It’s been 82 years today, and I’m thinking of a sleepy-eyed, full-lipped boy born in East Tupelo to a ne’er-do-well daddy and a hard-working mama. Not the boy who wound up king of rock ‘n’ roll, but the one who wound up in a shoe box beneath unmarked earth.
It was a couple of hours before dawn on Jan. 8, 1935, and Jessie Garon Presley never uttered a cry after he slid from his mother’s womb into a shotgun shack in a poor Mississippi neighborhood. But the identical twin brother who followed him would shake the world with his voice.
Rarely has fate dealt so disparately with biological carbon copies: the first given immediately to death, the second entirely to life. But had there not been a stillborn twin, there might never have been an Elvis – at least not the one whose birthday is being remembered today around the globe.
That anything at all good came of Gladys Presley’s difficult labor is remarkable, for it’s hard to imagine sperm meeting egg under less auspicious circumstances. Vernon Presley had charm and good looks, but lacked character. His steadiest vocation as a young man was that of penitentiary inmate, a designation he earned by tampering with a check issued by his employer. The stunt was stupid as well as dishonest, as his boss held the loan on the Presley residence. When Vernon gained a cell, his wife and 3-year-old son lost their two-room home.
Gladys Smith, four years Vernon’s senior, was dirt poor. Her father was a sharecropper and occasional moonshiner, her mother frequently ill. By the time she wed 17-year-old Vernon during the depths of the Depression, Gladys was taking stitches in a Tupelo garment factory that paid $2 for a 12-hour workday.
They met at a Pentacostal tent church where the high-strung young woman sought solace from life’s bleakness and uncertainty. The feverishly physical faith tapped an elemental charisma; Gladys was known for her Saturday night buck dancing – an uninhibited, low-culture expression of sensuality generally limited to men bolstered by shots of white lightning.
Her union with Vernon forged a fitting link to a long chain of dubious breeding. Gladys’ great-grandfather was known as a hard-drinking bigamist and con man; her parents were first cousins whose eight children included a mentally and physically impaired son. Vernon’s grandmother bore nine children out of wedlock; his father was a womanizer who loved his liquor.
That Vernon Presley and Gladys Smith should produce a child with the will and the way to turn a culture on its ear is testament to caprice – or, alternately, kismet – though mother love undoubtedly played a major role. Gladys’ devotion to her surviving son is the stuff of maternal legend, as is his devastation by her death at 46 from liver disease.
But Elvis’ ascent to the rarified heights of superstardom is evidence as well of the power of unfulfilled promise. His mother believed that “when one twin died, the one that lived got all the strength of both,” and the memory of the stillborn brother who shared his DNA but lacked his opportunity shadowed Elvis throughout his life.
The Presley myth endures today as a cultural obsession, 40 years after the man himself spiraled first into parody and then fatal pathology. At 42, Elvis died the kind of early, dissolute death one might reasonably have predicted at his birth, without ever glimpsing the implausibly bright in-between.
Sixty-three-year old Vernon Presley followed in 1979, two years after burying his famous son in a pricey copper coffin lined with steel. The family lies today on the Graceland grounds, alongside a memorial plaque Elvis purchased for his brother in 1955 with an advance from his first big recording contract.
Jessie Garon Presley isn’t at the Memphis mansion, though. He’s right where he’s been for 81 years, in what’s left of a shoebox that was tied with red ribbon and laid in an unmarked grave in an East Tupelo cemetery. His twin became bigger than life, and then bigger than death, but Jessie Garon Presley never escaped his beginnings.
Maybe his brother didn’t, either – not if you consider what became of him. Or maybe – if you believe Gladys Presley and consider how remarkably far her surviving son went – they both did.
In any event, Jessie Garon and Elvis Aaron Presley are back together: two sleepy-eyed, full-lipped boys born to a ne’er-do-well daddy and a hard-working mama, come ’round forever to the place they started.
This piece originally appeared in The Denver Post.