The Local Elvis: From Good Kid to Garbo in Rock n’ Roll Legend

By Matt Chaney, ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Sunday, April 2, 2017

Copyright ©2017 by Matthew L. Chaney

By the latter 1960s, Memphis guitarist Bob Tucker knew people throughout rock-and-roll music. Tucker led the Bill Black Combo and toured internationally, playing alongside bands such as The Beatles. Yet Tucker hadn’t met the rock star, right at home, Elvis Presley, enigmatic icon of the music world. Tucker even worked with Presley’s former band mates.

Elvis was notoriously reclusive, beginning on his turf, Memphis, Tenn. But Tucker was bound to encounter him and the meeting in fact materialized, although unannounced, without introduction.

Late one night downtown, Tucker detected a presence looming—Presley. Nocturnal signals were clicking for an Elvis sighting in Memphis. Locals knew the famed cat moved about in shadows, trusting only family members and further confidants.

“I was dating this gal from St. Jude’s Hospital,” Tucker recalls in a recent interview. “We were at the Memphian Theater in midtown, where Elvis rented it a lot to go see movies late at night. We went to a 10 o’clock movie that’s over about midnight, when they start poppin’ popcorn like crazy. And we’re the only two in the theater at the time. So I thought something’s goin’ on.”

Tucker wasn’t surprised to find George Klein in the lobby, an associate and radio guy. Klein was among Presley’s closest pals, a leader of the entourage, tight with the living legend since junior high. “G.K.” was the reputed advance man for tasks like scouting women and securing safe zones in public.

“George, what’s goin’ on?” Tucker queried. “Is Elvis coming?”

“Yeah,” Klein said. “He’ll be here in a minute. If you want to, just stay.”

***

Earth tremors of the New Madrid Fault weren’t the only shaking goin’ on at the Mississippi River in winter 1954-55. Genesis rock n’ roll was hatching at Memphis on the valley, spreading forth through radio and stage. “The beat” swept great delta flatland from Louisiana north to Missouri and flew southwesterly, taking Texas.

The driving force was a prophet trio from Sun Records in Memphis: Elvis Presley, age 19, on vocals and rhythm guitar; Scotty Moore, 23, at electric guitar; and Bill Black, 28, upright bass player. The three had hit breakthrough “rockabilly” sound under Sun producer Sam Phillips, recording fresh covers of established songs like “That’s All Right,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Good Rocking Tonight.” They sold tens of thousands of records and garnered acclaim across the South.

Initially the trio worked without a drummer to create a pristine sound, Sun musician Charlie Feathers surmised decades later. “Rockabilly consists of three pieces: the upright bass, the rhythm guitar and a lead instrument like the electric guitar. When you go beyond that, you are doing rock.”

Thus it was rock n’ roll—merging country with rhythm and blues, according to Feathers—when teen musicians like drummer D.J. Fontana and pianist Jerry Lee Lewis stepped in at Sun Records. The Louisiana natives were among youths inspired by the revolutionary “bop” beat. The Sun studio setup and tape-mastering were key, particularly “slap-back” echo, which Phillips drew out between near-simultaneous recorders.

Feathers hailed from Mississippi while college student Roy Orbison, a ballad warbler, came to Sun from Texas. In a related development, Buddy Holley, fresh high-school graduate in Lubbock, had opened once for Presley as a country steel guitarist then switched to rock. Within a couple years Buddy dropped the “e” from his surname and signed with Decca Records.

Young guitar players Carl Perkins and J.R. Cash showed up at Sun studio from Jackson, Tenn., and Dyess, Ark., respectively. Singer-guitarists Billy Lee Riley and Sonny Burgess entered the fold, along with guitarist Roland Janes, all from Arkansas. Singer-guitarist Narvel Felts drove in from Missouri, a teen cotton hand hooked on rockabilly. Charlie Rich, Arkansas, and Harold Jenkins of Mississippi were arrivals at Sun—the latter to rename as “Conway Twitty”—who would follow J.R. “Johnny” Cash into country music.

A rocker concentration was gelling in the upper delta of western Tennessee, northeast Arkansas and southeast Missouri. Farther north, St. Louis contributed an impact player in Chuck Berry, 28, dynamic guitarist-songwriter who adapted his smash hit “Maybelline” for the Chess label of Chicago.

“It seems there’s a strip that starts in St. Louis and goes all the way to the Gulf, about a hundred miles wide, where more damn good musicians came from than anyplace in the world,” Bob Tucker says in retrospect, speaking recently with this author.

