“Let’s look at it this way. There was no TV. And it was the important thing to do in this area, in this part of the country, was to go to the Louisiana Hayride on Saturday night or to tune it in on Saturday night. It was the only thing to do. It was the only ballgame in town.”
– Frank Page, announcer for the Louisiana Hayride
The Louisiana Hayride was a Saturday night show broadcast out of Shreveport, Louisiana, on radio station KWKH. The signal reached most of east Texas, southern Arkansas and the Northwest corner of Louisiana (at its outset). The radio station itself first went on the air in 1925. It was a regional radio station and stuck close to its regional roots, playing mostly country music, which was really referred to as “hillbilly” music at the time. But to the folks down in that corner of the world … it was their whole life, it was their voice.
“There is a chemistry of music in that part of the country that you do not find anywhere else. A blend of Cajun, country, blues, pop – all of the ingredients are there. And some great great talent came there.”
— Fred Carter, Jr. – Louisiana Hayride guitarist
Sponsors were eager to support KWKH and the station was a success. It experienced a dip in popularity during World War II, because most of its staff, as well as most of the regular performers, were in the service. But after the war, it picked up again. Times had changed. There was a nation-wide sense of relief that the war was over. The economy had picked up. People wanted to enjoy themselves. There was no television yet. Music and radio was a national pastime. After WWII, and this is very important in terms of what was to come, KWKH’s signal was boosted to 50,000 watts, which meant it now reached California coast. So “regional” music was starting to spread. People who had never been to Texas, or Arkansas, could now enjoy music from that part of the country, in real-time. The country was starting to blend together, which, of course, would become even more exaggerated with the advent of televisions in every home. Americans, of course, had a sense of patriotism and togetherness, just because they all lived in the same land, but before easy flights across the country, before national radio shows and national television programs, different regions were isolated from one another. You could read about the South in the newspaper, you could read about the goings-on in New York in the newspaper, but there’s something about the medium of radio, and then television, that is far more intimate. You are there. This was an important element of that era, and of course, Mr. Elvis Presley was born in 1935, the exact right year to take advantage of this blending of the country, this disappearance of boundaries. 10 years later and the revolution would have already occurred. 10 years earlier, he wouldn’t have reaped the benefits of the new mediums and would probably have stayed a regional star. But no. 1935 meant he was coming-of-age in the early to mid 50s. A perfect dovetail of timing. Couldn’t have happened any other way.
After World War II, the radio station got more ambitious, named it Louisiana Hayride, and started seeking out new artists. There were a couple of innovative station-heads and producers who began to put together early-morning hillbilly shows. The artists would come to the station at some god-awful hour, after driving sometimes hours from their gig at a schoolhouse or a fair the night before, and play for an hour. These early-morning shows were so popular that it was decided to put together a weekly Saturday night show. This would eventually become the Louisiana Hayride.
“When they decided to start the Louisiana Hayride, they got to the auditorium on Saturday night and then they would bring each one in for a little program on Saturday night and they would advertise during the week and they had a ready-made audience that would come out to see the Louisiana Hayride. The following was there for country music.”
– Tillman Franks, bass player/manager of Louisiana Hayride
The Louisiana Hayride’s first show was in 1948. They broadcast out of the giant Municipal Auditorium in Shreveport. Tickets were cheap. They always had a packed house. They had a regular roster of artists, but were always looking to expand. It slowly became known that if you were a hillbilly (country) singer, the place to be was Shreveport. Hopeful musicians would drive down there in their battered cars, and hang around with their guitars, hoping for a slot on the show. Many many careers, glittering careers, got started at the Louisiana Hayride. It eventually became known as “the cradle of the stars”.
At the time, there was, of course, the Grand Ole Opry, broadcast out of Nashville, which was the gold standard for such jamboree shows. Nashville was the goal for most of the artists. That was where you could get a recording contract, that was where you could hit the big-time. The Louisiana Hayride was younger and wilder. You couldn’t get a spot at the Grand Ole Opry if you didn’t already have a name for yourself, and so the Louisiana Hayride was an important stepping-stone.
“They were kind of like a training ground for Grand Ole Opry. They’d make the star out of ’em and then the Grand Ole Opry would grab ’em.”
