View Full Version : Tracking Elvis across Texas

09-12-2007, 01:41 AM
Tracking Elvis across Texas

At Graceland, fans honor Elvis 30 years after his death

08:21 AM CDT on Thursday, August 16, 2007
By DAVID TARRANT / The Dallas Morning News
[email protected]

You drive about 20 miles north of Tyler, along gently rolling U.S. Highway 271. A few hundred yards over the Gladewater town line, past a liquor store and a fireworks stand, you come to a rock-strewn patch rimmed by pine trees.

And that's where you'll find it: the spot where the Mint Club once stood, where a raw-boned 19-year-old rocker named Elvis Presley played in what many argue was his first concert in Texas.

It's a far cry from Graceland. But for Stanley Oberst, a retired Plano teacher headed to Memphis for today's 30th anniversary of Elvis' death, this is sacred ground. Here, Elvis began his yearlong tour of Texas in late 1954, honing his chops and whipping up a whirlwind that would thrust him to stardom.

Stanley, 60, a lifelong fan, would like to see Elvis' tour in Texas memorialized ? perhaps as the "Hound Dog Highway" or "Pink Cadillac Trail," after the custom-painted car that transported him around Texas. It must have looked like a spaceship speeding past farmers on tractors before landing in Gladewater.

For now, Stanley has written a book, Elvis Presley: Rockin' Across Texas. And as he drives to Memphis to sign copies, he winds through East Texas, pausing at places where Elvis left his mark.

Stanley spent years tracking Elvis' early years, searching out the school gyms, American Legion halls and even baseball fields where he played. He looked for fans in places like Hawkins and Sweetwater. He rummaged through faded snapshots and letters stuffed in old shoeboxes. He spent afternoons listening to women who were teenage girls then, enchanted by the man with the locomotive legs and the smile that curled into a snarl.

Back then, Elvis hadn't become so famous and the crowds so large and wild. He'd meet kids after a show, gobbling down a hamburger in a place like the Green Frog, the diner across from the Mint Club. The rusty sign still stands, though the restaurant is a distant memory.

Today, Stanley imagines the scene inside the Mint Club: Girls going wild, bouncing in skirts and bobby socks; the boys and the bar regulars looking on with curious detachment, not sure what to make of this crazy-looking guy and his music.

After all, this was East Texas in the 1950s ? the Bible belt buckle but also a region booming with oil revenue. Teens, some of them at least, had money to spend on concerts and records. They were curious about this new sound ? rock 'n' roll ? played by kids not much older than they were, like Elvis.

'World of music'

In 1956, Stanley was 9 and living in Denver when he saw Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show. He was hooked. His father was in the military, and Stanley's family moved around a lot. But two hobbies remained constant: archaeology and music ? especially Elvis' music.

"It was Elvis who opened up the world of music to me," Stanley says.

In high school, Stanley sang in a rock band and even cut a record. In time, however, he put aside dreams of stardom to focus on a normal career. On Aug. 16, 1977, after leaving his job at the El Centro College bookstore, he heard Elvis on his car radio. He punched another button and heard more Elvis. "That's when I knew he was gone," he says.

Elvis had died at home. He was just 42.

Stanley taught history for the Plano school district, mostly at Shepton High School, until retiring after 25 years in 2003. Students knew him as a great teacher and a bit of an eccentric, someone who kept his eyes peeled on the ground for loose change.

"It's the hunt," Stanley says. Whether it's coins, arrowheads or LP records, "when you find something that nobody else has found or stand in a place where nobody has been ? that's the fascination."

In 1999, the hunt propelled Stanley to embark on a book about Elvis in Texas. A wiry bundle of nervous energy, amplified by gallons of coffee and an omnipresent Vantage cigarette, Stanley hit the road in his Toyota pickup every weekend, summer break and school holiday. "My wife became a widow," he says.

Radio DJs put the word out that he was looking for early Elvis fans. He plumbed the archives of newspapers and libraries. "It took me years to hunt down people who might have seen him. A lot of it was word of mouth ? one lady, who knew another lady. Sometimes it was a bust, but sometimes it was 'Oooh!' " he says.

At first, he looked for photos ? snapshots, not publicity images. Elvis had posed for hundreds, most showing him hugging girls.

He got to know one such girl, Shirley Searcy, who struck up a friendship with Elvis after seeing him at the Louisiana Hayride, a country venue in Shreveport, and elsewhere in East Texas. One night, she and her girlfriends went to Hope, Ark., to see Elvis perform. Afterward, she was driving around town with Elvis in his pink Cadillac when the car caught fire. Elvis had forgotten to release the parking brake. Shirley took a photo of the burnt car, a copy of which appears in his book.

After five years of research, and a move to the Hill Country with his wife, Cheryl, Stanley somehow found the patience to sit down long enough and produce a 271-page hardcover.

Road to Graceland

Stanley's Elvis tour starts in Waco. It's Friday, and he's driving his wife's Honda minivan. First stop is the Health Camp, a diner near Interstate 35. Stanley, who weighs all of 145 pounds, orders a Superburger with the works.

