Where It All Began: The Overton Park Shell


The shell

Overton Park is a beautiful park to the east of downtown Memphis. The Memphis Zoo is there, as well as a war memorial, and a golf course. There’s an arts center, too. But mainly it is rolling stretches of grass and trees, with picnic tables and benches, a beautiful and peaceful place. We went there on our first morning in Memphis. First, we drove to find the Whole Foods which was all the way out on Poplar Avenue. We actually got to see the different neighborhoods of Memphis during our drive out there. You can feel the economic shift literally when you cross over the railroad tracks. You are in a rough depressed area, and then you are in a gorgeous area, with beautiful old homes, palatial shopping malls, spas, Zumba classes and nice restaurants. Of course Whole Foods was in the nice area of town, so Jen and I had a small conversation about the economic unfairness of that, and why doesn’t Whole Foods open up a damn store in the bad area of town? We had a rather long drive to get to Whole Foods. We had to talk about something. On our way out there, we passed Overton Park, which was going to be our next stop. I saw the entrance and felt a wave of emotion, which has happened to me before in similar circumstances. Standing on the ground where something important happened, whether it be Elvis’ first major live show, or where a battle took place (the bullet holes still in the walls of the Dublin Post Office, for example): it gives a reality to something that had been abstract, albeit understood. Oh yes, we all know this happened, yes, people witnessed it, it was real. But to see the actual spot changes the game entirely.

There it was: Overton Park. We drove by, but I suddenly was thinking of Elvis’ parents driving out to the park with relatives, bumming a ride, and Elvis’ girlfriend Dixie going out there too, driving with Elvis, excited for him, nervous, overwhelmed at what had been happening, and scared that he wouldn’t get a good reception – knowing how that would affect him. Dixie had been on vacation with her family in Florida when “That’s All Right” started exploding in July of 1954, and was alarmed by the urgent telegram sent to her by her boyfriend back home: “HURRY HOME. MY RECORD IS DOING GREAT.” Dixie was like: What? I was away for 2 weeks. What the hell is going on back there?? WHAT record? You cut a record?

After declaring to Marion Keisker in the tiny front office of the Memphis Recording Service in the summer of 1953 that “I don’t sing like nobody”, Elvis waited a year before the call from Sam Phillips came. Finally, on July 5, 1954, Elvis – and the two guys Sam had hooked him up with: Scotty Moore and Bill Black – hit the Mother Lode. Local DJ Dewey Phillips played the song over and over and over and over the following night, and calls started pouring in, and Elvis found himself on the map. In Memphis, at least. Except for two talent shows, one when he was 10, and one when he was 16, 17 – he had not performed live. But he had been playing guitar for his friends and his family ever since he first got a guitar for his birthday. He would play at school. He would sit outside the high school playing. He was free and easy with what he wanted to do (although inside he was probably a swirling mess of ambition and hunger). But he had no experience in front of big live crowds. None. Nada. Zip.

Nobody knew what he would be like live. He was the definition of raw. He was a teenager. He could barely play the guitar. But he had something. He had to be tested out in front of an audience.

So as “That’s All Right” was pouring out over the airwaves, Dewey and Sam Phillips set up a plan. Elvis and Scotty and Bill would play in a hillbilly show that was going on out at the Bon Air Club (a place Elvis probably couldn’t even get into as a customer, since he was a minor). There would be other acts playing, and Sam got Elvis/Scotty/Bill added to the bill. At that point, they only had two songs under their collective belts. Two songs! “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky”. So what the hell: they would perform those two songs. Sam Phillips described the crowd at the Bon Air as “pure redneck”, and Elvis stuck out like a sore thumb, with his greasy pompadour. How would he go over live?