– Webb Pierce
Horace Logan, producer of the Louisiana Hayride, from 1948-58, started out as an announcer. He was one of the reasons for the show’s success. He had a great eye for talent, and was well-liked. (In one of the Louisiana Hayride recordings in 1955, Horace Logan announces that Elvis Presley will be going on a week-long tour of Texas following “tonight’s broadcast” with many other of the Hayride stars, and you can hear Elvis say, almost anxiously, “Are you gonna be with us, Mr. Logan?” “Mr. Logan” replies, “Oh, I wouldn’t miss it.” Elvis says, sounding relieved, “That’s good.”) Logan was a practical man, as well as a visionary. There was so much talent in that area of the country, an untapped wealth of talent, and he wanted it all on his show.
The Grand Ole Opry was more conservative in its tastes and style. There were no drums onstage at the Opry, for example, no steel guitars. Despite that, you would be hard pressed to find ANY musician growing up in that era who doesn’t say that the Opry was one of the biggest influences on their lives and that listening to the Opry shows was a part of their lives for as long as they could remember. Black or white. Doesn’t matter. B.B. King references the Opry as a major influence on him. So does Rufus Thomas. It’s also important to remember that there just wasn’t a hell of a lot to do in many of these small towns at the time. You weren’t hanging out in bars with friends. Most towns were probably dry. You would go to the movies, yes. But the options that we have now weren’t in existence then. So EVERYONE listened to the Opry. This is yet another way that regions are bound together, in cultural experience, memory, influence. This is something that has nearly vanished from the earth today, at least in our culture, because the influences are too spread out, there’s too much out there, and everyone is off doing their own thing, led by personal preferences. Back then? You listened to the Opry shows. If you didn’t have a radio, you’d go over to your neighbor’s house.
But from the artist’s point of view, there was something exciting going on in Shreveport. You could show up and maybe get a shot. You could be a little bit different from the mainstream tastes, and not be turned away. You had to be good, of course, but there was no cookie-cutter formula. If you got a response from the audience, you would be asked back.
This was HUGE for hopeful musicians at the time, where appearing at the Grand Ole Opry would be the ultimate dream, but a pipe dream, really. Only the elite few got to do THAT.
Another thing: nobody made any money. Nobody was getting rich at the Louisiana Hayride. Hell, they weren’t getting rich at the Opry either. Both venues would sign popular artists up with contracts, a year-long, a couple years long. But these weren’t extravagant contracts. Even the “stars” weren’t making any money. They would still have to travel around from show to show during the week, and then head down to Shreveport every Saturday night for the Louisiana Hayride. These people worked.
“You’d eat out of cafes and live out of suitcases. It got rough sometimes. No sleep. Sometimes you might get in in time enough to shave and shower before a job and sometimes you wouldn’t.”
– Lum York, bass player
Additionally, as always, there was regional prejudice to fight. Not North-South (that wasn’t really a factor, during the time that the Louisiana Hayride was strictly a regional show), but musically. The type of music being featured on the Louisiana Hayride was certainly popular, but it wasn’t given the respect that other types of music was given. Perhaps it’s the Southern prejudice against the less successful members of their society. The people who made this music had to be “trash”. We don’t want anything to do with trash. We have enough problems. The Louisiana Hayride, with its wild confidence and innovative programming, helped change some of that.
“They looked down on that music then. They called it hillbilly music. It wasn’t recognized as the force it was cause they figured it was like real poor people and sorry people – that was the impression that it had. The image that we had to the public wasn’t good back then.”
– Tillman Franks
There was a mission at the Louisiana Hayride. They wanted to legitimize innovation, and they wanted to legitimize the type of music being played in the fields, on the porches, on the lanes of their region of the country. There was so much talent out there. These were all poor people, yes, but not “sorry”. They should be heard. I don’t know if they explicitly wanted to create a crossover genre, like Sam Phillips says he did with Sun, but I do know that they were ambitious to create their own stars. And to be a star of any magnitude, you have to appeal to a wide group of people. And you have to appeal to people who might otherwise never listen to “that type” of music. Not an easy thing to do when the music itself has an image problem.
And finally a singer came along who helped actually change the definition of the music, from hillbilly to country. He became a big crossover star, maybe the biggest.
“There had been packed crowds before Hank Williams got there but they didn’t have a big star, they didn’t have an idol, they didn’t have anybody that people could idolize – scream and run and wait for hours.”
