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Contents copyright 2021 by Valerie Harms

When I Knew Elvis Presley...Before Fame

In the fall of 1954, I was living in the very small town Stamford, Texas. Elvis was booked at our high school auditorium.When he came on stage, he was accompanied by thin Scotty, guitarist, and jovial Bill, bass player, with whom he played for years. Elvis, dressed in ivory shirt, slacks and shoes, looked like an Adonis, completely different from our popular football players (who were in a state of shock). He was 19 years old.
When Elvis sang, his lips sometimes smiled in a way that was at once shy, bluffing, sexy. He was loose, free, enjoying himself. By this time his first Sun recordings had come out: “That’s All Right, Mama,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” and “Good Rockin’ Tonight.” He also sang “Tutti Fruiti,” “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and of course “Blue Suede Shoes.” I always liked Little Richard’s renditions a lot. But Elvis’ sex appeal (and I must say whiteness) made a whale of difference.
I was totally crazy about him from the start. Screaming and rushing backstage seemed instinctual, not learned behavior. That night I got his autograph on a tiny scrap of paper that I imprinted with a lipsticked kiss and kept a long time.
In the morning my friends and I heard where the guys were eating breakfast, and we rushed over. At the café he invited us to join them. He joked around and talked easily, as friends might but we were much too tightly charged to relax. Afterward, my friend took the leftover crusts from his plate. We watched him drive away and circle the square in his pink Cadillac. (He later said he burned up Cadillacs driving so much.)
Thus enflamed, I pressed my ear to a radio on Saturday nights to hear him on the Louisiana Hayride. Although some of his songs had country origins, they were not really his style. His scene as a kid had been church with blacks and Beale Street. His choice of music and dress came from those places. He maintained he sang what he liked though. Once Sun Records began issuing his songs, he kept traveling around the South, appearing where he could. Those more hip than I must have heard his singing on a number of radio stations. The influential role of DJ’s is enormous.
When “Baby, Let’s Play House” (his final Sun record) came out, females across the country took it as a personal invitation. As Elvis toured Texas that year, we went too and he always invited us backstage. He liked to jam with others. His body seemed to vibrate with nervous energy, which I believe made him so rhythmical. On a few occasions he playfully kissed my lips, sending chills and thrills through me.
We visited our local disc jockey, who wisely suggested we use our pent-up passion by starting a fan club. I believe this was the first one. We had membership cards printed. Elvis signed them and gave us glossy photos to give to members. (See the photo at www.elvispresley-thebook.com.) The funny thing was that women sent me letters telling me their measurements, which they wanted me to pass on to Elvis. I can only infer what happened after Elvis became nationally famous.
After Elvis performed on the Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan TV shows, we didn’t get backstage with him anymore. Already after his shows, fans would stampede him. It was scary to watch. His performances were held at huge venues. He soon became world-famous and inaccessible.
When Elvis died, I enjoyed getting out my memorabilia, listening to his records repeatedly again, and writing a book, Tryin’ To Get To You, The Story of Elvis Presley. Originally published in 1979 by Atheneum Publishers, it was recently brought back in print by the Authors Guild. In the cover photo that’s Faron Young with the guitar and me standing to Elvis’ right.
I believe the tragedy of his life was that he remained so insulated and never matured beyond the high school stage. He did not die of recreational drugs but of overuse of medicinal ones. Strangely enough, he succombed at the same age and suffered the same bloating as his beloved mother. For me he became a muse of full-throated bodily expression. Not as in those insipid movie songs, but in the incomparable far-reaching raunchy blues, rock, and spirituals.
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