Six Degrees of Elvis Presley

elvissammyFor the third and final post in my informal and unintended series on Elvis Presley, I was inspired by the documentary Elvis: That’s the Way It Is, which airs on TCM on Tuesday, April 15, at 5:00am (actually Wednesday, but it is listed as Tuesday night on the TCM schedule). Elvis: That’s the Way It Is chronicles Presley’s engagement at the International Hotel in the summer of 1970. The film airing on TCM is the 2001 special edition, a reworked version of the original. A producer named Rick Schmidlin discovered unmarked cans of unused footage for the film in MGM’s storage facilities in an old salt mine in Kansas along with the original 16-track recordings. The tracks were digitally remixed for the special edition, and unseen footage of Elvis in rehearsal and on stage replaced non-concert scenes from the original. For me, one of the most interesting parts of this documentary is the show of celebrities and stars who lined up to see Elvis at the International, including Juliet Prowse, Charo and her husband Xavier Cugat, Dale Robertson, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Cary Grant.

Elvis knew and admired a variety of stars and performers throughout his career. This makes sense considering his success in different arenas of show business (recording; films; live performance and his eclectic personal tastes in entertainment and music. The latter served him well in developing a unique musical style and sound not once but twice—in 1954 and in 1968-1969. Below are just a few photos of Elvis’s show-biz acquaintances, associates, and admirers. You are not likely to find a more diverse circle of celebrities associated with one entertainer.

ELVIS, FARON YOUNG, & MAE BOREN AXTON, COWRITER OF "HEARTBREAK HOTEL"

ELVIS, FARON YOUNG, & MAE BOREN AXTON, COWRITER OF “HEARTBREAK HOTEL”

The year 1956 represented Elvis’s break-through into the mainstream market via his contract with RCA, his controversial television appearances, and his first film, Love Me Tender. Prior to that, he toured regularly with other regional acts on the country-western circuits, including Faron Young and fellow Sun Records star Johnny Cash.

JUNIOR PARKER, ELVIS, & BOBBY BLUE BLAND AT THE GOODWILL REVIEW

JUNIOR PARKER, ELVIS, & BOBBY BLUE BLAND AT THE GOODWILL REVIEW

Much of the South was still segregated during the 1950s, a tricky situation to navigate for a white performer singing rockabilly, rhythm and blues, and country. Not only did African-American fans attend his concerts, but Elvis made personal appearances on black radio. In December of 1956, he made a walk-on appearance to support the WDIA Goodwill Review, a fund-raiser for Memphis’s WDIA, the first black radio station in the South, and one of Elvis’s favorites. Elvis was a fan of Bobby Blue Bland, and the two were photographed together several times in the mid-1950s, including at the Goodwill Review.

ELVIS & JACKIE WILSON

ELVIS & JACKIE WILSON

Elvis more than admired Jackie Wilson and Roy Hamilton; he often emulated Wilson’s singing style while performing “Don’t Be Cruel,” and he sang some of Hamilton’s songs in concert. In the 1960s, he went to see Wilson perform at a club in Hollywood called The Trip and invited him to visit the set of Double Trouble. The photo at left was taken at that time, and Wilson reportedly carried it with him. Tragically, the singer experienced a disabling stroke while onstage in 1975. Elvis offered to pay the hospital bill but ended up sending Wilson’s wife a check instead. In 1969, Elvis made his first major album in years at American Sound Studio. While Elvis recorded during the nights, Roy Hamilton was making an album at American Sound during the daytime. Elvis gave one of his scheduled songs, “Angelica,” to Hamilton to record. Sadly, not one of these three unique singers were destined to live long: Wilson died at 50 in 1984, never recovering from his stroke; Hamilton passed away a few months after his recording session at age 40; and Elvis died in 1977 at 42.

 

ELVIS TALKS SONGS WITH ROY HAMILTON AT AMERICAN SOUND STUDIO IN 1969.

ELVIS TALKS SONGS WITH ROY HAMILTON AT AMERICAN SOUND STUDIO IN 1969.

In the mid-1950s, Elvis was aligned with the young generation of actors taking over Hollywood in the wake of James Dean. For a while, he hung with that crowd while in L.A. and sometimes invited them to Memphis. He dated Natalie Wood and Tuesday Weld, remaining friends with Weld into the 1960s. Weld was barely 18 when she costarred with Elvis in Wild in the Country in 1960, but she was already a Hollywood spitfire, unafraid of living life to the fullest. Nick Adams met Elvis in the mid-1950s and became part of the singer’s inner circle, even going on tour with him to handle some of the driving.

