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Jon Burrows Wouldn't Smell as Sweet
"Dear Mr. President. First I would like to introduce myself. I'm Elvis Presley . . ."
letter to Richard Nixon (1970)
Elvis himself complained in 1974, "My little daughter goes around and says, 'Elvis, whatcha you gonna to do?' Swear to God, six years old: 'Elvis!' I say, 'Honey, I'm your daddy, don't call me--' 'Okay, Elvis.' "
Lisa Marie wouldn't have been able to articulate it at such a tender age, but she instinctively knew what all girls know: there's something irresistible about her father's given name. Who would want to say "Daddy" when they can say "Elvis"?
I Love Elvis. I Hate Elvis. Elvis Is Back. Elvis Now. Elvis Today. This Is Elvis. Elvis Lives. Elvis.com. Elvis! Elvis! Elvis!
The name is magical. Put it on a record, and it will sell. Put it on a movie, no matter how bad, and people will want to see it. On lipstick. On poodle skirts. On dog tags. In big red letters on a television soundstage. In foreign languages for a worldwide satellite broadcast.
Twenty-five years after Elvis's death, it's on things he never even heard of: compact discs, DVDs, and Internet sites. It's even in Microsoft Word's spell check.
Would the whole Elvis thing have happened if his name had been Jon Burrows?
No, the best thing we can say about the name Jon Burrows is it's nondescript. That's why Elvis used it as a pseudonym when traveling. A "Jon Burrows" registered in room 505 at the Washington Hotel? No one looks twice. Except when Mr. Burrows arrives wearing an enormous gold belt, purple suit, and cape.
For his name we have to thank Rosella Presley, Elvis's great-grandmother.
An unmarried Mississippi sharecropper, Miss Presley had no choice but to give son Jessie her own last name, thus keeping the Presley line going. When Jessie Presley was seventeen, he married the statuesque twenty-five-year-old Minnie Mae Hood. Their son Vernon also married at age seventeen. His bride was twenty-one-year-old Gladys Love Smith. They lied about their ages on the marriage license to make Vernon older and Gladys younger.
On January 8, 1935, in an East Tupelo two-room house built by Vernon, Gladys gave birth to twins. The first baby was delivered stillborn but nevertheless named after Vernon's father. Thirty-five minutes later, the second son was born. This child was given his father's middle name: Elvis.
Before he became famous, the unusual name was often mangled. In a school talent show, it's Prestley. In early concert ads, Ellis and Alvis. In Billboard, Pressley.
Yet Elvis's middle name, Aron, has turned out to be the most problematic. When asked during an army press conference what his middle initial stood for, Pvt. Presley said, "Aron." Aron is on his high school diploma, RCA record contract, and marriage license.
Vernon chose to spell it "Aaron" on his son's grave. The "Elvis Is Alive" brigade cite this as proof that he isn't buried there.
The more traditional and biblical version is what Elvis himself was using at the time of his death. Why? Because he wanted to. He was doing so many crazy things in the 1970s that this late-in-life name change barely registers on the "bizarre" scale.
Regarding the great "Aron" controversy, smart girls sidestep the issue by adopting the "credit card compromise": Elvis A. Presley. If it's good enough for American Express, it's good enough for us!
June 1933--Gladys (age nineteen) and Vernon (age twenty-two) marry.
January 8, 1935--Twins Jesse Garon and Elvis Aron Presley are born.
January 1971--"Aaron" is used on the Jaycees program honoring Elvis as one of America's Ten Outstanding Young Men.
February 1976--Spells his middle name "Aaron" on a police department form he fills out by hand.
The Little Prince
Q: Did you have a happy time when you were a kid?
EP: All my life I've always had a pretty nice time. We never had any money or nothing but I always managed to--I mean, we never had any luxuries, but we always--we never were hungry, you know. (1956)
If money hadn't been an issue for the family, Elvis probably would have grown up to marry at age seventeen like his father and grandfather had before him. At twenty-one, instead of having a parade heralding his homecoming appearance at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show, he probably would have been in his own little Tupelo two-room house, watching his wife change the next generation's diapers.
It took two women to break that cycle. The first is Gladys Presley.
"M" Is for the Million Things She Gave Me
Elvis's mother made countless sacrifices so her son would never have to settle. She thought the world of Elvis, giving him the confidence to be his own person and follow his own interests. Without planning it, she raised him to be the King of Rock and Roll.
