Remembering Elvis in East Texas
As people around the world honor “Elvis Week” August 11-19, East Texans are stepping up as well to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death on August 16, 1977. He was 42.
Elvis remains a vital part of the conscience of millions of people for his new sound and moves he brought to the stage. But there was a time when he was just another struggling young musician touring the South with his band, trying to get noticed and his time in East Texas played a big part in his rise to stardom.
In the 1950s, if a musician wanted to get noticed, the place to do it was the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport.
Elvis first played there in 1954 and was signed to a one-year agreement to return. Since they had no money, he and band mates Scotty Moore and Bill Black sought out places to play along the way.
It was then that legendary disc jockey Tom Perryman booked the young singer his first Texas dates.
“I was playing his record,” Perryman says. “I had this promoter I worked with booking a lot of stuff in East Texas off the Hayride, and he asked me if I had a place to put these three boys who were broke, couldn’t get a motel and couldn’t get gas to get back to Memphis.”
Perryman, then running KSIJ in Gladewater, was already an industry veteran and didn’t mind pulling a few favors to help a new artist.
“I called a friend of mine that had a honky-tonk just across the river from Gladewater on the Tyler Highway called The Mint Club. Elvis was unheard of and I didn’t have long to promote it,” Tom says. “But I played ‘That’s All Right Mama’ and its B-side, ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky.’
“The total money — the first money Elvis made in the state of Texas — was $90. And I gave it all to him, ‘cause I knew they were broke,” Tom remembers.
Later that year, Elvis came back and played shows all over Northeast Texas for Perryman. Elvis also performed in Texarkana and high school auditoriums, rodeo arenas, and baseball fields in DeKalb, Gilmer, Hawkins, New Boston, and Paris.
“He stayed a week in Gladewater,” says Tom. “I had Jim Ed and Maxine Brown with him. We worked about 15 dates in 1955, including Tyler at the Mayfair Building.”
Legendary DJ Tom Perryman (left) on stage with the young Elvis Presley and Scotty Moore at the Rio Palm Isle in Longview.
The next time he returned, Elvis was playing to what was then the largest audience in Texas history for an outdoor concert — in excess of 27,000 — at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
Those around him while he was cutting his teeth as a live performer in the Upper East Side of Texas remember Elvis as a warm, friendly young man who was as genuine as they come. His imprint on the region remains.
One group preserving the memories is the Regional Music Heritage Center in Texarkana. Find out more about Elvis’ time around Texarkana on texarkanarmhc.org.
Elvis’ fanatical fans know he stayed in Room 104 at the Res-Mor Motel in Gladewater even though there’s no historical marker commemorating its most famous guest, and although 104 was said to be his favorite room, he stayed in others at the motel as well.
Among Gladewater history in the The Gladewater Museum at 116 West Pacific Avenue is information on Elvis’ visits to the city during his early rise to fame. Much of the information comes from Perryman, including his recollections in narrative form. Copies of Perryman’s book, Keepin’ It Country (written by County Line Magazine’s P.A. Geddie), are at the museum and include accounts of his time with Elvis as well.
No commemoration of Elvis in East Texas would be complete without music.
Rafael and the gang at The Espinoza Music Academy in Mineola are celebrating the life, legacy, and the music of Elvis every single night from August 14 through 19. Each night features live performances with the first night featuring students of the music academy. Night two, August 15, features Dale “The C” Cummings who has performed in Branson and on the legendary Louisiana Hayride. August 16 offers “The Gospel Music of Elvis” performed by Espinoza, Gib Maynard, Buzz Payne, and others. Night four features The Rockabilly Railroad band paying homage to the early Sun Records’ sounds of Memphis, Tennessee. August 18 features world champion Elvis tribute artist James Wages and the final night, August 19, features Elvis tribute artist Gib Maynard and his own live ETX-TCB band. Some of the events are free, some require tickets. Go to rafaelespinozamusic.com/etxelvisweek for more information or call 903.638.8023.
A few weeks before “Elvis Week,” tribute artist Travis Powell takes the stage for “One Night with Elvis” at 7 p.m. July 21 at the Liberty Hall Theater in Tyler. During the concert, Powell performs songs from Elvis’ 1968 comeback TV special and 1970 concert years. Singing classics, wearing the king’s famous costumes, and putting on a smile, Powell said East Texans should be ready for an unforgettable performance.
“Elvis was one of the greatest entertainers ever. Audience members should expect to have fun and go back in time to the ‘70s,” Powell said. “The audience is going to get the closest tribute that I can give to them, one that is worth watching.”
Read more about Elvis’ time in East Texas in the County Line Magazine archives, countylinemagazine.com.