– Merle Kilgore, singer
In 1946, Williams auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry and was rejected. He had already been recording songs, some of which were quite successful for him. In 1948 (the same year the Louisiana Hayride was born) he moved to Shreveport. He started performing on the Hayride, and the response was off the charts. People went apeshit. He became the main draw. He had an honesty and an intimacy in his performing style that audiences responded to (in the auditorium, and listening at home). One of the things that started happening (with Williams and others) was that the broadcasts themselves, with that crazy live audience, were so alive, so electric, that people started driving to Shreveport to see for themselves what was going on in that auditorium.
“We never explained to the broadcast audience what we were doing… The incredible hysteria in the audience – we did have microphones hanging throughout the auditorium so that the applause could become as much a part of the program as the music coming from the stage. It was show business. It was designed to cause the people to be curious to want to come see the thing. That was the whole idea.”
– Horace Logan
Smart. And that excitement still exists in those broadcasts when you hear them today.
“He could just win over a crowd. When he’d start doing that Lovesick Blues, he’d kind of start wiggling around there … he made the remark that ‘I don’t think they like the tune so well, they like to see me get tied in a knot trying to sing it.'”
– Felton Pruett, steel guitarist
Williams didn’t stay at the Louisiana Hayride for long. The response he got was so extraordinary that Nashville took notice (the Grand Ole Opry sent scouts down to Shreveport every Saturday night for the show), and the Grand Ole Opry signed him. This would become almost boiler-plate for the rest of the stars who followed Hank Williams. One by one, they would come, they would take Shreveport by storm, and then be snatched up by Nashville. But Williams was the first.
Of course most everyone knows that Williams was eventually fired from the Grand Ole Opry. His drinking got to be an enormous problem. His life began to fall apart. Desperate, he approached Horace Logan and asked if he could come back to the Louisiana Hayride. They signed him to a three-year contract, which shows their confidence in him, their love of him. Hank Williams wouldn’t even play out one year of his contract before he died. A great loss.
“He came to Nashville and he just set this whole world on fire. He was the first one to go to Las Vegas as a country singer, he was the first one in a major hotel in New York City to work. He opened a lot of doors for us. Of course he closed a lot of them for us later on in his career when he really got into trouble with his boozing and his personal life and all. When Hank got into his own personal problems later on, it completely ruined him, in a way, in the industry. It didn’t ruin the love that people had for him but it hurt him from the booking – bookers wouldn’t take chances on him because they knew if they booked him they might have an auditorium full and Hank, 1 time out of 10, might show up. He was in so much trouble personally. They had made an addict of him anyway when he fell off that horse and hurt his back and they gave him morphine. So Hank suffered. I know I’ve seen him on the floor on his back, tears running out of his eyes it was hurting so bad. It’s a sad thing. People that don’t know say, ‘Oh, he died a dope addict.’ Well, that ain’t really true. He died a sick man.”
– Faron Young, singer/songwriter
Hank Williams helped launch the Louisiana Hayride into the national spotlight. If he got his start there, then who else might follow? Caravans of cars started careening to Shreveport every Saturday to see the show. It became a big star-watching game. Who would be next? Whoever it was, people wanted to say “they were there”.
An unlikely star began to rise in Webb Pierce. A determined ferocious young man who just knew he had to be on that stage.
“Webb was a manager of the Sears’ men’s department and he couldn’t get on the Louisiana Hayride. They wouldn’t let him on the Louisiana Hayride. Webb was playing local honky tonks and outdoor shows and he’d say, ‘One of these days I’m gonna be on the Louisiana Hayride, you wait and see, you wait and see.’
– Merle Kilgore
Webb Pierce made a pest of himself to Horace Logan. He hung around, he badgered, he begged, he demanded. He had to get a slot on the show. He had to.
“Finally I got to know Horace Logan and I kept telling him he needed me on the Louisiana Hayride and he kept telling me no, but finally he says ‘I’m gonna put you on there and show you. When you go down there and sing at Hayride, you singing among professional entertainers. I’m gonna show you – you go out there and find out for yourself just how bad you are and how good they are.’ So I went out there and stole the show from all of ’em and they said, ‘Hey, you better come back next Saturday night!’ And that’s the way it started.”
– Webb Pierce
Pierce had an earnest sincere style, and his voice had that quality that some of these artists displayed, something that was a huge part of the appeal: it wasn’t a daunting voice, it wasn’t a professional voice. It made the audiences feel that they could sing that way too. People loved him.
