Local author documents Elvis Presley’s travels through Texas in new book
By Jeff Walker
Seated comfortably inside 87-year-old Tom Perryman’s East Texas living room, tape recorder in hand, Stanley Oberst listens attentively to the radio icon. The walls in Perryman’s home bear pictures of Jim Reeves, various Grand Ole Opry performers and even a picture of an infamous hip-swiveling rocker and Perryman together. Stanley asks a few questions, and Perryman begins to explain how Elvis first came to Texas.
The story goes like this: It was November 1954, and then-unknown Elvis Presley and his two bandmates had just finished a set with the Louisiana Hayride, when their car broke down in Shreveport, La. When they phoned their boss, Pappy Covington, to relay the news, Covington mentioned that he knew a man named Tom Perryman, then known as “the voice of East Texas,” a station manager at KSIJ radio super station in Gladewater. Tom agreed to put the boys up for the night: He fed them and even booked them that night at a seedy beer joint on the old Tyler Highway called The Mint Club.
“(After their set) Perryman could tell this kid was going somewhere,” Oberst said. “Some girls that night got their first look at him, and just by the way they looked and the way he looked back at them, he (Perryman) knew he had something different.”
The Gladewater show was, most people claim, Elvis Presley’s first Texas gig. And one of many more to come, thanks to Perryman. And just one story dug up by Oberst in his new book, “Elvis Presley Rockin’ Across Texas.”
Oberst, a life-long Elvis fan, says he had been thinking about an Elvis book for a long time. But what could he say about Elvis that hadn’t already been said?
“But nobody had done a book on Elvis in Texas. Since he had played there more than anywhere else, I thought it was a good subject and a different subject that would bring both revolutionary Elvis in 1955 and the bigger-than-life star in the 1970s,” Oberst said.
So in 2000, Stanley started digging, talking to hundreds of people throughout the state, visiting libraries and with old musicians who had played with Elvis. A school teacher at the time, he hit the road on most weekends, spring and summer breaks and even holidays.
His journey through Elvis’ past doesn’t travel through Graceland. It doesn’t showcase jump suits or the shining lights of Vegas. Stanley’s trek goes up and down two lane highways in and out of the Pine Curtain, in old American Legion Halls and high school gyms.
The book includes first hand accounts and Elvis stories, as well as snap shots taken by people who were there. He hunts down people like Shirley Searcy, who had met Elvis at the Louisiana Hayride in 1954. Searcy and her friends followed Elvis up to Hope, Ark. for a show. On the way back down to Texas, Searcy was riding with Elvis in his first pink Cadillac.
“Well, they got so busy talking, that he forgot to take the emergency brake off, so the car started burning out,” Oberst said. “He had to call (bandmates) Scotty and Bill to come pick them up.”
Searcy snapped a shot of Elvis’ burnt out car, which is included in the book. Oberst himself drove down that same highway in one of his many treks retracing Elvis’ tour stops.
“Everywhere I talk about in the book, I was there,” Oberst said. “I’m one of those who has to touch.
Like most Elvis fans — or at least those old enough to witness it — Stanley first came to know Elvis in front of the TV on Oct. 28, 1956. He performed on the Ed Sullivan show and sang “Don’t Be Cruel,” followed by “Love Me Tender.” Stanley was seven.
“My dad worked for the government and at the time were living in Denver, Colo.,” Oberst said. “My parents were younger, and they sat down right there with me in the living room. My mother loved it as much as some of the teenage girls did.”
And Stanley was hooked. He got Elvis’ first album soon after, and hasn’t stopped being a fan since.
“You know, the Beatles were always kind of a threat to me, being such a big Elvis fan,” he said.
Throughout most of his life, Oberst has maintained two main hobbies: Archeology and music. He went on to teach all the social studies in the Plano school district for 25 years, but it was archeology that led him to start his book.
He was traveling through small towns in East Texas doing amateur archeological work, finding mainly old Civil War and Indian artifacts throughout the late 90s. He was digging in the East Texas town of Edgewood when he met an old lady there who was originally from Mississippi. The two got to talking about Elvis. From site to site, town to town, Oberst began to wonder, “I’ll bet Elvis played here.”
“All the sudden the archeology stopped,” Oberst said. “Instead, I’d go to the library and look through old newspaper through the microfiche, I’d go to a senior center and start asking ‘did any of you ever see Elvis play here?’ One thing led to another.”
Oberst began to embrace the thrill of the hunt. RCA Records signed on to publish the book soon afterward, and Stanley began piecing together tour dates through the towns he visited, verifying three or even four times with other people to make sure stories matched up.
He borrowed or bought photos anytime he could get his hands on them.
“Some of those old ladies will be buried with their pictures, but you know, I still got to use them once (in the book) and credit them for the photo,” Oberst said.
His favorite interviews were with musicians he found who had played many of these American Legion Halls or beer joints with Elvis. He could count on their stories being valid, because he could easily find evidence that they were really there.
“One of the most interesting things I found was in talking to a lot of country musicians, many of whom did not necessarily like Elvis Presley’s music, probably because they saw what was happening to their careers,” Oberst said. “Not one person ever had a negative thing to say about Elvis. They’d say ‘I didn’t like his music, but he was one of the nicest most polite and generous people you’ll ever meet... You know, Elvis never forgot where he came from.”
And then Stanley stops talking and sort of smiles. It’s another one of those aspects of Elvis that most don’t know or even consider: That of a poor, 19-year-old kid with holes in his shoes trying to make a buck on the road.
“I want people to get away from the glitzy image of Elvis sold in T-shirts and through every trinket possible, and understand that no matter what musician you listen to today, Elvis is there,” Oberst said. “Texas was good for Elvis, and he was good for Texas. No doubt about it.”