In case you don’t recognize the address listed above, it is the first house that Elvis Presley and his family ever owned. Purchased in March of 1956 with profits from his first RCA hit single, “Heartbreak Hotel,” the single story ranch house was situated in one of the city’s all-white, upper middle class suburban neighborhood developments in East Memphis.
Almost immediately after he moved in, fans of Presley (mostly teenage girls, of course) began mobbing the neighborhood and knocking on the front door where Vernon or Gladys met them and sometimes even let them in for a brief audience with their increasingly popular only son.
The Presleys rather quickly erected a fence to keep out these ardent, aggressive fans, but they were a constant, unwelcome presence in front of the house to the rest of his genteel, well-heeled neighbors. So much so that in early 1957 a group of them met with Presley offering to buy his property at a handsome price if he would only move and restore the peace and tranquility of their previously quiet suburb. The story goes that he countered by offering to buy his neighbors’ homes and then told them that he had just purchased another home in Whitehaven which came to be known as Graceland. All told, Elvis, Vernon and Gladys Presley lived at 1034 Audubon Drive a total of thirteen months before relocating to Graceland. And the rest, as they say, is well-recorded history.
That brings us to last Saturday evening, 1/7/12, when my longtime musical partner, Jeff Evans, and I played a Rhodes College alumni party there (er, Audubon Drive, not Graceland, I mean). A few years ago when the property had fallen into a state of disrepair, record exec (and onetime anti-drug crusader in the early 1970s) and also Lieutenant Governor of California in the early 1980s, Mike Curb, outbid Israeli psychic, Uri Geller, on eBay (no, I am not making this up) and purchased the house for a million dollars and then donated it to Rhodes College via the Mike Curb Foundation. Which is how Jeff and I came to be playing there. Actually, my sister, a 1980 Rhodes College graduate, got us the gig (thanks, sis).
The house has been repaired extensively and decorated with period furniture from the fifties. The swimming pool has been filled in and the pool house now functions mostly as a setup room for caterers who serve food and drinks at Rhodes College functions held there. Still, the place reminds me so much more of his ascendance from the poverty of Lauderdale Courts (Elvis lived briefly in a rental house on Lamar Avenue in 1955 next door to Memphis Flyer columnist, Jackson Baker, who recalls Elvis borrowing his family’s telephone to receive his first bookings on national television since the Presleys could not afford a phone at that time) than Graceland does.
In 1956 Elvis Presley really did permanently change the course of popular music and culture in America and the world. A sharecropper’s son from North Mississippi (I share the distinction of both my paternal grandfather and father serving their time in the cotton fields near Oxford dragging a burlap sack behind them) set the world spinning on its axis before…well, we all know how sadly things ended for him on Elvis Presley Boulevard in 1977. But in 1956 he began his transformation from white trash to demi-god on Audubon Drive.
My maternal grandmother was an early fan of Elvis dating from his first appearances on Wink Martindale’s local TV program, Top Ten Dance Party, which aired on WHBQ, Channel 13, Monday-Friday at 5 p.m. and also from listening to his Sun recordings on Dewey Phillips’ Red, Hot & Blue radio show broadcast on WHBQ’s AM radio station (560 on your radio dial). One of her neighbors on humble Marne Street called her a “nigger lover” (sorry, folks, that’s how much of the white population in Memphis spoke of Elvis in the 1950s; he was considered poor white trash from the cotton patch by many Memphians) for her overt championing of Presley and rock and roll. I recall her snapping her fingers spiritedly to any tune by Elvis when it was played on the radio.
My grandmother, Gertrude Nichols, was the original rockin’ granny to me. She dragged me to all of his early movies and often made my mother drive by the house on Audubon Drive where even after Elvis had moved to Graceland female fans were still to be seen gathered outside the gate at 1034 at all hours of the day. Even then it was a shrine of sorts.
And that’s what playing there last weekend felt like to me: making music in something of a sacred place. We played in the music room which featured wall-to-wall, plush cherry red carpeting. I felt humbled and we had a blast playing for the alumni and the ghosts that I imagined might still inhabit the place. My partner, Jeff Evans, has referred to Humes High as the Harvard of rockabilly. If that is the case then 1034 Audubon Drive must be the equivalent of the first White House when it was located in Philadelphia and not Washington, D.C.
Ok, enough overblown comparisons and teary tributes to a great singer who died a parody of himself. Yeah, I am an Elvis fan of the young man he was when he lived there. Any guy who could get Natalie Wood to visit him in Memphis was sure doing something right, that’s all I know.
Ross Johnson has been around the Memphis music scene for over 30 years. He has some opinions.
Ross’ photo: Don Perry