For his eleventh birthday, Gladys bought her son his first guitar--even though what Elvis really wanted was a bicycle.
The bike was more than the Presleys could afford. Right beside it in the store's window was a more reasonably priced guitar. "Son, wouldn't you rather have the guitar?" Gladys asked her son. "It would help with your singing, and everyone does enjoy hearing you sing."
Although she did buy him that first guitar, Gladys did not push her son to be a performer. In fact, his career bothered her greatly. She didn't like the traveling, worrying he might have a wreck on the highway or die in a plane crash. True, she was excessively neurotic when it came to Elvis's safety.
But talk to the mothers of Carl Perkins (seriously injured in a 1956 car accident) or Buddy Holly--these fears were completely legitimate.
An Inauspicious Debut
Elvis's first promoter was Mrs. Oleta Grimes, his fifth-grade teacher. Mrs. Grimes thought so highly of his singing at school that she convinced the principal to enter Elvis in the children's talent contest at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show. Yes, it's the same fair Elvis would later triumphantly headline at age twenty-one.
Elvis sang "Old Shep," a song he would later record on his second album. And? "I won fifth prize," Elvis recalled with a laugh.
Secret Marriage Revealed!
Wouldn't Priscilla be surprised to know she isn't the only Mrs. Elvis Presley? Nor was she the first.
That honor goes to a Tupelo lass, Magdalene Morgan, who also attended the First Assembly of God Church.
In 1948, at the age of thirteen, Elvis made a marriage license for himself and "Magdline." To make it real, he used his parents' marriage license, writing in the blank lines.
Apparently, the Presleys left town before he had a chance to show this document to his "wife." "It was just a very sweet relationship," she clarified years later. "At that time, if you just held hands, it was very serious. And we did hold hands a lot."
Where was Vernon in all this?
The senior Presley gave his son many things, including his genes and mannerisms. "Elvis looked a lot like Dad in those days," his mother reminisced while looking at photos of teen-age Elvis.
Perhaps the best thing Vernon gave his son was Memphis. The family moved there in 1948. For a teenager with interest in music and movies, Memphis must have seemed like an all-you-can-eat buffet: Beale Street, nightclubs, movie theaters, radio stations, record shops, high-fashion clothing stores, and the Memphis Recording Service (a.k.a. Sun Records).
The only limitation was money. Throughout his high school years, Elvis took on after-school and summer jobs to help support his financially shaky family.
On an employment application form, the female interviewer made the following notation about the high school student: "Rather flashily dressed--'playboy' type denied by the fact he has worked hard past summers. Wants a job dealing with people."
Although the family needed the income from his after-school jobs, Gladys made him quit when it affected his schoolwork.
Prom Date Disaster!
Okay, it really wasn't such a disaster. True, he wore a dark suit when white jackets were the norm.
But the biggest problem was Elvis didn't know how to dance! He and date Regis Wilson were forced to sit around, talking and drinking sodas instead of making their mark on the dance floor.
For a nightcap, Elvis took Regis out for burgers at a local drive-in (at least he had a car!). Regis being only fourteen, Elvis didn't try for anything more than a few kisses. "He was a good kisser," his prom date recalled.
Elvis knew his prom date, Regis, from the neighborhood. They both lived in the same housing project, Lauderdale Courts. Two other Lauderdale Courts sweethearts were Betty McMahan and Billie Wardlaw. When Billie broke up with him because she wanted to see other boys, Elvis didn't take it well. "Until that night I had never seen a man, or a boy, cry."
Quoted in the Detroit Free Press about his teenage love life, Elvis clarified, "I never was a lady killer in high school. I had my share of dates--but that's all."
The Original Goon Boy
Finished with school, Elvis took a job as a truck driver with an electric company, but he almost didn't get the job due to his unusual appearance. The owner's wife, Gladys Tippler, said, "I remember that when she sent Elvis over to see us, the woman at the State Employment Office told me not to judge by appearances. If she hadn't, he'd never have got further than our door, for with that wild hair and those shaggy sideburns, he looked like the original goon boy."
Negative comments about his unorthodox hairstyle and offbeat clothes didn't faze young Elvis. "It really didn't bother him," his father, Vernon, remembered. "He went on like he was anyway."
