Bitsy And The King: Tupelo’s Savery Was A Friend And Host To Elvis
By Linda Zabriskie Johnson
Sitting across a table from Joe ‘Bitsy’ Savery, a bright-eyed, tastefully dressed gentleman in his early 80s, it’s easy to let your mind conjure an image of the man his childhood acquaintance, Elvis Aaron Presley, might have been had their circumstances been different or, perhaps, more the same.
The fact is that though these two boys were both born in the storied landscape of the Mississippi Hills, they started their lives in two different worlds and walked divergent paths that would cross at key points in their respective journeys.
Bitsy, so-dubbed because of his size at birth by a particularly descriptive nurse, grew up in an affluent family in the city of Tupelo, which had made history in 1934 as the first city to purchase electricity from the Tennessee Valley Authority and even hosted President Franklin Roosevelt in November of that same year. Elvis had been born to parents who struggled to earn a living literally ‘on the other side of the tracks’ in the more hardscrabble east Tupelo that, among other dubious distinctions, had reportedly served briefly as a hideout for gangsters Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker during their legendary run from the law.
While Bitsy had attended Church Street Elementary School, lauded at the 1939 World’s Fair as an ideal educational facility, and Elvis had attended Lawhon Elementary School located a few miles away, they would meet for the first time at Milam Junior High School when they were in the sixth grade.
‘There was a building we called ‘the shed’, recalls Savery, ‘where we parked our bikes and where kids played when it rained. At times, I brought my lunch and Elvis usually brought his. So, we would sit outside by the shed and eat our lunch together’.
Like all kids they played together, marbles and such. ‘Elvis was athletic’, he recalls. ‘He was always picked in the first group for sports and I was usually picked last. He was never picked last’. (Ironically, Bitsy would go on to earn a scholarship to play football at Ole Miss. ‘Well, I was red-shirted at Ole Miss’, he modestly emphasizes. ‘I didn’t play that much, but I was on the team until I got married. You weren’t allowed to be on the team if you got married’).
The two schoolmates were just that and seldom saw each other outside of school. However, Savery does remember a rare occasion when the carnival was in town and he encountered his friend on the street.
‘I had never seen Elvis downtown before’, he recalls. ‘He wanted us to sneak him into the carnival. So, we tried to go in through a back fence, but the guard caught us’. It would not be the last time Elvis had to sneak in or out of a place, but the reasons would certainly change.
Elvis soon left Milam and in 1948 moved with his family to Memphis where the now fabled conversion from pauper to king would begin.
‘We just came back to school and Elvis wasn’t there’, Savery remembers wistfully. And that was the last he heard of his friend until a mid-1950s road trip brought a familiar name back to mind.
‘It was 1954 or ’55 and Hubert Gaither, a football teammate, and I went on a trip out west’, he recalls. ‘We pulled into a drive-in to get a hamburger somewhere along our route and they had a nickelodeon. Hubert put a nickel in and then he said, ‘Look at this! Elvis Presley has a record on here. You reckon it’s really him?’ I said, ‘Naw, it’s not him’. But we put a nickel in anyway. It was Elvis, of course’.
While Bitsy had been unable to sneak his friend into a carnival years before, his father, J.M. ‘Ikey’ Savery, would bring Elvis to the fair. Ikey was in charge of the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show, which was held annually in Tupelo on the grounds where the Fairpark District is located today. He had known Col. Tom Parker from a national fair association with which the two had both been affiliated and called Parker to see if Elvis would consider returning to perform in his hometown.
‘I still have the unlisted numbers for both Elvis and Colonel Parker that my dad used’, Bitsy said.
Ikey talked at length with both Col. Parker and Elvis’ father, Vernon. Vernon asked Ikey if he was Bitsy’s dad and, when it was confirmed, proceeded to inquire after Bitsy before contract negotiations got too serious.
‘Everybody told my dad that no one could get Elvis, but for Elvis it was more than just a show. It was about coming back home. He only played one county fair in his entire career and that was Tupelo’.
Elvis scheduled two performances for the 1956 show. A few days before the shows, Ikey informed Bitsy that there would be dinner guests between shows. The Presleys would dine with the Saverys at their home before the evening concert. Elvis and his parents had made the drive from Memphis in separate cars as throngs of people lined the highway to catch a glimpse of the returning hero’s entourage.
‘I remember seeing a beautiful Lincoln Continental pull into our driveway and there sat Elvis in the back seat with a brunette on his left side and a blonde on his right’, Bitsy relates with a slight chuckle. ‘That’s something you don’t forget, seeing a man with two dates’.
Vernon and Elvis’ mother, Gladys, arrived a short time later. Elvis’ devotion to his mother would be legendary as all aspects of his life became fodder for reporters and biographers, but Bitsy remembers that being absolutely apparent even then. ‘You could just feel Elvis’ love for Gladys. He opened doors for her, helped her into her seat and the way he looked at her, you could just feel it’.
Seated in the Savery dining room that evening, a few miles and a far cry from the shotgun shack where Elvis had lived just a few years earlier with his parents, were Bitsy and his wife, his brother, Mitchell, and his wife, Ikey and Mrs. Savery (Beulah Bell), Vernon, Gladys and Elvis, who dined on a large honey and cinnamon baked ham topped with molasses along with sweet potato casserole and a variety of other regional offerings.
Bitsy recalls the meal fondly. ‘Mom had chosen not to put out place cards, so everyone chose their own seat. Usually when we ate dinner my dad would sit at one end of the table and my mom would sit at the other end. Her chair had a butterfly switch on the floor underneath that she could step on to ring and let the kitchen know if she needed something.
‘As we were sitting down to dinner, my dad sat at his usual end of the table, but Gladys took her seat at the opposite end in the butterfly chair. Dad’s eyes darted over to my mother silently urging her not to say anything to Gladys to avoid embarrassment. All of a sudden we heard a buzzing noise coming from the kitchen. It turns out; Gladys had accidentally stepped on the switch.
‘Elvis inquired about the sound and my dad just jumped up and ran into the kitchen. Suddenly, I heard a loud noise and knew that my dad had ripped that buzzer off the kitchen wall rather than tell Gladys she was in the wrong seat. When he returned, he acted as though nothing had happened and calmly asked for more ham’.
No one beyond the Saverys had noticed the gaff and by all accounts the meal was a success, says Bitsy. ‘It was well-known that Elvis loved to eat. After eating a generous amount of the ham, he leaned over and whispered to his mom that she really needed to find out what was on top of that ham’.
Article written and provided by Linda Zabriskie Johnson
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