For delta rockabilly, Presley lit the fire.

“Oh! He did. Hell, yes,” Tucker says. “That was such a phenomenon. It’s been repeated with other actors since then, but nothing’s really had the impact. He changed culture. It wasn’t just a musical change. It was precipitated or enjoined with movies—Marlon Brando’s The Wild Ones, James Dean’s Rebel Without A Cause. And musically and physically with his presence, Elvis was saying ‘My generation wants to do it this way.’ And every generation since then has followed that lead.”

“Elvis made me do it,” recounted Joe Keene, recording artist, composer and studio founder in Kennett, Mo. In summer 1956, following high-school graduation, Keene “caught a severe case of ‘Elvisitis,’ ” he wrote in opening his 2001 book, Songwriting: From Ideas to Royalties. “Like many other young men in America, I was swept up in the swirl of rock ’n’ roll and rockabilly music.” Now Keene has accompanied, wrote for and recorded talents spanning four decades. Before ceasing stage work as guitarist and singer, Keene appeared with stars like Felts, Twitty and Fats Domino.

Tucker was another regional product, born in Bootheel Missouri, reared in Trumann, Ark. Today Tucker lives in northeast Arkansas, across river from Memphis, as a businessman, retired journalism professor, and former touring musician. “You can imagine, as a teenager, comin’ to Memphis, which was like Valhalla, you know,” he says. “Everybody came to Memphis, who was musically inclined, to try to be a picker. To be in the game. And getting in the game—that was enough, man.”

“I grew up on country music, and I used to go to country music shows when I was a kid,” Tucker recalls. “I liked The [Grand Ole] Opry when I could get it—but more of rock n’ roll, cause it busted wide open in Memphis. And Elvis, Cash and all of ’em would play little schoolhouses and things in the area, and I got to see a few of those shows.”

One night stands vivid for Tucker. “I went to a show when we were in high school, just kids. I hadn’t really even got my music going yet. They had a show over at Bono, Ark., in the high school gym. Elvis played over there once or twice. This night they had Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. This would’ve been about ’56. We went over there in my ’39 Chevrolet, me and three of my buddies.”

“We saw a great show, of course. I mean great. Roy Orbison had one record out, ‘Oobie Doobie.’ And Cash could pick forever, and Carl Perkins had ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and ‘Boppin’ The Blues.’ ”

Tucker and his classmates paid 50 cents each for admission, after the doorman took pity, realizing none had the dollar asking price.

***

Memphis wasn’t so big a city in 1955, and many citizens still knew or encountered Elvis Presley on friendly terms. He’d been a regular figure downtown and on the riverfront since relocating to Memphis with his parents, Vernon and Gladys. The young parents had left behind hardscrabble farming at Tupelo, Miss., in 1948, when their son was 13.

Before music stardom struck Elvis Presley, local folks generally viewed him as mannered and musically inclined, a church-goer. He was shy and a loner often, but a good kid. Some Memphians considered him a mama’s boy, but Elvis was tough and no pushover.

Elvis was the only surviving child of Gladys and Vernon Presley, after his twin brother was stillborn, and the little family stayed tight-knit while hovering above poverty, no disgrace locally. As Elvis completed grades at public Humes High School, graduating in May 1953, the family residence was in “The Courts,” a complex of subsidized, segregated housing. The foremost historian of this focus is biographer Peter Guralnick, who first wrote of Presley in 1967, and whose remarkable information-gathering continues in the Memphis region. Among sources, Guralnick has interviewed hundreds of firsthand witnesses to the Elvis phenomenon.

At outset of ’55 young Presley was positioned to blow apart American pop culture, to refit the entire model, not only music. For a final brief period in his life, through spring, he would live and work in relatively common fashion. The local Elvis character remained personable if flashy, affable on the street, well-liked, according to his profile drawn from numerous accounts.

Presley likely felt at ease in driving across the bridge from Memphis and keeping north on Highway 61, the river road through Arkansas and Missouri. This carried him through familiar delta country and communities, on the highway Elvis traveled since a boy, with family, to visit Presley relatives.

In 1955 it became route for paying work, building his audience and popularity. Presley’s band scheduled at least nine shows along Highway 61 from West Memphis, Ark., to Cape Girardeau, where the delta flatland ended at Missouri foothills. Young Elvis would appear at roadhouses, dance halls, schools, armories and fairgrounds. Small venues across six states would dominate the 200-plus dates for his band, according to available news reports, advertisements and additional evidence, notably the comprehensive dateline at ScottyMoore.net.

