Robert Neal was born in the Belgian Congo to American missionary parents.
In 1942, he joined WMPS, a Memphis radio station. Although he did not originally play country music, he achieved greater success once he specialized in that style in the early 1950s. In 1954, Sam Phillips gave Bob Neal an acetate of Elvis Presley's first record and Bob Neal promoted it on WMPS along with Dewey Phillips' promotion of Elvis' first record on WHBQ. Bob Neal organized live music events and was also an emcee. So, upon Sam Phillips' request, he set up Elvis Presley for his first live performance at Overton Park in Memphis, Tennessee on July 30, 1954.
According to Hames Ware, ''The first time I ever heard of Elvis was around 1954. My uncles took me to see Red Sovine and Webb Pierce. Elvis was the last act on the program bill behind Wanda Jackson. Of course it was just Elvis, Bill Black, and Scotty Moore, but they made more noise than anyone else. It was pure rock and roll, rockabilly, or whatever you wished to call it, but the crowd went wild.''
August 4,1955 ─ The Camden news report:
Young and handsome Elvis Presley will be among the top country stars coming to Camden Thursday for two shows at the Municipal Auditorium. The All-Star Jamboree of country entertainers, featuring two of the top names in the rural rhythm department, is coming to Camden for two shows at the Municipal Auditorium tomorrow night at 7 and 9:30 p.m.
Webb Pierce, consistently, voted the nation's number one star of country music, will highlight the big attraction. Pierce, who once appeared on the Louisiana Hayride and later of the Grand Ole Opry, had a great string on consecutive record hits with ''In The Jailhouse Now'' and ''I Don't Care,'' his latest top hits. Pierce, and the Wondering boys are coming in from a TV appearance in New York.
Elvis Presley voted the year's number one star by Cash Box magazine will feature his Western Bop type of singing, including his new record release ''Mystery Train.''
Other stars marked for the appearance include Red Sovine, a Decca Record artist, formerly of KWKH in Shreveport, Bud Decklelan, MGM recording star, Charlie Feathers, and Miss Wanda Jackson, Oklahoma City's contribution to Folk Music. Advance sale tickets are now at South Arkansas Music Company.
AUGUST 5, 1955 FRIDAY
At 8:00 p.m., Elvis Presley played his third and final gig at the Overton Park Shell in Memphis. He performed second on the bill of Bob Neal's "Eighth Anniversary Jamboree" at the open-air show. Headlined the extravaganza was Webb Pierce, which included guest appearances by newcomer Johnny Cash, Wanda Jackson, Gene Simmons, the Miller Sisters and Red Sovine.
Also appearing was the same cast from Camden, along with Carl Perkins, Sonny James, Bud Deckelman, Jim Wilson, and Bob Neal's band, the Neal Boys. Texas Bill Strength, a Memphis disc jockey, also made an unadvertised appearance.
This three-hour extravaganza appearance was reported at the time to be the largest country jamboree ever held in Memphis, pulling in an "overflow audience" of 4,000 fans despite the threat of rain.
According to the Memphis Press-Scimitar, "several hundred" music lovers had to be turned away at the box office. Advance tickets were $1.00 until 4:00 p.m. on the day of the show. When the Overton Shell box office opened at 6:30 p.m., seats were $1.25 reserved, with general admission $1.00 and children 50-cents.
Bob Neal also booked rockabilly singer Charlie Feathers. While waiting to go on stage, Elvis Presley and Charlie Feathers talked about the show. Feathers pointed out that Billboard had sent a reporter, a prospect that excited Elvis Presley because Sam Phillips was preparing to debut Presley's latest record. Bob Neal, personal manager to Elvis Presley, reports that the Louisiana Hayride youngster and his show play a series of Mid-South dates next week, opening Monday with a big outdoor jamboree at Forrest City, Arkansas.
Overton Park Shell. Elvis with Texas Bill Strength, August 5, 1955. Photographed by Robert Dye for the Commercial Appeal.
Managing Elvis Presley
Bob Neal officially became Elvis Presley's second manager on January 1, 1955, preceded by the band's guitarist Scotty Moore.
In February 1955, Bob Neal started Elvis Presley Enterprises to promote the product “Elvis Presley”, with an office at 160 Union Avenue, across from the famous Peabody Hotel, in Memphis, Tennessee.
On March 15, 1955, Neal signed an amended one-year contract agreement with Elvis, giving him a 15 percent commission.
On November 21, 1955 Elvis’ contract with Sun was purchased by RCA. At that time, Colonel Tom Parker and Bob Neal agreed to split their combined 40 percent commission on Elvis' earnings. Moreover, Bob Neal was growing weary of life on the road, he still had his job as a DJ and, by March 1956, he had opened a record store in Memphis. So, when his contract with Elvis expired on March 15, 1956, he decided not to pursue renewal and Colonel Tom Parker became Elvis’ manager. Neal would later say "I always felt that Elvis was going to be a big artist, but I never would have believed how big, so I just preferred to drop out of the scene."
