Red Robinson was the first Canadian disc jockey to play rock and roll music in Vancouver, B.C. At the age of 16, he started working at radio station CJOR and was one of the first DJs to play Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly.
Elvis In Vancouver - August 31, 1957
RED ROBINSON'S LEGENDS
The highlight of 1957 had a date: August 31. The place: Empire Stadium, Vancouver. The occasion: The live appearance of Elvis Presley.
More than 26,000 tickets were sold for the event. Presley arrived in Vancouver by train as his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, did not want Elvis to fly. The train arrived in the morning at the Great Northern Railway station, catching the media off guard as they had anticipated he would be arriving by plane. He was then driven by limousine to the Georgia Hotel. I took the elevator to the 12th floor and started walking down the hall toward Elvis’ room. I knocked on the door, it flew open and Tom Diskin, Elvis Presley's road manager, greeted us. The meeting was brief: a handshake, a question here, an answer there. Elvis was cautious at our initial meeting but when he realized that I was not there to interview him, he was most cordial. We talked about his success, the types of music we both enjoyed and his enjoyment of live performances where he could see immediate reaction to his stage act.
I guess one of the main reasons I have always been a Presley fan is that I discovered a down to earth individual who had not been affected by the incredible success that fell upon him. We said goodbye and I said that I was looking forward to his show and would see him later that day at the stadium.
The next scene opens at the Elvis press conference. I discovered that only the newsmen had brought tape recorders. The other deejays had not. I hadn't been used to doing interviews with a press group and was determined to get my piece in. As the microphones were pushed into Presley's face I fought to ask him questions mostly related to his music. He seemed to understand that I was not out to gather any sensational news. When the press conference ended, Elvis and I were joined by two Vancouver policemen. We stayed there together for what seemed like an eternity waiting for the stadium to fill up with fans. These were intimate moments with the "King".
We talked about growing up poor. We discussed the changing world, his family, my family, his love of rhythm and blues, country and gospel music. Elvis discussed at great length his ambitions with regard to his music. He asked me about my radio show, the kids that listened, how they reacted to his television appearances and his records.
Just before I left the dressing room to go out and bring on the opening acts, Elvis stood up, stretched out his hand and said, "It was nice meeting you. Good luck with your radio career and I hope we get to see each other again down the road."
With my heart pounding with excitement I left Elvis and walked toward the stage at the north end of Empire Stadium. I can't describe the feeling of looking out at a sea of 25,000 faces. I had to gather up every ounce of courage. My introduction was brief: I walked out to thundering applause and said "On behalf of the Teen Canteen, Canada’s largest teen show, I'm proud tonight to present to you, ELVIS PRESLEY!" The crowd went berserk.
Elvis performed for only 25 minutes. He sang many of his hits including "Heartbreak Hotel", "Don't Be Cruel", "That's When Your Heartaches Begin", and "Hound Dog". As the crowd grew more alarming, Presley was ordered by his manager to wrap up the show and depart in his Cadillac, now parked conveniently behind the stage. It was truly an unforgettable evening.
On August 31, 1982, to mark the 25th anniversary of Elvis' visit to Vancouver, CBC's Vicki Gabereau sat down with me and we covered some of the highlights of the concert. I thought I'd lost this interview, and it was a treat to hear it again. Hope you enjoy my recollections of one of the greatest days of my life.
Red calls the Colonel
By the time Robinson entered Presley’s orbit, Presley was twenty-two and rock and roll’s first genuine sensation, having completed two movies and making sensational appearances on the Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen television shows. When he arrived in Vancouver in August of 1957, fifty-two cops had been hired, each at the cost of five hundred dollars, to keep the mobs at bay. Robinson was soon seated beside the star at a press conference at Empire Stadium, with reporters gathered in front of and behind them, Tom Parker standing to one side, and under the watchful eyes of former US Marines who had been employed as bodyguards. “Elvis was still a young kid from Tennessee, nothing uppity or phony about him,” Robinson recalls. Depending on the questions asked by the reporters, Presley would glance at Parker as if to get his permission to answer. The questions were exceedingly banal and typical of the day: Presley was asked everything from his favorite color to what kind of food he ate. Robinson admits to spending a good deal of his career asking the same type of questions, even though many of his print interviews (such as a 1966 conversation with Bill Haley reprinted in the February 2013 edition of Dig This magazine) could be forensic and scholarly in detail. He explains, “None of the fans gave a damn about who these people were, so yes, the interviews for broadcast were totally banal. Plus, folk like Buddy Holly, as amazingly talented as he was, had no more depth than an inkwell. So my questions would be like, ‘Do you miss your folks?’ ‘What are your hobbies?’
‘Isn’t it amazing that you were truck driver just six months ago?’ Being a jock wasn’t exactly an intellectual exercise. We served to get the music out, period.” As usual, Robinson is selling himself short: his interview with Presley is lively and fast-paced, certainly no more superficial than the fawning exchanges that characterize nearly every celebrity interview of the twenty-first century. An excerpt:
RR: Speaking of records, have you got any that are coming out that you’ve recorded and we haven’t heard yet?
EP: Yes, the theme song from my next picture will be out about the middle of next month.
RR: What’s the picture?
EP: Jailhouse Rock.
RR: How did you find Hal Wallis as a producer/director?
EP: He’s a very fine man.
RR: Did he help you out or who was the big help in aiding your show, Loving You?
EP: Well, there’s nobody that helps you out. They have a director and a producer and just as far as the acting and as far as the singing and all, you’re on your own. Nobody tells you how to do that. You have to learn it yourself.
RR: How do you rate yourself as an actor?
EP: Pretty bad. It’s something you learn through experience. I think that now maybe I might accomplish something at it through the years.
