Jessie D. McDowell (J.D.) Presley | Elvis Presleys Grandfather

By: David Troedson
Source: Elvis Australia
January 19, 2016

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Dunnan Presley Jr., father of:

Rosella Presley, mother of 9-10 children including:

Jessie D. Mcclowell Presley, father of:

Vernon Elvis Presley, father of:

Elvis Aaron Presley

Jessie Presley During World War I.
Jessie Presley During World War I.
Elvis' paternal line continued through Rosella Presley's son, Jessie D. McDowell (J.D.) Presley (1896-1973), (Elvis' grandfather) who was born on April 9, 1896 in Itawamba County, Mississippi, to Rosella Presley, unmarried.

Rosella bore nine illegitimate children, never once identifying to her children who their fathers were. Rosella stubbornly, and resourcefully, supported them through sharecropping. Mrs. Doshia Steele, one of Rosella's daughters, said this of her plight. 'I can't remember anyone ever talking about who our father was ... It was a big mystery when we were children. My mother just didn't talk about it'. Rosella, internalized the abandonment and re-enacted it throughout her life. Beginning at age nineteen and continuing over 28 years.

Elvis Presley's grandfather, Jessie D. McDowell (J.D.) Presley (1896-1973), was a slim, handsome man about six feet tall with raven black hair. He was also a dapper dresser. Clothes were one of the most important things in his life. People used to call him 'the lawyer' because he dressed so smart.

J.D. loved fine clothes. His favorite suit was a tailor-made brown one with pearl buttons. He saved up for months to buy it. Twenty-four dollars. 'He paraded around town like a peacock, with his head in the air and a cane in his hand. Owning expensive clothes was his only ambition in life. He hated poverty and he didn't want people to know he was poor. He felt that if he wore a tailor-made suit, people would look up to him'.

His brother, Calhoun Presley, had this to say about J.D. 'For most of his life Jessie drifted from one job to another all over Mississippi, Kentucky, and Missouri. He was a sharecropper in the summer and a lumberjack in the winter. Jessie worked hard and played hard. He was an honest man, but he enjoyed drinking whiskey and was often involved in drunken bar brawls.

On July 20, 1913 J.D. Pressley married Minnie Mae Hood.

Jessie served in the U.S. Army (Stateside) during World War I.

On April 10, 1916 in Fulton, Mississippi their first child was born, Vernon Presley (1916-1978), Elvis Presley's father. Vernon was scared of J.D., any transgression of his father's rules could provoke a beating.

This, combined with Jessie's drunken and philandering ways, caused permanent harm to their relationship. In many respects, it was as if Vernon had no father as Jessie repeated his own father's abandonment on his children. This theme of father abandonment reverberates throughout Elvis' paternal lineage. It is a strong clue to the abandonment that Elvis felt, and perpetrated, in his own life. Jessie fathered five children during his marriage to Minnie Mae; Vester, Vernon, Delta Mae, Nashville (Nash) and Lorene.

Vernon Presley and Gladys Smith

On June 17, 1933, Vernon Presley and Gladys Smith eloped and were married in the County of Pontotoc, where Vernon was not known, both lying about their ages. Vernon gave his age as 22, Gladys 19.

While Gladys was of legal age Vernon was not at age 17.

Gladys would hide her real age for much of her life.

In her book, Elvis and Gladys, Elaine Dundy says 'Impetuosity and impulsiveness played a large part in Gladys makeup. She knew nothing of half measures, nor was there anything half-hearted or self-protective about her'. Elvis would inherit from Gladys his unpredictable impulses.

Elvis Presley Video Jesse D. Presley on CBS TV, 1958 (03:04)

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Elvis Aaron Presley

About the end of June 1934, Gladys knew she was pregnant. Sometime around her fifth month she was sure she was having twins - she was unusually large, could feel two babies kicking and had a family history of twins on both sides of the family.

Vernon set about constructing a family home, and he and Gladys moved in that December. Elvis' birthplace was built by his father, Vernon, with help from Vernon's brother Vester and father, Jessie, whose relatively 'spacious' four-room house sat next door. Located above a highway that transported locals between Tupelo and Birmingham, Alabama, and nestled among a group of small, rough-hewn homes along Old Saltillo Road.

The house had no electricity (It was connected but it was not used due to the cost) or indoor plumbing and was similar to housing constructed for mill villages around that time.

Elvis Presleys birthplace on the Old Saltillo Road, East Tupelo
Elvis Presley's birthplace on the Old Saltillo Road, East Tupelo.

January 8, 1935, not long before dawn, Elvis Aaron Presley was born. Gladys delivered a second son earlier that morning, a stillborn identical twin named Jesse Garon. Elvis would be their only child.

