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WHEN ELVIS CAME TO TOWN 60 YEARS AGO
February 17, 2016  -  By Lisa O’Donnell Winston-Salem Journal / Elvis Express Radio
Elvis Express Radio News
Sixty years ago Tuesday, a lean and broad-shouldered dreamboat of a man with bedroom eyes and a swirling nest of greasy hair stepped onto the stage of the Carolina Theater in
downtown Winston-Salem. Bedlam ensued, but not just any kind.

This was straight-arrow pubescent girls losing their minds, caterwauling, convulsing and uncorking enough pent-up sexual energy to singe the lace on every pair of bobby socks in
the city. With the detached view of an older man, Journal columnist Roy Thompson surveyed the scene and called it “an orgy of hand-clapping, foot-stamping and tonsil-straining
screaming.”

Janice Love, who was in the thick of the mania, describes the frenzy in less poetic language. “It was,” she said, “like a bunch of wild animals.” In the first months of 1956, Elvis
Presley was blazing a trail through the Southeast, playing a new brand of rollicking music at small but packed gyms and theaters in such places as Burlington, High Point and
Wilson.

Having just turned 21, Elvis was still a regional act, a soft-spoken, deferential country kid with a cornball sense of humor and an undeveloped swagger. And his appearance, though
striking, lacked polish, with unruly hair, not the carefully sculpted pompadour that he would soon sport.

But stardom was tantalizingly close.

Rocketing to No. 1

Within weeks of his three-show gig on Feb. 16 at the Carolina Theater, his new song, “Heartbreak Hotel,” shot to the top of the Billboard charts, Hollywood called him in for a screen
test, and Milton Berle offered him a coveted spot on his popular TV show, all of which catapulted Elvis to a stratospheric and suffocating level of fame, the heights of which few have
reached.

In Winston-Salem and other cities on the North Carolina leg of his tour, a starry-eyed teenager could still approach Elvis at a lunch counter, get an autograph or a photo, or beg for
a kiss.

He complied so many times that writer Jim Poling, who was traveling with Elvis at the time, joked that Elvis’ lips were becoming calloused.

“Only a few weeks ago in Washington, D.C., a girl left his embrace saying, ‘I don’t know what’s happened, but he was kissing a lot better in Winston-Salem,’” Poling wrote in an
article for Pageant magazine that was published in July 1956.

Though Elvis had played a few dates in North Carolina in 1955, the stop in Winston-Salem was his first.

According to a column that Thompson wrote after Elvis’ death in 1977, the date at the Carolina Theater — what is now known as the Stevens Center — was probably the result of a
friendship between U.K. Rice, a showbiz veteran who had managed the Carolina Theater since 1929, and Col. Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager.

Elvis was the headliner on a bill with country and western acts — the Louvin Brothers, the Carter Sisters and Justin Tubb — for shows at 4:30, 7 and 9 p.m.

Tickets were 85 cents for adults and 50 cents for kids.

The media and most adults appeared to pay little mind to Elvis, and when they did speak of him and the fledgling style of music known as rock ’n’ roll, it was with derision.

But the kids in the area? Most were craving something new and exciting, bored by what they heard on the radio.

“The music was pretty bland, pretty syrupy sweet,” said Martha Eller, who was a sophomore at Reynolds High School at the time. “We weren’t hearing a lot of black musicians. Elvis
introduced us to this whole genre and we liked it.”

‘It changed music forever’

At the time, the most-played songs blasting on the airwaves were “Memories are Made of This” by Dean Martin, “Rock and Roll Waltz” by Kay Starr and “16 Tons” by Tennessee
Ernie Ford, hardly the stuff that reflects teenage passion and angst.

Lawrence Davis, a 1956 graduate of Reynolds High School, said Elvis’ sound was distinct.

“It was good music to dance to, good music to listen to. It had a lot of energy,” Davis said. “He had a haunting a voice, different from other singers on the radio. You could pick it
out. It was obvious it was Elvis.”

Holly George-Warren, an acclaimed music writer, said the radio airwaves were mostly segregated in 1956.

“There was a huge divide between radio play on white and black stations, and Elvis broke down that barrier,” said George-Warren, an Asheboro native. “This was a brand-new
thing. There was this raw quality, with just bass, drums and guitar. The songs weren’t drenched in strings, so it was a huge difference, and it changed music forever.”

The turnout for the matinee show was tepid, infuriating Rice, the theater’s manager. His old friend, Parker, had sent him a dud.

But after that show, word spread throughout town that Elvis was tearing down the roof at the Carolina Theater.

Soon, a swarm of girls amassed outside the stage door.

“When the crowd got big enough, one of Col. Parker’s men ‘forgot’ and left the door open,” Thompson wrote. The girls rushed in to grab a seat, setting the stage for bedlam.

“It was absolutely packed,” said Eller, who was at one of the evening shows. “It was one of the high points of my life.”

Saw something special

Backed by the Blue Moon Boys — Scotty Moore on guitar, Bill Black on bass and D.J. Fontana on drums — Elvis took his spot, front and center, oozing sexuality, gyrating and
writhing in ways that many had never seen before.

His songs included “Tutti Frutti,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and “Heartbreak Hotel,” according to local historian Fam Brownlee, who wrote about the show on a blog for the Forsyth
County Library.

Thompson was impressed, writing in the next day’s edition of the Journal: “Mr. Presley must be seen if he is to be believed — and even then he seems somewhat unbelievable. He
slouches; he scratches; he mugs; he bumps and grinds.”

Many of the acts on the bill with Elvis watched from the side of the stage, with one — the notoriously irascible Ira Louvin — enraged at the thunder-stealing upstart.

At some point backstage, he blasted Elvis for playing black music and “tried to strangle him,” according to “Elvis Presley: A Southern Life” by Joel Williamson. Their relationship
never recovered.

After the show, Merry Gordon Jones’ sister, Laidley, hunted down Elvis for an autograph.

“Being the older sister, I said, ‘I want one. Go get me one,’” recalled Jones, a Reynolds student at the time.

Laidley returned backstage and was told by a handler to sit on Elvis’ lap for a photo. She declined, saying, “I’m not sitting on that greaseball’s lap,’” Jones said with a laugh.

The next day, after breakfast at a diner on Marshall and Fourth streets, Elvis flew to New York City for an appearance on CBS’ “Stage Show.”

A week later, Elvis collapsed from exhaustion in Jacksonville, Fla. Elvis checked himself out of the hospital early and performed the next night. The juggernaut would not be stopped.

Time has smudged many of the memories of that midwinter day in 1956, but there is a general sense among the people who were at the Carolina Theater that they had witnessed
something special.

Many remained fans, buying Elvis’ records, singing along to his songs and visiting Graceland, his home in Memphis, Tenn.

Love, who was a student at Walkertown High School at the time and now lives in Kernersville, followed Elvis all over the Southeast, even traveling to Memphis to pay her final
respects when he died in 1977.

“He was just the best-looking thing I had ever seen in my life,” Love said. “We just loved him.”