Horace Logan said: “It was just so obvious to me that he was going to do something. He was going to do something or kill himself, one or the other, he was just that determined.”
True to form, Webb Pierce and his band (made up of people who would all become big stars themselves) moved on to Nashville. But the Louisiana Hayride was the start. The pattern was set. The star would rise, the star would leave, and the anticipation would fill the auditorium: who would be the next one? Who would take the place of Hank Williams/Webb Pierce?
It soon became clear. Slim Whitman, who had already been recording (he had 4 songs out), was a bit lost in Nashville. He couldn’t get a foothold. He had a wife and a manager. The Louisiana Hayride offered him a contract. I think it was 50 bucks a week. Whitman didn’t know how he could live on that. But he thought if Hank Williams could do it, then he could. So he and his wife and his manager took off for Shreveport. Now here was a guy who had a real VOICE. That man could SING. He didn’t sound like anybody else. He had a daunting eerie falsetto. He played with his voice, he manipulated it, he did great things with it. The response he got was warm and overwhelming, but it was his song “Indian Love Call” that put him on the map in 1952. And solidified the Louisiana Hayride’s growing reputation as the “cradle of the stars”.
Johnny Mathis, to whom Slim Whitman is often compared, has this wonderful anecdote about Whitman preparing his voice to sing “Indian Love Call”, working his way up to the high notes:
“He’d practice that thing an hour. He’d start in a low key and then work hisself up to the key where he was gonna do the song in.”
“Indian Love Call” exploded. It eventually sold two million. It reached #2 on the Billboard country charts.
“The record sold a million and nobody else had ever sold that much. I don’t know why and don’t really care. There was a million people liked it. I’m glad that we were a little part of pleasing them.”
– Hoot Rains, steel guitarist for Slim Whitman
Whitman, always a pioneer, did not follow in the footsteps of Hank Williams and Webb Pierce by going to Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry. He began his own independent recording career which (duh) has worked out quite well for him. He is still recording today.
“I have a soft place in my heart for the Hayride. I spent a lot of good years there. The biggest records I ever had were cut in Shreveport. I’m still cuttin’ records today but it’s hard to get a record as big as I had back then.”
– Slim Whitman
The early 50s was another important moment for KWKH. It joined the CBS network, which now meant the show went national, and then the Armed Forces radio picked up the signal, which now meant that the Louisiana Hayride went around the world. Millions tuned in every Saturday night.
You can see why Elvis Presley had a sense of destiny. How could he not? Giant forces that had nothing to do with him were all gathering together, commiserating and collaborating, invisibly, powerfully, to prime the pump for his arrival. You can see how there would be no other way to look at it, if you imagine yourself in Elvis’ shoes. The world got much much bigger, the audience got exponentially larger, directly before his arrival.
Other stars and popular performers were born in those years. Jim Reeves was hired as an announcer and one night he filled in as a singer. That was the start of his career. The Maddox Brothers and Rose Maddox, with their flashy cowboy outfits, and rockin’ rough style was a glimmering of what was to come.
There were many glimmers at that time. The sound was changing. Things were getting a little, how you say, sexy.
In October, 1954, Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore and Bill Black came to perform at the Louisiana Hayride.
So let’s look at the context of where Elvis was at in October 1954.
In the summer of 1953, after Elvis graduated high school, he walked into Memphis Recording Service, met Marion Keisker, told her “I don’t sing like nobody” and recorded two songs. She wrote on the index card that Elvis was a good “ballad singer” (which is fascinating, seeing as he became known in the 1970s for his emotional ballads. That ballad sensibility was there from the start, something that rock critics who hate the ballads would do well to remember.) A year passed with Elvis biding his time, driving a truck, going to church, and falling in love with Dixie Locke. Percolating, though, percolating. Finally, he got the call from Sam Phillips to come in and record a song. That didn’t go well. But a couple months later, he and Scotty and Bill got together, played around, and then went to have a session with Mr. Phillips. Nothing really came of it at first. Until, during a break, Elvis started fooling around, letting off steam, playing “That’s All Right” and jumping around. Paydirt. It was played on Memphis radio the following day and things started exploding. And, basically, Elvis’ life never stopped exploding after that. On July 30, 1954, not even a month after “That’s All Right” was released, Elvis played his first big live show at the Overton Park Shell and it became clear immediately that the boy didn’t just win over an audience, he made them scream and holler and cry. He needed no gestation period as an artist. He was in full bloom from the start. Scotty was managing them, using his connections in the music business. This would eventually become too big a job for him, and Bob Neal took over. They started playing out in small gigs, small clubs around Memphis. The response wasn’t always great. People who expected a hillbilly band to play hated the greaser in the pink coat. But more often than not, mayhem ensued. Sam Phillips, ambitious for his young charge, pulled some strings at the Opry and got Elvis an audition.
