REMEMBERING ELVIS PRESLEY

 

“I’m still envious of his shake, rattle and roll.”

 

Texarkana Gazette. 16/17 August, 2012.

September 2, 1955. Elvis Presley backsta

Elvis Presley poses for a photo backstage at the Arkansas Municipal Auditorium. Texarkana was known as the “Big T” and was a musical testing ground for artists including Elvis, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Elvis Presley refined his ability to perform in Southwest Arkansas and Northeast Texas. This region was part of his proving grounds to learn his craft as an entertainer.

 

Elvis music was powerful, sensual, full of energy, created emotions and was fun.

 

According to Life magazine Elvis proved music no longer soothed the savage beast — it unleashed it.

 

In naming the top 100 events of the millennium that changed the world, Life magazine ranked the emergence of Elvis as the 99th event in creating a new dimension worldwide called rock ‘n’ roll. The regional memories of Elvis include:

 

Gwen Telford Texarkana, Texas

Elvis Presley kissed Gwen Telford on the lips after she helped him drive around Texarkana in 1954 with a few other teen fans in his pink Cadillac. “It was top of the line,” said Gwen, recalling her memories of Elvis and the kiss. “I wasn’t ready for that kiss. It shocked me. It was nice and he was polite. It was sweet. It was my first girl-boy kiss,” she said. “It was a serious kiss on the lips.”

 

Gwen’s mother had taken her to an Elvis concert at the Arkansas Municipal Auditorium. Gwen went with her girlfriend, who was staying at her house for a slumber party. They came back home and, after her parents went to sleep, Gwen and her friend “slipped out of the house” to go back to the auditorium.

 

“Mother and daddy had a big bedroom in the back of the house and we slipped out the front door. We found where he was staying and we rode around town in his pink Cadillac,” Gwen said. Elvis parked the Cadillac under a gaslight and he kissed another girl riding with him and then kissed Telford, she said. Gwen described the performance at the municipal auditorium as the “best thing I ever saw in my life.” “He was so polite and so cute,” she said. After her kiss with Elvis, Gwen returned to her house and was “caught.” “When we walked into the house, we got caught. My parents didn’t mind. I told them he kissed me and a couple of other girls. My mother said she would have done the same thing,” said Gwen.

 

She also attended an Elvis show at Hope, Ark. “He came out and talked to the kids and he saw me, but he didn’t mention anything and I didn’t ask him if he remembered the kiss,” she said.

Erna Latham Leary, Texas

A classmate of Erna Latham of Leary, Texas, lost her purse in 1954 at the Louisiana Hayride and the man who helped return it was Elvis Presley. Erna was responsible for her girlfriend’s purse when she went to the restroom at the auditorium housing the hayride. “I forgot it and when I went back to the restroom, the purse was gone,” said Erna. “We didn’t know Elvis. When he performed, we realized we had been talking to him about the missing purse,” she said.

 

“When he came up to sing, he said, ‘Would the young ladies who asked if we found anything come backstage?’ When we went back up there, he handed her the billfold,” Erna said. Nothing was missing from the billfold. “We sat there listening to him sing and no one was yelling or clapping. He helped us, so we thought we would help him out. He started doing his little dance and I started yelling and screaming. Then all of the young people started screaming,” she said.

 

“I’ve always said I helped make Elvis famous. We started the girls screaming,” Erna said. “He was down to earth and friendly. He was concerned about the purse. We were all 10th-graders then and he was just as nice as he could be,” she said.

Ellen Pardue Texarkana, Ark.

When a delay was announced for an Elvis Presley show in Texarkana, Ellen Pardue bought tickets to the second show to make sure she would watch him perform. Ellen was 14 years old when she rode the train from Hope to Texarkana with a girlfriend and an “older lady” from her church.

