Book Review

Excavating King Tex


Elvis in Texas: The Undiscovered King, 1954—1958

“If you don’t believe I’m leaving, you can count the days I’m gone.”

It’s been almost 50 years since Elvis Presley sang that musical threat on “Milkcow Blues Boogie,” one of his early sides for Sam Phillips’ Memphis-based Sun Records label, and 25 years since he went away for good. This summer, the culture industries will mark the silver anniversary of the King of Rock-and-Roll’s death by flooding the marketplace with everything from never-before-heard recordings to a furniture line that, in some vague way, is supposed to evoke the feel of the 1950s Elvis hysteria (a collection entitled That’s All Rattan, Mama, perhaps?).

A casualty of the rush to cash in on the King will likely be any serious consideration of the man as perhaps the most vital cultural force of the last half of the twentieth century, what John Lennon meant when he remarked that “Before there was Elvis, there was nothing.”

If Elvis’s legacy has been obscured, he has mostly himself to blame. Long before the final curtain, he had become rock-and-roll’s version of Norma Desmond, a recluse trapped in a narcissistic haze of jumpsuits, amphetamines, and musical schlock. He made a show of squandering his talent, as if to demonstrate how truly limitless it was. (Who else but Elvis, after all, could have given away so much and still been capable of as rippin’ and self-assured a vocal as the one he delivers on his 1973 cover of Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land?”) He wrote strange, confused letters to Richard Nixon about becoming a federal law enforcement agent, shot up television sets, and feasted on a diet comprised almost exclusively of southern fried fat.

Let’s face it. Our hero was, by the end, one weird dude. Too weird, and too big in his celebrity and his significance, for most of us to fully comprehend. Or to regard as anything other than a symbol (of American success, excess, innocence… fill in the blank).

Lori Torrance’s book, written with Stanley Oberst, Elvis in Texas: The Undiscovered King 1954—1958, in part, looks to reverse all that, shrinking Elvis down to size if only to get a better look at him. Relying on anecdotal accounts and culling the scrapbooks of local fans for rare snapshots, Torrance re-creates the early day-to-day travels through Texas of the King-in-waiting: concerts staged in high school gymnasiums, baseball fields, smoky dives, and civic halls in towns like Houston, Austin, Lubbock, Joinerville, and DeKalb. “Long before he dreamed of pink Cadillacs and paparazzi,” the author explains in her introduction, “a musical wannabe named Elvis Presley and his two faithful sidekicks tore up Texas highways, perpetually late for their next high school hop, car dealership opening, or Lions Club fundraiser.”

Elvis and his two “sidekicks”–guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black–did indeed spend a good deal of time in Texas, playing more than 120 dates throughout the state between late 1954 and late 1956, most of them before the singer broke big. These, then, are primarily stories of the road: backstage and backseat glimpses of a young man getting his first real taste of independence, acclaim, and notoriety.

There are tales of Elvis the saint and Elvis the sinner, stories of his soon-to-be-famous generosity (wiring money home to his folks after a gig in Gladewater; offering a concert promoter a free appearance after a particularly paltry turn-out at a Gainesville show) and his roving pelvis (getting into a scuffle with a truck driver in Longview after trying to make the man’s wife in a parked car between musical sets; another tryst outside the ballpark in Gonzales). But mostly there is the story of Elvis becoming, well, ELVIS: playing to increasingly appreciative crowds, gaining momentum, and, eventually, like a pop culture Texas twister, leveling everything that had come before.

This is not so much an undiscovered Elvis, of course, as it is a rediscovered one–the historical (small ‘h’) figure behind the myth. In Elvis in Texas, Torrance does a nice job of fixing her subject in time and place, reminding us how unlikely it was for any other region of the country to have produced Elvis Presley.

The argument is implicit in Torrance’s project: Where would Elvis (and, for that matter, his particular kind of rock-and-roll) have come from if not honkytonks and roadhouses like the Reo Palm Isle Club in Longview, the Skyline Club in Austin, and the M-B Corral in Wichita Falls?

Where, indeed.

Reading Elvis in Texas, one appreciates how simultaneously small and vast the South was in the mid-1950s. Small, in that prior to the expansion of the Sun Belt, it was still primarily a region of one-stop towns, mid-size cities, and local networks; vast, in that culturally speaking, it figured so prominently in the American imagination. Not just in music, but in literature; remember that the 1950s was the decade in which Tennessee Williams flourished and William Faulkner was finally admitted into the canon of American writers. Texas, and the South, no less than Elvis, went national in the ’50s.

