The King of Rock-and-Roll played hundreds of shows in Texas during the early years of his career
By Gene Fowler
"I sorta got my start in Texas,” a reflective Elvis Presley told reporters at Dallas’ Love Field in August 1958. Presley, a soldier in the United States Army at the time, had just returned from Memphis, where he attended the funeral of his mother, Gladys, and was en route back to Fort Hood to re-sume basic training.
By that time, of course, Presley had become an American idol. But just a few years earlier, a largely unknown Elvis Presley had electrified stages from the Piney Woods to the High Plains, leaving Texas audiences all shook up and ready to rock.
“One night in October 1954, I got a call from Pappy Covington, who was booking talent at the ‘Louisiana Hayride’ at Shreveport,” says 85-year-old Tyler radio legend Tom Perryman. “He said, ‘I’ve got these three boys from Memphis who just auditioned to play the Hayride.’ Said they were broke, and could I get them a booking in East Texas?” Perryman soon booked Elvis, guitarist Scotty Moore, and bass player Bill Black into the Mint Club in Gladewater. “Then a few months later, at a show at the Humble Oil Camp Community Center in Hawkins, I watched the reactions of a girl, her mother, and her grandmother in the crowd,” says Perryman, “and I knew immediately that this Elvis was a very special artist.”
Musicologists point to Presley’s raw and frenzied performances of the mid-1950s, before he joined the Army, as the most transformative of Presley’s career. “He played more than a hundred shows in Texas from ’54 to ’56,” says Stanley Oberst of Waco, author of the books Elvis in Texas and Elvis Presley: Rockin’ Across Texas. Oberst used a 1955 state road map to track Presley’s travels through Texas around that time. “There should be an official Elvis route marked with signs—the ‘Hound Dog Highway,’” he says.
Lubbock-based author and historian Johnny Hughes experienced Elvis in Lubbock in 1955. “I was bootlegging at the Cotton Club,” he recalls. “Elvis didn’t drink, but his manager at the time, Bob Neal, wanted some beer. So I got to see him perform—and man, it was incredible. Seeing him onstage at that time was a major event. Nobody else danced like that.”
By 1956, the King had ascended to larger venues, and during the State Fair that year, Mary V. Holcomb Dickerson of McKinney caught his Cotton Bowl show in Dallas. “He wore a shiny green suit and looked amazing,” she says. “At one point he came down on the field with a mic and stand and rolled around on the grass, singing. We had never seen anything like it.”
The world’s first official Elvis Presley Fan Club, founded by 17-year-old Dallasite Kay Wheeler in February 1956, had grown to 5,000 members by October. Though the Dallas Morning News published a reader’s letter comparing the Presley performance to “a shoat strangled on buttermilk in an ant bed,” the paper also printed Wheeler’s analysis of Elvis’ appeal: “He just closes his eyes and starts singing and kind of hypnotizes us. We can feel the music and pretty soon we start screaming and fainting. It’s all a very natural reaction.”
Nacogdoches resident Norman Johnson, who grew up in the Upshur County town of Rosewood, inadvertently became the world’s first Elvis impersonator. “When I heard ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ and ‘That’s All Right (Mama)’ on the radio, I couldn’t help copying his style,” says Johnson, who was 14 years old at the time. “Then, on Wednesday, January 26, 1955, my life changed forever. I met Elvis.”
Soon, Johnson was following Presley to venues throughout Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. “I guess I must have opened for him about 35 times,” says Johnson. “Elvis would stand offstage and chuckle as I smiled and sneered the way he did, moved like him, sounded like him. But he was always respectful and polite. Sometimes he’d call me ‘kid’ and sometimes he’d call me ‘sir’ even though I was four or five years younger.”
Elvis electrified stages from the Piney Woods to the High Plains, leaving Texas audiences all shook up and ready to rock.
Despite the older generation’s concerns about the effects of rock-and-roll on Texas’ youth, many parents of Presley’s young devotees became fans themselves. In his 2008 autobiography, The Kid and the King, Johnson writes that his mother, Monta Mae Johnson, was also an Elvis admirer. When a touring “Louisiana Hayride” show played Gladewater in the spring of 1955, Mrs. Johnson was selected to participate in the on-air contest “Beat the Band,” in which contestants tried to guess the name of the songs performed by the “Hayride” staff band. As the band broke into an instrumental version of “That’s All Right (Mama),” she became flustered and couldn’t name the tune. At the very last second, Elvis appeared at her side and whispered, “That’s all right, Mama Johnson, just cool it,” after which she blurted out the song title and won the contest.
Thirty-five years after Elvis’ death, recordings, books, websites, and other projects continue to examine minute details of his extraordinary life. The cultural archeology of Elvis’ Texas journeys continues to be unearthed. In 2008, an online auction of the stool Presley once used at Hillsboro’s Andrews Cafe likely fetched a handsome sum. To many Texans, though, a relic of the King remains more precious than silver and gold.
“I still have the first-ever autographed 8-by-10 glossy of Elvis, Scotty, and Bill,” says Norman Johnson, whose long career in East Texas radio and TV was preceded by a decade as a Methodist minister. “I have received some nice offers for the photo, but I’d shoot pool with the devil before I’d part with it.”
From the December 2012 issue.
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