Elvis at Rest

Doc Lawrence

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Elvis at Fox Theatre in AtlantaFox Theatre Archives

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Elvis with The JordanairesHugh Jarrett Collections

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"Elvis at Three," by Rev. Howard FinsterAtlanta High Museum of Art

By Doc Lawrence

Sitting on a porch in rural Pennville, Georgia during a frightening summer thunderstorm, Reverend Howard Finster spoke about Elvis Presley. The visionary preacher and world-renowned folk artist who often spoke in parables said that while Elvis was dead “his soul is not at rest. His mission on earth wasn’t completed.”

After thoroughly enjoying Baz Luhrmann’s biopic musical “Elvis”, memories surfaced about the times I, like so many others, crossed paths with “the King of Rock and Roll.”

We were never friends but I did meet him when I was 12. That was a year after I first saw Elvis perform live in an Atlanta wrestling venue as the opening act for Hank Snow, one of country music’s great songwriters and performers. The new movie, notable for historical accuracy, captures this relationship quite well.

Elvis’ play list would become more familiar as I collected Sun 45 RPM recordings thanks to my mother who worked in the record department of Sears in Atlanta. “That’s All Right Mama,” “Mystery Train,” “Baby, Let’s Play House,” “Milk Cow Boogie Blues,” and other Elvis classics were heard daily in my childhood home.

I was transformed and discovered gifts of natural rhythm and perfect pitch. I bought a $15 dollar Silvertone guitar. With the help of a Mel Bay instruction book, I learned a few chords. My guitar skills were primarily strumming, something I learned by copying Elvis, a virtuoso strummer.

Elvis, still relatively unknown, was booked for several shows at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre in 1956. With cash earned from delivering newspapers, I bought a ticket, took an electric trolley to the theatre and entered the luxurious Georgian Terrace Hotel across from the Fox on Peachtree Street. I was early and knew the hotel was prestigious. I spotted Elvis in the lobby talking with a beautiful young girl. He saw me staring and beckoned me over.

We shook hands, engaged in some small talk: “You going to see my show today?” he said, laughing. He did introduce the gorgeous girl but I forgot her name until years later when I read her obituary and learned she was Carole Joyner, who dated Elvis and co-wrote a mega-hit song, “Young Love.”

The revelation of her fame gained me an audience with Ms. Joyner’s daughter who had a bundle of letters from Elvis to her mother written while he was in Germany after being drafted.

The show was mid-afternoon on the Fox stage. Elvis sang most of the songs I knew and liked, backed by “The Blue Moon Boys,” Scotty Moore on electric guitar and Bill Black on standup bass. No frills, very generic, but cross-cultural and revolutionary. Girls all around me were screaming. My future wife-unknown to me then-was in the audience. She denied ever screaming.

My next Elvis show was at The Paramount, also on Atlanta’s Peachtree Street. This was after network television appearances and big hits recordings like “Heartbreak Hotel.” Elvis hadn’t changed much except expand the song list and add The Jordanaires, a very accomplished gospel quartet, for backup. Many years later, Hugh Jarrett, the quartet’s bass singer would welcome me into his Atlanta home and share his memories of Elvis from Hollywood to Las Vegas, to grueling recording sessions. Jarrett told me that “Don’t Be Cruel” was completed after a day-long 29 takes.

I was off to college with Elvis in my DNA. I had an antique Martin acoustic guitar and a magnificent Fender Stratocaster. I could never be Elvis or for that matter, Bo Diddley or BB King, but I could learn to play music in a band that college kids could dance to.

The movie confirmed that the good-looking singer from Memphis was friends with blues greats like BB King, Big Mama Thornton and Little Richard as well as country music stars. He was spellbound by Black gospel performers Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson. These profound influences found a home in Elvis’ voice and stage presence.

Elvis never claimed to have invented Rock and Roll. Like a man on a mission, he shared it with the world. Sir Paul McCartney was asked by Larry King on CNN who was the primary influence on the music of the Beatles? “Mister Elvis Presley,” he replied.

Next: Graceland, The Louisiana Hayride, Sun Records, RCA Studio B, Lansky’s in Memphis, The International Elvis Conference at Ole Miss, Hugh Jarrett, Rev. Howard Finster, Sermon on Elvis, Gospel Quartets.

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Veteran journalist, editor and publisher (Nationwide News), and published author specializing in food, wine, drinks, visual and performing arts, travel and cultural tourism. Currently writing a screenplay, "Requiem for a Wine Taster."

Stone Mountain, GA
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