 

“This was a great adventure for us, because we were going to see Elvis at the municipal auditorium that night. We were staying with the older girl’s aunt somewhere on the Arkansas side of Texarkana,” Ellen said. “We had to get a taxi to the show that night. Everyone was waiting for Elvis to appear when someone came on stage and told us he had wrecked his convertible and would be late,” she said. “We pooled our money to stay for the second show,” she said. Elvis finally appeared. “The noise was unbelievable. With him were Floyd Cramer, Johnny Cash and others I can’t recall. The show was all we expected and we screamed along with everyone else,” said Ellen.

 

After the show, Ellen was able to go back stage and get an autograph. “Elvis signed a picture for me, which got lost over the years,” she said. “They were going to the Sands Motel afterwards for a party and invited me to go. I always looked older than I was, so they thought I was old enough. I had to decline because I was afraid I would get in trouble,” Ellen said.

 

“The next morning we were determined to find the wrecked car and walked all over town trying to find it. We missed our train and had to take a later one. As we were going out of town on the train, we saw the car at the wrecking yard on Broad Street,” she said. To attend the show, Ellen wore a 16-gore skirts and white penny loafers. “That was the rage at the time,” she said.

Presley's first Cadillac destroyed by fire on Highway 67, near Fulton, AR. on June 7, 1955

Burning Cadillac doesn’t stop singer from performing

by Jim Williamson Nov. 24 2011

When Elvis Presley unlatched the hood of his pink and white Cadillac on U.S. Highway 67 near Fulton, Ark., fire exploded from the motor.

The Cadillac was destroyed by fire.

The Cadillac was used as the primary vehicle to transport Elvis and his guitar player Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black to their scheduled shows.

The destruction of the Cadillac has become part of the folklore about the connection between Elvis and his mother, Gladys.

Gladys always recalled how she was awakened out of a sound sleep at home by the feeling that something was wrong. She always said she could sense when bad things were about to happen to her son.

James Purtle, who was a teenager in 1955 and later became Hope’s police chief, said Elvis’ car caught on fire near Fulton, but he escaped without injuries.

Elvis had performed Sunday, June 5, 1955, in Hope, Ark.

After the show, Elvis started driving to Texarkana with a girl from Hope while Moore and Black rode with other friends. No one has officially confirmed the identity of the woman riding with Elvis to Texarkana. Authors reporting on the burned car wrote Elvis looked desolate watching his Cadillac burn. Reportedly a brake lining on the Cadillac caught fire. Elvis liked to perform in the region in 1954 and 1955, and Highway 67 was the path he followed to Texarkana from his hometown of Memphis, Tenn.

Pauline Lout Ashdown, Ark.

When Elvis was waiting to perform in Ashdown, Ark., no one was talking to him. Pauline Lout was attending a show at the school on Burke Street because her cousin, “Country Johnny Mathis,” was performing. Country Johnny Mathis was from Maud, Texas. On the national scene, another popular singer was named Johnny Mathis. Country Johnny Mathis was also a performer on the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, La.

 

The time was a few months after Elvis released his first single —“That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” He had sandy blonde hair and was standing back stage with his hands in his pocket, said Pauline, who was a junior high school student. The Ashdown school was located on Burke Street and had three stories and an auditorium. The building has been torn down and is the current site for the L.F. Henderson Intermediate School.

 

“Elvis was standing next to my cousin, who introduced us. He talked about his first record being out. His hair was blond. It wasn’t black then. He seemed like a nice person. A lot of Ashdown people can’t believe he performed in Ashdown,” said Pauline. “He smiled a lot and was just standing there with his hands in his pockets. No one was saying much to him. Johnny (Mathis) introduced us and I shook hands with him,” she said.

 

A few months later, Pauline watched him perform in Texarkana and she described it as “excellent.” “By then, he was real popular and the girls were screaming,” she said.

 

Nita Key Cuthand, Texas.

Nita Key was a witness to the formation of rock ‘n’ roll in 1955 watching Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley perform.

