The year was 1956. My mother, me and my three sisters, had recently arrived in Memphis. We came down from Detroit where we four were born. She was leaving my father, or so she thought but as in Little Bo Peep, he showed up soon, wagging his tail behind him.
We were thrust into a segregated town where blacks lived on one side and whites on the other. The one thing that we had in common? Elvis Presley reigned supreme. We all rocked to his You Ain’t Nothing but A Hound Dog or Get Off of my Blue Suede Shoes. Women of both colors swooned when he sang Are You Lonesome Tonight? Love Me Tender or Falling in Love with You. Or many cried with him as he sang Crying in the Chapel, to name a few.
On our side of town, we soon learned to enjoy events such as The Cotton Carnival or going to colored theatres like The Old Daisy or The New Daisy. We even advanced to the integrated show called The Malco (now The Orpheum). Children of color climbed the fire escape in the rear, entered the back and sat in the balcony. Whites sat on the lower level and kids being kids, sometimes dropped popcorn on their heads from up above. There, I remember seeing the movies Tamango and The Defiant Ones with Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis.
We had the radio stations, WLKO and WDIA with deejay Rufus Thomas. His daughter, Carla Thomas, had her one hit, Gee Whiz! But despite that, it was a well-known fact that Elvis was the one who put Memphis on the map in the mid-50’s. It was like the painting on the wall. It is there as a huge backdrop. We knew he had a mansion on the then, Bellevue, (later renamed Presley Boulevard) but we did not see it from our side of town.
Then, fast forward. We left Memphis in 1963 and moved on to Chicago. I did not think of Elvis that much anymore though I always liked his slower songs. His gospels, which few people know, are quite spirited as well. And, then as fate would dictate, I returned to the South in 1977. When he passed in August of 1977, I was in Mississippi, his birth state, attending grad school. It was a stunner and one of those events where you remember where you were when you received the news.
But was it over? Not really. I returned to Memphis in 1980 and stayed for another 10 years as an adult. Again, though he was no longer with us on this earthly plane, his spirit remained and remains. Every August, around his death date, the radios played his music for days. If I remember correctly, Colonel Parker was still around and wielding his power.
Then, I got a job as a bookseller at Waldenbooks in the early 80’s. It was in Southland Mall, and I had to drive by Graceland every day. There were always world tourists on both sides of the highway, and I just knew to slow down until I passed that crowded location. I could easily see the Lisa Marie, his airplane, parked across the street from the white-gated Graceland.
And, yes, though Memphis was much less segregated, going to Graceland was just not a black thing, for many reasons. Yet, Elvis impacted us all in so many ways. I think about some of the clothes my Memphis cousins have worn, which reflect Elvis. His hair styles, his choice of clothing, his highly ornate belts and so much of him are still so Memphis, though some may not admit it.
In the 80’s, the famous Beale Street was still and is still a Memphis hot spot. We often left work at a nearby college to order the fried chitterlings. Or on weekends, we went down to Blues Alley or W.C. Handy Park. All those places are still just as crowded today as it was portrayed in the new Elvis movie, which inspired this writing.
There are so many stories for those who grew up there in the shadow of Elvis’ greatness. I still watch his movies when they come on and I certainly enjoy his music whenever I hear it being played. I lot of people say he staged his death to get out of the abusive concert bookings. For years in the early 80’s, there were multiple Elvis sightings. Often, people would say they saw him up around the Michigan area. This was a regular conversation in Memphis back then, but that is the stuff of legends. They are always surrounded by rumors, myths, suppositions and wonderings.
I was the last one to leave the theatre when I went to see the new Elvis movie the other day. I like to read the credits for lots of reasons. But at the end, they showed the real Elvis, though both Austin Butler (Elvis) and Tom Hanks (Colonel Parker) were quite superb. When Elvis sang his last song with his eyes wide open, I was mesmerized. I lingered so long because it was like saying goodbye all over again. Rest in peace EP.
July 1, 2022