“Most Southerners worship three kings: King Jesus, King Cotton, and King Elvis!” (As a tenth-generation Southerner, there are three days of the year on which I absolutely refuse to work—the birthdays of Jesus Christ, Elvis Presley, and Robert E. Lee!)
Since we have just passed an important day in the life of Elvis Presley (his death on August 16 in 1977), I thought I would share a letter I wrote several years ago to Elvis Radio in Memphis in celebration of Elvis’ birthday on January 6, 1935.
In that letter I tell about the first time I ever heard Elvis Presley. It was while I was a junior in McGehee High School in the mid-1950s. (Be sure to read “The Rest of the Story . . .” and the quotes about Elvis after the letter.)
January 8, 2002
“I moved to Babylon (Oklahoma) from the Holy Land (Arkansas) in 1977 (the year that King Elvis died, see Isaiah 6:1) to take a much-needed job in religious publishing. If ever a man put his hand to the plow looking back, it is me. I only miss home two times—night and day!”
A few months ago you broadcast an Elvis memory by Pat Scavo of Hot Springs. Pat (the former Patsy McDermott, affectionately called Patsy Mack) is a classmate of mine from the McGehee (Arkansas) High School Class of 1956.
I was the one who suggested she send her Elvis memory to you. In it she told how she and some of the other girls from the class heard Elvis’ first recording, “That’s All Right, Mama,” at the Desha County Fair in the fall of 1954 and later went to see him in the spring of 1955 at a concert in neighboring Dermott, Arkansas. They then invited him back to McGehee for an after-concert party in one of their homes. Naturally, they were all quite taken with Elvis. But that was the girls’ reaction.
My first encounter with Elvis’ music was at that same county fair and with the same recording, which I thought was “hickey.” Later, after the concert when the girls came back to school with their autographed photos of Elvis. I took one look at those long sideburns (which no one but country clods wore in those days), all that greasy hair, and that curled-lip sneer, and said, “You mean to tell me y’all paid a quarter for a picture of this yap?”—our word for a country hick.
So my first two impressions of Elvis and his music back in 1954 and 1955 were not at all positive—which was perhaps more of a young man’s reaction than a young woman’s reaction. Soon afterward, however, I became a loyal and lasting Elvis fan (see opening salutation above, which I, as a religious editor, created and copyrighted).
For our fortieth wedding anniversary on December 27, one of the gifts I gave my wife (also an MHS grad and a fan of the King) was a CD of Elvis’ love songs. She loves it, and me, and Elvis—but not necessarily in that order.
Long live the King!
The Rest of the Story . . .
What I failed to include in that letter was a description of exactly what happened before and after the girls attended the concert and actually saw Elvis for the first time. Their previous knowledge of him had been only that same recording of “That’s All Right, Mama” that they and I had heard at the county fair and which one of them bought and played over and over.
Before the concert the girls saw a photo of Elvis in an advertisement in the McGehee Times. Until then they had thought he was a black performer. The ad, which one of the girls still has in a scrapbook, said that Elvis would be appearing at the local radio station and signing autographs before the concert. The station, KVSA, “the Voice of Southeast Arkansas, located halfway between McGehee and Dermott on U.S. Highway 65,” began operating in 1953 and is still in operation today. (For a brief nostalgic video about KVSA, which includes scenes from its heyday in the 1950s and a reference to Elvis being there at that time, click here.)
Unfortunately, when the girls got to KVSA they did not get to meet Elvis, so they went on to Dermott to attend his concert. That first personal encounter with Elvis was so overwhelming that the girls were totally captured and enraptured. They had never seen or heard anyone remotely like him.
Since one of the girls, Berta Jo Taulbee, was dating Billy Mack Harkins, the president of the Dermott senior class who was in charge of the concert, the girls quickly began to make plans to invite Elvis and his band members Scotty Moore and Bill Black to an after-concert party in McGehee, an invitation that he freely accepted.
As Patsy Mc tells it, Pat Lally was chosen to ride with Elvis in the front seat of his pink Cadillac with Berta Jo and Billy Mack in the back seat. (And yes, Patsy Mc refutes the Graceland claim that Elvis did not own a pink Cadillac in 1955, because she and her classmates know better.) Scotty and Bill followed in another car on the way to McGehee.