At a time when our pop music sensations appear to spring fully formed from the womb, as child television actors or Mouseketeers, offering us little more than black-box music that is not so much created as manufactured, Torrance reminds us that Elvis Presley and the musical traditions he fused together actually came from somewhere, were organic to places like Tupelo, Mississippi; Memphis, Tennessee; and, yes, Texas. (Not that Torrance herself is much interested in the music; her forays into the area amount to little more than inconvenient detours from the road.)

If the strength of the book lies in its authors’ ability to evoke a sense of Texas and the almost famous Elvis of the 1950s, it is also true that, as with most road trips, tedium begins to set in after a while. How many times can one visit Paris, Texas? Torrance goes there at least once too often, relating nothing more interesting about Elvis’s October 4, 1955 appearance at the local Boys Club than the fact that, at evening’s end, “Elvis and Bill [Black] jumped into the car and sped off into the night to Moseleys, a beer joint on the other side of the Red River. Ironically enough, Elvis liked to visit these places even though he didn’t drink.”

Torrance’s prose–informal, even chatty–at times approximates a kind of Elvis-ese (an unintentional spoof of the King’s English?) which, like some of the more uneventful stops along the way, can wear on the reader. On the power wielded by radio DJs in the ’50s: “In short, they could make ya’, take ya’, or break ya’.” Likewise, the Mint Club in Gladewater was a “claustrophobo-joint.” A little too cute, perhaps, for cover-to-cover consumption.

Elvis in Texas does not attempt to compete with the more serious cultural commentary and biographical work on Elvis–see Peter Guralnick’s definitive two-volume biography, Dave Marsh’s excellent Elvis, or Greil Marcus’s seminal Mystery Train–nor is it even the most complete look at Elvis’s career as a live performer (for that, check out Robert Gordon’s The King on the Road: Elvis Live on Tour 1954 to 1977). If a little too friendly and eager to please, the nostalgic volume nevertheless does deliver what it promises: a glimpse at a star that would eventually outshine all others, in full ascension, appropriately enough, in the sky over the Lone Star State. Given how much Elvis meant to us–and how much we miss him–that’s all right, too, Mama.

Gaspar González remembers buying his first Elvis album in a Little Havana record store when he was eight years old. Everything after that has been a blur.

The Texas Observer, October 24, 1956

Texas Youth, Part of It, Goes on a Tear

By Ronnie Dugger

He goes out into the mob. A roar rises from them; a scream so concerted, so terrifying, that you stand agape, as though anesthetized, overpowered by sound alone. Flash bulbs flash. He reaches for the mike and starts to sing. He stretches out his arms and hangs his body from his shoulders, grinds, and bumps and shivers, and all you can hear is the screams…

A girl who has got backstage stands tense the stage lights at the side, her eyes fastened on his hips.

“To be so lonely ’til I die…”

“Ladies and gentlemen, here’s a song that’s real hot…”

And he is drowned again, no words come through, he leans the mike to the platform, courts it, grips it like a girl’s neck, he parts with it and sails across the stage, jittering forward on the balls of his feet, walking not at all, all his body in an orgiastic jittering frenzy…

“Love me, I’ll be yours ’til the end of time…”

“Oh God!” “Aaah!” A girl on a chair wrings her neck, bends over double, cries, “That’s cry music!” She doubles again…

“I got a woman!” and then his body only, no words, only the body in a passion on demand.

He jellies away from the mike, his hands in his belt, grabs his guitar, strums it with his hips, drops to his knees, his wrists snapping like an epileptic’s…

“You know,” he grabs the mike with his fist, “You can do anything you want to…” “I’ll do it any way you want to, Elvis!” a girl shouts back. A cop runs up onto the corner of the stage, cuts under the stoplight for a second, girls scampering in front of the cars, girls in a frenzy, screaming for him, struggling in the cops’ arms, fighting and crying…

He ends his song and bolts offstage and into a waiting car that whips out of the coliseum. The girls break across the rope barrier and jam the cops up against the lipstick-marked cars. “Can’t we go to him?” asks one. “He’s already on the New York plane, honey,” a cop says. “Ohhh, God!”

On a convertible in lipstick, “Jo Ann, I Love Elvis,” “Phil, with love.” “Cynthia, with love.” “Jean Wills, PE-55946, San Antonio.”