Tuesday, August 14, 2007

All Elvis, All the Time

This is the photo Elvis gave to Billie Mae Smith in 1955.

This column was published March 20, 2004

Elvis was all over the news this past week, despite the fact that he has been dead for almost 27 years.

The big story was the break-in at the Elvis-A-Rama Museum in Las Vegas in which thieves made off with a quarter-million dollars worth of Elvis memorabilia, mostly jewelry, but passed on the blue suede shoes in the window, valued at a million dollars, thereby giving headline writers a field day: "Elvis' Jewelry Has Left the Building," "Not Step On His Blue Suede Shoes."

A quarter-century after his death the king is still making news ... and money.

Elvis consistently ranks at the top of Forbes magazine's annual Top Earning Dead Celebrities list. Last year he grossed $37 million, almost $10 million more than number two, dead cartoonist Charles Schulz.

The Elvis news this week brought requests from two readers for the story of Elvis' only Kingsport concert.

Yes, I do requests.

And yes, Elvis did perform in Kingsport almost fifty years ago.

I interviewed a couple of dozen local people about that show back in the mid-'70s, when their memories were still relatively fresh. And this is the story they told me.

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 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 pepperoni pizza 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."



This column was published on January 7, 2006.

Sunday is Elvis' birthday. Technically it's his 71st birthday, but for those of us who remember the cool young dude with the ducktail haircut and the out-of-control pelvis, it's the 50th anniversary of his 21st birthday.

It's that 21-year-old Elvis I want to talk about.

You can debate whether he was the biggest phenomenon this country has ever seen. But he was certainly Top 10.

The year he turned 21 - 1956 - was also the year he arrived on the national stage. And boy did he arrive!

In 1956 he had five number one records.

"Heartbreak Hotel" was number one for eight weeks that year. "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You" was number one for one week. "Don't Be Cruel," which was backed by "Hound Dog," was number one for 11 weeks. And "Love Me Tender" was number one for five weeks. Fifty-two weeks, and Elvis had the number one Billboard hit during 25 of them.

And that doesn't include the 10 other Elvis records that made Billboard's Hot 100 chart that year!

"I Was The One" peaked at 19; "Blue Suede Shoes" topped at number 20; "Money, Honey" reached 76; "My Baby Left Me" made it to 31; "Blue Moon" reached 55; "I Don't Care If The Sun Don't Shine" peaked at 74; "Anyway You Want Me" cruised to 20; and "When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold" topped out at 19.

The last week of 1956, he had three more records reach the top 100: "Poor Boy" at 24, "Old Shep" at 47, and "Paralyzed" at 59.

And if that weren't enough, he also had the top-rated television appearance of all time, at that time, his Sept. 9 performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show." An astounding 83 percent of people watching TV that night tuned in to watch Elvis. The Super Bowl typically attracts 65 percent of the audience.

Elvis in 1956 was huge.

So you can understand why a group of teenage boys in Tennessee at that time would want to catch a glimpse of Elvis, maybe even shake his hand.

One of those boys was Emerson Poe, who had been a basketball star at the old Sullivan High School. At the time, Emerson was playing basketball at Hiwassee College in Madisonville, about an hour southwest of Knoxville.

Emerson says he and his teammates heard on the radio one Saturday that Elvis was heading from Atlanta to Knoxville.

"We knew he would have to go through Madisonville - it was on the main road - so all the basketball players got their cars and got ready to block the street so they could see him."

They parked out on College Street with their car radios cranked up and began their watch. They sat on the car hoods, nodding along to Elvis tunes, listening for updates on his travel.

First they heard he was in Cartersville. Then Chatsworth.

The excitement was building when the deejay announced Elvis had crossed the state line and now was in Tennessee.

The basketball players kept listening to the music and listening for the updates.

Soon he was in Cleveland. That was only an hour away.

Englewood! Elvis was in Englewood! Ten minutes from Madisonville.

The basketball boys began getting ready, cranking up their cars. And waiting.

Ten minutes passed. No sign of Elvis.

Then another 10 minutes. And another 10.

Suddenly the deejay announced Elvis was in Maryville.

The basketball boys were bewildered now.

What happened? How did Elvis pass through Madisonville without them seeing him?

They kept listening to the deejay, and they finally figured it out.

Elvis was traveling by train.

ELVIS SIGHTING

The last time Elvis wasn't the headliner on a show was when he performed at the Civic Auditorium here on Sept. 22, 1955. He was the middle act. The Louvin Brothers opened the show, and Cowboy Copas was the main attraction.

The show was promoted by WKIN-AM, its owner Dia Bahakel and deejay Chuck Foster. Dia told me in 1976 that 270 people paid $1 each to attend the show. She said she paid Elvis and his band $37 and change for their performance.