When the two girls and Billy Mack were in the car with Elvis, the first they had ever ridden in with power windows, Berta Jo asked Elvis, “How do you roll down this window”? To which Elvis remarked with a smile, “You don’t, you push the button.”
Patsy Mc and the other girl in the group, Roberta Wyeth, were driven home by Roberta’s mother. They went ahead to Pat Lally’s house where they informed her mother that she would soon be entertaining company. When Elvis and the others arrived, Pasty Mc had already set up the phonograph to be playing the 78-rpm monaural record of “That’s All Right, Mama,” which Pat still owns. However, Patsy Mc admitted that she was rather disappointed when the first thing Elvis did when he entered the house was ask where the bathroom was.
A second disappointment came when some of the girls and Scotty and Bill started dancing to the music. When one of the girls asked Elvis if he would like to dance, he declined the invitation saying, “I really don’t dance very well.” That statement was a shock to the girls who had just watched his gyrations all over the stage for an hour at the concert.
That opinion was shared by the girls when the next day they met and talked about the previous evening. Although they sensed that they had been “privy to a very special event,” none of them had any idea what was to become of Elvis Presley, “just that he was a very special person.”
Their conculsions seemed to be confirmed some months later. In our senior year at McGehee High School Pat Lally’s family moved to Biloxi, Mississippi, where her father was stationed at the Air Force base. While they were there, Elvis appeared at the Officers’ Club, and Pat asked Luke “Ben” Thomas of McGehee to take her to see Elvis, though she doubted that he would even remember her.
However, after the first song or two Elvis spoke to Pat and asked about her mother. That thoughtful act convinced all concerned that Mrs. Lally was right: Elvis Presley was a very nice young man–a true Southern Gentleman.
At age fifty the “girls” got together to share memories of their first encounter with Elvis. Although each had a slightly different memory of what happened that evening, they all agreed that it was an incredible experience, one that they would never forget.
So although it took me a while to become a fan of Elvis and his music back in 1954-55, the girls from my class of 1956 became devoted and lifelong fans from their very first personal encounter with the future King of Rock and Roll.
Collected Quotes about Elvis Presley
“I wanted to say to Elvis Presley and the country that this is a real decent, fine boy.”
“One reason Elvis was so successful is because he never got too far from his roots [or never strayed too far from home].”
“His favorite music, by far, was old-time gospel. . . . He often said that his big dream was to make it as a gospel artist. That’s what his mother wanted for him, too. Who knows, that might have been best for him in the long run.”
–Bonnie Brown in Looking Back to See
(To read an article about this memoir
of the early days of Rock and Roll, click here.)
“I wish I could do that [sing Gospel].
I’d like to go somewhere and start all over.
But I guess I got to keep being Elvis.”
—Elvis Presley to J. D. Sumner
“Before Elvis, there was nothing.”
“One thing I learned . . . is that Elvis Presley himself once
entered an Elvis-impersonator contest—and came in third.”
—John Paget, documentary film maker
“You might be a redneck if . . . your wife has a Jell-O
mold that looks like Elvis.”
—Jeff Foxworthy, quoted on desk calendar
“Ladies and gentleman, Elvis has left the building.”
—Traditional announcement at the end of each Elvis live concert
“If life was fair, Elvis would be alive and all the impersonators would be dead.”
“Elvis isn’t dead. Just his body is gone.”
—Col. Tom Parker upon hearing the news of Elvis’ death, quoted by Philip Martin, “In documentary Elvis is everywhere,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, nd
“I saw Elvis last night at the church in a long white gown,
and he sang like an angel of mercy from heaven sent down.”
—Scott Ayecock, native of Marked Tree, Arkansas,
“I Saw Elvis,” in album Pennies on the Track
(Sung by Elvis in all his later concerts.
To hear Elvis sing this song and view
photos from his life, click here.)
Memories, pressed between the pages of my mind
Memories, sweetened thru’ the ages just like wine
Quiet thoughts come floating down
And settle softly to the ground
Like golden autumn leaves around my feet
I touch them and they burst apart with
Of holding hands and red bouquets
And twilights trimmed in purple haze
And laughing eyes and simple ways
And quiet nights and gentle days with you
Words and music by Billy Strange and Scott Davis