Although Sam would later say that Elvis “came off real good”, Elvis was crushed by the experience. He said to Sam afterwards that he felt like he failed. Sam tried to reassure him, although he knew that Elvis still needed more experience. He said Elvis looked miserable onstage, nervous and unhappy, and far too nervous to enjoy a moment of it. There was hostility in the crowd, too, towards this newcomer who was singing hillbilly music but with a blues sound to it. Elvis was not embraced. It was not a disaster, but Elvis was sensitive. He knew his own dreams. What happened at the Bon Air was crushing, then. Elvis was a mystery – not only to himself, but to Sam, Dewey, Scotty, Bill, and every established musician in that joint. He was completely new, untried, and didn’t look like anyone else. Who did this young thug think he was, coming on THEIR stage playing THEIR music but in his own way?

Sam was determined to get the boy in front of people, so he called Bob Neal (who eventually would manage Elvis for a year, until the Colonel came along) and had Bob add the trio to a “hillbilly hoedown” that was going to be happening at the Overton Park Shell, an outdoor amphitheatre with a giant lawn. There would be a ton of musicians on the bill, and Slim Whitman was the star of the night. Bob Neal added the trio to the list of acts. The show was happening on July 30, 1954, not even a full month after Elvis first recorded “That’s All Right”.

Elvis was still driving a truck for Crown Electric. Dixie had come home from her vacation. In Elvis’ mind, he was relieved to have her back, you can feel his separation anxiety in his telegrams to Dixie during her absence. How dare she take a summer vacation when all of this crazy stuff exploded for him? WHERE THE HELL IS SHE?? Dixie would go on his truck delivery route with him, and they would go roller skating at night, and listen to the radio. His two songs would come on, and they would get quiet and excited. It felt like something was about to happen. Elvis and Scotty and Bill got together periodically to rehearse for the upcoming Overton Park show.

The first advertisements started to appear. Some of the posters spelled Elvis’ name wrong. Meanwhile, on the ground, some strange things were happening. Elvis’ two records were in constant rotation on pop music stations, folk/hillbilly music stations, and what was then called “race programs” – black radio stations. The three diverse and normally separate audiences were all listening and loving the same songs. This was unprecedented. The albums started to sell outside of Memphis. Orders were pouring into Sun from all around the South. Only a month before, Elvis’ main goal appeared to be to join a gospel quartet. This was something entirely different.

On the night of July 30, 1954, everyone started gathering at the Overton Park Shell. Elvis drove over with Dixie and then Dixie went out onto the lawn to sit with Mr. and Mrs. Presley. Elvis stood on the steps behind the shell, having a nervous breakdown. That is where Sam Phillips found him. Musicians were milling around, crowding it up backstage – it was a full bill of performers – and it felt like all of Memphis had gathered.

Sam Phillips describes Elvis’ demeanor on July 30, 1954.

“When I got there he was standing on the steps at the back of the shell looking kind of pitiful – well, maybe pitiful is the wrong word, I knew it was the way he was going to look: unsure. And he just grabbed me and said, ‘Man, I’m so glad to see you, Mr. Phillips. I – I – I – I —‘ You know, that was just the way Elvis did. ‘I – I – I – I just didn’t know what I was going to do.’ Well, you know, it’s like when somebody’s mother is real sick and you tell them everything is going to be all right, and yet you know there’s the possibility that his mother might die. I said, ‘Look,. Elvis, we’ll find out whether they like you or not.’ And then I said, ‘They’re gonna love you.‘ Now I didn’t know that, and if you want to call me a liar or a fake for saying something that I didn’t know to be the truth – but I believed that once he started to sing and they saw him, I don’t mean the stage act, once they heard that voice and the beautiful simplicity of what those three musicians were putting down … “

The show began. Then it was Elvis’ turn. He entered the stage and Scotty remembers that Elvis was shaking so badly that Scotty could almost hear Elvis’ knees knocking together. Elvis held onto the mike, and Scotty remembers he gripped it so hard his knuckles turned white. They had played that one live show, but this environment was something else altogether. There were 4,000 people out there. The three men had only just met a month and change before. They knew two songs. This was insane pressure.

