In 1956, Heartbreak Hotel by Elvis Presley was released. That’s also the year I was born. I have heard Elvis music all my life. When I was nine years old, while visiting my grandparents in Jackson, Tennessee, I saw him on the big screen for the first time at the Malco Theater in a movie called “Tickle Me.” That did it. Seeing him in a “Rock and Rollicking Storm,” as the movie poster proclaimed, was enough to make Elvis the person I aspired most to be.
In the 1960s, my family and I lived in Jackson, Mississippi and Elvis churned out several movies each year. I saw all of them many times over. Back then, at the Lamar, Paramount and Capri theaters, you could pay the fifty-five cent admission fee once and sit through as many screenings as you wanted. With each Elvis movie, from the marginal to the magnificent, I became more enamored with the image of the star. Who could beat a life of traveling, singing and always ending up with the prettiest girl in the picture?
But it was September 14, 1970 that absolutely changed my life. We had moved from Jackson to Pascagoula, Mississippi on the Gulf Coast, not far from Mobile, Alabama. To my absolute delight, Elvis was going on tour again for the first time in a decade and Mobile was on the itinerary. Mom got tickets for me and my across-the-street neighbor Monte Childress to go and see the King in concert. Elvis was thin, agile, charming on stage and sang his heart out at the Mobile Municipal Auditorium that night.
I did it his way
1970 was also the year I began teaching myself how to play the guitar, as many of us did in Pascagoula High School. From the ninth grade until I was a senior, I tried to perfect every Elvis nuance, learn every song and even his famous scarf-throwing technique. Other classmates learned songs by contemporary artists of the day – James Taylor, Cat Stevens, John Denver, and Janis Joplin. But I threw in with Elvis, occasionally adding songs by Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond and Kris Kristofferson.
With other good friends who enjoyed music, my first band was born: Les Kerr & The Blue Suede Band. We played talent shows, pep rallies, Junior Civitan meetings and wherever we could get people to listen to us play Heartbreak Hotel, Don’t Be Cruel and Burning Love. Bandmember Garry Downs’ mother made a shirt with a very high collar for me to emulate tall collars on Elvis’ jumpsuits. I still have it. It’s lime-green (it was the 70s) with a subtle floral design. It went well with my scarves.
We really thought we had hit the big time when we appeared on “Pas-Point Spotlight,” a 15-minute TV show broadcast on Saturdays on WLOX TV in Biloxi. Many of our high school
friends watched me curl my lip, grab the microphone and wink at the camera as we sang Can’t Help Falling in Love to the local TV audience.
Good Rockin’ Tonight
I saw Elvis in concert two more times in Mobile in 1973 and 1975. While he gained weight over those years, he never lost the magic he had with an audience or his magnificent voice. The tickets from those concerts are among my most prized possessions, as is one unused ticket for an Elvis Presley concert scheduled for August 28, 1977 in the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, Tennessee. I had bought that ticket while in college at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, not far from Memphis, and it broke my heart and the hearts of many around the world when he died before that show could go on.
In college, I got into bluegrass and the great singer-songwriter boom that was taking place. Then blues, New Orleans music and my own songwriting. However, I don’t think there are any pop, rock or country singers of my generation who were not influenced by Elvis’ performing style in some way, whether they admit it or not.
If I can dream…
I did get to live a dream from my “Elvis years” thirty years later in Nashville. The Jordanaires, the vocal group who sang on so many Elvis records and appeared with him on the Ed Sullivan Show and other historic performances joined me in the recording studio. They were nice enough to sing on four songs of mine for my Christmas on the Coast CD, including the title song, which is about Pascagoula. They more than lived up to my expectations as vocalists and as gentlemen.
Before you’ve “left the building…”
If I could say one thing to Elvis today, it would be something he said himself many times: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Copyright 2011, 2020 Les Kerr
Visit Les Kerr’s web site at www.leskerr.com