Elvis' family life was turbulent during his early years, largely due to the poverty and financial circumstances of his parents, Vernon and Gladys, however, Elvis grew up within a close-knit, working-class family, consisting of his parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, who all live near one another in Tupelo. There was little money, but Vernon and Gladys did their best to provide for their son, who is the center of their lives.

Elvis Presley 1939.
Elvis Presley 1939.
On November 16, 1937, Vernon along with Gladys' brother, Travis Smith and a friend Lether Gable were indicted for forgery. A check that Orville Bean had made out to Vernon had been altered and the culprits stood accused by Bean. Vernon had sold Bean a hog and received for it, a check for only $4 - a sum much less than he had expected. Vernon was furious; as the hog was worth much more, and he had been counting on the money. There is no record of how the deal was arranged or for how much.

Vernon talked it over with Travis and Lether and an idea emerged since Vernon 'had been sold short', why not make the check closer to the amount deserved? Courthouse records do not include details of how large a sum of money the check was altered to, but in her book, Elvis and Gladys, Elaine Dundy says that based on the memories of the people she talked with, it was either fourteen or forty dollars.

According to Vernon's old friend Aaron Kennedy, he thinks the check was not altered but forged by putting a blank check over Orville Bean's and tracing his writing on to it. In any case obviously none of the men had any idea of how a bank operates to prevent such fraud. Great pressure was put on Orville Bean by the community of East Tupelo to show leniency toward the offenders, to no avail.

Elvis Presley MP3 Audio 'Who's That Kickin' My Dog Around' / 'The Billy Goat Song' (01:13)

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Elvis Presley MP3 Audio Audio: J.D. Presley singing 'Swingin' In The Orchard' (01:13)

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A bond for bail was fixed at $500 each. On January 4, 1938 only two bonds were filed for Travis and Lether Gable. Oddly the records show, Vernon's father, J.D. Presley and JG Brown stood sureties for Travis Smith but not Vernon. At least there is no record of such so it appears that Vernon spent six months in custody awaiting trial. J.D. had apparently never liked Vernon. He had kicked him out of home at 16.

It was Elaine Dundy that uncovered this evidence but it is not possible to know the truth as there not finding a record does not prove Jessie did not bail his son. Elaine Dundy does conclude the worst. It should be pointed out (As Elaine Dundy does in her book) that J.D. was farming on Orville Bean's land; Orville Bean was his landlord so it may have encouraged J.D. to stay on the 'right side' of the landowner.

So it was inevitable that on May 25, 1938, Vernon, Travis and Lether were sentenced to three years in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman for forging the check.

In his book, Day By Day, Ernst Jorgensen states, 'Gladys is unable to maintain the repayment schedule on their home causing the family to lose this house, and she and Elvis are forced to move in with relatives'.

In his book, Last Train To Memphis, Peter Guralnick states that 'During the brief time Vernon was in prison, Gladys lost the house and moved in briefly with her in-law's next door.

Elaine Dundy in her critically acclaimed book, Elvis and Gladys, states; These are hard times for mother and son. Understandably, in view of Jesse Presley's attitude toward his son, Gladys had grown more and more uncomfortable living next door to her father in law. At some point during Vernon's prison sentence, Gladys moved out and stayed with her first cousin Frank Richards. Whatever the reason, the Presleys never return to the house Vernon built, stories differ as to the reason and how the house left their ownership.

Presley Family 1941.
Presley Family 1941.
On February 6 1939, Vernon was released from Prison with a six-month suspension of their sentence, granted on condition of continued good behavior. This leniency is the result of a 'petition of the citizens of Lee County and on a letter from Mr. O. S. Bean, the party on whom the checks were forged'. The document is signed by Governor Hugh White.

Evidently, if Vernon ever was angry with Orville Bean, he didn't seem to hold a grudge as he brought a new house from him in Tupelo in 1945.

[Ironically, Elvis' fifth-grade teacher, would be Mrs Oleta Grimes, Orville Bean's daughter. And it was Mrs Grimes who was highly impressed with Elvis' classroom performance of 'Old Shep'. 'He sang it so sweetly'. She took him to the school Principal, Mr Cole, and again Elvis sang 'Old Shep'. Mr Cole was similarly impressed. This was a few weeks before the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show, held in Tupelo. Elvis was promptly entered.]

In 1940, Vernon was granted an indefinite suspension of his sentence.

During World War II, while Vernon was away helping to build a prisoner of war camp for the WPA, Gladys was admitted to hospital. In the words of Mrs Leona Moore, now a retired nurse, who was working at the Tupelo hospital at the time, 'The truth is she had a miscarriage'. This explains why Gladys never had another child, she had tried and unfortunately failed.

Soon after Vernon returned, his father J.D. suddenly took off again. This time for good. He left Tupelo, working his way northwards, ending up in Kentucky where he later became a night watchman at a Pepsi Cola plant in Louiseville.

