Young, Sweet and Oh, So Polite
By Megan McKinney
The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
When Elvis died 40 years ago next Wednesday, it was like the death of John F. Kennedy 14 years earlier; both men had been such a part of American lives that—for those alive today who remember the events—where they were when they heard the news became almost as important as the news itself. In a way, it made each a part of the story.
Where I was when I heard the news of Elvis’ death is of no interest to anyone else—however, it will forever be etched in my mind that I was in our apartment in Philadelphia, sitting on the library floor going through a new (to me) book on the Vienna Secession—a long way from Elvis Presley.
I was never in the same room with JFK, but I was with the early Elvis. I spent one long Elvis afternoon, during which I watched him perform, then conversed with him and, finally, interacted with him as a part of a group. During much of it, I observed a sweet, unsophisticated young man at close hand. He was exactly what I had expected and yet not at all so.
Tupelo, Mississippi may seem exotic to you—and Memphis, Tennessee. But never to me. I had been driven through both at least twice a year throughout my childhood on the way to Pass Christian, Mississippi, and back.
My father, who was born and raised in New Orleans, adored heat and humidity; furthermore, like so many New Orleans natives, his idea of the only place to have a summer home was along the beach at Pass Christian. Therefore, our family—possibly the only family in North America to do so—went south in the summer.
Four days or more a year of drinking Coca-Cola out of the bottle and listening to Hank Williams on the car radio became a special part of my life and gave me deep nostalgia for both. Therefore, Elvis Presley, Sun Records, Sam Phillips, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and all that shocked, horrified and was thoroughly foreign to so much of America seemed perfectly natural to me—just more Coca-Cola out of the bottle and Hank Williams on the car radio.
The Million Dollar Quartet was just the beginning: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, who were thrown together by chance one afternoon at Sam Phillips’ Sun Record Studios in Memphis.
As a writer in the New York bureau of TV Guide magazine, I was invited to attend a rehearsal of one of the several Ed Sullivan Shows on which Elvis appeared during the early years and asked to remain for a press conference, before which I could talk with Elvis and observe him receive his first polio shot.
I entered CBS TV Studio 50 through the 53rd Street stage door, having passed police barricades that barely contained boisterous waves of prenubile hysteria and was met there by Gene Shrott, Mr. Sullivan’s CBS press representative at the time (soon to be succeeded by the more famous Michael David Harris, author of Always on Sunday, the best-selling book about Ed Sullivan and the show).
Gene escorted me down a flight of precarious-looking stairs, through a dark and unfinished basement area beneath the stage, up a rickety ascent and into the north wing. The afternoon rehearsal was in progress when I took my seat, but the theater was black and strangely silent.
Suddenly—shockingly—the stage exploded into red light, dark music and that singular, riveting presence.
My first glimpse of Elvis when the lights went on that afternoon.
I don’t even remember the song, though I think it was “Hound Dog.” What I do remember—vividly–is the power of this young performer, the charisma of the man—the mouth, alternatingly pouting, leering, grinning . . . the sensual, almost feminine modeling of the facial contours and the eyes—those erotic eyes with their kohl-like shadows, promising . . . threatening. And, of course, the notorious pelvic thrusts.
While the experience was not unlike stopping to have the oil checked on the Natchez Trace, it was decidedly more dramatic and startling.
Ed Sullivan in serious pelvic thrust discussion with Elvis during the show’s rehearsal.
After the rehearsal’s end, I joined other members of the press to watch the administering of the polio shot, memorable primarily because at the time Elvis exhibited a wholesome fear of needles.
It was a scary experience for Elvis, but, as always, he managed a smile for the camera.
I was also able to have a close look at his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who was the first grown man I had ever seen wear a sport jacket over a T-shirt, while keeping his hat on indoors and in the presence of women. This was before the Lyndon B. Johnson White House years.
Colonel Parker with a primping Elvis and Ed.
Most of all, I was struck by the genuine sweetness, the exaggerated politeness and remarkable simplicity of this young man. The Tupelo Terror, Elvis the Pelvis, the most famous and scandalous man in the United States at the time, was actually a thoroughly unsophisticated and unspoiled country boy whose Mama had taught him—always—to say “Yes, ma’am” and “No, suh.”
A very bored press rep, Gene Shrott, and an even more bored Ed Sullivan with Elvis.
Somehow, the simple boy at the afternoon’s press conference neutralized the impact of the onstage Elvis, and he retreated to the periphery of my consciousness, along with Jimmy Breslin, Joe Namath and Mary Quant—figures central to their own worlds, but not to mine.
Well into the press conference with more of Gene, Elvis and Ed—plus, a girl writer from TV Guide in the front row .
So when the news burst forth that Elvis had died, I knew August 16, 1977 was an historic occasion and should be treated as such. I acquired a supply of Memorex tape and a ceremonial quart of Jack Daniels. Classic country was then at its zenith in Philadelphia, with several local radio stations featuring it, and I knew there would be a fine musical obituary on one of them.
There was. And I still have the extraordinary document I recorded that night—Elvis’ great early songs interspersed with commentary and snippets from an interview with his father, Vernon Presley, recorded earlier that day. This Wednesday, I will pull the tape out of the drawer and play it again, remembering the Elvis I observed that afternoon in CBS TV Studio 50—the sweet, unsophisticated boy from Tupelo, Mississippi who galvanized the world.
The Ed Sullivan Show Photo Credit:
Press Department, CBS Television Network
Robert F. Carl