My father was a bit of a storyteller and his favorite story to tell was of the time he saw Elvis Presley. Not the second time, on January 18, 1956, at Austin Coliseum, when the King was part of the Hank Snow tour. And not the third time, on April 13, 1956, at Municipal Auditorium in Amarillo, Texas, with Faron Young and Wanda Jackson. No, the show he always came back to was the first time he saw Elvis. It was October 13, 1955, opening for Johnny Cash at Municipal Auditorium in Amarillo, exactly 60 years ago tonight. Dad used to say, “I saw Elvis 3 times. The first time I was 15 feet away. The second time I was 50 feet away. The third time I was about 200 feet away. I didn’t wanna see him again because I might not be in the same building!” He kept coming back to this gig because he said he was close enough to hear the musicians talk to each other between songs and really feel the Elvis experience in a way that millions never would.
Inexplicably, what my father never said was that the show took place on his 23rd birthday. How did that fact elude him? My dad was like me and my brother in that we all have borderline photographic memories. How could you NOT remember seeing Elvis and Johnny Cash on your birthday?!?! Of course, the reason that factoid eluded me was that — for reasons I can’t explain — I never looked up the details of that Elvis/Cash show during my dad’s lifetime. I’m a certified music history nerd. How did it never occur to ME to research that gig so that my dad and I could talk about it? Lost opportunity. I think this an Inception-level venn diagram of human sociology to untangle.
So, on the 60th anniversary of that performance and the 83rd anniversary of my late father’s birth, I want to dedicate this post to him. Let it be known throughout the Americas that my dad saw Elvis before Elvis was a thing. Think about that for a second. On November 21, 1955, Elvis formally signed with RCA, so my dad was seeing Presley in his last days as a Sun artist. On January 27, 1956, only 3 1/2 months removed from that 10/13/55 show, Elvis released “Heartbreak Hotel,” his first of many #1 singles, and the track that turned him into a mainstream superstar. From that point on he was “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and never again anyone’s opening act. But, just a few months prior he was still a regional prodigy. He was the boy who would be king, the Memphis Flash, and for about 18 months the greatest invention of the 20th century.
Elvis Presley on the Louisiana Hayride
August 20, 1955
1:04 – Baby Let’s Play House
3:48 – Maybellene [Chuck Berry]
6:52 – That’s All Right [first false start]
7:09 – That’s All Right [second false start with Scotty on space guitar]
7:33 – That’s All Right [complete]
The mythology of Elvis is so gargantuan, so overwhelming, it’s easy to forget that the original Elvis Presley trio and quartet — though never advertised as such — was a fucking powerhouse. Elvis, Scotty, and Bill (and later, drummer D.J. Fontana) were a driving, swinging rhythm machine, all coiled ferocity, with Scotty’s luminous, “Chet Atkins on trucker speed” guitar figures the perfect complement to Elvis’ dynamic stage presence. This unit was a core building block of rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, country, and the cultural behemoth that was ’60s rock and the primal energy on this Hayride recording is palpable.
Johnny Cash & The Tennessee Two on KWEM Radio
:09 – Intro
1:37 – Wide Open Road
5:57 – One More Ride [instrumental]
7:24 – Belshazzar
10:36 – Luther Played The Boogie [instrumental]
While Elvis has been getting the lion’s share of attention here, let us not forget that my dad also saw Johnny Cash. In fact, it was so early in Johnny’s career he hadn’t yet written “I Walk The Line.” In October 1955, he’d released exactly ONE single, “Hey Porter” b/w “Cry! Cry! Cry!” However, his second single would be released a couple months after my dad’s show and it was a keeper: “Folsom Prison Blues” b/w “So Doggone Lonesome.” I like to think that Jack Davis was one of the first people to hear that Johnny shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. This particular radio show was Johnny’s first public appearance and it shows how fully-formed he and the Tennessee Two were from the get-go. Both Johnny and Elvis commanded so much power at such a young age. What the hell was in the Memphis water supply in the mid-1950s? [Hold on, maybe I don’t wanna know the answer to that question.]