding his guitar, while behind him stands another statue of him at the pinnacle of his success - arms stretched toward the heavens and white cape flowing behind him. I'm not ashamed to admit it brought tears to my eyes.
The Birthplace is the focal point of the Elvis Tupelo Driving Tour where markers indicate places important in his life. I was present for the unveiling of the 14th marker at the Lyric Theater, a favorite entertainment venue for a teenage Elvis. It was here that he jumped over the partition that separated blacks and whites during the days of segregation to sit with his black friends at Saturday matinees, and here, in the balcony, that he had his first kiss.
If you don't have time to visit all 14 places on the trail, be sure to stop in at Johnny's Drive-In, which Elvis frequented for their Dough Burgers (extra bread with the meat) and a milkshake. Unless you're the patient type, don't count on sitting at the booth that was his favorite as there's always a line of people waiting to grab it.
Much has been made of Elvis' dietary preferences (peanut butter and banana sandwiches, jelly donuts, etc.) and several Tupelo dining spots have menu items fit for a King.
Connie's Fried Chicken is a great breakfast choice for the made-from-scratch chicken biscuits with white gravy and sinful deep-fried blueberry donuts. Hey, what did you expect - Elvis was a Southern boy.
At Cafe 212, you're challenged to "Eat Like a King" with such menu items as the Blue Hawaii Grill (ham, pineapple and mayo on sourdough) and the Blue Suede Grill (bananas, peanut butter, honey on sourdough). Unless you get there early, however, don't count on getting their Mama's Chicken Casserole.
I couldn't confirm that Elvis ever ate at Romie's Grocery, but if he didn't, he should have. They urge diners to "put a little South in ya' mouth" with "meat and three" plates at lunch and the catfish special at night.
It's doubtful that Elvis ever took a leisurely lunch break at Sweet Tea & Biscuits Cafe, but I did, and it was a pleasant experience ordering Southern favorites made from family recipes. The charming cafe is located in a 100-year-old farmhouse and advertises that "the only thing sweeter than the tea are the homemade desserts."
To walk off all those calories, see how many of the 27 brightly colored guitars you can spot on the Elvis Guitar Trail. Standing 6 feet tall and made of fabricated metal, they were painted by area schoolchildren.
Elvis may be Tupelo's claim to fame, but there are a number of current residents that help give this town its quirky charm and you should make it a point to meet them.
After meeting Connie at the hardware store, wander across the street to Reed's Department Store, one of the oldest in Mississippi, and ask to see Morris McCain. McCain is Tupelo's own Al Bundy - a fixture in the store's shoe department. But the jovial McCain has something the snarky Bundy doesn't - a talent for painting murals all over town. Ask nicely, and if he isn't sizing someone for a pair of shoes, he'll happily take you on a brief tour of his murals.
Then there's Jeri Carter, the bubbly blond stereotype of the Mississippi State coed she once was. But there's nothing stereotypical about the post-college Carter. She owns Queen's Reward Meadery, the first of its kind in Mississippi.
On one evening, Carter presided over a tasting that was devoted equally to serving up meads with intriguing names such as Delta Gold and Winter Spice and entertaining her drinking audience with her charm and wit.
Explaining that last year they used 12,000 pounds of honey, all sourced from a single beekeeper in Yazoo County, Carter urged us to try the Pucker Up, which she refers to as "Cool Ade for grownups." (Actually, mixed with a splash of bourbon and crushed mint leaves, it could be referred to as a Mead Julep.)
She also proudly noted that the Scarlet Noir, a mixture of Mississippi Honey and California Pinot Noir grape juice, was voted second best in its category at the National Honey Board's Mead Crafter Competition.
After a few days in Tupelo, I left with a renewed love for Elvis and the sure knowledge that in the small town category Tupelo isn't second best to anyone.