A tiny clapboard Assembly of God Church in Tupelo, Mississippi, ignited Elvis Presley’s passion for gospel music. Later, as his rock ‘n’ roll career took off, Elvis and his backup singers often warmed their voices by singing spirituals. All three Grammys he won were for his gospel recordings.
“Gospel and Christianity were such a part of him and of this part of the world,” said Jan Pannell, sales manager for the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau.
There’s no better place than Tupelo to grasp the role faith played in the life of one of America’s most-celebrated recording artists. Elvis spent his formative years in Tupelo; his first guitar came from a store that’s still in business downtown.
Start the day with a driving tour
A day in Tupelo might begin with the Elvis Presley Driving Tour. Among the dozen sites are his elementary school and Fairpark, the fairgrounds where a larger-than-life statue commemorates his 1956 performance there. The CVB can provide a complimentary step-on guide.
The drive around town is brightened by colorfully painted metal guitars, a community art project, and downtown murals, great backdrops for group photos. “One fairly new mural is a Tupelo postcard,” said Pannell. “People are forever getting their picture made in front of it.”
Buy a guitar at Tupelo Hardware
Downtown, at Tupelo Hardware, staff are happy to share the story of Elvis’ first guitar, which his mother bought there, and show off its selection of guitars, still a top seller.
Armed with complimentary maps, groups can then explore downtown, choosing among local restaurants for lunch. Or, they might re-board the motorcoach for a stop at Johnnie’s Drive-In, one of Elvis’ favorite hangouts.
Because it is tiny and incredibly popular, the best option at Johnnie’s, Pannell says, might be to preorder its famous dough burgers and milkshakes, and enjoy them on the motorcoach. Groups are welcomed to make a quick walk through Johnnie’s and have their pictures snapped sitting in the booth favored by the King.
End the day at Elvis Birthplace
At the Elvis Presley Birthplace, Elvis’ ties to church and song are strongest, especially in the little church he and his family attended, which was moved to the site. His family’s two-room home is also open for tours.
In the church, an interactive experience makes visitors feel they are surrounded by worshippers at a 1940s church service.
Late afternoon tours at the site can shift into dinner and entertainment at the event. Sunday night suppers — meat and vegetable meals served any day of the week —add an authentic Southern touch. Before dinner, groups can watch a short movie about Elvis in the center’s theater which seats 126.
Elvis tribute artists are a favorite for after-dinner entertainment. There are many in the area, and each artist portrays Elvis at a different point in his career.
“Tribute artists are different than an impersonator,” said Pannell. “They are Elvis fans and they love him. They pay tribute to Elvis and keep his image and memory alive.”
Like Tupelo, they celebrate a man who, through songs both spiritual and spirited, enthralled millions worldwide.
Tupelo Elvis Festival
To hear soulful spirituals, plan a trip to Tupelo June 5-9, 2019 for the annual Tupelo Elvis Festival. Sunday’s schedule begins with gospel performances. Tickets are required; this year’s show is Sunday, June 9.