Thursday, August 16, 2007

Elvis: He gave us all he had.

As most everyone knows, today is the 30th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, but since we still hear his songs often, it is hard to believe he’s gone.
It was January, 1956, when I laid eyes on Elvis for the first time. I was 15 years old. Mother had just finished hemming a dress she had made for me—green-and-white checked, with a dropped waist and square neck—and I was pressing it on the ironing board in the living room. The rest of the family was back in the family room, watching the Jimmy Dorsey Show.

I had just tried on the dress, and Mother was checking the hem, when all of a sudden we heard clapping and screaming coming from the television. We rushed out to the family room, where we saw a handsome, young, greasy-haired guy jumping around and swiveling his hips. “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,” he squalled, “cryin’ all the time...”

“What on earth?” Mother said.

“Good god!” Daddy said.

Terry, Patsy, Mary Ellen and I were spellbound, and our little brothers and sisters didn't know what to think. Terry looked at us and raised his eyebrows, and we all burst into laughter. I wanted to start jitterbugging, which I had never been able to do every well, and I knew my sisters wanted to do the same. But we knew better; Daddy would never stand for that.

My mother, siblings and I stood in amazement. Daddy? He was tapping his foot, a look of disgust on his face.

The next day at school, everyone was talking about “that swinging singer from down in Memphis.” My friend, Sarah Mae, talked about him all day long and confided that she had a sexy dream about him that night after the show.

Elvis appeared on the Dorsey Show several more times, and we never missed it. By the time he appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, on September 9 of that year, every teenager I knew watched it. (I later learned that an estimated 52 million people—one out of three Americans—tuned in.) He did not disappoint us, singing Don’t be Cruel, Love Me Tender, and Hound Dog.

Church people all over the country were outraged, some ministers ordering teenagers to destroy their Elvis records. “We are not going to stand for this,” one said, “This is the work of the devil!”

“The world's going to hell in a hand basket,” a neighbor said.

In November, Elvis’s first movie premiered. Patsy and I went to Memphis with Maw Maw Wilson to spend Thanksgiving with Aunt Mora and family, and cousin Clydeane took us to see Love Me Tender.

“He can’t act very good,” I said.

“Yes, especially when he died,” Patsy said.

The next night, we were in for a surprise. “Do y’all want to go see Elvis's house?” cousin Joe said.
We were beside ourselves. Here is my journal entry from November 22, 1956:

Joe took us to Elvis’s house! When he pulled up in front, we saw a pink Cadillac and another Cadillac in the driveway. There were two or three motorcycles, too. Joe said Elvis must be home. THEN, all of a sudden we saw somebody in the living room looking out the blinds. Joe said it looked like ELVIS! And it DID look like Elvis! I kept wishing he would come OUT! THEN a police car drove up and we had to go!!! There were music notes on the FENCE, and it looked just like it did in the movie magazines!!!

(Before Graceland, it was the first home Elvis bought for Gladys, a ranch-style house on Audubon Street.)

I saw Love Me Tender again, with Sarah Mae, when it came to Bardwell. She was mesmerized. I kept punching her arm to get her attention, but it did no good. She simply did not hear me.

“I love him,” she said as we walked out of the theatre, “I absolutely love him.”

The following year, word went around school that Elvis was coming to Paducah.

“When he comes to Paducah,” classmate Joyce Gail said, “My daddy said I could go.”

I knew I didn’t have a chance in the world of going. Someone said the tickets would be $6.50.

As it turned out, Elvis never came to Paducah. But he and a bunch of friends came through Bardwell in his pink Cadillac one night in 1957. They stopped at the D-X Station on Highway 51, and, according to the little man who owned the place and several lucky customers, he bought gas, RC colas, Moon Pies and candy bars. Patsy and I never forgave ourselves for not being there for the big event, since we often stopped at the D-X for Cokes.
The years slipped by. I graduated from high school and business college, got married and moved to Chicago, then Bloomington/Normal, Illinois, where Suzanne was born.
In the early fall of 1976, I learned that Elvis would be performing live at the University of Illinois in Champaign.

