This true story is an excerpt from Timeline of America: Sound Bytes from the Consumer Culture. (iUniverse / 0-595-40004-3 / 978-0-595-40004-1 / June 2006 / 300 pages / $21.95)
Let me introduce myself. I am an Elvis fan, and I have been one since I first heard Hound Dog on my black plastic, plug-in radio. You remember those, the kind that were about eight times the size of your average Walkman or iPod, but you still had to plug it in, and all you got was the AM band playing the country tunes of the day. Jerry Clower used to tell a story about listening to Ernest Tubb on the AM car radio back then. That's the era Jerry and I are talking about. I remember him, too, as well as Johnny Cash singing Ring of Fire and I Walk the Line. From the moment I heard Elvis bellowing the lines of Hound Dog, I knew I had discovered that music would be one of my lifelong passions. I was only a seven-year-old in North Carrollton, MS, but I felt the magic at once.
Every Christmas for a long time thereafter, I received at least a couple of Elvis 45's and 45 EP's. In case you missed those, they were four-song, 45-rpm, 7-inch discs packaged in full-color, original, cardboard sleeves just like LP's. One of the dumbest things I ever did was to give those EP's to my little sister a few years later so she could lose and/or destroy them! I may have graduated up to full-size LP's, and then decades later, to the modern compact discs, but in today's collectible Elvis market, those early EP's are highly prized.
Of course I saw all the Elvis movies at the local theater for a measly fifteen cents each. That translates to less than two dollars to see my favorite, King Creole, thirteen times! Most of you may know by now that the early Elvis movies had real characters and story content. King Creole was based on Harold Robbins' book, A Stone for Danny Fisher, and it featured Walter Matthau as the villain and Vic Morrow as his punk henchman. You don't get any more classic than that. King Creole was followed by the G. I. Blues, the first of many almost disgracefully silly Elvis movies. There is no doubt at all in my mind that Viva Las Vegas of '64 was the best of the silly Elvis movies. The tight editing and the dancing by Ann-Margaret took it clearly over the top. The sports car race and her tight pants did not hurt a bit, but it was the way she could out-dance The King that really made Viva Las Vegas great. My second-favorite silly Elvis movie was the under-appreciated Tickle Me. Playboy Playmate Jocelyn Lane was an extremely cute leading lady in a sort of Pam Dawber way. By the time of the later Elvis movies, I was likely watching them in the same theater which he used to commandeer in the middle of the night to entertain his buddies with private screenings of contemporary movies. I used to love those grand old theaters in Memphis with their ornate architecture, wide screens, red velvet curtains, and plush seats.
I have seen Elvis live on stage only once, but I'll always treasure that once. He was carried out onto the fairgrounds in Tupelo that night in a black Cadillac limousine that trailed a team of Shetland ponies dolled up in circus-parade regalia. No kidding! It was September of 1956. Elvis was returning to his home town after his national recording success for what would be his last concert in Tupelo. The media called him Elvis the Pelvis back then because his stage dancing was so provocative, and yes, it was satisfyingly wild and crazy for 1956!
Another memorable time I would see Elvis in person would be in late '68 or early 1969. I can't remember which it was. But I shall never forget that day either. I was cruising south in my white '68 Fiat Spider down the main thoroughfare then called Highway 51 in Whitehaven when I suddenly noticed a familiar pair of motorcyclists sitting in a driveway on the east side of the street. The riders on the black Honda 305 Dream and the pink Honda Benly Touring 150 were obviously waiting for a break in the traffic so they could pull out for a cruise through the Memphis suburb. The most amazing thing to me was that neither were wearing full-coverage helmets which would not only protect their heads in a crash, but would also handily conceal their identities! The lady on the pink Honda had only sunglasses and a scarf covering her flowing dark tresses and the rider on the black Honda wore absolutely nothing on his head. He looked just like the Super Hawk rider in Roustabout in black leathers, the front strand of slick, dyed-black hair falling on his forehead, and the infamous curled lip!
Yes, his hair was dyed black. If you look at the cover photos on the early EP's and LP's, you will see a young Elvis with light to moderately dark brown hair. My favorite aunt, the one I lived with in Memphis briefly in The Sixties, is the one who first dyed his hair black. Elvis told her he thought it would look better in the movies. If you go back and watch Love Me Tender, you will see that he still had the light hair. It was black when he appeared in the second movie, the first one in color, Loving You. My mom and her family lived a couple of blocks from the Presleys in The Forties. Elvis was a childhood playmate of one of my uncles, one who died prematurely at the age of 21. My aunt was Elvis' mom's best friend for most of Gladys' life. That same aunt was a hairdresser in Tupelo, and later in Memphis at Goldsmith's, the same large department store with the escalators that used to frighten the bejeezus out of me when I was about five. The same aunt later became a real estate agent. She located the small brick home in Audubon Park for the Presley family when they first moved to Memphis. When they later purchased and renovated an old mansion on Highway 51, she selected the carpeting.
Aunt Nell took me and my mom and sister to that property several times. The first I remember because the renovation was not yet complete. We drove up to the back of the large house and Gladys came out to chat with Aunt Nell for a few minutes. Elvis' uncle was there, too. Aunt Nell later told us how she had always thought considerably more highly of him than she had Elvis' dad, who she thought to be quite a scoundrel. He had after all spent his share of days and nights in jail, an issue firmly frowned upon back in the uptight Fifties. We did not go inside the house because Gladys said Elvis was sleeping and should not be disturbed. Other times, long after the renovation was complete, I remember driving up to the gates. At least one of those times Elvis was on horseback on the front lawn. He never hid from the fans back then nearly as much as you would have expected. That would come later, in the Elvis period I had just as soon forget. I want to remember him the way he was in The Fifties and Sixties. Gladys used to phone Aunt Nell to chat just about every day. Aunt Nell had the secret phone number, too. The last time she talked with Elvis personally was the day Gladys died. A big hunk a' The King died that day, too.
Postscript: This story is an extension of one entitled Rising Stars, featured in my first book, Plastic Ozone Daydream. You can hear that same performance in Tupelo on September 26, 1956, on the numbered edition, six-LP collection called Elvis: A Golden Celebration. I have lived in Austin, TX, now for many years, but at the time of its release, I requested that mom and Aunt Nell go find me one at Poplar Tunes, one of the oldest record stores in Memphis. I got the last one they had, #210, and it sounds just as tinny and scratchy as that AM radio did back in Carrollton, MS, in 1955.