Elvis at the Shell: Star-to-be 'quite a flash' in pan in 1954 Memphis debut

Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins swapped autographs on the night of June 1, 1956, as their paths crossed at the Overton Park Shell. Some 5,000 teenagers turned out that night for two hours of rock and roll by various artists including Perkins. Elvis made a surprise appearance at the show.

Photo by Robert Williams / The Commercial Appeal files

Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins swapped autographs on the night of June 1, 1956, as their paths crossed at the Overton Park Shell. Some 5,000 teenagers turned out that night for two hours of rock and roll by various artists including Perkins. Elvis made a surprise appearance at the show.

Country crossover star Slim Whitman was the headliner on July 30, 1954, but he says he could tell a young Elvis was going to be 'the biggest.'

Country crossover star Slim Whitman was the headliner on July 30, 1954, but he says he could tell a young Elvis was going to be "the biggest."

It was July 30, 1954. Elvis Presley was about to take the stage at the Overton Park Shell in his first professional appearance on a public stage. There were 2,000 people in the audience, and the headliner was waiting in the wings.

"I have no idea what he sang," says Slim Whitman, the star of the show that night. "I don't think the girls liked his singing too much, but they loved his wiggle."

Elvis sang "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and "That's All Right," and Whitman, 88, now semi-retired just outside Jacksonville, Fla., says he told his manager about Elvis, who soon was invited with his band to join Whitman as part of the "Louisiana Hayride."

That night, 57 years ago, is cause to celebrate this year as the Overton Park Shell pays tribute to Elvis with a concert linking him to the other biggest rock act on the planet. Pete Best, the original drummer for The Beatles, is the headliner Tuesday with warmup acts billed as the Rock N' Sunabillys with J.M. Van Eaton, Travis Wammack, Sonny Burgess and more.

The music gets under way at 7 p.m. with Best scheduled to perform about 9:30 p.m. with an act called "The Best of the Beatles" with a roster of Beatles hits and several of Best's own songs.

The show's host, deejay George Klein, is another link to Elvis as a close friend and former member of Presley's Memphis Mafia.

Tickets are $15 in advance and available online at levittshell.org, or can be purchased at the door for $20, with proceeds to benefit the Shell's annual free concert series.

That first Elvis performance in 1954 also was recalled by Elvis' guitarist, Scotty Moore, who said he, Elvis and bass player Bill Black were "all scared to death. Elvis, instead of just standing flat-footed and tapping his foot, he was kind of jiggling. With those old loose britches that we wore, you shook your leg and it made it look like all hell was going on under there."

Like many who saw Elvis early in his career, Whitman says he told his band members and others at the performance, "This guy is going to be the biggest." Whitman's band didn't believe it. "They said, 'He's going to be a flash in the pan.' I remember telling them later, 'Quite a flash, wasn't it?'"

Whitman says he and Elvis remained friends until Elvis' death, sharing a tour bus as part of the "Louisiana Hayride" and later exchanging Christmas cards every year. Whitman is a music legend in his own right with major country and pop crossover hits from the 1940s through the 1970s. Among his biggest hits were "Rose Marie" and "Indian Love Call," both of which helped solidify a huge fan base in Europe, especially England. He last toured in 2002 in a tour called "The Last Hurrah."

From the beginning, he says, Elvis was likable. "He was a common guy, just like me."

Whitman, in retrospect, is grateful that Elvis was no better known when he first met him. Soon, he says, "You couldn't follow him. You'd just be asking for it."

For proof of that, country music superstar Webb Pierce would later be scheduled to perform at the Shell with Elvis. His managers made the mistake of letting Elvis go on first. Some blamed it on Pierce's penchant for heavy drinking, but the star refused to go on after Elvis. "I'm not following that," he said.

It was far different than the first time he performed. The poster for the show with Slim Whitman gave Elvis third billing behind Whitman and Billy Walker. Then it misspelled the future King's name as "Ellis Presley."

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Comments » 1

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