In competing versions of the story, what Elvis Presley really wanted for his birthday was a rifle or a bicycle—both fairly typical choices for a boy his age growing up on the outskirts of Tupelo, Mississippi. Instead, Elvis’s highly protective mother, Gladys—”She never let me out of her sight,” Elvis would later say—took him to the Tupelo Hardware Store and bought a gift that would change the course of history: a $6.95 guitar. It was January 8, 1946, and Elvis Aaron Presley was 11 years old.
The historical significance of putting a guitar into the hands of a young man who would later help define rock and roll is obvious. For Elvis himself, however, getting that guitar was just one more step in a thorough yet totally unplanned program of childhood musical development that prepared him perfectly to ignite a revolution 10 years later.
Music surrounded the young Elvis Presley—music of all the types that would inform his later recordings and performances, from country, bluegrass, blues and gospel to mainstream pop and even opera. Gladys Presley told stories of Elvis as a toddler jumping out her lap and running down the aisle of the First Assembly of God Church so that he could stand directly in front of the choir, singing along and imitating their movements. The local radio was dominated by country and western music, which Elvis adored. And as Peter Guralnick, author of the definitive early-Elvis biography “Last Train to Memphis” put it, Elvis “absorbed the blues from the radio and the pervasive contact that a poor white family like the Presleys, always living on the edge of town and respectability, would necessarily have with blacks.”
Born within five years and 500 miles of one another, future greats such as James Brown, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Sam Cooke were being shaped by this same mix of musical influences, as well as by a culture in which listening to music generally meant participating in it, too. This generation of musicians would give birth to whole new genres and subgenres of American music—not just rock and roll, but rockabilly, rhythm and blues, soul and more. With his first guitar in hand, Elvis Presley took a key step toward joining that list of music greats on this day in music history, 1946.
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