It was 57 years ago almost to this day that Mississippi-born Elvis Presley, freshly signed to RCA Records, made the first of his two appearances at Augusta’s Bell Auditorium on March 20, 1956.
So it seems really appropriate that finalists from Elvis Presley Enterprises’ worldwide Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest will perform on that same hallowed stage at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 27, as part of the Elvis Lives show of the Taylor BMW Broadway in Augusta series.
The show covering different stages of Presley’s career includes a tribute to his movie co-star Ann-Margret.
Tickets are $45, $40 and $35 from the James Brown Arena box office on Seventh Street or at georgialinatix.com or by calling 877-4AUGTIX.
The artists taking part in the touring Elvis Lives production may be unaware that Presley at 21 years old performed on that very same stage in March and then a few months later on June 27.
The two appearances were vastly different.
His first appearance was pretty much a country music show because Presley then was known primarily as a rising rockabilly singer whose early hit singles were on the Memphis, Tenn.-based Sun Records along with fellow Sun artists Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Backing him up instrumentally were the Blue Moon Boys (guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black and drummer D.J. Fontana) with opening acts being Grand Ole Opry comedian Rod Brasfield; Mother Maybelle Carter with her daughters June, Helen and Anita and a Canadian duo billed as Hal & Ginger.
A few years ago, I tracked down Hal Willis at his home in Madison, Tenn., who told me that he and his wife had been discovered by fellow Canadian and Opry star Hank Snow.
Snow introduced them to Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who put them on a tour opening for Presley in Southeastern states shortly after the release of Presley’s first RCA single Heartbreak Hotel.
“He was just a kid then, and I was just 22,” Willis said of Presley. “He treated me and Ginger like brother and sister. He was just starting out in show business and was quite shy.”
Willis would be responsible for writing The Wilburn Brothers’ recording Which One Will It Be and Patsy Cline’s Walkin’ Dream.
One of the people who met Presley backstage at Bell Auditorium was Augusta resident and future rock and roll and country music superstar Brenda Lee. She had been discovered by Opry star Red Foley the previous month at Bell Auditorium and just had been signed to Decca Records. Her parents celebrated her good fortune by taking her to see Presley the next month. It led to their life-long friendship.
“We were just two Southern kids who felt so blessed to be in the position we were in,” Lee said.
“He loved his fans and was very appreciative of their support and their loyalty. He was just a down-to-Earth kind of a guy. I don’t think stardom ever went to his head. I don’t think he ever thought he was above anybody or anything like that. I still think he was as humble as he always was.”
By the time Presley returned to Bell Auditorium on June 27, 1956, he had signed a contract for a series of movies, appeared on coast-to-coast television shows, started consistently topping both the rock and country music charts and selling out auditoriums in the days before massive-seating venues existed.
Bell Auditorium at that time had a seating capacity of about 5,000 – 4,000 in the auditorium and another 1,000 in the Music Hall on the other side of the stage. (The Music Hall section later was torn down for a loading dock.) Yet, The Augusta Chronicle reported that 6,000 screaming fans, public safety officers and curiosity seekers packed the building.
Presley was reported to have sung eight songs: Heartbreak Hotel; Long Tall Sally; I Was the One; Baby Let’s Play House; I Want You, I Need You, I Love You; I’ve Got a Woman; Blue Suede Shoes and (You Ain’t Nothin’ But a) Hound Dog, which he would record a month later.
Many local residents crossed his path during his two visits, including seeing him on Broad Street at the Richmond Hotel, where he stayed, and at Luigi’s Italian restaurant.
Sara Stratacos, who was a hostess for the Belmont restaurant on Broad Street managed by her then-husband, Gregg, said the Belmont in the 1950s was one of the few eating places open 24 hours. She recalled late one night in 1955 that three gold Cadillacs pulled up out front with Presley and his entourage of about six or eight people.
“They were coming from somewhere in Mississippi,” Stratacos said. “There almost was no one else in the restaurant, and he was relaxed and didn’t seem to be in a hurry. He must have stayed about three hours. He wanted a fried banana-and-peanut butter sandwich, and we fried one up for him. He said they were going on a vacation but didn’t have any plans.
“My husband was from Charleston, and we had a friend at Folly Beach who had a restaurant with rooms over them. We sent Elvis that way, and we were later told by our friend, Charley, that Elvis and his group just showed up and stayed a week.”
Many other Augustans would cross Presley’s paths in unusual ways, including soul music superstar James Brown, who was one of Presley’s closest friends.
Brown and Presley reportedly met at a party at the Continental Hyatt in Hollywood, and would go see each other’s concerts. Presley was known to go in disguise so he could sneak into Brown’s shows.
“I wasn’t just a fan, I was his brother,” Brown was quoted as saying. “He said I was good, and I said he was good. We never argued about that. … The last time I saw him was at Graceland. We sang Old Blind Barnabus together, a gospel song. I love him, and hope to see him in heaven. There’ll never be another like that soul brother.”
Brown was one of the celebrities who paid his respects at Graceland after Presley’s death in August of 1977.
Area resident Ginny Wright Josey was a star of the Louisiana Hayride Show in Shreveport when she first started knowing Presley.
“I used to go out on stage ahead of him and while waiting I used to talk to him in the wings. He always wore a pink shirt and black pants and only had two band members with him. He asked me how I could be so calm. He said he knew of my records before he came to the Hayride show.”
One of the strangest Presley-related encounters happened in November 1977, when Augusta truckers Leon L. Widener and Carlos E. Young were dispatched by R.A. Willis Transfer Co. to Elberton, Ga., to pick up a delivery for Memphis.
Near Manchester, Tenn., they were fined $90 by highway patrolmen for being overloaded. When their cargo was unloaded in Memphis, they gasped when they saw it was the bronze marker that fans now pay homage to at Presley’s grave in Graceland.
So with the show Elvis Lives, fans can’t see the real King, but can experience his music.