WRITTEN BY JENNIFER COLLINS | ILLUSTRATED BY FRANK ESTRADA
With tours, concerts and reenactments, plus conversations with Tupelo's Tom Brown, you can't help falling in love.
Each year, for one week in June, a small town in northeast Mississippi becomes a global village. Tourists from all across the globe walk Tupelo’s Main Street, peeking through windows, flipping through books and holding up T-shirts and jackets, in search of that perfect memento to take home and remember this visit. They come to honor one man — Elvis Presley.
This year, the 21st Tupelo Elvis Festival begins June 5 with the opening Showcase Concert and ends on Gospel Sunday with a down-home gospel sing. In between are Elvis Tribute Artist competitions, concerts, tours and Conversations With Tom Brown and his panel of special guests.
Brown, like Elvis, grew up in Tupelo. A diehard Elvis fan, Brown always wanted to be Johnny Carson — and he’s now known as the Johnny Carson of the Elvis world. Brown attended Northeast Mississippi Community College and earned a theater degree from the University of Mississippi before heading out to pursue a career in broadcasting. After a decade as an entertainment reporter interviewing celebrities all over the country, he moved to Los Angeles to work for “RoughCut” on TNT, then spent the next 17 years working for TCM in Atlanta. With Elvis Presley Enterprises, he has hosted numerous productions and the YouTube series “Gates of Graceland.” Now back in Tupelo, he’s program director and morning host for WSYE Sunny 93.3. Brown started the Nashville Elvis Festival and hosts it yearly, as well as the festivals in Memphis and Tupelo.
Brown and the tribute artists are big attractions at the festival, but there’s plenty more for both fanatics and the just-curious. Debbie Brangenberg of Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association and Roy Turner of the Tupelo Elvis Fan Club, along with a hardworking staff, are the people behind the scenes ensuring the Elvis Festival is a week to remember for all.
TAKE THE ELVIS TRAIL
Several festival weekend events showcase Elvis’s formative years. Brangenberg and Turner’s team host a living “wax” museum around the downtown area, with local actors portraying various people who knew Elvis, from the doctor who delivered him to the man who sold him his first guitar.
“The events we have on Saturday afternoon from 1-4 are my favorite events during Elvis Festival week,” Turner said.
At Tupelo Hardware on Main Street, Elvis’s mother bought her son the guitar that would change the face of American music. Visitors can enjoy a dramatic reenactment of the transaction with young Elvis and his mother, Gladys.
From Tupelo Hardware, it’s just a short walk to the Lee County Courthouse, where Mississippi Slim broadcast his radio show on WELO. Elvis performed on Slim’s show at least three times.
Across the street from the courthouse is the Lyric Theatre where Elvis would go to the movies with his friend Sam Bell.
Elvis attended Lawhon Elementary and Milam Middle School; at Milam, visitors can hear an audio recording of his sixth grade teacher and a fellow classmate reminiscing. Drive by Lawhon where Elvis sang “Old Shep” onstage at the school talent contest and won second prize.
Hungry? Stop by Johnnie’s Drive-In. Elvis ate there and so can you. This funky 1945 diner is still in business with much of the same menu, including barbecue, pimento cheese, the dough burger and an Elvis favorite, the toasted peanut butter and banana sandwich.
A guided audio tour is available at tupeloelvisfanclub.com.
CONVERSATIONS WITH TOM BROWN
Brown moderates this gathering of Elvis insiders Friday afternoon on the stage of the Lyric Theatre. He uses his extensive knowledge and considerable charm to guide the speakers from story to story, giving the audience the feeling they are seated in a living room chatting with friends.
“As an Elvis fan, I love to sit and talk with those who knew him on a personal level,” Brown said. “It’s not an interview as much as a chance for fans to hear from these people talking about their memories of Elvis, the man — we go wherever their memories take them.”
This year, Brown’s guests are Charles Stone, Dick Grob and Sam Thompson. Stone worked for Elvis’s manager Colonel Tom Parker and prepared concert venues for Elvis’s arrival. Grob and Thompson are former members of the “Memphis mafia,” longtime friends who worked for Elvis. Thompson’s sister dated Elvis for a number of years.
ELVIS TRIBUTE ARTIST COMPETITION
There are only a few licensed Elvis Tribute Artist Competitions in the world, and Tupelo holds one of them.
“I especially love to watch the audience during a tribute artist performance,” Brown said. “Everyone is back to being 16 years old, no matter their age.”
Brown, who emcees the Tribute Contest, describes being “blown away” by how hard the artists work to recreate exactly Elvis’s performance on stage, down to the smallest detail.
“They research the role,” Brown said. “They know what rings he wore with that jumpsuit. And they are competing against each other but they’re friends. Time and time again I see them pulling for each other.”
The competitions follow a strict set of guidelines, and each offers a trophy that represents the area in which it’s held. Tupelo awards a golden Elvis trophy and a guitar from Tupelo Hardware; Nashville’s trophy is a gold record. At the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Competition in Memphis, this year’s champion will receive the title, plus a $20,000 cash prize and a contract to perform with Elvis Presley Enterprises.
Brown says if you were lucky enough to see “the King” live in concert, then hopefully for a few minutes, an Elvis tribute artist will give you that feeling again.
“And if you never had the chance to see Elvis live in concert then hopefully when you see a tribute artist you will get to feel what it must have been like,” Brown said. “I see a lot of smiling faces during a tribute artist contest. That’s what the memory of Elvis does for people — puts a smile on their face.”
For the concert fans, there are both Elvis Tribute Artist concerts and the Fairpark concerts, which have featured both new and classic artists from the late B.B. King to Mississippi’s own Trent Harmon. Fairpark is located on the old fairgrounds, where Elvis held his only hometown concert in 1956.
This year’s Fairpark concert headliner is north Mississippi’s own Paul Thorn, who will perform at 8 p.m. Friday on the Fairpark stage. The Fairpark concerts are free. For complete times and ticket information for other concerts held throughout the festival, visit tupeloelvisfestival.com or facebook.com/TupeloElvisFestival.
Sunday, the experience ends with a gospel music sing at the BancorpSouth Conference Center. Tribute artists and local gospel singers bring the music that Elvis and his mother loved so dearly to contemporary audiences. Since Elvis started out singing in his family’s church, it’s an appropriate and beautiful end to the week.