RR: You didn’t trust acting natural?
EP: In some scenes I was pretty natural. In others I was trying to act, and when you start trying to act, you’re dead.
Before showtime, Robinson spent an hour with Presley in the BC Lions dressing room in the bowels of Empire Stadium, police officers in attendance. “It was what you’d call quality time today,” he says. “We talked about cars and women, movies and the music scene. And out of this, I discovered Elvis had a great admiration for [opera singer] Mario Lanza. That might be hard for musicologists to believe, but you can hear the influence in songs like ‘Surrender’ and ‘It’s Now or Never.’ In rhythm and blues, he loved Clyde McPhatter and Roy Hamilton; their roots were in gospel, and that’s what Elvis was. All he ever wanted to sing was gospel music.” It didn’t escape Robinson’s attention that melancholia was already taking hold of the young star. “He talked almost wistfully about his high school days, and when I mentioned our PNE fairground a look of longing filled his face, so I asked him what was up. As it turned out, he would have loved nothing better to simply walk inside, get a roll of tickets and take the rides with everyone else. But there was no way this could happen—he would have been mobbed. He told me that back in Memphis he would rent an amusement park after hours when the public had gone home and take all the rides, with only his managers and handlers as his companions.” It also didn’t escape Robinson’s attention that while Presley had been charming and fairly easygoing during the press conference, he was now visibly more nervous. “He had a nervous twitch and was constantly toying with his wristwatch, twisting the expansion band,” he says. To distract himself, Presley began asking Robinson questions: about his radio show, the kids who listened and how they reacted to his television appearances and records.
Presley’s costume for the evening was a solid-gold lamé suit, but Robinson noted that he only wore the jacket on top of pants and a shirt that were a normal black cotton weave. “He didn’t wear the entire suit because it made him too hot,” says Robinson. “That had been Colonel Parker’s idea: the golden boy of music needed to dress in real gold, to show the world how mighty he was. The Colonel knew the value of glamour and used it masterfully.” Presley paced the dressing room like a convict, and he barely noticed the musical strains of the supporting acts in the stadium above. Suddenly, showtime loomed. Eyeing one of the cops, he asked if he could borrow his handcuffs. Mystified, the cop complied, and Presley summoned Robinson to one of the Lions’ shower stalls. “Before I knew it he had shackled me to the shower rail and tossed the key into the next stall,” Robinson says. “Then he laughed and asked me how I would get out to emcee his act. I was sweating, but I decided to stay cool and joked with him for a while.
Then came a knock on the door and someone said it was time for me to start the show. Elvis regarded me for a very long few seconds, retrieved the key and undid the cuffs.” Just before Robinson departed, Presley outstretched his hand. “Thank you for keeping me company. It was nice meeting you. Good luck with your radio career and I hope we get to see each other again down the road.” Presley’s road manager, Tom Diskin, and two police officers escorted Robinson out of the dressing room, through a tunnel and toward the back of the stage. The Empire Stadium concert lasted thirty minutes and was kicked off by Robinson walking onstage to thundering applause and chants of “We want Elvis!” He was electrified by the sight of twenty-six thousand people before him, a sea of heads blurred by the glare of spotlights. But foremost in his mind was his responsibility of introducing the King, and his hands started shaking. “My heart leaped into my mouth as I grabbed the microphone at centre stage and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the Teen Canteen, Canada’s largest teen show, it’s my pleasure to present the man you’ve all been waiting for, the King of Rock and Roll'" . . .
HERE’S ELVIS PRESLEY!
With that, Robinson pointed to his right, and Presley ran out of a stadium tunnel and hopped into the back seat of a black Cadillac convertible. He propped himself up on the seat shoulder, and the Cadillac shifted into low gear. “The crowd went into a frenzy of screams and applause,” says Robinson. “Elvis waved and smiled as the Cadillac made its way around the entire oval of the stadium. When it reached the back of the stage, Elvis literally leaped out of the car and ran up the stairs. Then he casually walked across to the front lip, shook my hand and started his show.” Presley chatted to the crowd, made fun of himself and then sang a selection of his hits. Standing by, Robinson noticed that Presley seemed to pick up the energy of the audience and transmit it back tenfold. He thought: If anyone can give rock and roll respectability, it’s him. Presley sang until the crowd got out of control. Presley’s guitarist, Scotty Moore, later described the scene to reporters: “The people who were on the field were at the twenty-yard line and we were at the other end. It was impossible to see, so they started moving forward.” Back-up vocalist Neal Matthews recalls, “We were all scared. They turned all the lights on and warned the crowd over the loudspeaker that they would stop the show if they moved any closer, but it didn’t do a bit of good. They kept closing in and were wild-eyed. Elvis said, ‘I’m cutting out, man,’ and he quit right in the middle of a song and took off, leaving us all stranded.” Presley handed one of his gophers his gold lamé jacket. “Then he and I were shoved down a trap door to an area beneath the stage,” recalls Robinson. Above, Presley’s back-ups barely made their escape as the mob swarmed the stage and toppled the instruments. “They asked us where he was and we pointed that way and they took off running,” says Moore. “Then they came back and we pointed another way and they took off, screaming again.” Presley and Robinson waited until the crowd dispersed. “Meanwhile, the guy who had been handed the jacket put it on, ran for the limousine and was driven toward the players’ tunnel, beyond which the crowd was waiting in the field. The fake Elvis then jumped out of the limousine, and the crowd spotted him and gave chase. The poor guy fortunately had a long head start, so he evaded them, and this diversion enabled Elvis and I to come out from under the stage. He walked quite casually to another car and was driven with no fanfare to downtown Vancouver.