It was 29 years ago...
...that Elvis died. Folks still mark the day, August 16.
I'm marking it with this reprint of my column about the time Elvis performed at the Civic Auditorium in 1955, before he was a star.
This column originally ran March 20, 2004.
Here it is along with the photo that Elvis gave to Kingsport girl Billie Mae Smith.
Elvis left vivid memories in Kingsport - before he was the King
It was Sept 22, 1955, when Elvis arrived in town for his first, last and only Kingsport date. He was traveling with a couple of country acts, Cowboy Copas and the Louvin Brothers, and Elvis was the middle act on the bill. This was a couple of months before he signed with RCA and four months before his breakout hit "Heartbreak Hotel."
The Kingsport show was promoted by WKIN-AM deejay Chuck Foster and WKIN station manager Dia Bahakel. They rented the Civic Auditorium and advertised the show on their station.
Admission was a dollar and a quarter and in 1976 Bahakel recalled to me that a grand total of 270 people were in attendance.
People I talked to remembered Elvis as wearing white buck shoes, electric pink socks, denim pants, a pink shirt and a black leather jacket.
He opened his set with a joke - "Where is Kingsport, Tennessee anyway?" - before launching into his first song, "Rock Around the Clock." He played for about half an hour, closing with the ballad "I Love You Because."
That's when the real story begins. During intermission Elvis and his band, the Blue Moon Boys, set up in the hall outside the stage door and signed autographs and sold photos for fifty cents. Darla Hodge told me he pointed to her and said, "Hey Liz, hey Liz Taylor, come up here." She did and he gave her a photo autographed "I love you, Liz - Elvis."
After signing a few autographs - how many would he have to sign when the total crowd was less than 300? - he led a group of admiring girls outside to show off his pink Cadillac.
And that's when our story gets good. Billie Mae Smith and two friends came up. When one of the girls was too shy to ask Elvis for an autograph, Billie Mae spoke up.
"I went up and I said ‘When you get through showing off your car, my friend would like your autograph.' He said, ‘What's the matter? Don't you want it?'"
Billie Mae said she replied, "‘Not particularly.' I was playing hard to get."
He asked her name, she told him and he invited her to come back stage after the show was over.
"I told him I might."
After the show, the three musical acts gathered round while Bahakel counted the money. After taking her cut, she divvied up the proceeds.
She told me Elvis and his band made $37 and change for their show.
Enter Billie Mae Smith, no longer as standoffish. She joined Elvis in his Caddy. He was hungry so she steered him to a local hangout, Jimmy's Restaurant, which was on Memorial Boulevard, about where the Bethel Presbyterian Church parking lot is now.
But first she wanted to cruise Broad. Billie Mae and Elvis were stopped at the red light at Center and Wilcox when a green and white Chevy Bel Air pulled up in the lane next to them.
Wayne "Booge" Allen glanced over and who should he see but his girlfriend, Billie Mae Smith, sitting next to some greasy haired dude.
(Booge is pronounced BOOJ.)
Allen told me, "She leaned over and rolled down the window and told me to come down to her house later, there was someone she wanted me to meet." Allen remembered thinking he didn't want to meet the guy with her.
Meanwhile Billie Mae and Elvis had club sandwiches at Jimmy's then went to her house.
Billie Mae said, "I remember I kept looking at his hair because he had a permanent in it so that when he shook his head a curl would fall in his eyes."
Once back at her house on Catawba, she invited Elvis in for a cup of coffee. They were sitting at the kitchen table, talking and sipping coffee, when she heard a commotion outside. Booge Allen had reappeared.
One of Elvis' bodyguards met Booge and told him, "You're not wanted here."
Wayne didn't take this too well. "I said, ‘The hell with you; two can play this game.'" He raced down to the Texas Steer Drive-In - it was on Center just before you got to Kingsport Press - picked up two of his friends, and returned to Catawba.
"I told the guy outside that if he wanted trouble there was more than one of us now."
Elvis and Billie Mae heard the noise and came out. Billie Mae introduce Booge and Elvis. But they didn't shake hands.
Allen remembered, "Elvis said, ‘I'm breaking this guy's heart. Maybe I'd better leave.'"
Billie Mae took Booge aside, told him everything would be all right and sent him home.
Elvis didn't stay much longer. It was the last night of the tour and he was anxious to be back to Memphis. Just one thing before he left: a goodnight kiss for all time. "He sure could kiss," cooed Billie Mae. "It was very thrilling."
Booge came back later and circled the block but Elvis had gone.
Elvis was back in Tri-Cities two decades later. He played four shows at Freedom Hall in 1976, staying at a hotel in Bristol. As far as anyone knows, he never set foot in Kingsport again after that one night in 1955. But no one who was there has ever forgotten it.
Billie Mae Smith Barker now splits her time between a home in Ormond Beach, Fla., and her parents' old house on Catawba. Wayne Allen is in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he has lived for the last 26 years. They went separate paths after Elvis, but Wayne says, "We still talk to each other every year on our birthdays. And she's still as pretty as she was in high school."