If You Love the King of Rock and Roll, You Need to Meet His Mama
There are a lot of rumors about Elvis Presley—like that whole thing about him still being alive—but one thing everyone knows is true is this: there would be no Elvis without his mother Gladys.
Gladys Love Smith married Vernon Presley back in 1933. They had eloped, with Vernon lying about his age to get the marriage license, because he was only 17. They returned home to a two-room house in Tupelo, Mississippi, in the heart of the Great Depression. After a few years of marriage, Gladys discovered she was pregnant, and with a history of twins in her family, figured out she was carrying two babies. On January 8, 1935, she went into labor at home, giving birth to two children, one tragically stillborn, and one healthy boy, Elvis Aron Presley, who quickly became the center of their world.
The two had an incredibly close relationship, bolstered by years spent together picking cotton, where, according to the Daily Mail, Gladys would pick bolls while dragging baby Elvis behind her on a sack. When he was older, he would help pick cotton to earn money for the family while Vernon was in jail for check fraud.
Every biographer seems to agree that Gladys was a very protective mother, which is completely understandable after she lost one child. She reportedly banned Elvis from playing sports, because she was worried he would be injured, and walked him to school every day, even into high school.
The Presleys had little money, but Gladys made sure her son had everything he needed, including a guitar for his 11th birthday. Elvis learned to play, inspired by the gospel music he heard at the Assembly of God Church he attended with his parents. Gladys reportedly liked to tell the story that when Elvis was less than two-years old, he would get so excited by the music he heard in church that he would jump from her lap and into the aisle to try and join the choir. His love of hymns lasted his entire life, later recording songs about the Battle of Jericho and Jonah and the Whale.
By the time he was a teenager, he had developed a real talent for playing music, even winning the talent show at his Memphis high school. Gladys had always told him he was special, and Elvis was determined to prove her right–and to help pull his family out of poverty.
After graduating from school in 1953, Elvis helped his family by working odd jobs, all while continuing to pursue his dream of making music. One day in July of that year, he walked into Memphis Recording Services, which would become the world-famous Sun Studio, and put down his own money to record a few tracks. Among the songs he recorded that day, was one called "My Happiness", which he wanted to give to his mother as a gift. While Gladys undoubtedly loved the present, so did Sam Phillips, who owned a record label, and decided to take the young performer under his wing. Soon, Elvis was off and running, with his mother and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, at his side.
Presley soon began touring and recording, trying to catch his first big break, calling his mother each night while on the road. In 1954, Elvis's first single, "That's All Right" came out and thanks to his riotous new sound and hip-swinging dance moves, Elvis was quickly becoming a star.
While some fans (or the jealous boyfriends of fans) were scandalized by Elvis's famous hip action, Elvis was sure that he wasn't doing anything wrong, or else he would have heard about it from Gladys. "I don't think I do anything obscene on stage, or anything that would embarrass my Mama," he once said. 'I really don't." However, when a preacher in Florida denounced Elvis as "a new low in spiritual degeneracy," Elvis got an earful from Gladys when he called her that night.
In 1956, Presley signed with RCA Records, and scored his first No. 1 single and album with "Heartbreak Hotel," from the album, Elvis Presley. That same year, he also signed a movie contract with Paramount Pictures, ensuring that he would be a household name. As his success grew, Elvis did his best to provide for Gladys, and make-up for some of the struggles they had experienced during his childhood. He set up a song publishing company called Gladys Music, making sure that she received a steady income from the company. He even made good on a childhood promise to buy his mother a Cadillac, picking out a brilliant pink model and presenting it to his mama, even though she didn't know how to drive.
As Elvis's star continued to rise with chart-topping music, and a box office smash with his first film, Love Me Tender (1956), his mother started to have her doubts about some of the aspects of her son's fame. Elvis had been dating a girl named Dixie Locke, whom he met at church and Gladys was hoping he would marry. The fans that flocked to him after his shows, though, did not bode well for his relationship. Gladys was reportedly so frustrated by her son's female admirers, that after one concert, when girls swarmed around Elvis, Gladys pushed her way through the crowd and pulled them away from her son. She allegedly never got used to having to share her son with others.
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In 1957, Elvis bought Graceland, and moved his parents into the mansion. However, Gladys's happiness was short-lived, because that same year, Elvis got a draft notice and soon after was conscripted into the U.S. Army. According to Elvis's girlfriend at the time, as reported by Neatorama, "[Gladys] did not see another happy day from the day they received that [draft] notice."
Elvis was sent to Germany where he served for a year and a half, calling his mother whenever he could find time. While Elvis was serving his country, Gladys was battling bad health. She was admitted to a Memphis hospital in early August of 1958. Elvis was granted a leave from the army and rushed to her side. Gladys passed away on August 14, 1958. At her funeral, Elvis reportedly cried, "Mother, I would give every dime I have and even dig ditches just to have you back."
She was buried on the Graceland property under a tombstone that read, "Sunshine of Our Home" and an inscription: "Not Mine, But Thy Will Be Done." Nineteen years later her son would be laid to rest at her side, where she always wanted him.