Elvis Presley performs with, from left, guitarist Scotty Moore, drummer D.J. Fontana and bassist Bill Black at the Municipal Auditorium (Civic Center Music Hall) on April 19, 1956. (Oklahoma City Times photo).
Three-quarters of a century ago, on Jan. 8, 1935, Gladys Smith Presley gave birth to twins in a two-room tract house in Tupelo, Miss. The first boy, Jesse Garon Presley, was stillborn, but 35 minutes later Elvis Aron Presley entered the world he was destined to change at age 21. That destiny would brush Oklahoma, where he played several concerts in the 1950s and 1970s.
Today’s Internet-enabled, hyper-speed fame makes the relatively meteoric rise of Elvis Presley in the mid-‘50s hard to appreciate, but in the days when radio fame was often confined to regions of the country, Elvis mania was fast and furious. In August 1953, at age 18, Presley stepped into Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn., to record a single, “My Happiness” backed with “That’s Where Your Heartaches Begin.”
According to music historian Peter Guralnick, who published a two-volume biography of Presley, the young singer was asked by the record company’s receptionist, Marion Keisker, to describe his sound.
“I don’t sound like nobody,” he replied.
While his earliest recordings were mostly ballads, the song that convinced Sun Records owner Sam Phillips that he had found what he considered his dream singer — a white man who sounded African-American — was his version of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right.” Within days of recording the song, it was played on a local Memphis radio station and immediately caused a sensation.
Over the next two years, Presley played the south in a touring package called the “Louisiana Hayride,” and word continued to spread. On Oct. 16, 1955, he played a concert at the Municipal Auditorium (now the Civic Center Music Hall), and it was around this time that the singer who was being billed as “The Hillbilly Cat” met 17-year-old country singer and Maud native Wanda Jackson.
“I had never heard of him, and Oklahoma City wasn’t playing his records yet, so I didn’t know anything about him,” Jackson said in a 2006 interview with The Oklahoman’s Gene Triplett.
The two singers went on tour together and began dating. The future “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” convinced the future “Queen of Rockabilly” that she should move beyond the country music she had been performing with Hank Thompson.
“I still wouldn’t have tried it if my daddy hadn’t thought it was a good idea, too,” Jackson recalled. “He said, ‘I think Elvis knows what he’s talkin’ about, about the music. It’s changing, and you’ve got to change with it.’ So that was good advice from both of those men in my life at the time.”
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