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.”
By the time Presley returned to the Municipal Auditorium on April 19, 1956, two weeks after appearing on “The Milton Berle Show,” there was no question whether the singer knew what he was talking about. Three months earlier, on Jan. 10, 1956, Presley entered the Nashville studios of RCA Records to record his first single for the label, “Heartbreak Hotel.” Released 17 days later, “Heartbreak Hotel” went to No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart and stayed there for 8 weeks, eventually selling over 1 million copies.
Following Presley’s 1958 induction into the U.S. Army, the singer stopped performing concerts until his triumphant Dec. 1968 comeback special on NBC and a successful string of shows in Las Vegas. After his return to live performing, he made it back to Oklahoma City several times, including a Sept. 16, 1970 performance at the State Fair Arena, a July 2, 1973 show at the Myriad (now the Cox Convention Center), and a return visit to the Myriad on July 8, 1975 that sold out in one day.
In his review of the 1975 concert for the Oklahoma Journal, Gary Jack Willis wrote that “Presley pranced and positioned, sang and snarled and filled nearly every heart with joy. In an hour’s worth of Elvis on stage, he sang 20 songs, receiving the biggest hand for his treatment of [Olivia Newton-John’s hit] “Let Me Be There.”
Presley performed in the metro area three more times: a May 29, 1976 show at the Myriad and a two-day stand on March 25 and 26, 1977 at the Lloyd Noble Center in Norman. He played his final show on June 25, 1977 in Indianapolis, Ind.
On Aug. 16, 1977, Presley started his day with a late-night visit to his dentist. He spent the rest of his early morning making plans for a concert the next day in Portland, Me., before going to bed in his master suite at Graceland in Memphis. Later that morning, Presley died of heart failure. His death was announced to the media mid-afternoon, with local television breaking into programming with special reports. A total of 12 concerts were canceled.