 

She watched Buddy Holly perform in the showroom of a car dealer in Lubbock and witnessed Elvis Presley perform in Shreveport, La.. at the Louisiana Hayride. In 1955, Nita was a senior at Priddy High School in Central Texas. “I was 5 feet from him when he came out to the lobby to sign autographs. I was 16 years old and too shy,” said Nita.

 

“I was green, from the country. At that time, I did realize I witnessed one of the greatest singers I would ever see. I could kick myself for not getting his autograph,” she said. “When you’re a kid, you don’t think about things like that.” Nita was traveling with other students to Pensacola, Fla., in two cars and a pickup truck. “We camped out near the auditorium in Shreveport. The police patrolled the area. We camped in Mississippi and camped out on the beach near Pensacola. I can’t do that anymore,” Nita said.

 

She also had a chance to watch Buddy Holly perform in Lubbock, Texas, at the W.W. Quinn Connelly Pontiac showroom. “Buddy Holly was just getting started. A few months later he (Holly) was on the Ed Sullivan show. But Elvis was the greatest. Elvis took the cake,” Nita said.

September 2 1955, Municipal Auditorium in Texarkana, AR.
September 2 1955, Municipal Auditorium in Texarkana, AR.

'ALL SHOOK UP' Elvis Presley fans remember icon

Cheesie Nelson - Pat Cupp's friend - with the Blue Moon Boys in 1955.

Sept. 2, 1955.

Arkansas Auditorium, Texarkana, Ark. Fifteen miles south of Texarkana, Ark.

 

Presley’s car was driven by Scottie Williams, who played a steel guitar in the band. The pink-and-black Cadillac Fleetwood ran into an oncoming vehicle that was in the process of passing a pickup truck.

 

The Cadillac required approximately $1,000 worth of repairs.

Elvis was late to the show because of the accident, so local high school student Carl “Cheesie” Nelson entertained the audience until he showed up. Also on the show were Johnny Cash and Charlene Arthur.

I had the (Elvis) tattoo put on my chest. If I had known I would live this long, and realized how things sag, I would have had the tattoo put higher up on my shoulder to keep Elvis from sagging.”

 

— Doolie Jones

Doolie Jones Texarkana, Texas

Elvis Presley activated and overtaxed the bladder of Doolie Jones when she watched him perform in 1955 in the municipal auditorium. “I was 17 years old and I got so excited. I was in the balcony and I thought about jumping to the stage so he would pay attention to me. But I knew I would probably hurt or ill myself,” said Doolie, who is now 73 years old and a hair stylist at her shop, Elan Salon in Summerhill Square. She has worked as a stylist for 55 years.

 

“Can you imagine being 17 and seeing someone that great and sings that good? I was like a lot of other 17-year-olds and was swept up in the thing,” she said. Doolie has walls of tributes to Elvis in the salon and at home. Despite her tributes to Elvis, her family and church have a “higher priority.”

 

“Part of my enjoyment is Elvis. He helps me to get through. Tribute artist James Wages also helps me to get through. They keep me happy,” she said. To pay tribute to Elvis, Jones got a tattoo when she was 69 years old. “I had the tattoo put on my chest. If I had known I would live this long, and realized how things sag, I would have had the tattoo put higher up on my shoulder to keep Elvis from sagging,” Jones said.

 

“When I lose weight, I can make Elvis thinner or when I gain weight, I can make Elvis fatter,” she said. The tattoo is a profile of Elvis. “You know it’s him,” Doolie said. “I still enjoy life and think of myself as a free-spirited grandmother. It’s better than sitting in a rocking chair,” she said. “Even now when you see his pictures and movies, you get a warm, fuzzy feeling.”

Iris Aldridge Magnolia, Ark.

