1955: The Local Elvis in Missouri, Cut 2

Seventh in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Saturday, August 12, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

A version of this passage posted previously in my article ‘The Local Elvis: From Good Kid to Garbo in Rock Legend.’ This richer draft is for my book on 1950s rockers in the Missouri delta, set for release next year. Chaney

Memphis wasn’t so big a city in the mid-1950s; many locals knew or encountered Elvis Presley on everyday terms. The kid was a regular figure downtown and on the riverfront since relocating to Memphis with his parents, Vernon and Gladys, in 1948. The family had left behind a hardscrabble existence at Tupelo, Miss., when Elvis was 13. He was the surviving child, after a twin brother was stillborn, and the little family stayed tight-knit while hovering above poverty. As Elvis completed high school, the Presleys dwelled in “The Courts” of north Memphis, an urban complex of subsidized, segregated housing.

Music stardom beckoned Presley at outset of 1955, when he turned 20, already a singing sensation on the Louisiana Hayride circuit. Around Memphis he remained known as a mannered youth enamored with song. As a schoolboy he’d been shy and often solitary, but a good kid, a church-goer, always working a part-time job. Many people called Elvis a mama’s boy, too attached to Gladys, but he was no pushover at physical maturity, standing six-foot tall and solidly built.

Presley hadn’t yet blown apart American pop culture, refitted the model, and for a final period he would live and work in relatively common fashion. The local Elvis character remained personable on the street, liked by others, even if flashy and a bit nervous, according to his profile drawn from numerous accounts.

Presley was fond of extended family like cousins, aunts and uncles, and he surely felt at ease in driving across the bridge from Memphis and keeping north on Highway 61. The river road carried Presley through Arkansas and Missouri, delta countryside and communities familiar to him since a boy on visits to relatives.

During 1955 Presley would travel federal 61 north for gaining work and building audience, popularity. At least nine Elvis shows were scheduled in the delta corridor from West Memphis to Cape Girardeau, a 170-mile belt of flatland through Arkansas and Missouri. His trio, now promoted as the “Blue Moon Boys”—Presley, Scotty Moore and Bill Black—would appear at roadhouses, dance halls, schools, armories and fairgrounds.

Smaller venues largely booked the act that year, among some 280 shows in 14 states. The Blue Moon Boys opened January on a tour of Texas, playing schools and halls for enthusiastic audiences. A local deejay declared excitedly, in mispronunciation, that “a kid named Parsley played to 800 folks at Boston, Texas, and they went plumb crazy.”

In mid-January, northeast Arkansas, school kids 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 gushed to editors. The paper published a show notice complete with publicity photo of Presley’s trio: Elvis smiled radiantly at center, darkly handsome in sporty tie and jacket, draping his arms around Moore and Black, who beamed in cowboy shirts. The three had become good friends since summer, however long they’d last under mounting pressure.

Soon America’s hottest new band reached Sikeston, Mo., a bustling agricultural center of 17,000 at intersection of U.S. Highways 61 and 60. For the history of Presley appearances in small-town Missouri, the Sikeston event on Friday, Jan. 21, 1955, left a cache of documented fact and credible recollection. The evidence portrayed a friendly Elvis in Sikeston, mixing freely, endearing locals. Presley charmed and impressed people, winning fans during a night he apparently enjoyed.

The Sikeston area felt homey to the young entertainer, for ancestral ties and a cluster of his relatives. Calhoun Presley, a great uncle and family patriarch, was a local fixture in farming, and cousins of Elvis were becoming established in business. Jesse Presley, Elvis’s grandfather and a brother of Calhoun, once farmed in southeast Missouri as a sharecropper. Additionally in Sikeston, Elvis appreciated meeting recording artist Onie Wheeler, area resident and Nashville performer with Grand Ole Opry. Presley admired the classy Wheeler, a soft-spoken music talent and war veteran who offered positive encouragement and advice. Elvis returned his best compliment, remarking that Wheeler reminded him of mother Gladys.

Newspaper and radio coverage preceded the band in Sikeston yet most folks were clueless about the act, publicized as cowboy guitarists and yodelers. Then the Blue Moon Boys came out on the armory stage and broke into song. Presley, billed as a “country music star,” strutted in his pink suit bought on Beale Street. He’d bust loose in a circle, strumming guitar, swinging hips and knees, dancing on toes in white shoes. At the microphone he wailed familiar lyrics but to beats faster, louder. Moore banged out rock riffs on electric guitar while Black hit bass notes and slapped wood. And now the sidemen dressed snazzy themselves, in black shirts and pants with pink vests, white ties.

Mouths had to hang open in the audience. 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,” Cardwell said. “We’re transitioning into something different.”

But others applauded Presley led by Wheeler, who had interviewed the budding showman on radio. After the Sikeston show the Opry performer raved over Presley, Wheeler later recalled, as “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 a qualified success 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.

The rocker’s departure from town was emblematic of the local Elvis among everyday folk, a persona on short time. Presley had a new car at home but still drove beaters on road trips, logging thousands of miles. He was prone to leave a broken-down heap where it sat—a souvenir Sikeston almost inherited. “He was here in an older car that didn’t run good and he parked it behind the armory,” Caldwell later told The 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.”

Select References

Appear at Leachville. (1955, Jan. 19). Blytheville Courier News AR, p. 14.

Blackwell, B. (2008, Sept. 11). Memories of Elvis’ show in Cape remain strong as Tribute to the King takes grandstand at SEMO District Fair. Southeast Missourian, Cape Girardeau MO [online].

Cp. Onie D. Wheeler. (1944, Oct. 12). Sikeston Herald MO, p. 6.

Elvis Presley Gang Of Western Entertainers To Perform at Armory. (1955, Jan. 20). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, see www.elvisconcerts.com.

Editor’s Note. (1977, Aug. 18). Blytheville Courier News AR, p. 6.

Fans Mourn Elvis. (1977, Aug. 17). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, pp. 1, 16.

Guralnick, P. (1977, Aug. 20). Lonely days in high school left their mark on the man who changed history of rock. Ottawa JournalCanada, p.34.

Guralnick, P. (1977, Aug. 28). A prisoner of rock & roll. Mansfield News-Journal OH, p.2.

Guralnick, P. (1977, Aug. 30). ‘Rocker’ launched skyrocket career. Mansfield News-Journal OH, p.7.

Guralnick, P. (1977, Sept. 1). Saga ends with ‘perfect deline.’ Mansfield News-Journal OH, p.39.

Guralnick, P. (1994). Last train to Memphis: The rise of Elvis Presley. Little, Brown and Company: New York.

Heuring, L. (2005, Jan. 21). Elvis visited Sikeston in 1955. Sikeston Daily Standard MO [online].

Jennings, C.R. (1968, Feb. 18). Elvis Lives! Los Angeles Times, p. M28.

Morrison, C.R. (1984, June). Rockabilly Music and Musicians [MA thesis]. York University: Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Onie Wheeler to appear on Grand Ole Opry. (1954, Jan. 11). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p. 6.

Payne, S.E. (1977, Oct. 5). Country Music Star Remembers King of Rock as ‘Greatest.’ Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p. 1.

Presley’s Record Sales Jump Here. (1977, Aug. 17). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, pp. 1, 16.

“Run ’Em Off” Wheeler Attends Convention. (1954, Nov. 29). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p. 3.

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