ELVIS IN TEXAS
ELVIS IN TEXAS. The up-and-coming, but still largely unknown, Elvis Presley officially joined the Louisiana Hayride with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black on November 6, 1954. The Hayride broadcast live from Shreveport’s Municipal Auditorium every Saturday night on KWKH, a 50,000-watt clear-channel station. KWKH not only blanketed the Arkansas-Louisiana-Texas area, but the AM frequency also bounced and skipped its way across much of North Central and West Texas, and listeners quickly tuned in to the youthful singing sensation. Once Elvis became a member of the Hayride cast, opportunities for personal appearances soon followed, and the Lone Star State became a prime testing ground for what some reporters later described as Presley’s “atomic-powered” performances.
Elvis made his first stops west of the Sabine River in November and December 1954 in Gladewater and Houston, but 1955 was the year the Presley-Texas connection was really forged in earnest. That year he performed in fifteen states, primarily in the South, making approximately 225 appearances, excluding Louisiana Hayride shows. At least 100 of these appearances, or almost 40 percent, took place in Texas: thirteen in Houston, eight in Lubbock, six in Dallas, four in Odessa, and three each in Abilene and Midland. He debuted on Big D Jamboree, broadcast on radio KRLD, at the Sportatorium in Dallas on April 16, 1955. And he also played engagements in high school auditoriums, rodeo arenas, and baseball fields in smaller towns such as Alpine, Breckenridge, Conroe, DeKalb, Gainesville, Gilmer, Gonzales, Hawkins, Joinerville, New Boston, Paris, Seymour, Stamford, and Sweetwater.
In Lubbock, Buddy Holly was in attendance for Presley’s initial stop there on January 6, 1955, at the Cotton Club. On February 13 at Fair Park Coliseum, Waylon Jennings met Elvis backstage, and Buddy and Bob (Holly and his then singing partner Bob Montgomery) were among the opening acts. On June 3, thirteen-year-old Lubbock native Mac Davis witnessed Elvis shake the showroom of the local Pontiac dealership. Presley later recorded seven of Davis’s compositions, including the 1969 Top 10 hits “In the Ghetto” and “Don’t Cry Daddy.”
Presley’s manager, Bob Neal, often booked his young protégé (with Scotty and Bill) as a solo act. In addition, they toured with package shows put together by the Louisiana Hayride and the Grand Ole Opry, giving Elvis the chance to rub shoulders with the likes of Hank Snow, Faron Young, and Johnny Cash.
Presley promptly caught the attention of several influential disc jockeys (all of whom would eventually be inducted into the Country Music DJ Hall of Fame): Tom Perryman in Gladewater, Biff Collie in Houston, Slim Willet in Abilene, Bill Mack in Wichita Falls, and Charlie Walker in San Antonio. Alta Hayes of Big State Distributors in Dallas, which handled jukebox and record store distribution for independent record companies, also jumped on the Elvis bandwagon and helped promote his record releases on Sun Records.
During his tenure with Sun Records and before signing with RCA Victor, Presley made his only recordings in a studio setting outside Memphis in Lubbock. Elvis, Scotty, and Bill visited radio station KDAV on either January 6 or February 13, 1955, to promote their evening show, and the trio laid down a couple of tracks on acetate for the station to play later over the air. The two selections were “Fool, Fool, Fool,” a 1951 R&B chart-topper for the Clovers, and “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” first a hit for Big Joe Turner and then for Bill Haley. “Shake, Rattle and Roll” became a regular feature of Elvis’s concert playlist, and he waxed another version for RCA the next year.
Live recordings from the period have also surfaced, and these provide aural evidence of just what audiences were experiencing. It should come as no surprise that one of the earliest known Elvis tapings was a Texas gig at Eagles Hall in Houston on March 19, 1955. Presley’s breathing is reckless, almost slobbering into the microphone, with the audible squeals of girls in the background. Scotty and Bill are off microphone, but they are still a formidable presence with Moore’s cranked-up guitar breaks and Black’s steady thumping bass.
With Presley as “the avatar, the unforgettable boy-daddy of rockabilly,” as Nick Tosches so anointed him, disciples from the Lone Star State quickly became part of the vanguard’s leading edge. Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison are the most famous, but there were others in this initial wave who were just as affected including Dean Beard, Johnny Carroll, Mac Curtis, Sonny Fisher, Sid King, Buddy Knox, Joe Poovey , and Alvis Wayne. In an often-quoted Elvis remembrance, budding East Texas rockabilly Bob Luman described what it was like to see Presley at a show in Kilgore on May 20, 1955: “He made chills run up my back. Man, like when your hair starts grabbing at your collar. That’s the last time I tried to sing like Webb Pierce or Lefty Frizzell.”
Presley’s uninhibited stage presence inspired more than mere screams from his female Texas followers. In Stamford, Valerie Harms started an Elvis fan club for her friends. Fifteen-year-old Kay Wheeler of Dallas, who would star in the cult film Rock, Baby, Rock It!, took things a step further and formed the first documented national Elvis Presley fan club.
