It was Saturday, October 16, 1954 and Elvis was one of probably 20 singers scheduled to perform that night. The show began, as usual, at 8 p.m. Lucky Strike was one of the show's sponsors and Elvis was brought out as the Lucky Strike amateur contestant shortly after nine. The audience gave him a polite reception, nothing unusual by any means and nothing like the applause many of the others on the show got that night.
Horace usually introduced the main attractions but since Elvis was an unknown, I was asked to do the honors. We often ad-libbed our intros and that night was no exception. If I had known how famous those words would become, I would have put more thought into them. They were printed first in a Look Magazine article; later on in hundreds of books and newspapers. Every radio station in the nation, I suppose, has a cassette of the event and at last count the introduction has been put on 46 bootleg albums from Taiwan to Timbuktu. Elvis was tentative and polite. He didn't wiggle and had not developed his snarl or his put-on stutter.
October 16, 1954
FRANK PAGE: Just a few weeks ago, a young man from Memphis, Tennessee recorded a song on the Sun label and in just a matter of a few weeks, that record has skyrocketed right on up the charts. He's only 19 years old; he has a distinctive style.....
Elvis Presley. Let's give him a nice hand. We've been playing his songs around for weeks. Elvis, how are you this evening?
Elvis: Just fine. How are you, sir?
Frank Page: Are you geared up with your band there...?
Elvis: Geared up.
Frank Page: To let us hear your songs?
Elvis: Well, I'd like to say how happy we are to be out here. It's a real honor for us to get a chance to appear on the Louisiana Hayride show and we're gonna do a song for you. You got anything else to say, sir?
Frank Page: No, I'm ready.
Elvis: We're gonna do a song for you we've got out on Sun Records and it goes something like this.
Elvis sang both sides of his record beginning with "That's All right, Mama". It was a bluesy Beale Street song that got a good response. "Blue Moon of Kentucky" was at least a country song, though Bill Monroe never sang it that way! On the recording of these first performances, you can hear that the engineer working the broadcast had to turn up the volume on the microphone in the audience in order to pick up a reasonable amount of applause. It was not a sensational beginning for the man who, in a matter of just a few more months would be dubbed "The King of Rock and Roll", whose every record would threaten to turn to gold and every album to platinum.
I remember talking to Elvis backstage that night. I was interested in how he was being received wherever he appeared because a decision would have to be made right away whether or not to put him back on the show. He said he had been working a few clubs in the Memphis area and that, frankly, he didn't go over big with an older audience, that it was teenagers who dug what he was doing. I could understand that. He was a good-looking boy, dressed conservatively. Elvis had brooded for several weeks about the rejection he encountered at the Grand Ol' Opry and had just about decided to give up singing when he got this chance to appear on the Hayride. Had we turned him down, he might have given it up. He told me that Jim Denny, who ran the talent office at the Opry, told him he'd better stick to truck driving, that he'd never make it as a singer. I told Elvis not to pay any attention to that kind of advice, to give it a try and make up his own mind without listening to anyone else.
We booked Elvis back on the show and on November 6, 1954 signed him to a year's contract at union scale. Scale was $15.00 per sideman, double scale for the leader. That meant $15.00 each for Scotty and Bill and $30.00 for Elvis. It was evident to all at this time that Elvis had arrived and was where he should be. Soon, the young people began showing up in droves, riding the trolley or dropped off by parents, squealing and eventually swooning when that became "the thing".
About the time Elvis signed on the Hayride, Bob Neal became his manager. Bob was an early morning disc jockey doing a country music show on WMPS in Memphis and, like most jocks in that position, in his spare time he put together small package shows of country artists and did some booking in the area to supplement his income. Bob was one of the few guys in this business who was known for his honesty, his integrity and his total dedication to the man he represented. He handled Elvis intelligently, getting him maximum exposure while the act was perfected. Bob took him at the right speed and got his career on solid ground.
Elvis criss-crossed the South and Southwest playing schoolhouses, church socials, nightclubs, road houses and even the dedication of a building's new central air conditioning system! He was dubbed the "Memphis Flash" and the "King of Western Bop". "Pappy" Covington and Tilman Franks began booking out shows in the coverage area of KWKH. Horace Logan went on some of these excursions taking along other Hayride stars. Elvis didn't always receive top billing but word spread fast that this "Hillbilly Cat" was something to see. Fans had already heard the excitement on the radio and they were waiting for him to show up in their town.
While living in Shreveport, Elvis stayed primarily in hotels. They were called "tourist courts" in those days and the Al-Ida Motel and the Shirley Temple Courts were typical haunts. On Fridays he would often have breakfast with Stan Lewis, owner of a prominent local record shop. Stan wold invariably pick up the check as the Hayride didn't pay big money! Elvis would return the favor by holding autograph parties at Stan's Record Shop, just a few blocks down from KWKH's studios on Texas Street. Elvis kept company with Carolyn Bradshaw, a petite big-eyed brunette who also sang on the Hayride. He would often be found nearby playing the pinball machine at Murrell Stansell's Bantam Grill. Harry's Barbecue was also a familiar hangout. (George Jones and Faron Young were known to have had a few altercations there!) When he had time, he went to the movies at the Strand or the Don Theaters.