“We’re going,” I said.

“We’d never get in,” Carroll said, “There'd be such a crowd.”

“We’re going.”

“I don’t want to go,” Suzanne said, “He’s a has-been.”

Suzanne had been forced to listen to my music—Elvis, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Anthony and the Imperials, and other fifties singers—while she was growing up, but now she was becoming her own person. She was into Captain & Tennille and Abba, Elton John and Kiki Dee, and TV shows like Cher and Charlie's Angels.

Nevertheless, on Friday, October 22, 1976, we rushed home from work, changed, and after a quick supper, drove to the University of Illinois in Champaign. The show would not begin until 8:30, but Carroll wanted to get a good parking place.

We were in for a shock, totally unprepared for what we saw when we got to the Assembly Hall. Traffic was moving at a snail’s pace, policemen were everywhere, and cars were lined up as far as the eye could see.

“I knew it would be this way,” muttered Carroll.

Still, I knew he was excited. He kept putting the back of his hand to his mouth as we eased along, which he did only when he was nervous. Suzanne, an astonished look on her face, sat perched on the edge of her seat.

After finally finding a parking place, we joined thousands of people in the long trek across the parking lot, fighting hundreds more to get inside.

“I’ll give you $200 for every ticket you got,” yelled a man in a wide-brimmed hat.

“I’ll give you $250,” yelled another.

“We should sell these tickets,” Carroll said, “That’s a profit of about $700!”

“I’ll sell mine,” Suzanne said, “If I can keep the money.”

By the time we got in and seated, excitement was accelerating. The place was packed, and it’s no wonder; I later learned 17,000 people attended the concert. There were young couples, mothers with babies, elderly people (some in wheelchairs), teenagers, people dressed in jeans, others dressed in formal clothes, and one woman wearing a sequined shirt, Elvis’s face splashed across her breasts.

When they began playing C C Rider, a hush swept over the audience. The music got louder, the lights flashed on, and there he was. The King. In person!
He was heavy and looked uncomfortable in his glittery white suit and cape, but he gave the audience his beautiful smile and immediately belted out the first words of Jail House Rock.
Everyone jumped to their feet. I don’t even remember jumping up; all of a sudden I was up. Along with Carroll and Suzanne. The roar of the crowd was deafening, the air filled with electricity; the excitement palpable.

He sang many songs, including You Gave Me A Mountain, All Shook Up, Hound Dog, and three of my early-Elvis favorites, Don’t be Cruel, I Want You, I Need You, I Love You, and I Was the One. His last song was Dixie, and he sang it with such passion that I thought my heart would break. Although he was heavy, and not as handsome as he once was, his voice was still the same.

The crowd couldn’t quit clapping and cheering. He came back several times, waving and bowing, and, despite never wanting him to leave the stage, I knew he should. He looked exhausted, spent, his face wet with perspiration. He gave us all he had.
When the announcer said, “Elvis has left the building,” there was almost total silence, and then we quietly and solemnly filed out of the auditorium.
On August 16, 1977, I turned on the radio as I was heading home from work. The first words I heard were, "Elvis Presley...dead at 42.”

Elvis? Gone? Was this a joke?

Sadly, it was not a joke, and I spent the rest of the evening in shock.
“Thank heavens we went to see him when we did,” I said.

This time, Suzanne and her father agreed.


Suz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Suz said...

OK, let me try again. I think my last post was unintentionally funny and though I'm glad to provide amusement I'd rather not leave it there. Let's leave dogs out of it, although I love dogs.

I read your Elvis story the other day and have been thinking about it since, even though I've never been a big Elvis fan.

That's what good writers can do. Put out a story that the reader remembers.


Brenda said...

Any way you say it, a compliment is a compliment. Dudley, our miniature Dachshund, was curled up next to me when I read your comment, and I thought Gee, what a great way of putting it.

Thanks so much, Suz!

Suz said...

Thanks, Brenda. You are a kind person. Give Dudley an ear-scratch from me - a dog person who's currently dog-less.

All words and pictures © 2008 Brenda G. Wooley