ELVIS & TUESDAY WELD ON THE SET OF 'WILD IN THE COUNTRY'

ELVIS & TUESDAY WELD CLOWN ON THE SET OF ‘WILD IN THE COUNTRY.’

 

ELVIS CLOWNS WITH LOU COSTELLO AND JANE RUSSELL IN VEGAS.

AN UNLIKELY TRIO BUT THAT’S SHOW BIZ. ELVIS, LOU COSTELLO, & JANE RUSSELL IN VEGAS.

During the 1960s, a more mature Elvis became enamored with the bright lights and good times of Las Vegas—long before he became the city’s sell-out performer. While in Vegas, he sought out pop singers such as Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis, and Johnnie Ray, whom he admired for their distinct vocal stylings. Though never best friends, he cultivated professional associations with them.

ELVIS ENJOYED POP SINGERS AS WELL AS R&B AND COUNTRY PERFORMERS. HE ATTENDED JOHNNIE RAY'S GIG IN VEGAS.

ELVIS ENJOYED POP SINGERS AS WELL AS R&B AND COUNTRY PERFORMERS. HE ATTENDED JOHNNIE RAY’S GIG IN VEGAS.

JOHNNY MATHIS VISITS ELVIS ON THE SET.

JOHNNY MATHIS VISITS ELVIS ON THE SET.

JACKIE GLEASON CATCHES UP WITH ELVIS ON THE SET OF 'GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS!'

JACKIE GLEASON CATCHES UP WITH ELVIS ON THE SET OF ‘GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS!’

MAHALIA JACKSON VISITS ELVIS AND COSTAR BARBARA McNAIR ON 'CHANGE OF HABIT."

MAHALIA JACKSON VISITS ELVIS AND COSTAR BARBARA McNAIR ON ‘CHANGE OF HABIT.”

When Elvis became a major movie star during the 1960s, everyone from gospel singers to European royalty dropped by the set to meet him or to hang out. Jackie Gleason, who had hired an unknown Elvis to appear on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s Stage Show back in 1956, thought the unusual singer would not last because he saw Elvis’s style and sound as a gimmick or fad. Presley surprised Gleason by adapting his career to meet the changing times, which the veteran entertainer respected. In the early 1960s, Gleason would occasionally visit  Elvis on the set in Hollywood.

ELVIS BACKSTAGE WITH CARY GRANT AFTER THE 1969 CONCERT

ELVIS BACKSTAGE WITH CARY GRANT AFTER THE  CONCERT

On July 31, 1969, Elvis opened at the International—his first concert appearance in several years. The owner of the International, Kirk Kerkorian, asked his friend Cary Grant to attend the opening to add to the publicity value of the event, but Grant seemed to enjoy himself without prompting from Kerkorian. By the time Elvis was near the end of his first set, Grant was on his feet applauding furiously. The movie star returned the following year for the concert recorded for Elvis: That’s the Way It Is. This time Cary Grant came as an Elvis Presley fan.

11 Responses Six Degrees of Elvis Presley
Posted By robbushblog : April 7, 2014 2:20 pm

It’s great seeing all of these pictures of Elvis with other famous and talented entertainers. Just one thing though: Jackie Wilson’s singing style didn’t influence Elvis’s original recording of Don’t Be Cruel. He saw Jackie with Billy Ward and the Dominoes when he was in Vegas, after he had already recorded it. Jackie sang lead on the tune on stage with Elvis in attendance. Elvis was so enamored with the styling, he adopted it for his later performances.

Posted By Susan Doll : April 7, 2014 6:36 pm

Thanks Rob. I knew that but I did not word my sentence very well. I rewrote that sentence accordingly.

Posted By Paul Kelly : April 7, 2014 7:19 pm

Susan … I didn’t know that he was friends with Bobby Blue Bland – one of my favorites. I did know a little about Junior Parker, and I know that Scotty Moore was influenced a little by Pat Hare, Parker’s guitar player in the Blue Flames.

Posted By Doug : April 7, 2014 10:29 pm

Six degrees of Elvis-I don’t have a lot of inside information like Sue and rob and Paul Kelly-there is so much to learn! Though this is the final Elvis post in this series, I’m sure that he will return to Morlocks soon.
Sue, I appreciate this series, especially this post noting celebrities who were drawn to him just like us common folk.
My six degrees are more on the ‘outside’-in 1984 while living in Branson, Mo I saw a cousin of Elvis doing a tribute show; he looked a bit like Elvis except he was about 5’4″.
When I lived in Vegas the secretary where I worked claimed that her daughter had dated that same cousin-she was a bit of a fibber, though.
Gospel singer Dottie Rambo had a close friendship with Elvis, according to her autobiography. I think he did some of her songs.
Kimberly’s post this week makes me wonder what an Elvis/Doris Day movie would have been like, circa 1961. I’d buy that!

