Johnnie's Drive-In in Tupelo, Mississippi, is the kind of mom-and-pop diner that looks like it hasn't changed since the mid-1950s when it was the favourite eating spot for a local school kid named Elvis Presley.
It's still doing good business, and every lunchtime table was taken as I enjoyed the local specialty, a doughburger and fries. Elvis preferred their cheeseburgers, and kept coming back for them even when he became famous. A photo of him hung above what was his favourite booth.
A tall, slim man in his 70s entered and asked if he might take a seat at my table. 'Sure', I said, and we were away into conversation in that casual American manner. His name was Guy Harris, and when he told me he was one of Elvis' best friends, I figured that everybody in Tupelo of a certain age would probably claim that. But in Harris' case it was true. His mother delivered Elvis when he was born in a shotgun shack on 8 January 1935, the same tiny two-room house I'd just seen at the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum.
Guy Harris remembers the boy that became a King (07:05)
It was my third visit to Tupelo and the King's birthplace, but the first time I'd met anyone who actually knew Elvis. I was embarrassed to ask the questions Harris must have been asked 10,000 times before, but this was my chance.
So what was Elvis like?
'Nothing stood out about Elvis', Harris said. 'There wasn't no-one more surprised than me when he did what he did. Elvis was no different from any of the rest of us, back then. We'd go swimming together in the creek, just hang out, like kids do. There wasn't a lot to do, growing up in Tupelo. I was raised across the highway behind that bank on Adams Street'. Harris pointed over my shoulder, through the diner's window.
'We grew up together. My folks were Baptists and we went to the Baptist Church, but Elvis and his family went to the Assembly of God Church, which they now have at the Birthplace and Museum'.
The church had been brought to the museum since my last visit. Sitting in the pews, I watched a video projected onto the front and side walls, showing what it must have been like when Elvis went there on Sundays with his parents Gladys and Vernon, and nervously began to sing in public for the first time.
Guy Harris and Elvis Presley 1956.
The young Elvis was not the extrovert and flamboyant Vegas showman he would later become. On a previous trip to Memphis I'd learned that as a teenager he was so shy that he had to be coaxed to sing on stage at an end-of-term high school concert. Within two to three years he was the most famous person in the world, and wealthy in a way that would be unimaginable to the country boy from Mississippi.
'My mother Faye was there when the twins were born', Harris said, showing the closeness between the two families. Elvis had a twin brother, Jesse Garon, who was stillborn before Elvis Aaron entered the world on 8 January, 1935. 'My mother was good friendswith Gladys, Elvis' mom. Because Jesse was stillborn and she couldn't have no more babies after that, Gladys was real protective of Elvis'.
So what else did they do apart from going swimming in the creek?
'If we had a few cents we'd go to the movies. When we went to see his first movie, Love Me Tender, we couldn't believe it. A few years earlier me and him'd go to watch westerns together at 10 o'clock on a Saturday morning.
Now we're watching this dude up on the screen!'
Harris took out some old photos, their corners folded from having been shared so many times. An old black-and white snapshot showed him and Elvis as teenagers. Another in fading colours showed them at Graceland, Elvis' home in Memphis.
'We'd sit around the piano and play gospel songs at Graceland. We'd go visit him there, time to time. Elvis never forgot his true friends'.
Harris shared a photo of his great-grandson, too. 'He's six years old and he's already a big Elvis fan. I'm gonna have to give him some of my Elvis photos someday. He'd get a real kick out of that.'
Another photo showed Guy standing behind Elvis and his wife Priscilla.
'That was the last time I saw him. It was 1970, when he came back to Tupelo on December 29, 1970. He and Priscilla, and a couple of guys who worked with him, were in town. The guy I worked with on the police department named Bill Mitchell, who got elected sheriff, made Elvis an honorary deputy sheriff of Lee County. After we got all that done, he and I and Priscilla came out and visited right in here later on that night, you know, just as it was getting dark.
As we left, I asked Guy what work he went into.
'The police', he laughed. 'I'm a retired police captain'.
The young king grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, an east Mississippi town with sweltering summers, rolling clay hills, dirt roads and sweet Southern charm.
Elvis lived with his family in Tupelo until he was 13; after that, it was off to the big city of Memphis. Still, Elvis never forgot Tupelo, and his childhood friends and playmates have never forgotten him and the happy times they shared.
A few of Elvis' childhood friends often spend time at the Elvis Presley Birthplace, greeting fans from all over the world and sharing personal stories of Elvis' young days.
'As they would say in Tupelo, he was just a little snotty-nosed boy when I was born', Elvis' lifelong friend Guy Harris told the North Mississippi Daily Journal in 2010. Guy was a few years younger than Elvis, but that didn't stop the two boys from becoming good friends - such good friends that, when Elvis introduced Guy to Priscilla, he said Guy 'was my best friend growing up'.
Elvis was a shy boy, but he made plenty of lifelong friends in Tupelo.
'I sat right behind him in class in the sixth grade at Milam, and we run around together. I rode him around on my bicycle all over town', his friend James Ausborn said in an interview with the Daily Journal. 'We'd go fishing together down on the creek, on Mud Creek, and he would start singing. I'd get on to him singing. I'd tell him, 'We ain't gonna catch no fish, you keep singing'.
Guy remembers swimming with Elvis at the swimming hole, and fibbing to Gladys about where they'd been. Gladys was protective of her only son, Guy said, so she didn't like him playing too far from home where she couldn't keep an eye on him.
Elvis spent plenty of hours riding his bicycle around Tupelo.
Sam Bell remembers fun, carefree days playing with a young Elvis in Tupelo. At a Fan Club event during the 2015 Birthday Celebration, Sam recalled the pair hiding out in a tree house, Elvis' mother Gladys making them snacks ('She made the best Kool-Aid', Sam said) and Elvis' early fascination with music.
Sam Bell, Elvis' childhood friend, remembers Elvis before fame (14:21)
Gladys purchased a guitar for Elvis from Tupelo Hardware for his 11th birthday. Tupelo heard Elvis' first attempts on the instrument, and his first chords at singing in public. He carried his beloved guitar to school and competed in a talent show - taking home the fifth place award.
But Gladys wouldn't let Elvis take the guitar outside, where it could get damaged or dirty, Sam said. Elvis improvised and used a broom as a pretend guitar, and they'd sing gospel songs while Elvis strummed the 'guitar.' 'We all thought we could sing', Sam said, 'but we couldn't'.
Sam is black, and Elvis is white, and while they were children their schools were segregated. But once school let out, the two boys didn't let racial divides keep them apart. Elvis - or 'EP', as Sam called him - would play ball with Sam and would often sneak over to the black section of the local movie theater so they could watch movies together. 'We were inseparable', Sam said.
Elvis attended Lawhon and Milam schools while in Tupelo.
Elvis' young childhood friends said Tupelo was an inspirational place for him, and his time there carried a lasting impact on him. His generosity and spirituality stayed with him, from the dirt roads of Tupelo to the worldwide stage.
'It's amazing, really', Guy said, 'to think a guy from this small a town could do something like that'.Vernon and Gladys Presley : Elvis Presley's Mother and Father
Rock Idol Elvis Presley Dies at 42
Elvis' Funeral Procession August 17, 1977
A Broken Heart... Hastened Death
World's At Standstill For Elvis' Fiancee
Firemen's Call To Graceland Was Anything But Routine
Elvis Presley and the Events Of 1977
Australian Press 1977
Photos : August 16-19, 1977