Iris Aldridge witnessed Elvis Presley perform in 1955 at the Arkansas Municipal Auditorium and again in the last year of his life in Kansas City, Mo. “I went backstage in Texarkana and bought an 8-by10-photo and he autographed it. It wasn’t hard to go backstage in 1955. It was pretty exciting for a young person,” Iris said. “I always loved his music. I’m 77 years old and still love his music,” she said.

 

Iris attended a concert in 1977 in Kansas City. “He was in bad shape then. It was a month or so before he died. You could tell he was not able to perform very well. He couldn’t remember the words and was already in bad shape,” Iris said. “He was one of the finest entertainers,” Iris said.

 

Maxine Wise DeKalb, Texas

When Elvis Presley performed in Monroe, La., Maxine Wise watched an aggressive fan snatch away a scarf from a disabled child. Elvis couldn’t stop the woman, but he gave the child his necklace.

 

“I was attending an Elvis concert in Monroe, La., when a mother brought her disabled child to the front of the stage and Elvis reached down to place his scarf on the child when a woman grabbed it from his hands,” Maxine said. “Elvis then took off his necklace and made sure the child got it.”

 

One of Elvis’ employees told Maxine’s husband, who was a policeman working there that night, that the necklace cost around $1,500. “This was one of his last concerts given, but I don’t remember the date. I think it was in the 1970s since my husband left the Monroe Police Department in 1975 to run for sheriff in our hometown. He was killed in the line of duty in 1980,” Maxine said.

Hope Arkansas, June 7, 1955 with his '54 Cadillac and Shirley Searcy. Just before the fatal drive to Texarkana.
Hope Arkansas. June 7 1955. Resting at the Simpson's residence.

Billy Harris Texarkana, Texas

Elvis could make a jealous streak come out in the guys who had girlfriends screaming for Elvis.

 

Billy Harris, 77, of Texarkana, Texas, was only 19 years old when he saw Elvis perform and was jealous of his singing and dancing on stage. “I liked his music, but I never liked to see him perform. He would wiggle and dance, and I was a little jealous. If I tried that, I would put my hip out of place,” Billy said. “A lot of the guys would say he was pretty and give him a hard time. Some of the guys would try to pick a fight. Elvis somehow always won. I just heard about some of the fights, I didn’t see one,” Billy said. He was able to meet Elvis backstage and was impressed by the encounter.

 

“I can close my eyes and still see him backstage,” Billy said. “It was a good time and made us feel good,” he said. “I’m still envious of his shake, rattle and roll.”

 

The first time Connie Penny saw Elvis was at the Louisiana Hayride, and before his performance, she was bored. “I was actually bored out of my mind. The music was country and I hated it. I was about to go to sleep and Elvis was the last act,” said Connie in a story previously published in the Texarkana Gazette. “I had heard the record ‘That’s All Right,’ and I thought it was an old man because the voice sounded shaky on the record,” she said. Then Elvis came on stage. “When this young, good look- ing, dynamic man came out singing and shaking his legs, his hair fell down in his face, buddy, I got up and started watching. It woke me up,” Connie said. “I didn’t yell. I was quiet and observing. Internally, I was speaking to myself saying I was in love. I had never seen anything like this on stage,” she said.

Carol Lynne King Davis Lockesburg, Ark.

The people important to Carol Lynne King Davis of Lockesburg, Ark., had close encounters with Elvis Presley. “My mother-in-law, Dorothy Jean Yancey Harrison, was born in the same town as Elvis (Tupelo, Miss), in the same year, 1935, and went to school with him in Tupelo,” said Carol.

 

“As she tells it, she enjoyed his companionship when they were children playing along Spring Street. Dorothy, now a resident of Arkansas Nursing and Rehab Home on Dudley Street in Texarkana, holds especially fond memories of Elvis when he was her school chum,” she said. Carol’s brother, Paul Terry King of Lockesburg, was a frequent Graceland guest with fellow songwriters.