After Elvis' induction into the Army, he was based at Fort Hood for part of 1958. His friend, Eddie Fadal, a former KRLD DJ, lived in Waco, and Elvis spent free time with the Fadal family. He often came to the Health Camp, which opened in 1949.

Three hours later, Stanley pulls into Tyler and stops by the Mayfair Building. The floors are still the same from when Elvis played there, he says, pointing out the black scuff marks on the stage where Elvis would have danced and sang.

It's also hot ? "Still no air in here," he remarks.

Next stop is to see Fred Powell, "The Record Man," an old friend who runs a hobby-business out of his Tyler home. Fred's garage apartment houses thousands of LPs and 45s. Local artists such as Rudy Gaddis, Bugs Henderson and Johnny Gimble are on prominent display.

"Got anything new?" Stanley asks Fred. "You know me, I like the oddball stuff."

Fred grew up on a nearby farm and saw Elvis' historic first concert at the Louisiana Hayride in October 1954. Fred was 17, and his family went to the Hayride every Saturday night. He doesn't remember much of Elvis, "but I'm a traditional country guy," he explains. He didn't keep his ticket stub, either. "I wish I had," he says.

Elvis played more than a hundred shows in Texas in 1955 alone. In East Texas, the concerts were bunched around Gladewater, Tyler, Longview and nearby towns. In West Texas, they were in more far-flung venues such as Amarillo, Lubbock and Alpine. Elvis' first appearance in Dallas was at the Sportatorium's Big D Jamboree on April 16, 1955.

Elvis might not have gone very far if it hadn't been for the Louisiana Hayride, and Tom Perryman, a DJ and promoter.

"He was a top-notch DJ and promoter," Stanley says. Mr. Perryman booked Elvis, accompanied by a guitarist and bass player, into the Mint Club in Gladewater for Nov. 23, 1954. Before the show, he brought them home, surprising his wife, who looked especially doubtful about Elvis, with his offbeat clothes and long sideburns, Stanley says.

On Saturday, Stanley visits Gladewater, Elvis' base when he toured East Texas ? specifically the Res-Mor Motel on old U.S. Highway 80. Elvis spent a lot of time in the front office, where he would phone his mama.

Stanley spends the rest of the day driving to other Elvis haunts. He eats lunch at the Jewel Cafe on Highway 80 in Hawkins, formerly Petty Cafe, where Elvis sometimes ate. He stops by the old high school gym in Hawkins, where Elvis shot hoops before his concert.

"Elvis saw the basketball team and asked if he could play," he says. The players not only let Elvis join practice, they gave him a team uniform. "These were the happiest times for Elvis. There was no pressure. He'd come out after a show, lean against his car and talk to the kids. He's available. He's one of them."

By 1956, that sort of intimacy was lost: Audiences had become mobs requiring extra security and police control.

Stanley heads off for the airport in Texarkana, to pick up his wife, Cheryl, who has decided to join him. The couple stops at Bryce's Cafeteria, a Texarkana landmark, where Stanley says Elvis probably dined. After another night in a Motel 6, Stanley heads down Interstate 40, caffeinated and geared up for Graceland.

By midafternoon Sunday, he's at Cook Convention Center for the Elvis Expo 2007. The carnival of vendors sells Elvis merchandise, from coffee cups to walking sticks. The place crawls with Elvis impersonators ? known in the business as "tribute artists" ? including a young man from India and elderly man in a wheelchair.

At closing time, Stanley drives over to his favorite barbecue joint, Marlowe's, where a '50s-model, pink Cadillac idles in the parking lot, ready to pick up customers at area hotels. The night wouldn't be complete without a visit to Graceland. The heat and humidity is enough to dampen the most zealous Elvis impersonator. But Stanley and Cheryl wait patiently until 7 p.m., when the grounds open.

Stanley passes rows of floral bouquets sent by fan clubs worldwide. He enters the meditation garden next to the mansion and pauses before Elvis' grave.

Later, there are tears in his eyes. (y):king:(y)

09-12-2007, 03:19 AM
thank you, nolvis! nice read.(y)

hugs, ellie

09-12-2007, 04:14 AM
:DYour very welcome!!!:D(y):king:(y)

Joe Car
09-12-2007, 04:24 AM
Very nice, thank you!

09-12-2007, 04:40 AM
:DYour welcome Joe!:D(y):king:(y)

09-12-2007, 07:35 AM
That is a beautiful article Nolvis, thank you for sharing.


ricardo b. prospero
09-12-2007, 09:22 AM
Nostalgic and it was like going back in time and makes you feel sad and sorry because there is no rewind. How I wish I got the chance to see Elvis raw, basic and candid early performance. Thanks for sharing the article.

" I get lonely in the middle of the cowd "

09-12-2007, 12:46 PM
:DYour welcome Diane and ricardo!!!:D(y):king:(y)

09-24-2007, 01:53 PM
Is this the same book you can buy from EPE - FTD? The pricey one that comes with the cd's?

09-25-2007, 08:55 AM
:DWell Stanley is the writer,so i would assume this is from the FTD book???Unless this is a seperate recollection from him,but more than likely it's from the book which i'd love to get along with the cd's!:D(y):king:(y)