Elvis reminisced many years later about what happened next:

“I was scared stiff. It was my first big appearance in front of an audience, and I came out and I was doing my first number [‘That’s All Right’], and everybody was hollering and I didn’t know what they were hollering at.”


Elvis Presley backstage at the Overton Park Shell, July 30, 1954

Legend has it that it was the nerves that made him shake that left leg, trying to get rid of all of that extra tension, and that nerves made his lip curl up into a sneer. Sure, I’m sure nerves had a lot to do with it. But plenty of people choke when they experience that kind of nervousness. The majority of people, actually. Nerves are something human beings do their damndest to AVOID. It’s stressful. It impacts the entire body. Nerves make you dry up – not only physically (you lose your voice, your throat stops operating, your breath gets shallow leaving you unable to produce sound) – but emotionally. When confronted with an onslaught of nerves, most normal people have a fight-or-flight response. This is how we are wired. Fear is a great motivator: tunnel vision is one of our best survival techniques. Fear makes things very very simple. Great fear makes your choices clear: get the hell OUT OF THERE. But performers have to learn how to cope with nerves, work with them, embrace them – turn that stress into something positive and expressive. It sometimes takes years to master. This is why actors spend so much time in classes learning relaxation techniques. Because it’s all well and good to be brilliant alone in your bedroom, but when an audience is suddenly looking at you, shit starts happening to your body that you cannot control. You have to anticipate that. “Okay, I am going to have a dry mouth and throat, so make sure to drink a lot of water, and vocalize.” “Okay, I am going to be scared, so I need to find a way to concentrate and relax IN THE MIDDLE of a very stressful situation.” This normally takes training. It takes practice.

People like clutch hitters are those who can come up BIG in very stressful moments. They do not lose their nerve. They are special people, different from most of us. Nerves do not affect them in a detrimental way. On the contrary: nerves are what make the clutch hitters go cold, hot, focused, and brilliant. They perform their best when the stakes are high.

Elvis is the definition of a clutch hitter. Only he had no practice at it. He didn’t even know that he would be a clutch hitter. He only knew his own need, his own desire to be in front of people. It was of the utmost importance. All he knew was that he was pissing his damn pants backstage, experiencing waves of vertigo, and had a huge bottomless fear of being laughed at, scorned or, worst of all, dismissed. He had no training. It was all instinct. When faced with the reality of his own dream, he lost his mind.

But the second he launched into “That’s All Right”, Scotty remembers Elvis suddenly going up onto the balls of his feet, his body quivering all over, and the audience went apeshit. A spontaneous response. Something visceral. A roar went through the crowd. Interestingly enough, Scotty also remembers that afterwards, Elvis had no concept of what had happened and when he heard the crowd response, Elvis initially had thought they all were laughing at him.

Most hillbilly singers stood still and tapped their foot to the music. Elvis moved. He jiggled, shook, and leaped around. Scotty remembered later,

“That was just his way of tapping his foot. Plus I think with those loose britches that we wore – they weren’t pegged, they had lots of material and pleated fronts – you shook your leg, and it made it look like hell was going on under there.”

hahahaha.

Bill Black was a real showman, and on their second number, “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, he turned the bass sideways and rode it like a horse, slapping on it. The crowd went nuts. It spurred Elvis on. They only did two numbers because, uhm, they only knew two numbers, and Elvis came offstage, confused about what was going on. He had to be told that the crowd was screaming for HIM. He didn’t get it. Bob Neal told Elvis that the crowd went wild because he was jiggling his leg. They were screaming for an encore. The trio went back out onstage to play one more (they just sang “Blue Moon of Kentucky” again, having run out of songs), and Elvis – who had been clued into what was happening by Neal – jiggled his leg on purpose in the encore. Same response. He listened to the screams, knowing now that it was HE who did that, HE made them make that sound.

It is difficult to express just how quick a study he was. In 10 minutes, in the middle of a high-stress situation (the highest stress yet for Elvis, except for maybe first opening that door of the Memphis Recording Service), he understood his own power, and didn’t fight it, question it, or second-guess it. He went back out there, with his new-found knowledge, and then immediately used it on purpose. It takes some performers 15 years of live performances to really understand their own role up there, and how in charge they are, and how to conduct an audience and control them. Elvis got the memo in 10 minutes.