 

“Charlie Romans is one I remember,” Carol said. “Our family (me, my mom, brother and his wife, Janice, who was expectant with their son, Paul Christopher), all lived on the top floor of an old mansion in Memphis,” she said. “It was hot, hot, hot! Just a kid, I occasionally strolled to the ground floor where it was cooler, especially listening to the songwriters in action picking and strumming and writing stuff for the king and for other famous persons since my brother was employed by American Recording Studio as well as other music companies through the years,” Carol said.

 

Carol’s son married the niece of Elvis’ personal bodyguard, Gigi Gamble. Gamble is buried at the Gillham Cemetery in Sevier County, Ark. “My husband, James Lee Davis, once met Gigi, the bodyguard, who handed him a can of gasoline over the fence that surrounded Elvis’ horses. Out of gas, this stranded soldier boy, fresh out of Vietnam, recalls with appreciation the kindness that extended from behind the gates of Graceland,” Carol said. “As for myself, I dream big time with the other 10 percent of the world’s population that Elvis is out there somewhere looking, listening and laughing happily, ever after,” she said.

Municipal Auditorium Texarkana, Arkansas. May 27, 1955 with unknown.
Municipal Auditorium Texarkana, Arkansas. May 27, 1955.

Glenn Orville Owen Texarkana, Texas

Elvis started out in Arkansas Municipal Auditorium and in the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, La. “I can’t understand why Texarkana, Ark., doesn’t have an Elvis day on the anniversary of his death. They have a Smokey & the Bandit Day. Why not an Elvis Day since he was the most dynamic and greatest entertainer ever born,” Glenn said. “Not to mention he was a great humanitarian giving away much of his riches,” he said.

 

“PS: The most requested picture from the National Archives in Washington, D.C. is Elvis shaking hands with President Richard Nixon in the Oval office,” Glenn said.

 

Robert Long Ashdown, Ark.

At the age of 6 or 7, Robert Long’s daughter was “totally in love with Elvis.” “When we would go to an Elvis movie and Elvis would kiss a girl, she would start crying. This phase went on for a couple of years,” said Robert Long . His daughter’s name is now Tina McDaris.

 

“While visiting relatives in Blytheville, Ark., my sister-in-law and brother-in-law suggested we might visit Elvis’ house. This was around Elvis’ military period. Arriving at the gate to Graceland, there were a lot of cars. The gate, of course, was closed. “My daughter and I got out and walked through the walk in the gate and started visiting with the security guard. There was a man sitting on a stool outside the guard shack wearing a suit, tie, men’s hat and sunglasses. He asked my daughter if her daddy had brought her to see Elvis’s house. I swear I recognized that voice,” Robert said.

 

“She responded, ‘No, my daddy brought me here to see Elvis.’ The man promptly picked her up and set her on his lap, asking her name and where we were from and so on,” Robert said. “The man then turned to the guard and said, ‘Let them pass.’ “He opened the gate and let us drive in, only us.” Robert said.

 

“The man and another suited man got into a T-Bird and drove to the house. We were right behind them. I got out and started taking pictures. The man who had allowed us in ran to the house. The driver stood in front of me with his hands raised,” Robert said. “He asked I not take a picture of the other man. Then he told us we could go anywhere in the front, not to go beyond the front yard or in the house. Then he also entered the house.

 

“Was the suited man Elvis? Guess we will never really know for sure, but one thing for sure, you will never convince my daughter, now in her early 50s, or me, that we didn’t have a brief encounter with the King,” Robert said.

 

Glen Spivey DeKalb, Texas

Glen Spivey was trying to impress a woman he was dating from Nash, Texas, and took her to the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, La., to see Elvis Presley and Johnny Horton perform. Horton and Elvis were selling photos as souvenirs and autographing the photos. Horton’s photos had sold out, but Elvis still had some photos. Glen purchased an Elvis photo and had Horton autograph the back of the Elvis picture.