That January, northeast Arkansas, schoolkids from Leachville High burst into a newspaper office. The giddy teens promoted their fundraiser with Elvis Presley on stage, the fabulous rockabilly heard afternoons and nights on radio from Blytheville and Memphis. “He’s great! He’s going to be a star!” the students raved to editors.

The paper published a show notice complete with publicity photo of Presley’s trio, becoming known as The Blue Moon Boys: Elvis smiles radiantly at center, darkly handsome in sporty tie and jacket, draping his arms around guitarists Scotty Moore and Bill Black, beaming in their cowboy shirts. The three had become good friends since summer, however long they’d last under mounting pressure.

Within days America’s hottest new band reached Sikeston, Mo., a bustling agri-center of about 17,000 at the intersection of U.S. Highways 61 and 60. This Presley event, Friday, Jan. 21, 1955, has left a quality cache of fact and credible recollection, displayed in composite at the Scotty Moore site. A portrait emerges of youthful Elvis at Sikeston, mixing freely, endearing locals. Presley charmed and impressed people, winning fans during a night he enjoyed, apparently.

The rural area felt homey for Presley, with a cluster of his relatives nearby. Another factor was the presence of recording artist Onie Wheeler, budding Nashville star by his peers at Grand Ole Opry, if not the public. Presley admired and respected the classy Wheeler, a soft-spoken music talent and war veteran.

Positive publicity preceded the band in Sikeston and the players were welcomed, a relief anytime on the road. But most folks were clueless about the act, promoted as cowboy pickers. The Presley trio came out on the armory stage and broke into song.

Elvis, billed as a “country music star,” strutted in pink suit and white shoes bought on Beale Street. He’d bust loose in a circle, strumming guitar, swinging hips and knees, dancing on toes. At the microphone he wailed familiar lyrics but to beats faster, louder. Scotty and Bill banged out rock riffs, with a box amp blaring electric guitar.

Mouths had to be hanging open. This wasn’t country music. Armory guardsman Barney Cardwell hardly knew what to think. Later at home, his wife asked about the show. “Well, he was a man named Elvis Presley and I’ve never heard of him, but I’ll say one thing, he’s different. We’re transitioning into something different.”

Others heaped praise led by Wheeler, who had interviewed Presley on Sikeston radio. Wheeler later recalled: “I knew from the very start that Elvis was absolutely the most talented and different entertainer I had ever seen. And I think I was one of the first to tell him so.”

The performance was successful and Elvis stuck around afterward, following people to Wheeler’s show at Lakeview Inn in Sikeston. Presley joined his new friend on stage at the nightspot, even playing drums as Wheeler sang. Another memorable anecdote was the rocker’s departure from town. Presley had a new car at home but still drove beaters on road trips, logging thousands of miles from Sikeston to southwest Texas. And he might leave a broken-down heap where it sat.

“He was here in an older car that didn’t run good and he parked it behind the armory,” Caldwell later told The Sikeston Daily Standard. “When he left, some of the fellows had to push him to get him started, and I remember him turning back and waving to us as he drove out of town.”

Superstardom beckoned, meanwhile. Time was running out for the local Elvis among everyday folk.

***

Bob Tucker, guitarist for the Bill Black Combo, would finally meet Elvis Presley in Memphis. Tucker and his girlfriend had seen the late show at the Memphian Theater, on a weeknight circa 1966, when Elvis confidant George Klein told Tucker to stick around.

Tucker rejoined his girlfriend in the auditorium, where the lights were on. “And ol’ Elvis comes walking in by himself,” Tucker recalls. “He walks over, sits down right in front of us. He turns around and says, ‘You’re not even gonna speak to me?’ I introduced myself and later we went out in the lobby and talked about Bill Black. Bill had died by then, so it would’ve been after ’65. He was very nice. But when Elvis was in front of his cronies, he’d pull out a cigarette, and of course the lighters would come out. He was different then. But one-on-one, he was okay. But this was very limited exposure on my part.”

Elvis exposure impacted Tucker’s girlfriend, compounded by another Memphis happening of timing. Next morning she met Hollywood hunk Clint Walker in her job at St. Jude’s, renowned children’s hospital. Clint Walker played “Cheyenne” on TV and Tarzan in film, exuding animalistic appeal that rated above Elvis for many fans. Women went wild over Walker’s dark hair, blue eyes and major physique. At his Memphis appearance, the tanned Cheyenne star modeled a blue stretch shirt, muscles rippling, for devastating effect.

