By Alanna Nash
Elvis Presley is one of the most photographed figures in music history. But in the nearly 37 years since his death, every significant picture of rock’s swivel-hipped pioneer has been widely seen. Or has it?
Wade Jones, 50, a lifelong Elvis fan from Mount Holly, North Carolina, has been “constantly looking at photos” since 1977, when he smuggled a tape recorder into one of Presley’s last concerts. And so in 2005, when the late Janelle McComb—a Presley family friend from Tupelo, Mississippi—sent Jones a childhood picture of the future king of rock ’n’ roll, Jones was dumbstruck.
“I had never seen that image in my life,” says Jones, who looked at the photo of a young teenager leaning on his bike—his head tilted back, his hooded eyes nearly closed in the Tupelo sun—and realized it was the first shot placing Presley (who would have been 13 that year, 1948) on the streets of his hometown. “Just his pose, and the fact that he was in a candid situation, surrounded by normal people, was kind of eerie.”
The image also appealed to a European fan, who paid $361.68 when Jones, partially obscuring the image to keep it from being copied, listed a print on eBay last August. The auction started an Internet buzz on Elvis-fan message boards. Graceland—Presley’s homestead—contacted Jones about acquiring the original. Media requests poured in. Some believed they’d pinpointed the exact location in the picture—West Main Street, near the Tupelo Hardware store where Gladys Presley bought her son his first guitar. Others denounced the photo as a fake; after all, Jones was the same guy who had once auctioned water from a Styrofoam cup that Elvis had used on stage in Charlotte, and later sent the cup “on tour.” Yes, admits the digital-sensor salesman, but that was all in good fun.
So, is the photo—published here, for the first time, uncropped—really Elvis? In the full-frame version, someone has written “Elvis” in script near the right border. But who? Janelle McComb, who died two months after mailing it, told Jones in a phone call that the woman who took the snapshot was on her way to the drugstore to drop off some film to be developed. She had one more exposure on the roll, and just asked Elvis, whom she knew, to pose. But Jones didn’t catch her name.
Billy Smith, Elvis’s first cousin, confirms that the boy in the photo is indeed his relative. Moreover, when approached by Vanity Fair, several Elvis experts attested to its seeming authenticity. British collector Tony Stuchbury, for one, said: “The body language matches. He put his head back like that in later years. I’ve seen pictures from vacations in ’69/’70 where he looks just like that. I’m convinced the photo is real.”
Roy Turner, the Tupelo historian who assisted Elaine Dundy in the research for her definitive biography, Elvis and Gladys, took one look at the picture and declared, “There’s no doubt in my mind that it is Elvis.” But the location eluded him. If it were Presley, the one person who would know the spot was 78-year-old Sam Bell, the last close friend Elvis made in Tupelo. The two were neighbors and constant companions when the Presleys lived for a year at 1010 North Green Street in a well-to-do black community known as the Hill.
“Yeah, I know that’s him,” says Bell, who is African-American. “That’s the way he’d be looking. That’s the way he’d be dressed. And the bike too, that’s what we rode, those type of bikes.”
Furthermore, he believes that that’s Presley’s mother, Gladys, keeping a watchful eye from the shadows. “Elvis wasn’t ever running around by himself,” recalls Bell, a retired personnel manager for a lawn-and-garden company, who often played and went to the movies with Elvis and their mixed-race group of friends. “If she wasn’t with him, shopping and all that, we were.”
But it’s the location of the photo that cinches the deal. The boy in the frame stands at the intersection of North Spring and Jefferson, the epicenter of black and white Tupelo. The establishments on the west side of North Spring—a pool hall, barber shop, and military surplus store—catered to a mostly black clientele. The businesses to the east—a grocery-and-seafood market, a furniture store—served white customers. Bell, who still lives nearby, remembers many Saturdays when the block was the busiest spot in town, where some shoppers arrived from the country in horse-drawn wagons. He points to a squat building, on the right, with what appears to be an outside service window: “That was a little cafeteria where you could go and get a milkshake or a soda, but the counter wasn’t integrated, so the blacks couldn’t go in and sit down.”
Elvis knew the neighborhood well. Not far from his gaze, on the opposite side of Jefferson, stands the Lee County Courthouse, where he regularly attended WELO’s live radio shows on Saturday afternoons, soaking up the hillbilly sounds of local idol Mississippi Slim, who encouraged the boy’s own singing and put him on the air. If he had ridden his bike a block or so east, down Jefferson, he would have arrived at Shake Rag, the impoverished local African-American community, where he first heard the low moan of the blues.
In the fall of 1948, only months after this photo was taken, the Presleys, deeply in debt and hoping for a brighter future, packed everything into an old green Plymouth owned by cousin Billy Smith’s parents, and left for Memphis. There, Elvis united the sounds he remembered from both sides of Tupelo’s streets. “He didn’t say, ‘We’re going to Memphis,’ ” Bell recalls. “He said, ‘We got to move.’ He was kind of sad. Didn’t really want to go.”
“What makes the photo exceptional,” insists Turner, the town historian, “is that it’s the only pictorial reference to Elvis’s years in North Tupelo, living in the historically black community.” Presley long talked about it, and biographers labor to document it. “Now,” he says, “we can seehis story.”
What we also see—in that head cocked back and that youthful swagger, if the experts are correct—is, precisely, Elvis becoming Elvis.