 

“The young lady made off with the photo. I wish I had the photo of Elvis with Johnny Horton’s autograph,” Glen said. “Elvis impressed me. It was back before things went bad. The 1950s were a good time to be a teenager. Gay was still being happy,” Glen said. “He was different. He was vivacious and just different.”

Swifton High School in Swifton, Arkansas on Friday, December 9, 1955.
Swifton High School in Swifton, Arkansas on Friday, December 9, 1955.

Teresa Michael Texarkana, Ark.

“My mother was Thedda Dickerson Michael and was a piano player when I was growing up,” Teresa wrote in a letter. “She told me when Elvis performed at the municipal auditorium she was on stage with him during a performance playing the piano. After the show was over, she didn’t have a ride home and Elvis carried her home in his pink Cadillac.

 

“After I was out of high school, my mother took me to see Elvis in Houston at the Astrodome. Like everyone else after the show I went down to the stage to try and get a scarf from Elvis. I couldn’t and I felt very sad. My mother had parked behind the Astrodome so we went out one of the back doors to get to our car. “When we got to the parking lot, I looked up and there was a small, dinky travel trailer on the lot with the curtains drawn on the front window.

 

“There was a security guard coming toward me and I looked up at the trailer. Elvis was standing in the window and he waved at me. I wanted to run right over there, but my mother stopped me. “She said, ‘Teresa if you go over there, the crowd coming out will see you and storm the trailer and Elvis could be hurt.’ “The security guard said, ‘Honey that’s right. If you really love Elvis, like I think you do, please just walk away.’

 

“I turned around and looked. Elvis blew me a kiss. As we were leaving people were coming out. All I could do was cry. I had my special moment that nobody can take away from me. “Then in 1992, I went to Memphis to visit a friend and he took me to Beale Street to hear the blues at the Rum Boogie Cafe. “There I met Rick Harvey — a guitarist at the Rum Boogie. We became friends and I started staying at his rent house on Dolan Street. It was owned by Phyllis Presley and is located next to Vernon Presley’s house right behind Graceland. “The house was owned by the president of the Elvis fan club, Gary Pepper.

 

Phyllis bought the house and rented it to Rick. He passed away in 1994 and I haven’t been back to the house since 1998. “Rick knew Elvis and introduced me to a lot of his friends and relatives. Rick was my friend and I miss him terribly every day.”

 

Sammy Benton Texarkana, Ark.

Sammy Benton, 55, believes Elvis Presley could “flat out sing” and pays tribute to the rock star by performing as a tribute artist at civic events and in a restaurant. “When he was in his prime, and younger, that Elvis could flat out sing. No one could come close,” Sammy said.

 

He attended an Elvis concert at Pine Bluff in 1977 — the year Elvis died.

 

“He was a little disappointing. He was having problems. When he was in his prime, no one could touch him,” said Sammy, who occasionally impersonates Elvis at Trinity Baptist Church, Heritage Baptist Church and Applebee’s. Besides his music, Sammy liked his movies. “I was just a kid living in the country when I saw him in his movies. Black and white television was the only entertainment and I enjoyed most of his movies,” he said.

 

“I’ve paid tribute to Elvis by my impersonations. I like to think I sound a little bit like Elvis,” he said.

 

Helen Burden Texarkana, Texas

“My first encounter with Elvis was at the movies when he starred in ‘Love Me Tender.’ “I was hooked. I was one of those screaming teenagers in the front row of every movie he made. I bought all his 45 records and practically wore them out playing them. I went to the Louisiana Hayride every Saturday night and followed him when he toured if he was even remotely within reasonable and sometimes unreasonable driving distances.

 

“At one concert at the Hirsch Coliseum in Shreveport, La., I managed to get a ticket on the front row. I got lucky and got a scarf and a kiss from the King himself. OMG, I was never the same. “The day he died, I felt such sadness—not only because I loved him and his music so much. He was a very gifted singer and I think he did a lot of good things with his talent and the fact he cared about people. He had a big heart and was taken way too early. I still miss him.”