On August 18, 1945, Vernon purchased a new four-room house in Berry Street, East Tupelo from Orville Bean. The price is $2000, with a down payment of $200 and monthly installments of $30 plus 6% interest.

J.D. Divorces Minnie Mae

In 1946, claiming Minnie Mae had deserted him, Jessie Presley filed for divorce. Fighting back, Minnie Mae, who Elvis hung the nickname 'Dodger' on, claimed, 'I didn't desert my husband. He deserted me and has been living with another woman. He hasn't sent me any money in over a year. I am not able to make a living', the judge listened to both sides, then granted Jessie the divorce. No alimony for Minnie Mae. The divorce was finalized on August 3, 1954 in Lee County, Mississippi. J.D then married Vera (Kinnaird) Leftwich.

Minnie Mae never remarried. She moved in with her son and daughter-in-law at their Berry Street home. Later, she would live in the Graceland mansion until her death in 1980.

On July 18, 1946, Just eleven months after purchasing the house on Berry Street Vernon 'sold' - actually transferred the deed over to his friend Aaron Kennedy for $3,000 to avoid foreclosure proceedings. Immediately then, Aaron Kennedy gave Orville Bean a deed of trust, which is the same thing as a mortgage.

The Presleys move into Tupelo, first to Commerce Street, then to Mulberry Alley, a small lane running beside the fairgrounds, just opposite the town's black neighborhood, 'Shake Rag'.


On Sunday November 25, 1956 Elvis played two shows (2pm/8pm) at The Jefferson County Armory in Louisville, Kentucky. He stayed at the Seal Bark Hotel. Elvis' grandfather lived in Louisville and Elvis visited with him at his home during both the 1956 appearance and again in 1971 when Elvis appeared at Freedom Hall. On the first occasion, Elvis gave his Grandfather a car, a brand new Ford Fairlane and a new TV set.

On the second occasion November 7, 1971 when Elvis played Louisville Kentucky at the 'Freedom Hall' he introduced his Grandfather, who was in the audience, to the crowd.

J.D. and Vera Presley with the car Elvis gave them
J.D. and Vera Presley with the car Elvis gave them.

Later, Jessie recorded two songs - 'Who's That Kickin' My Dog Around' / 'The Billy Goat Song' b/w 'Swingin' In The Orchard' that was released as a single - for a Louisville record label. The record died in its tracks.

Elvis' Grandfather Jesse D. Presley Sings

On July 9, 1958, while Elvis was in Germany, J.D. appeared on CBS TV's 'I've Got A Secret'.

Elvis' grandfather Jesse D. Presley with his wife, Vera, on CBS TV in 1958 discussing his new record, his singing debut and hopes of becoming a success.

Billed as, Grandpa Jesse Pressley, 62-year-old grandfather of Elvis Presley, he made his television debut singing 'The Billy Goat Song'. For many years, Jessie (And at times Vernon) had spelled his name 'Pressley', but sometime after Elvis became famous, he dropped an 's' in the spelling.

Elvis' Grandfather Jesse D. Presley on CBS TV, 1958

On July 9, 1958, while Elvis was in Germany, J.D. appeared on CBS TV's 'I've Got A Secret'.
Jesse Presley Makes TV Debut: 1958.

Above image, July 9, 1958, with Gary Moore, left, on the drums, Guitarist Gene Klingman, right, and panelists of CBS TV's 'I've Got A Secret' looking on, Jesse Pressley, 62-year-old grandfather of Elvis Presley, makes his television debut singing 'The Billy Goat Song'. Grandfather Pressley (he spells his name differently) was recently signed to record a series of record albums. (Only the single was ever released).

As above, Jessie used the double 's' but later changed it to the single 's' like his famous grandson. This goes back at least as far as his mother and it seems it did not finally become resolved until this time.

Today there are plenty of Presly's, Presleys and Pressleys in Tennessee.

When Gladys died in 1958 J.D. rode a bus from Louisville and attended the funeral.

Jessie D. McDowell Presley died 19 April 1973 and is buried in Louisville. Minnie Mae Hood was born 17 June 1888 and died 8 May 1980. She rests in peace at Graceland. Vera (Kinnaird) Leftwich was born June 23, 1892 and died August 10, 1981 and is buried beside J.D. in Louisville.

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Never before have we seen an Elvis Presley concert from the 1950's with sound. Until Now! The DVD Contains recently discovered unreleased film of Elvis performing 6 songs, including Heartbreak Hotel and Don't Be Cruel, live in Tupelo Mississippi 1956. Included we see a live performance of the elusive Long Tall Sally seen here for the first time ever. + Plus Bonus DVD Audio.

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Tupelo's Own Elvis Presley DVD Video with Sound.