On October 2, 1954, Elvis, Scotty, Bill and Sam drove to Nashville for Elvis to appear on the Grand Ole Opry. This is an infamous moment in Elvis’ life. The audience was polite, but clearly did not respond to what he was doing. He sang “Blue Moon of Kentucky”. Elvis only had two months of experience at that point – TWO MONTHS – in front of live crowds, and he already knew what to expect. He expected love to come pouring at him, and he expected screams and adulation. Why shouldn’t he? If that is your first experience of a live audience’s reaction to you, then of course you would expect it. The Grand Ole Opry didn’t play that way. Legend has it that Jim Denny, manager at the Opry, came up to Elvis after the show and told him not to quit his day job.
They all drove back to Memphis that night. Scotty Moore reports that Elvis cried the entire way back. That’s almost a four hour drive. Let’s talk about that for a second. It’s a fascinating glimpse, an eloquent entryway into Elvis’ psychology and emotional makeup. Yes, he was young. He was 19 years old. But not too many 19 year old boys allow themselves to cry in front of their friends for almost four hours. It says something about him. About how much he wanted it, first of all, and how much rejection hurt him. It hurt him so bad that he always had a bad feeling about Nashville forever after. He would record there once he signed with RCA but he never liked it. He never forgot that they had rejected him. It was a scar. To become a star, as Elvis Presley did, you must have two things: you must be open and accessible, because only then will people have a chance to see you, hear you. And you must also be tough-as-nails and not let things STOP you. If you think it’s easy to have those two opposing things in you at the same time then you don’t understand psychology, and you don’t understand how difficult it is to even reach the bottom rung of any level of success in the entertainment field. You have to have an impenetrable armor of self-belief, and yet you can’t let the armor hide your light from shining. You have to put yourself out there and let everyone know how much you want it, and yet you also have to be tough enough to take rejection in stride. You have to be open and you have to be tough. Elvis had both of these things. The Nashville rejection certainly did not stop him, and crying from Nashville to Memphis shows you where this boy’s head was at. He wanted it, but he didn’t know where he could get it, he was on his way, but where?
(I love the story of Garth Brooks’ first appearance at the Opry. He said, and it was a definite dig, that it was an honor to stand on the same stage where Elvis once stood.)
There was no set path at that time. Or, the set path was the path of Hank Williams, Webb Pierce. Get some experience, then sign a contract at the Opry. Many great stars were rejected by the Grand Ole Opry. It was hard to get a slot. Elvis’ ache for love on a worldwide scale (which I think always resided in him, an inchoate yearning perhaps, unspeakable certainly – you don’t want to let people in on such a secret) was something that drove him on. But he was not impervious to rejection. In fact, he took it harder than most. And yet (and this is key): it didn’t stop him.
But it’s the vulnerability that is striking now. Because it is the vulnerability of his persona onstage (and those wiggles and gyrations are the ultimate in vulnerable) that helped him catapult to the phenom that he would become (in just a few months’ time – the mind boggles).
So. The Grand Ole Opry audition was a big bust and Elvis cried all the way home.
Two weeks later, they got a slot on the Louisiana Hayride. October 16, 1954.
“I’m sure the big decision was made by Horace Logan or even by the manager at that time, who was Henry Clay. But we gave him a try because the Hayride was innovative. The Opry was staid, they were nothing but acoustic instruments. No drums. We were willing to take a chance.”
– Frank Page, announcer
They arrived in Shreveport. They met Horace Logan. They were just one act in a long roster for the night. They would perform two songs. It was a tryout, like any other.
“I went down and got Elvis into the auditorium and I watched him as they set up and rehearsed a little bit. And I knew that he wasn’t country. But I also knew that he was really innovative. This is definitely, by gosh, this is SOMETHING.”