 

Charles “Charley” Beard Texarkana, Texas

“During the summer of 1955, we did a lot of cruising around town. It was a Friday night that I was cruising close by the Municipal Auditorium. All of a sudden, I saw a crowd of people who had formed a large circle. “Due to my curiosity and being a 17-year-old teenager, I parked my car and went to see what was happening. I was expecting to see a fight, but there was a good-looking young lady that was being admired by everyone.

 

“Suddenly, someone made the statement that Elvis’ car had caught on fire in Fouke. The young lady left the scene and got in a car and went after Elvis. We found out that she was one of his girlfriends. After about 30 minutes or so, she returned with Elvis, who was then driving the car. They pulled through the alley behind the auditorium. We were all standing around when Elvis got out of the car and opened the trunk to get his guitar out. I was standing right beside him at this time.

 

“Carl ‘Cheesie’ Nelson was on stage filling in for Elvis during this time. “I had no idea that I was standing by the future King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. “Several years later, my wife, Barbara, went to see Elvis in Shreveport. “He had performed there several times, but this particular time was his last performance at that location.”

 

Gloria Steele Ferguson Wake Village, Texas

It was Gloria Steele Ferguson’s birthday, and her parents gave her Elvis Presley’s first album. It was what she wanted for her birthday. But she also wanted to see Elvis perform at the Arkansas Municipal Auditorium. So Gloria and a girlfriend sneaked out of the house and bought two balcony tickets. “The place was packed, and the girls were screaming, including me. I will never forget it,” Gloria said. “We got in trouble, and my parents wouldn’t let me go anywhere for about a week. I’m still glad we did it and went to the show,” she said. “I’m still a huge fan, and it’s a memory I will never forget,” Gloria said.

Texarkana Motel April-May ´55.

It Began In Texarkana A Boy With Sideburns, Smoky Eyes

 

By GEORGE BARKER

 

Nashville Tennessean Magazine

 

MADISON, Tenn., Jan 19 — Somehow, everything began in Texarkana just before the matinee break. It began with a big boy with sideburns and smoky eyes who sang and twitched and slapped a guitar like a bongo drum. Although the afternoon house couldn’t hear the boy’s words too plain, it understood what he was singing about. Adults squirmed self-consciously. The kids pounded the seat tops in rhythmic sympathy and finally, inevitably, the girls started screaming. From his seat, near the fire exit, “Colonel” Thomas A. Parker heard it all. He understood too. “He’s fantastic,” Parker said to the man sitting next to him. I’m going to check that boy. He's a real live on.

 

Sideshow

 

Backstage a few encores later Col. Parker — veteran of a thousand and one sideshows, peepshows, carnivals boat shows, one-night stands and press parties — met Elvis Aron Presley, the sad voiced sloe-eyed boy with the trick knee. The results of the union are history. They made 1956 the Year of the Hound Dog. They took the pelvis out of the anatomy books and splashed it across a million television sets. They filled juke boxes and caused family conferences. They provided the greatest passion for sideburns since Rudolph Valentino.

 

And they made money.

 

 “When I found Elvis,” said Parker between fat and happy puffs on a short cigar, “the boy had nothing but a million dollars worth of talent. Now he has a million dollars . . . well, almost a million, anyway.”

 

Big Parlay

 

