He was a momma’s boy.
Born piss poor in the poverty-stricken Deep South (Tupelo). He was also shy and fearful. His twin brother, Jesse Garon, was delivered stillborn. About a half hour later, he made his appearance on the world stage. His name was Elvis Aaron Presley. The date was January 8, 1935.
I, too, was a twin, but my entry into the world wasn’t quite that dramatic. I appeared a few years after Elvis, at the South Baltimore General Hospital, on Light near West Streets. Brother Jim said “hi” first to everyone. Then, after surviving a sharp kick from him to my right shoulder, (which he continues to deny to this day), I was able, slightly bruised, to introduce myself.
It was the middle of “The Great Depression” and my Irish-born mom told the treating physician, Dr. Aaron Sollod, to put his bill “on the ticket.” That wasn’t a problem with the good doctor. He knew that when work picked up on the waterfront for my father, a member of Local 953 of the ILA, his bill would be paid in full.
When Elvis emerged as the “King of Rock & Roll” in the late 50s, I, too, was working on the waterfront as a longshoreman out of ILA Local 829 on Hull Street in South Baltimore’s Locust Point. My prime dance buddies, William “Duke” Brown and George Washington Kelly, also neighbors and fellow longshoremen, like myself, didn’t quite know what to make of the dude with that funny accent and wild gyrations. We wondered: “Is he for real?”
Also in the 50s, Bill Haley & his Comets were then dominating the music scene for the younger set with their popular fast dancing tune, “Rock Around the Clock.” Chuck Berry was in this mix, along with Little Richard, the off-the-wall Jerry Lee Lewis and the rhythm and blues man himself, the incomparable Fats Domino.
In fact, I recall how we Locust Point boyohs went out to hear Fats and Little Richard, performing in a concert on April 5, 1956, at the now-defunct Baltimore Coliseum. These legendary recording artists were then at the top of their game. The arena, also used for sports events, was located at 2201 North Monroe Street.
When we first heard Elvis’ rendition of “That’s All Right (Mama),” everything started to change for us. It was clear a new star was being born, especially for jitterbug aficionados like us. When he came out with with his hip-jarring hit “Jailhouse Rock,” we were sold on the phenomenon that was Elvis. In between, he had released that haunting single, “Heartbreak Hotel.” Elvis followed up that success quickly by releasing his acclaimed recordings of “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Hound Dog,” and “All Shook Up.”
Growing up in the 50s, our favorite jitterbug dancing venue was called the “Advent.” It was located on south Charles Street, near Ostend. It was a church hall, and the younger crowds from both Locust Point and neighborhoods around the “Advent” enjoyed it. The music was played on a juke box. The hall on Friday nights was always packed with high-energy teenagers.
Duke was the best jitterbug dancer of the three of us, Kelly was second and I came in a close third. But, I had my niche: I had mastered the cha cha. I loved to dance it to Paul Anka’s “Diana.”
The best jitterbug dancer out of that ILA Local 829 hall was a gang carrier, Larry “Perch” Holman. He liked to show off his talent around town, particularly in taverns that had a dancing space. One of his fave stops, as well as ours, was Sledge’s Bar in Locust Point.
Getting back to Elvis. In the area of popular rock and roll, blues, country and gospel music, I submit there was no single entertainer – before and since – who embodied so creatively all four of these styles like he did.
This brings me to this question: “Who was Elvis?”
One of his biographers, Bobbie Ann Mason, (“Elvis Presley, a Life”), also a Southerner, said that he had become a “super star like the world had never seen before.” She added: that his “style of music” would dominate the world for the rest of the century.” Elvis helped, she continued, to launch the “youth culture.”
Elvis’ dad, Vernon was a share cropper and had a “strong mellow voice.” His mom, Gladys, who had some Cherokee blood in her, was known as a good “buck” dancer. They were from the wrong side of the tracks in East Tupelo. Life was centered around the church. Mason said that they didn’t “have a pot to piss in.”
Vernon did a stint in prison for forging a check. When Elvis was eleven, Gladys bought him a guitar. (He was angling for a .22 rifle.) When they moved to Memphis, Elvis was thirteen. He loved gospel music and idealized black musicians, such as Muddy Waters, Sleepy John Estes and Arthur Crudup. They were his prime inspirations.
Mason said that because of his background, Elvis ended up “making music that was the voice of the Southern poor – both black and white working class…” She said that they shared a common heritage that “stamped them as outsiders.”
Before stardom arrived, Mason explained Elvis was “self-conscious, awkward, nervous and often mumbled.” One day in the summer of 1954, he went into the office of Sun Records in Memphis to make a record for his mom.
By a quirk of fate, the gal who manage the session, Marion Keisker, liked what she heard. She let her boss, Sam Phillips know about Elvis. This opened the door to his performing “That’s All Right (Mama).”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Elvis’s blazing star burned out in Memphis, TN, on August 16, 1977, at his beloved “Graceland.” He died much too young. He was only forty-two years old. Elvis’ daughter, Lisa Marie, was nine years old at the time of her dad’s tragic passing.
In any event, Elvis’s tremendous, and often brilliant musical legacy, continues to live on in the memory of tens of millions of his grateful admirers around the globe, including me, and many of my boyhood friends from my Locust Point days.
So, I leave you with these words from one of Elvis’ earliest and finest ballads – “Heartbreak Hotel”:
“Well, since my baby left me,
I found a new place to dwell.
It’s down at the end of lonely street
at Heartbreak Hotel.”