– Horace Logan
Elvis and the boys didn’t have a huge repertoire at that time. As a matter of fact, they had two songs. “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky”. So that was what they performed on the stage on October 16, 1954. Those recordings still exist. You can feel Elvis’ tentativeness when he has to speak, you can hear the stutter, but also you can hear him launching himself out courageously into the role of Leader of the Band. Horace Logan introduces them. And there’s an interesting moment that I always find very touching when I listen to it. Here is how the exchange goes on that giant stage at the Municipal Auditorium, broadcast out to the world.
Horace Logan announces Elvis: “Just a few weeks ago a young man from Memphis Tennessee recorded a song on the Sun label and in just a matter of weeks that song has skyrocketed right up the charts. It’s really doing good all over the country. He’s only 19 years old. He has a new distinctive style. Elvis Presley. Let’s give him a nice hand.”
You can hear a couple of whoops and hollers but in general, it’s just a polite sound of applause. Nothing like the MAYHEM of the later Louisiana Hayride shows where Elvis has to beg the audience to quiet down, to stay in their seats, and where you can barely hear him sing because the screaming is so loud. That’s one of the things that is great about this first recording. It’s the classic Moment Before.
There is dead silence during the following conversation, something that would be virtually impossible a mere month or so later, when Elvis has to shout above the screams.
Horace Logan continues his introduction: “We’ve been singing his songs around here for weeks and weeks and weeks. Elvis, how are you this evening?”
Elvis’ voice, “Just fine. How are you, sir?”
Horace: “Are you all geared up with your band there –”
Elvis: “All geared up.”
Horace: “To let us hear your songs?”
You can hear Elvis strum a chord on his guitar, and then – without responding again to Logan, launches into a random speech. You know, he was a shy boy who cried for four hours only 2 weeks before, but he was also an Alpha male so he had to step up and introduce himself and his band. But at some point during his speech he seems to realize that he had maybe cut Logan off, or maybe hadn’t responded to him appropriately, and so there – in front of millions of people – takes the time to make sure he’s okay. It’s vulnerable, but more than that, it’s charming. Elvis’ accent is really thick. He would lose it in a couple of years, at least in certain circumstances, although he always maintained somewhat of a drawl. But early on, it’s a thick chewy accent.
But what my observation here is: Elvis basically takes over Horace Logan’s job as announcer. This says to me a couple of things. Elvis was a good boy who went to church and tried to make his mama proud, and was probably still a virgin at this moment in time, but he wasn’t a “good boy”, as in: he wasn’t obedient. He did not openly rebel, but he was in a rush, and so when he took that stage, he TOOK it. Good obedient boys don’t go far in show business. As a matter of fact, they get nowhere. To become even mildly successful, you have to have enough of an ego to know in your heart that people will want to pay money to see you. To become as successful as Elvis did, you have to have no fear in the face of your own desire to be front and center. So there Elvis is, front and center, and he takes the stage. Not rudely. He doesn’t cut Logan off, but he’s there, the mike is there, and so it’s time to make a speech, apparently. You can’t “wait your turn” and become Elvis Presley. It is flat out not possible. So he launches into a speech, and then seems to realize mid-speech: Whoops, did I overstep something here? Do I get to introduce myself? Or should Logan do it? I am a teenager. I have barely spent the night away from my parents’ house. Nobody told me how these things should work.
Elvis’ launching-off speech at the Louisiana Hayride: “Well, I’d like to say how happy we are to be down here. It’s a real honor for us to get a chance to appear on the Louisiana Hayride. We’re gonna do a song for you–” Then he stops himself. It’s a big pause. You can then hear him say to Horace Logan off to the side, “You got anything else to say, sir?” with a little laugh at the end, acknowledging that maybe he had cut the man off.
It’s so open, so honest.
Horace says, and I love him for it, “No! I’m ready!”
Elvis, having made everything all right with the authority figure in the room, launches himself back out to the audience, “We’re gonna do a song for you we got on Sun Records, it goes something like this.”
They play “That’s All Right”.
“It seems like yesterday. He was wearing a pink coat, black pants and white shoes, which was a definite giveaway that this guy must be a little different than the other people that you were gonna see that night on the stage.”
– Joe Martin, Hayride audience member
Like I said, the later Louisiana Hayride recordings (Elvis played there for 18 months) are sheer and utter mayhem. You can barely hear him at times because of the screams. During the musical bridges, when Elvis was obviously dancing, the screaming goes to another level, and you can see why people were driving to Shreveport to catch him in action, because it makes you so curious: What is he doing??