As Presley’s business manager, Col. Parker (he says he won his honorary rank by virtue of friendship with the governor of Tennessee and Louisiana) has in one short year parlayed Presley into a 20-milIion-dollar-a-year commodity, Gross, that is. Operating out of his 11-room home here, Parker has arranged Presley’s personal appearances, his movie-making, his television performances and his fortune. He has sold thousands of such diverse items as Elvis Presley lipsticks, make-up kits, loafer shoes, jackets, sweaters, T-shirts, song books, Presley picture albums and whatever else ‘‘the kids will spend a buck on . . .” Until recently 4000 letters a day addressed to Elvis by members of his fan dub flooded the Madison post office. Parker last month transferred this part of the operation to Hollywood. “We have been good for each other," Parker admits, “but don’t let anyone tell you I made the boy what he is. The kids are the ones who made Elvis. Without them he’d stil be driving a truck.” A lot of the Hollywood and Broadway - wise types predicted that Presley wouldn’t stay long with Parker after the money started rolling in that he’d take on an agent with offices bathed in ankle-deep carpeting and decorated with upholstered blondes. But Elvis stuck and is sticking. “Col. Parker is the kind of person I’ve been raised with,” Elvis said during a recent stopover at the Parker home. “I know I’m getting a square deal with him. Some of those Hollywood fellas give me the willies.”

 

‘No Screwball’

 

And says Parker: “Presley is a good boy. He is a good showman and — despite some of the things people write about him — he’s no screwball. I never have to worry that he will be in a drunk tank at show time or anything like that. He doesn’t drink or smoke. About the only thing he does that I worry about is he bites his fingernails. But then nobody looks at Elvis’ fingernails. “A lot of folks want to find something to pin on the kid. They find it hard to accept the fact that Presley offstage is like most 21-year-old fellows. He has a few dates, takes care of his folks and tries hard to live right.

 

Immediately prior to the advent of Elvis, Parker managed Eddie Arnold, the Tennessee Plowboy. At various times, he has also handled Hank Snow, Gene Austin, Roy Acuff, Tex Ritter and a string of other country musicians.

 

Carnival Echo

 

When he talks and smiles, you can hear the sound of pitchmen of a thousand carnivals echoing in his voice. Parker was born, 47 years ago, in West Virginia where his parents happened to be touring with a carnival. Mom and Dad died before Tom reached the fifth grade, so he wound up with his uncle’s traveling show, “The Great Parker Pony Circus.” At 17, young Tom struck out on his own with a pony and monkey act. Most of his stands were on the cherry soda circuit, an affectionate title given a business arrangement where a soft drink company pays the act about $3 a day to accept its bottle tops as the price of admission. Parker soon traded in his pony for a typewriter and became press agent for a series of carnivals, circuses and showboats. He developed first name friendships with Tom Mix and Wallace Beery, both carnival men before the movies found them.

 

Wife Helps

 

In 1932, while wintering with a carnival in Tampa, Fla., he wooed and wed his wife, Marie, who now helps with the bookkeeping. “My biggest job," she says, “is keeping Tom healthy — he likes too many big steaks and desserts." Parker switched from carnival man to agent when he met and agreed to manage an unknown named Gene Austin, who made a sensation with his recording of “My Blue Heaven.” His next big discovery was Eddie Arnold, and it was while he was working Arnold through Arkansas last year that Parker first came across Elvis, whose biggest following at the time was curiously centered around Jacksonville, Fla. The Memphis wiggler has played Jacksonville only once, but his memory was being perpetuated by a friendly disk jockey who happened to be his manager on the side.

 

Smaller Houses

 

"I bought Elvis’ contract In May 1955,” Parker recalls. "My friends kept asking me, ‘Who is Parsley?’ We started playing some of the smaller houses around the gulf. “At first, things were sorta lean. But at the start of the year business picked up . . . The people were beginning to hear about the kid. The box office proved it.” The colonel says he doesn’t feel comfortable talking about money, I but he can be coaxed into approximations. “Time was, when you netted a million dollars you were a millionaire,” he said. “Nowadays if you net a million you only get to keep $81000 after taxes. You have to net 15 million if you want to be a millionaire. We don’t kick about taxes though. I always say the only way to quit paying taxes is to go broke — and who wants to go broke?”

January 13, 1955.  the Catholic Club, Helena, Arkansas.
January 13, 1955.  the Catholic Club, Helena, Arkansas.

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© 2020 Robert van Beek

The Elvis Files magazine

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