Bob Neal watched the encore from backstage and watched Elvis jump around, jiggling and quaking, now doing it confidently, and on purpose, having a ball, and could not believe that that was the same shy boy with the debilitating stutter backstage only moments earlier. Nobody could have seen that The Sex Thing (as I call it) was about to come exploding out of this young boy, who was probably still a virgin at this point. Nobody could have predicted that one. That was ALL ELVIS. It was who he was onstage. He figured it out instantaneously. Bob Neal said later, “He just automatically did things right.”

Dixie Locke, watching from the audience, had an odd experience watching all of this. She knew her boyfriend. She had seen him in action, playing for her and her friends, just horsing around. She was familiar with his constantly jiggling leg. Hadn’t it driven her insane on their dates, when he couldn’t sit still? Hadn’t her parents said to her after their first time meeting Elvis, “Can’t that boy sit still?” But to watch him do that same thing in front of a crowd, and watching the Memphis girls erupt into spontaneous screams – the first girls to scream for Elvis – she wondered what was going on. She felt angry and possessive and wanted to tell the girls to leave him alone. She felt lonely, sitting out there, watching him. Suddenly he didn’t belong to her.

But she was happy for him too, because he was so happy afterwards. Elated is more the word. He was high. He didn’t sleep for two days, the adrenaline was still buzzing through him.

Dixie said later, “I don’t think he was prepared for what was about to happen. He knew this was what he wanted to do and that it was breaking for him, but I don’t think he ever thought that everybody would just go crazy.”

Visiting the Overton Park Shell on our first morning in Memphis was one of the highlights of my trip (although there are so many highlights). It was a bright and mild morning, and people were walking their dogs, but in general the place was deserted. We had the Shell all to ourselves. We went up onto the stage. We talked to each other across the stage (the acoustics are incredible: you can speak in a soft voice and you are perfectly heard by the person on the other side). We wandered around. Jen sang a bit of “Hound Dog”. Nobody bothered us. Nobody else was there.

It was truly awesome.


Approaching the shell through Overton Park


The stage of the shell


The steps behind the shell, where Sam found Elvis freaking out


On the stage of the shell. What Elvis would have seen. Except it would have been night. A packed lawn, an estimated 4-5,000 people out there, which would have been overwhelming


The door onto the stage. Probably where Elvis entered from, knees shaking from nerves.

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7 Responses to Where It All Began: The Overton Park Shell

  1. Kent says:

    Thanks for this, Sheila! You bring these lost moments to life again, so much fun to read and see!

  2. sheila says:

    Kent – as awe-inspiring as much of Graceland is, the visit to Overton Park was really special. Because there are no markings (at least not that I could see) that EP had had this big moment there. It is still a working amphitheatre, still a part of the community. Nobody was there, it’s not a tourist hub, so we wandered around to our hearts’ content and I was able to just daydream about what that show must have been like. I loved it!

  3. Kent says:

    Your connection really comes through, like an evocative documentary film. My favorite of your Elvis Opus to date, it is like reliving the event in his shoes.

  4. Kate says:

    Thrilling post Sheila! I have the same visceral reaction to “real life” artifacts and places. I once went to the spot where Belle Brezing’s (whom Belle Starr from Gone with the Wind was based on) house had been just to take in the view she’d had. I’ve loved going to Memphis with you!

  5. Don Martz says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. Your interpretation of that feeling one gets when standing in a place of awe…is right on ! Our visit to Graceland felt like a pilgrimage to me. Being an Elvis fan my whole life…I don’t think I would be who I am today if not for Elvis.
    TCB
    Don

    • sheila says:

      Don – what a sweet comment! Thank you so much!

      And I love what you say about being an Elvis fan impacting your life. He sure was special that way.

      TCB right back!!

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