Elvis had been performing all over the area in the week before the Kingsport show.

According to the book "Elvis: Day by Day" he played the American Legion Auditorium in Roanoke on Thursday, Sept. 15; the City Auditorium in Asheville Friday the 16th; the high school auditorium in Thomasville, N.C., on Saturday the 17th; the WRVA Theater in Richmond on Sunday and Monday the 18th and 19th; the Danville Fairgrounds Tuesday the 20th; and Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh the night before his Kingsport show.

He took local girl Billie Mae Smith to Jimmie's Steakhouse on Memorial Boulevard for pizza after the show before heading back to Memphis.

Then this correction came a week later.

In Sunday's column about Elvis' 71st birthday, I included a couple of paragraphs about Elvis' legendary performance at the Civic Auditorium in 1955 before he was a superstar. I noted that after the show, he and local girl Billie Mae Smith went to Jimmie's on Memorial Boulevard for pizza. I got that detail from a 1976 story I wrote about that event.

Barbara Ketron, who was in the group that went to Jimmie's with Elvis, sent word through Lou Richards that the group didn't eat pizza, they had club sandwiches.

This column was published on August 15, 2006

We were talking during breakfast at the Jan-Mar Saturday about some of the great groups that have played the Down Home in Johnson City. Art Williams recalled seeing John Lee Hooker, Willie Nelson, Doc Watson. Someone else mentioned Leon Redbone.

I asked jokingly if anyone had seen Elvis when he played there.

Of course Elvis never played the Down Home. Elvis died not long after it opened. In fact, Elvis died 29 years ago today.

And while he didn't play the Down Home, he did play the Civic Auditorium.

That was on Sept. 22, 1955, before he was a star. He was the middle act in a "country show," playing after the Louvin Brothers and before tour headliner Cowboy Copas.

You wouldn't have known he was the middle act from the ad in the Times-News that week. It had the name Elvis Presley at the top of the ad. Headliner Cowboy Copas had his name in small print down near the bottom.

I wrote about Elvis' Kingsport appearance in this column two years ago, and I've posted that column, along with the 1955 Times-News ad and the publicity photo that Elvis gave local girl Billie Mae Smith, on my blog: vincestaten.blogspot.com.

But even before that show Elvis had Kingsport connections.

Retired Kingsport attorney Jim Bowles was living in Memphis when Elvis was growing up. "I graduated from high school one year behind him. I used to see him occasionally around town before he got wild and popular."

Jim's younger brother, Ken, remembered Jim and Elvis drag racing on one of Memphis' streets, but Jim says his little brother has a vivid imagination. "Elvis had a pink Cadillac, and I had a '51 Olds. It was a pretty hot little car for that time, but I never dragged him. I did chase Elvis down the boulevard one time."

(Jim thinks it was Park Avenue, which runs at an angle from Poplar around the University of Memphis and Elvis' favorite playground, Libertyland.)

H.M. Rogers, who founded the Rogers Agency in Kingsport in 1957 (it's now combined with The Archer Agency), has a couple of Elvis stories.

H.M. was the district sales manager for Kemper Insurance in 1955. "I was based in Jackson, Mississippi, and I covered the whole state of Mississippi and Memphis. I traveled the district, and it took seven weeks to make the full tour."

It was then that H.M.'s life intersected with that of Elvis. "What had happened, Mr. McElroy of The McElroy Agency in Memphis was one of our agents. He was my first call that day. He said, ‘Harold, I've got a problem. I need you to sit down and let's talk.'"

H.M. took a chair and began to listen. "He said, ‘I've got this man. He's got five Cadillacs and a Lincoln and a couple of motorcycles. He's a lawful boy from a lawful family. Kemper wants to cancel him.'"

H.M. notes that six cars and two motorcycles was a big account at the time.

"He said he was a fine person with a good record. He kept talking about him for 30 minutes. Finally I said ‘Who is this man?' He said it was Elvis Presley and asked if I'd ever heard of him. I said I know he got caught last night going through Hattiesburg at 95 mph on the bypass. He said, ‘You knew that and you just let me keep talking?' I said ‘I just wanted to see how much rope it would take to hang you.'"

The upshot? "They canceled him. Kemper had a standard policy: They did not want entertainers."

H.M. has another Elvis story from his Mississippi days. "In '55 Elvis went down to Gulfport and offered his services for $5,000, he and his band, for a celebration. They turned him down. The next year they came to Elvis and wanted him to come down and offered him $50,000. He wouldn't go."

1 Comments:

At 10:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved the Elvis stories!

 

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