Elvis Presley's 70th birthday

By LaReeca Rucker

Bob Moulder was the Mississippi bureau chief for The Birmingham News when he met the boy who would someday be king.

In 1956, he was asked to travel to Tupelo to photograph and interview a rising star who had returned for a hometown performance. Moulder captured photos of a young Elvis Presley in a red velvet shirt singing and jirating for a crowd of screaming fans at Tupelo High School and was granted an interview following the show. Moulder was 29 and Elvis was 22. Some may find it hard to believe that Presley would have been 70 today.

“He was going to grant me a few minutes for an interview and he gave me almost an hour,” Moulder said. “One of the things that impressed me was his politeness. Even though I was only seven years older, he called me ‘sir’ the whole time.”

“We talked about his birth in Mississippi and whether or not he still felt close to the state. And we talked about things that were not in the story, things like the music we grew up with — church music, spirituals and country music.”

Moulder took several photographs of Presley’s performance and the Birmingham News published one of a young girl climbing on stage in an attempt to touch her idol.

“As you can tell from the pictures, all the girls were screaming and waving,” he said. “I don’t think he had appeared yet on the Ed Sullivan Show, and that is what made him into ‘The King.’”

Years later, Moulder covered another Elvis concert in Memphis.

“He had one of those gawdy jumpsuits on,” he said. “In Memphis, he was ‘The King,’ and it made me sad, because he was so humble and so nice when I talked to him in Tupelo.”

Ridgeland resident Barbara Alexander, a Memphis native, knew Elvis Presley well.

“I was 15 and he was 19 and had just made his first record 'That’s All Right Mama' and 'Blue Moon Over Kentucky,' she said. “He was driving his old pickup truck and lived on Alabama Street in a very old home.”

Alexander met him through a girl with whom she attended South Side High School.

“She and Elvis were a big item,” Alexander said. “But I saw his picture and thought I must meet him, not knowing he was a singer at that time.”

Presley invited Alexander to his home several times, once for dinner and once to talk.

“He had a very old upright piano and would play tunes for us,” she said, “and his bottom would never hit the seat. He had so much rhythm in his body.”

He also invited Alexander to the Bon Ton Club, where he played in a three-piece band.

“His mom surely did not want him flying,” Alexander said. “She was horrified of him doing that, and he was then, just about to set out to do just that. He started touring and then later came back to Memphis to perform at the Old Chisca Hotel. Wink Martindale and the whole group from Memphis were there, and at this time, Elvis had started making his name.”

Alexander said he saw her in the lobby during intermission and hugged her.

“That impressed me that he remembered me when he had started making it so big and was so pacified at the moment," she said. "Elvis was such a wonderful gentleman in every way, and I have thought so many times about him, walking through a store and hearing his music or seeing a picture of him in a store. He was absolutely a great guy and will always be missed by so many.”

Ridgeland resident C. Nina Jannik had the opportunity to see Elvis in concert when he performed live in Las Vegas in 1970.

“We did not have a reservation and took a chance on tickets,” she said. “As it turned out, we got to sit right up front about 8 to 10 feet from him. They made a point of seating women close to the stage.

“There was lots of screaming. He would wipe his brow with a kerchief and then give them to those outstretched arms. My husband could not believe that I did not get one. Even though he was not what he had once been, he still gave quite a performance.”

Tessie Waltman also attended an Elvis concert in the ’70s in the Astrodome in Houston, Texas, and she was initially appalled by women swooning over Presley’s crooning.

“We were in our ’20s and saying we would never act like that at any concert,” Waltman said. “No one could ever make us look like fools like those women.”

But before the concert was over, Waltman better understood the charismatic effects of Elvis Presley.

“It was the best concert that I have ever attended,” she said. “The man was the ultimate performer. He was drop dead handsome and the first truly “edgy” act that I think got everyone’s attention, especially our parents.”

Betty Keating attended a concert around 1956 where Elvis was the opening act for a Grand Ole Opry show.

“No one in the audience wanted to let him off stage,” she said. “They didn’t seem interested in what the following act was, and when it came on, it certainly didn’t live up to Elvis.”

Madison County resident Jimmie Saucier said she was raised in Fulton 18 miles east of Tupelo and has always been an Elvis fan.

“I have visited his home and museum in Tupelo many times and taken friends to Graceland,” she said. “In fact, my older sister, who lives in Tupelo now, had gotten us backstage passes for a concert in Memphis scheduled two weeks after Elvis died.

“Of course, I was totally devastated when I heard he died and that I wasn’t going to get to go backstage to meet 'The King.' I think I had grandeur thoughts of him taking a liking to a little 21-year-old Southern girl from near his hometown and visions of a bright diamond TCB necklace around my neck, riding in a pink Cadillac.”

Saucier said she kept the newspaper with his reported death and collected a Pepsi dedicated to him as a reminder that she almost got to meet "The King of Rock and Roll."

Ridgeland resident John Almond said his wife, Butch, had an Elvis encounter in the 1970s when the couple lived in Memphis. Butch worked at Fortas Home Furnishings.

“The store was open until 9 p.m. on Wednesday nights,” he said, “and one Wednesday, a man called around 8 p.m. inquiring if any shoppers were in the store, explaining that Elvis wanted to come if the store was not crowded.”

The storeowner told the caller that only two shoppers were there, and the caller said Elvis would arrive shortly.

“The owner told my wife and the other salesman about the call, but they believed it was a hoax,” Almond said. “Well, in about 20 minutes, a limousine pulled up to the door and Elvis emerged with a date and several body guards and hangers-on. He walked through the store looking for accessories for his Jungle Room.

“He bought everything made of brass that he could find by pointing at the object and having one of his retinue pick it up and take it to the checkout counter.”

