That trip I stayed in Tupelo for five months. There must be something to meeting your luck halfway because I had arrived on a Friday and by Sunday I was listening to a sermon preached by Brother Frank Smith, Elvis' boyhood pastor at the First Assembly of God church. His sermon surprised me: impassioned yes, fire and brimstone: no. It was on the healing power of tears. Nor was it the humorless congregation I had envisioned. The young soloist paused mid-note to say "Y'all have to pray for me, I've lost my key."
The impoverished childhood of Elvis' mother was brought vividly to life by Mertice Finley Collins. She had watched the Smith children, of whom Gladys was one, growing up hungry "tumbling over each other" into the Finley's farmhouse where they were "strictly relegated to the kitchen." Only there could they be fed scraps by Mertice and her mother because her father "could not bear the sight of the pitiful little things swarming around his dinner table; their hungry faces upset him so."
Alongside the grim reality of belonging to a family reduced to sharecropping. living in shacks, working in the fields and at odd jobs, was the portrait Gladys at sixteen, slim, dark and beautiful, performing a wild and memorable Charleston. "Elvis got it honest. Gladys had rhythm." said her friend Grace Reed favorably comparing Gladys' performances to those of her famous son's.
Picture perfect was the description a sister of Gladys gave me of three year old Elvis--( when his father went to prison for forging a check)--running up and down their little shotgun house, each time stopping to pat a dejected Gladys' on her hand saying "There. there, my little baby. " The paternal absence and his mother's low spirits had created an early role reversal in Elvis. He thought of himself as the man of the house and his mother as his child to protect, to take care of. Elvis was not only a devoted son but a good and providing parent. From the age of twenty he was the sole support of his family and always referred to his parents as his 'babies.' Aged ten, Elvis would be seen behind the wheel of their truck every Sunday driving the Presleys off to church. Even then the family seemed comfortably aware that he would always, and in every way, be doing the driving.
It was a front porch society where you stopped to pass the time of day with neighbors on their porches. It was also a singing society . In the evenings couples might get together on a porch and sing hymns or old favorites. The Presleys had fine voices an Aunt of Elvis said, adding Gladys sang alto. " Had Elvis' formative years been spent in an urban setting, the Presley poverty would have been experienced as far more hopeless and humiliating.
Back in London where I was living at the time I did some sleuthing on my own. Elvis was often quoted as saying that he was the hero of every comic book he'd read. One day I sat down in a Comics bookshop to look at those popular when he was growing up. I looked at all those double identity heroes he must have read from Superman to the Spirit. Then I came across Elvis face staring at me from its pages: It was the face of Captain Marvel Jr. Being himself a twin (who died at birth) the double identity of the powerful young Captain and the powerless Freddy Freeman existing in the same body would have a special meaning for Elvis: Here was the boy he aspired to be and the boy he was. I began to see how Captain Marvel Jr actually formed Elvis personality-humble and humorous. How subconsciously the grown Elvis copied his heros glistening black hair, his sideburns and his triumphant stance. Years later he wore his version of the Marvel Jr. cape. The white scarf Freddie Freeman often wore turned up around Elvis neck in performance. Most important was Elvis taking over the lightning bolt emblem Marvel wore on his chest. It became Elvis logo, his signature. The lightning bolt turned up on Elvis private plane and in his game room. It turned up on the jewelry he gave special friends: the gold neck chains and bracelets. All of them were designed with Captain Marvel Jr.'s lightning bolt in the center.
It was Elvis twinning into Captain Marvel Jr. that made me see the powerful twinning force that ran through his life. He twinned into all different forms of music making him a different kind of singer from the great entertainers. As a tour de force Country singer Buddy Bain pointed out that in the hymn "How Great Thou Art you can hear Elvis go from Metropolitan Opera to country, to folk, to blues, to rock, almost from note to note without breaking his feel.
My book Elvis and Gladys took me four-and-a half-years and I wasnt bored for a minute. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.