The Lansky Look
Elvis first discovered the Lansky Brothers store when he was
a teenage usher at the Loew's Theater near Beale Street. The flashy, high-fashion clothes were popular with many Beale Street entertainers and appealed to a teenager's taste for outrageousness.
Bernard Lansky outfitted Elvis in both his junior-senior prom suit coat (pink and black) and rented graduation tuxedo. "After his early records on the Sun label began making him a local hero, all the kids were swarming down to Lansky's on Beale because they wanted pink and black, just like Elvis wore."
It wasn't just the colors. It was the collars, big and high, sometimes rolled up, sometimes velvet. And the pants, pegged or baggy, trimmed with a ribbon down the outside seam. Half boots of patent leather, often white. "He never wore any middle-of-the-road, run-of-the-mill stuff. It was always something spectacular."
When Presley first began performing decked out in prime Lansky gear, the reviewers felt compelled to report on his clothes as well as his singing. "For his appearance on the Hayride, Elvis wore white shoes with blue soles, a green coat, blue pants, and white shirt, tie and silk scarf," noted the Shreveport Times.
Elvis continued to patronize Lansky's throughout the sixties and seventies. Lansky even provided the white suit Elvis was buried in.
After a lifetime of dressing Elvis, Bernard Lansky can still recall young Elvis's sizes: 42 coat, 32 waist, 15H by 34 shirt, 10H boot. Elvis grew into a 48 coat and 40 waist. Lansky attributed this to years of "good eatin'."
January 1946--Gladys buys Elvis a second-choice gift for his eleventh birthday.
November 1948--The Presleys leave Mississippi for Tennessee.
Fall 1950--Works as a movie usher, begins window shopping at Lansky's.
June 1953--Graduates from Humes High School with a major in shop.
April 1954--Starts driving a truck for Crown Electric.
The Kid with the Sideburns
Q: When you released that first record, did you think you would have such a successful career as you have?
EP: No, I don't think anyone did, did we, Mr. Phillips? (laughs). I don't think so. Nobody had any idea, really. (1961)
One day, shortly after he got out of high school, Elvis called his father into his room to announce he wanted to be an entertainer. This was not like Ricky Nelson telling Ozzie he wanted to sing on the show. This was a kid on track to become an electrician telling his often out-of-work father that he wanted to pursue a pie-in-the-sky dream.
Although Vernon had his doubts ("I never saw a guitar player that was worth a damn," Elvis remembered him saying), he knew his son was acquainted with a few local singers. "Why don't you talk to some of them to see what you got to do to get into it," Vernon counseled.
The Shocking Truth Behind His First Recording Session
How did he go from truck driver to rock and roll star? The publicity machine decided it all started with a record he made for his mother's birthday. At first, Elvis resisted this story the press seemed to want so badly.
When asked point-blank if the record had been a birthday present, Elvis clarified that he made it just to try it, to hear himself sing. Later it became part of Presley lore that Gladys inspired the first visit to Sun.
I Was the First to Record Elvis Presley
Marion Keisker, the girl Friday of Memphis Recording Service/Sun Records, was the first person Elvis dealt with. If there hadn't been a friendly female face to greet him, who knows if the shy teenager would have been brave enough to admit he wanted to make a record.
Marion was so impressed with Elvis that she made an extra taped copy of his session for studio owner Sam Phillips. "I thought, 'Oh, I want Sam to hear this.' Sam's been saying he wanted to find a white man who sounded black, and I felt that was what was happening here. Actually, something more was happening. But that's what I heard, that he sounded black to me."
She continued to promote Presley to Phillips, reminding him about "the kid with the sideburns" when they were discuss-ing potential new singers.
Elvis's unusual facial hair was a big deal back then. Shocking in the way Mohawks were in the early days of punk rock. In interview after interview, he was grilled about "this sideburn business." Young Presley always explained that he just liked them, always had, and grew them as soon as he was old enough.
Just Add Scotty and Bill, Mix Thoroughly, Serve Hot
There was no denying Elvis had a look, along with a good feel for ballad singing and a strong sense of rhythm as he banged away on his guitar. Yet he was a singer with no real experience, no repertoire of material, and no band.
Sam Phillips put Elvis together with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. At the first rehearsal, Scotty's wife, Bobbie, remembers Elvis wearing a white lacy shirt, pink pants with black piping, and white bucks. His hair was "kind of odd for that time." And he had pimples.