By the end of his first year on the Hayride, Elvis was hotter than a two dollar pistol. Back and forth across the Southwest he went, appearing with Mother Maybelle and the Carter sisters and Hayride stars Faron Young, the Wilburn Brothers, Slim Whitman, Jim Ed Brown, Johnny Cash, Ferlin Huskey and others. He learned much from these performers, especially Johnny Cash. They used to sit backstage and watch each other perform, making mental notes of what worked and what didn't and incorporating that into their acts. During this period, Hayride staff drummer D.J. Fontana was added to the Presley ensemble. Elvis signed for another year, this time receiving $200 per week, but super stardom was just around the corner. Only one more thing was needed to take him nationwide, a network television show.
Elvis' contract allowed for him to be off only once every 3 months but his new manager, Colonel Tom Parker, had other plans. Tom had been managing Eddy Arnold at the time and had brought him to stardom. He knew the big time was calling Elvis. Recognizing this fact ourselves, we let Elvis off to be on the Tommy Dorsey Show, the Jackie Gleason Show, and others. The Presley career was now well underway. The Colonel tried many ways to get Elvis out of the remainder of his contract. He even approached KWKH about buying into the Hayride but Henry Clay refused. Who knows what might have happened to the show if that had taken place.
Ultimately, the Hayride knew they couldn't hold this rising star so, in early April of 1956, Elvis was allowed to buy out the remaining six months of his contract for the then unheard of sum of $10,000. Though March 31 had been his last performance, under the terms of the buyout agreement he agreed to do one more show at a later date. The proceeds would go to charity.
Elvis really loved Shreveport and put on one of his best shows ever that winter. It was held in the largest facility in the city, the Youth Building at the State Fair Grounds (now the Hirsch Coliseum). Tickets were $2.00 in advance and $2.50 at the door. The proceeds went to benefit the YMCA Camp just south of Shreveport in Forbing, Louisiana. The money helped build, among other things, a swimming pool where, to this day, the waves move to Elvis' rock 'n' roll rhythm!
The date was December 15, 1956. In addition to being charged with keeping the location of his motel room secret, the police set up a fake Elvis to decoy the avid teenagers away from the real one. Patrolman Robert Catts had the same build and sleepy eyes so, he was outfitted as Elvis and a pink Cadillac was rented from a used car dealer. The pink Caddy took off with police car escort and headed toward the front entrance of the Youth Building. Catts was mobbed while Presley slipped quietly into the back door almost unnoticed.
It had been just over two years since Elvis had first appeared on the stage of the Louisiana Hayride. We thought we had the crowd figured out. We built a fence in front of the stage and put the chairs about 30 feet behind that. There were no reserved seats, it was "first come, first served". The seating capacity of the Youth Building was right at 10,000 and every ticket had been sold. We opened the doors on the multitude of screaming teenagers and watched them run down through the enormous building. Each grabbed a chair and put it as close to the fence as they could, thereby defeating out plan. The eighteen or so policemen could only look on in amazement.
I had been with Elvis every Saturday night he'd performed on the Hayride and knew how audiences had come to react to this young man. I was prepared for something bigger than that, but I wasn't prepared for that evening. When Elvis finally came on stage, thousands of Brownie Reflex cameras went off simultaneously. Many of the photographs taken that night show me off to one side and I look terrified....I was! I had never heard ten thousand teenagers screaming at the top of their lungs before. It was absolutely frightening. The screaming began when Elvis came out on the stage and it never let up for the entire time he performed. Many people told me later that the audience couldn't tell whether he was singing or not, or even if the band was playing... and nobody cared. The King had come home. I had the feeling that something had to happen, either panic or a riot or even that the very walls would crumble. Frankly, I never want to experience anything like that again.
The now legendary phrase "Elvis has left the building" was first uttered by Horace Logan that night, quite by accident. The show had been a regular performance of the Hayride and Elvis was but the third act of about twenty. Once his 45-minute performance was over and the encore complete, the crowds of teenagers made for the exits. In a plea for the acts that would follow. Horace announced to the young people to please return to their seats. He told them Elvis would not be back out but that there was still much left of the regular show. As the crowd's exodus continued unabated, Horace made a final plea. "Please, young people...Elvis has left the building. He has gotten in his car and driven away...Please take your seats..." The show somehow went on.
Norm Bale, Hayride announcer, remembers the 1953 Chevy that Elvis, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black drove to the Hayride on that first night back in October, 1954. They'd borrowed money to eat dinner before the show. From a lowly beginning in Shreveport, Elvis rose to the heights of world popularity. They were meager times in the beginning but success came fast and in overwhelming amounts. His life would never be the same. "Elvis would gladly have gone back to East Tupelo," Bill Dugard believes, "to walk that flat dusty path, kick up the dirt, swim in the creek, and shoot the bean shooter. He loved his childhood and never forgot it."
Elvis came back to Shreveport a couple of times after that memorable '56 performance. He called me on one occasion to urge us to keep the Hayride going and thank us for what we'd done for him. His last appearance in Shreveport was July 1, 1976. On the day he died, I was called by radio and television stations throughout the world to get my reaction...and what do you say? "The King is dead."
The Presley name tops the list of "Hall of Fame" performers that "graduated" from the Hayride stage. Elvis' eighteen-month rein not only changed his life but the course of the Louisiana Hayride forever. There had been stars before him, even super stars - in the movies, in sports, in music - but there had never been one quite like Elvis Presley...and probably never will be. Yes, the King is dead but his spirit lives on.