Almond said Elvis didn’t utter a word. He just shopped and smoked a cigar.

“One of the other shoppers in the store was a lady from North Mississippi who was a regular customer,” he said. “Her taste was very conservative, but she was star-struck by Elvis. She went up to him to ask if he would let her have the cigar when he finished with it.”

Elvis looked quizzically at first, then handed the cigar to the lady, who nearly swooned, Almond said.

“My wife asked her what she planned to do with the partially smoked cigar, and she said she would put it in a shadow box and use it as an accessory in her house.”

Susan McCarty almost met Elvis when she was about 6 years old while visiting relatives in Memphis. On the way home, her family stopped at Graceland.

“My brother and I were looking through the gates when, all of a sudden, they opened,” she said. “A man came out of the guard shack and asked us if we would like to ride around the grounds. He then had the pink jeep that was used in 'Blue Hawaii' brought up to the front and put us in it. It was so exciting, and of course, we kept looking for Elvis, but the guard, who was also his uncle, said he wasn’t home.”

Madison resident Marlo Kirkpatrick has spent time at Graceland.

“I grew up in Memphis, and as a teenager, my first summer job was as a tour guide at Jimmy Velvet’s Elvis Presley Museum,” she said. “This was an old gas station across the street from Graceland converted into a ‘museum’ full of Elvis stuff. The next summer, I graduated to working at Graceland itself, where I learned firsthand why ‘fan’ is short for ‘fanatic.’”

Madison County resident Barbara Pepper was exposed to the music of Elvis Presley through her older sisters, but was never a fan until the latter years.

“I thought he had a dynamite voice, just not my style at the time,” she said. “My daddy would deride Elvis all the time, certain that his shimmying and shaking would be a terrible influence on us.”

Pepper saw Elvis perform at a 1970s tornado benefit concert in Jackson.

“What a silver voice and phenomenal charisma,” she said, “despite his deteriorating appearance and apparent health issues. It’s a concert forever etched in my mind.”

She and her sister later visited Graceland on the one-year anniversary of his death.

“I was amazed by the impact Elvis had, even in death,” she said. “There were fans and ‘Elvises’ everywhere we looked, of all nationalities, ethnic backgrounds, short, fat, tall, skinny, you name it. The Graceland tour gave me an eerie feeling and the massive amount of flowers left by fans touched me in an indescribable way. I’ve not been back since, but the memory of those feelings linger.”

Pepper has an Elvis Mastercard she acquired at Graceland. She has seen a biographical show about him at the Biloxi Grand Casino, and is often among the onlookers at Elvis contests or tributes.

She plans to attend the Silver Star Casino’s Elvis contest and tribute show next weekend, and often catches a performance by Madison County Supervisor Tim Johnson, who's known throughout the area as an Elvis impersonator.

“I, along with millions of other people, have always been an Elvis fan,” Johnson said. “It just kind of started. One time I was up in Memphis with my mother and sister. My sister pointed out Graceland, and I just became interested in Elvis.”

When Johnson was 21, he began driving a truck for Bryan Foods, which allowed him to practice unknowingly for his future routine.

“The company I worked for didn’t believe in air conditioners or radios in the truck, so I would sing Elvis songs all the time,” he said. “There was a nightclub that I used to go to when I was in Starkville, and one night, the lead singer asked me to get up and sing a song. So I started singing, and the band started playing, and the people started dancing.”

Later, Johnson dressed as Elvis for a friend’s party and performed. That led to a performance at a class reunion.

“I went and had an outfit made, and just went and performed at this class reunion,” said the Madison County supervisor. “It’s just been word of mouth ever since.”

Moulder said the legacy of Elvis lives on through fans like Johnson because his music was honest.

“It wasn’t stylized. He sang from the heart and soul, people felt his music and still do, Moulder said. "A lot of people felt that he was doing the devil’s work with all that rock and roll singing and jirating, but he was a very nice young man, and I was proud to have known him in the brief meeting that we had.”

Ridgeland resident Steven Austin said Elvis came at a time when the world was ready for something exciting and controversial.

“The fact that he made great music that crossed over from pop to country was important,” he said. “And heck, the man was amazingly handsome."

Austin said the legend lives because Presley’s music and stories about his life are passed along from generation to generation.

“Elvis never seemed selfish or full of himself like so many of today’s entertainers come across,” Austin said. “We all want to hang onto something from our youth. I feel the same way about The Beatles, and tell my son, who is 16, about them. If The Beatles or Elvis come on the car radio, no one is allowed to change the station."

Waltman said Presley’s boyish innocence was appealing, but his ability to push ’s buttons is what made the public want more.

“Sweet and happy stories don’t get our adrenaline flowing,” she said. “Elvis did. The ’60s gave us the freedom that teenagers were not getting in the ’50s because the Vietnam war put us all on edge and made us all want to rebel in some way. If our youth was going to be forced due to the draft to fight an adult war, then we demanded to be treated like adults.

“Elvis was a great vehicle for us to get a ride on because he was the first person to 'buck the system' and get put on TV for it. Because our parents and the censors were trying to stop it, we wanted more. His talent, however, was great enough to push through."

Waltman said she believes the fact that Elvis enlisted in the Army won many parents over after they decided that he was a good American.

“He has prevailed through the decades because he keeps us grounded with his music in this crazy world,” she said. “Plus, his death came too early, and it reminded us that we are mere mortals and the drugs and excesses of life would do you in, superstar or not.

“Listening to Elvis, still today, provides all ages with emotional relief, and I think it always will. When Elvis sang, every person in the audience or at home listening to him felt as if he was singing to them personally, and his humble upbringing brought hope to the masses because every person could relate in some way to him.”