By Jerry Gentry
Presley signing a contract, flanked by two standing men: his first manager, Bob Neal, and the man credited with discovering Elvis, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips. In that photo there's a fireplace mantel behind Elvis, on which sit several small, framed pictures hanging on the wall above it is a large picture of a smiling dark-haired woman. She was not connected to any of the men in the photo, but her prominence in the scene, years later, aroused the curiosity of Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick, who called Phillips and asked who she was. He didn't know at the time, but I did. She's my mother. Five years ago, while researching my deceased maternal grandfather, "Papa Lou" Lowry. Papa Lou, a freelance photographer, had taken the now-famous shot of Elvis, Phillips and Neal.
The document Elvis was signing in the photo was not with Sun Records -- Elvis' first contract -- as my family had assumed. "I had already signed Elvis," Phillips said. The document over which Elvis' pen-grasping hand was poised was a management contract with Bob Neal.
Correspondence about Elvis Presley to Texas radio station DJ Slick Norris. The first is a typed, signed letter on Bob Neal stationery dated January 15, 1955, to Norris, requesting that he play Presley's records on the stations in the Texas area. Neal began as a promoter for Presley and entered into an exclusive management contract with him on December 29, 1954 (officially on January 1st, 1955), a few weeks before he reached out to Norris. The letter is accompanied by the original transmittal envelope.
By February Bob started Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE, Inc.) to promote the product “Elvis Presley” with an office at 160 Union Avenue across from the Peabody Hotel. Their motif was pink and black which included the fan club membership cards, stationery, and envelopes. Bob's wife, Helen was the secretary. He also arranged for the portrait photos by Speer in Memphis that were mass produced and sold at venues.
Bob regularly supplied Billboard and Cash Box magazines with plenty of material to help promote Elvis and generate interest in his career. Deejays were invited to write in for samples. Bob booked them as one of the headliners at his Five Star Jamboree at Ellis Auditorium in February and took that opportunity to arrange a meeting with Colonel Tom Parker in hopes of having Jamboree Attractions book Elvis, Scotty and Bill. He recognized his influence and the opportunities of package tours to other parts of the country.
Bob also took them for their first trip(s) North for appearances in Cleveland and then to New York to audition for Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. They were rejected. The week before, on March 15th, he signed an amended one-year contract agreement with Elvis giving him a 15 percent commission, though by then Parker had his sights locked on Elvis.
Later that year he started including other Sun acts to open shows with Elvis that at times included Johnny Cash and/or Carl Perkins. Still a part of the show and doing morning radio, Bob had Helen do much of the driving so he could sleep whenever he could. She sold the tickets and he collected them or money at the door, then rush on stage to introduce the show.
Elvis, being close to the age of Bob’s son Sonny, became close with Bob’s family and Bob was well aware it was Elvis he had the contract with and not the band. Scotty had reminded him after he took over that Elvis had promised them a share of the royalties and though Bob acknowledged it, never did anything about it. Unfortunately by October it was his task also to tell Scotty and Bill that their original agreement of a 50-25-25 split would change to a salary of $200 a week when they worked and $100 when they didn’t just as things were getting good.
Though they blamed Parker, Bob maintained the decision was Elvis’.
Col. Parker, Gladys, Elvis, Vernon, attorney Coleman Tilly and Bob Neal at SUN recording Co. November 21, 1955.
MGM sound stage on June 6, 1957. With Judy Tyler, Bob Neal, Elvis, unknown and Dewey Phillips.
IIn '56 Neal opened a talent agency called Stars, Inc. for representation and booking of artists that would include Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Sonny James, Warren Smith, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc.
In 1958 he freed the others from their contracts and focused solely on Johnny Cash, moving his family along with Johnny's to California.
The following year he arranged a tour out of the country to Australia for Johnny, something the Colonel should have done, but would never do for Elvis. However, the Hollywood scene was not as entirely fruitful for them as it was for Elvis and, late in 1960, when their contract expired, they did not renew. They split amicably, with a generous settlement on royalties. Neal returned to Tennessee and set up in Nashville. Through the 1960s he was back in the talent agencies.
In 1964, Neal started Country Music News Service, a company that offered taped reports and weekly interviews with top country performers to subscribing radio stations, featuring news items about the country music field and interviews with top country music performers.
By the 1970s he would also serve as a director of the Country Music Association. Never critical, he would later praise what the Colonel did with Elvis, though suggest that he himself would probably not have kept him away from performing for a live audience for so long, something that Elvis always enjoyed. The same year that Elvis died, in 1977, Neal received the Man of The Year Award from the Nashville Association of Talent Directors for his great contribution in the field of country music.
Neal died on May 9, 1983 at the Park View Hospital in Nashville.
The following year, on October 12, 1984 Bob Neal was elected into the Country Music Disc Jockey Hall Of Fame.