Tucker’s girlfriend wasn’t the same afterward, and he could dig it. Tucker himself, say, could’ve encountered Natalie Wood immediately followed by Raquel Welch. “Within 12 hours, she’d met Elvis and Clint Walker at their prime,” Tucker says, chuckling 50 years later, amazed yet.

“And that next night, she tells me, ‘Look, Bob, you know I think a lot of you, but—Elvis and Cheyenne—you just can’t cut it anymore. I’ve been exposed to the ultimate. I said, ‘You know what? Hell, I understand. I agree with you.’ ”

Tucker laughs, says, “Elvis, in his prime, I was only around him one time. But I caught him at the time when he was lean, good-looking, and he was dressed all in black. He was the best-looking guy I ever saw in my life… This was when he was young. When he got the longer hair and jumpsuits, I don’t think he looked near as good then. Good lord.”

By the mid-1970s, Presley stonewalled all media requests and hardly engaged fans. Divorced, nearing 40, battling a weight problem, Presley showed up only at concerts, “reduced to total self-parody… practicing his karate kicks onstage,” observed biographer Peter Guralnick. The bloated, sweaty Elvis split a pantsuit up his ass under spotlight for 62,000 fans in Pontiac, Mich.

The svelte, youthful Elvis of 20 years previous, singing new rock n’ roll, signing autographs, shaking hands, smiling on the street—seemed distant history. In Memphis it had come to Elvis death rumors, routine and evoking laughter, derision. Waves of fans still found his Graceland mansion, arriving all hours, but the scene was getting weirder. The crowds were no longer just silly girls; Elvis stalkers constantly breached the fortified fence, having to be stopped by security personnel.

“The real truth about Elvis is that he is a lonesome person,” Paul Shafer, a family friend, told Women’s News Service in 1974. “Everything came so fast that he didn’t have time to think things out. But he’s gotten used to this life-style and he knows no other.”

Living like a phantom was survival mode for Presley, obviously. Females had chased him to tear away clothes since ’55, and goofball males tried to fight him—at least two got smacked by the paranoid star.

But Garbo mystique was also marketing strategy of Colonel Tom Parker, Presley’s manager.  Elvis as cutting-edge artist was long over. Sure, 300 million records had moved, umpteen movies were made, two thousand shows sold-out, but much was mediocre, a few films awful. Parker crassly commercialized Elvis while finangling exorbitant cuts of profits, high as 50 percent for himself. And Parker lost millions to gambling, sometimes dropping seven figures within hours.

Yet Elvis deserved no pity, intoned Guralnick. “Don’t feel sorry for him,” Guralnick wrote. “For Elvis is merely a prisoner of the same fantasies as we. What he wanted he got. What he didn’t he deliberately threw away… encapsulated in the gauze-like world.”

Then Elvis died for real in 1977, at age 42. Doctors initially said a heart attack killed Presley, but toxicology indicated a deadly painkiller cocktail, among 10 drugs found in his system. Some members of Presley’s last male entourage said abuse of speed, downers, alcohol—and womanizing—was ridiculous among them in the Elvis eras of Hollywood and Vegas. Now The King was dead and most his buddies divorced.

Presley was said to have never recovered from losing his beloved mother in 1958. Some friends thought he would’ve lived differently if Gladys hadn’t died too young herself.

Others saw an earlier watershed, 1956-57, after Sun Records relinquished Presley rights and Parker kicked aside Scotty Moore and Bill Black, among changes for the new Elvis. “He was in a cocoon from that point on, and the characters around him didn’t challenge him to rise to the occasion intellectually,” Tucker says. “And Colonel Parker wasn’t the best for him.”

Tucker concludes as much from the music itself, that old Sun sound, which today’s production whizzes say can’t be duplicated. Phillips tweaked recording machines for echo, Scotty Moore gave style on guitar, and local kid Elvis walked in the door. Even the Sun building’s interior formed just right for the sound, some believe. It was rock n’ roll Brigadoon, igniting an eternal beat.

“I saw a thing in Rolling Stone one time…,” Tucker says, “and it was if you’re going to be locked up the rest of your life, and you only had ten albums to take with you for listening, what ten would you take? And they got a bunch of [music] folks to comment, and every one of ’em had the original Sun sessions in there, the collection.”

“And you listen to those early Elvis records—they’re so damn good.”

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Matt Chaney is a writer, editor and publisher in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.