Much has been written about Presley’s 1956 network television appearances, but select viewers in the Lone Star State had already seen him on the small screen. It has been long rumored that on April 18, 1955, Jimmy Thomason hosted Elvis on The Home Folks Show, televised live on KCEN (Channel 6) in Waco. Later in the fall, he also was a guest on Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings Saturday afternoon show on KOSA-TV (Channel 7) in Odessa.
On July 4, 1955, Presley performed in Stephenville, De Leon, and Brownwood. This would be the only occasion ever when he played a “triple header,” three towns in the same day. For the De Leon concert, with the Blackwood Brothers on the bill, Elvis sang only gospel music, much to the chagrin of the promoter and to the equal disappointment of the crowd, one more Texas first and something Presley never did again. After Colonel Tom Parker took over the managerial reins in August, he began to concentrate on placing Elvis in larger venues. Towns like Stephenville, De Leon, and Brownwood disappeared from the schedule.
In 1956 with Colonel Parker focusing on the Southeast and Midwest, Presley played only nineteen concerts in Texas. For his January engagements, he was once again with the Hank Snow tour booked for shows in San Antonio, Galveston, Beaumont, Austin, Wichita Falls, and Fort Worth. This was the last time Elvis appeared onstage as a supporting act. By this point, too, the noise of the audiences had become so loud neither Elvis nor his musicians could hear the music. Scotty Moore remembered a defining moment occurring at a concert in Amarillo on April 13, 1956. He recalled, “We were the only band in history that was directed by an ass. It was like being in a sea of sound.” At the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on October 11, 1956, Presley entered the stadium in a Cadillac convertible, and a roaring throng of 26,500 greeted them to a reception of thousands of flashbulbs going off. Drummer D.J. Fontana, who had joined the group in August, described the scene: “It looked like a war out there. I thought what’s this guy done?”
Presley did not come back to Texas until 1958, and he wore G.I. fatigues instead of gold lamé. On March 28 after his induction into the United States Army, Private Presley proceeded by military transport bus to Fort Hood to join the Second Armored Division (General Patton’s “Hell on Wheels” outfit) for basic training. A restaurant lunch break in Hillsboro caused “a small riot” when teenage customers recognized him. While completing an additional ten weeks of advanced tank training, Elvis had to take emergency leave to fly to Memphis to be with his mother, Gladys Presley, who was hospitalized. She died two days later on August 14. Presley finished his training at Fort Hood and on September 19, 1958, boarded a troop train for New York City. Final destination: the Third Armored Division in Germany.
Receiving an honorable discharge on March 5, 1960, Presley prepared to resume his movie career the next month. Colonel Parker chartered two private railway cars to transport Elvis and his entourage from Memphis to Los Angeles to begin filming G.I. Blues (1960). Word quickly spread that Presley was traveling by rail, and well-wishers began gathering at stations along the way in hopes of catching a glimpse of their idol. There were no stops in East Texas, but west of Fort Worth, when the retinue did pause, Elvis stepped out back and signed autographs. In Midland, Jack Auldridge, a disc jockey on Odessa radio station KOSA, gained access to the private car and scored an exclusive interview. Reminiscing about the early days, Elvis volunteered, “You know I started out in this direction. I think I played every little West Texas town.” During the layover in El Paso on April 19, ever-eager fans attempted to mob the train.
Under Colonel Parker’s direction, Presley devoted the 1960s to making movies in Hollywood and recordings for RCA Victor. After 1961, aside from two extended dates in Las Vegas at the International Hotel, Elvis did not perform live again until 1970, and his first engagement took place in Texas at the Astrodome for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Booked for two shows a day (February 27–March 1), Presley played to more than 200,000 people with one of the evening events drawing a then-record crowd of 43,614. He proved without question that his grassroots popularity had not waned after a decade’s hibernation from the stage. The response in Houston convinced Colonel Parker to keep his breadwinner on the road permanently. From 1971 to 1977, Elvis performed twenty-six additional concerts in the Lone Star State.
When assessing Presley’s career, the Texas presence looms large, especially in the initial stages of his rise to the top. Elvis once told a reporter for the Dallas Morning News, “I sorta got my start here.” The bond remained strong, too. In the spring of 1977, he returned for the last time for engagements in Abilene on March 27 and Austin the following evening. By this point, the medicated mood swings and often bizarre behavior onstage were well-documented, but the Abilene Reporter-News and the Austin American-Statesman each reported the star to be in fine form (soundboard recordings from Abilene and Austin provide further confirmation). Paul Beutel, writing in the American-Statesman, concluded, “For many of the eternally young-at-heart in Monday night’s mob, time had lost all meaning as they were again boppin’ to the Jailhouse Rock. Long live the King.” Less than five months later, “the King” was dead.
Peter Guralnick and Ernst Jorgensen, Elvis Day by Day (New York: Ballantine, 1999). Stanley Oberst, Elvis Presley: Rockin’ Across Texas (Glostrup, Denmark: Follow That Dream Records, 2005). Stanley Oberst and Lori Torrance, Elvis in Texas: The Undiscovered King 1954–1958 (Plano, Texas: Republic of Texas Press, 2002). Joe W. Specht, “I Forgot to Remember to Forget: Elvis Presley in Texas–1955,” Journal of Texas Music History, 3, no. 1 (Spring 2003).