Posted By David : April 8, 2014 12:45 pm

Ok. I love the insight you bring here. I have learned a lot about a man I truly didn’t care for because of the racist things I had heard about the man. Most of the rumors said that something happened while he was serving his country and he came back hating black folks. Does anyone know where this rumor started?

Posted By Susan Doll : April 8, 2014 3:48 pm

Hi David: There are various sources for the rumors about Elvis being a horrible racist, which he was not. There was a rumor started in 1956 that spread through the entertainment press, which was always trying to stereotype him in the worst way as a rural Southerner unworthy of the fame and fortune bestowed upon him. Nothing happened to him in the army–other than the fact that he met Priscilla while in Germany. He did his service with no special considerations, just like other recruits. There are interviews with officers and fellow soldiers that attest to that. The only concession was that he lived off base — like some of the officers — because the army did not want to put up with fans trying to sneak onto base. Some of the racism accusations came from ALbert Goldman, who hated Presley and wrote a hatchet job of a bio in 1980, filled with inaccuracies and lies. His purpose was to destroy Elvis’s star image and popularity. Goldman interviewed a couple of disgruntled members of the Memphis Mafia, who were left out of Elvis’s will. They felt they had been cheated and were eager to paint a dark portrait of him. The bio was built around their baseless accusations and complaints. THere were also rumors that he hated Mexicans and spoke disparagingly about Latinas but those rumors are also unfounded. You can see from his circle of acquaintances and the list of charities he gave to every year as well as his tastes in music and clothing that he did not hate black folks.

Posted By robbushblog : April 8, 2014 4:43 pm

He grew up with a lot of blacks. He grew up in the poor areas of Tupelo and Memphis, where he got to know spend a lot of time playing with poor black kids in the neighborhoods. The Lauderdale Courts, where he lived in Memphis, was basically the projects back then. His musical influences came from many of the black musicians he would sneak off and listen to in both towns. I have never put much stock in the racist accusations, as they have often come from people who accused Elvis of “stealing black people’s music”, like Chuck D of Public Enemy. Even he has come around to see the error of those accusations regarding Elvis though.

Posted By robbushblog : April 8, 2014 4:44 pm

And Albert Goldman was a hack. He also wrote a hatchet job on John Lennon. He was basically Kitty Kelly before Kitty Kelly was Kitty Kelly.

Posted By Doug : April 8, 2014 9:20 pm

Agree or disagree, but I think that you can tell exactly how racist a person IS by seeing how racist they accuse someone else of being.
Here’s the formula: if Goldman accuses Elvis of racism by a magnitude of ten, then Goldman is a racist to the magnitude of ten. Because what he sees in someone else is what is in his heart.
Ten is just a number, just an example.
robbushblog mentioned Chuck D, who I assume to be so blinded by racism that he couldn’t see how Elvis broke down barriers and got the world(!) listening to great music.
My favorite musician is Thelonious Monk who created wonderful music, colorblind music. His skin color doesn’t matter, just his art.
That’s how it is with Elvis. We don’t care who wrote what, who was black, white or whatever-Elvis made the music what it was.

Posted By swac44 : April 10, 2014 11:22 am

And of course Elvis had an integrated band, with The Sweet Inspirations (including Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mom) providing gospel harmonies. In the documentaries, he clearly enjoys their presence and interacting with them, on stage and in rehearsal. Doesn’t sound like the way a racist would act. Those Goldman books are stomach-churning.

I love seeing those pics of Elvis with other performers he admired, from all walks of showbiz. My favourite is probably the one with Liberace, but it’s great to see some here I haven’t seen before. I also enjoy seeing pics of Elvis with my fellow Nova Scotian, Hank Snow, who played an important role in his early career (for better or worse, he reportedly introduced Presley to Col. Tom Parker). According to his biography, Hank was going to co-manage Elvis, but got elbowed out by the Colonel, and Elvis apologized in song years later by recording Snow’s signature hit, I’m Movin’ On.

Posted By James : April 10, 2014 2:44 pm

Elvis also visited Johnny Bragg, lead singer of Sun Records r&b group The Prisonaires, in the Tennessee penitentiary and offered to pay his legal bills (Bragg declined). Not the actions of a racist.

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