But the first song on that first night starts out with a quiet audience. They listen through the first phrases of the song. There is no audience response. And then, suddenly, you can hear people start screaming. It is a spontaneous uproar, an organic reaction to the unique nature of what was going on on that stage. Nobody had seen him before. He was something totally new. Remember that after they got down a take of “That’s All Right” at Sun (and it only took one or two takes), Scotty said, “They’re gonna run us out of town for this.” It was that different. And you can hear that different-ness break over the heads of the audience in Shreveport. It’s like a delayed reaction. They listen quietly, then realize what is happening, and then go apeshit.
“I have to really say that his shakin’ had me shook up. I wasn’t used to nothing like that!”
– Connie Johnson, Hayride audience member
They finish “That’s All Right” and Horace Logan takes a moment to interview the new young weirdo. You can feel the excitement. Elvis is rough and raw. He has not gone through media training. He has barely given an interview. (And he would barely give interviews throughout the entirety of his life, actually.) But here he is, on the stage, being asked questions by Horace Logan about his music and what is going on with it, and Elvis has to answer on the fly. He does quite well. He keeps his answers brief. He’s shy, you can feel it. But now that he got the first song out of the way, he’s in the zone. He knows who he is. There will be no crying on the ride home from Shreveport.
Horace Logan: “I’d like to know how you arrived at that style, how you came about with that rhythm and blues style, that’s all it is, that’s all you can say …”
Elvis launches in: “Well, sir, to be honest with you, we just stumbled upon it.”
Horace Logan: “You just stumbled upon it.”
Elvis: “Stumbled upon it.”
Horace Logan: “Well, you’re mighty lucky, you know.”
Elvis: “Thank you.” Elvis strums on the guitar. Nervous boy.
Horace: “They’ve been looking for something new in the folk music field for some time, and I think you’ve got it.”
Elvis: “We hope so.”
Horace: “All right, how ’bout flipping the record over there, that Sun recording, and doing the other side for us.”
You can hear a couple of girls scream. It’s begun.
Elvis says quietly, “Okay …” and then they launch into “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” People clap and cheer at the end. It’s still a nicely behaved show, though. Nothing like the chaos that would erupt in a matter of weeks.
“His first appearance they had told him not to use any vulgar movements. And so the first appearance he didn’t do much and when he come over to me, I was in the corner, him and Scotty and Bill, they couldn’t understand why they didn’t tear the roof down because they had been doing it at the Eagle’s Nest in Memphis for Sleepy Eyed John – everywhere they went people would go wild. I said, ‘Well, don’t pay no attention. Do anything you want to out there. What can they do to you?’ And so he went out there the second time, he started to give them that wiggle and the roof come in.”
– Tillman Franks
One of the things that is fascinating is the response of other musicians to what Elvis was doing. Because therein you see the entire culture take a giant shift, like an ice shelf crashing into the sea in one fell swoop. There are loads of stories about the influence Elvis had on rising musicians, during his early touring days in Texas and on the Louisiana Hayride. It was like he made last week’s style irrelevant just by showing up. He wiped out the past. He didn’t mean to. He loved the past. He revered it. But that was what he did, one of the unintended consequences of his fearlessness onstage and his tremendous gift.
The Louisiana Hayride was, no mistake about it, a country show. Elvis never really fit in there, at least musically, but unlike the Opry, his differentness was embraced. But it certainly changed the dynamic at the show. Other musicians wondered what this would mean. They could feel the train leaving the station without them.
Felton Pruett, steel guitarist at the Hayride, describes watching Elvis jump around from backstage that first night.
“I said, look at that, that looks plum sick. About a month later I was standing at the same spot on the side of the stage and I said, ‘You know, I wonder if I’m gonna have a job next week down here.'”
That was the impact. It happened immediately.
Elvis signed a one-year contract with the Louisiana Hayride and they took on the staff drummer at the Hayride, D.J. Fontana, who would become a lifelong friend and collaborator with Elvis.
So for the next 18 months, Elvis and the boys would travel to Shreveport, Louisiana every Saturday to play the Louisiana Hayride. During the week they would tour. They would play out in Memphis, they played in Arkansas, Texas. More songs came out. In 1955, Elvis signed another one-year contract with the Hayride. Things were moving at too fast a pace for anyone to get a handle on. The Colonel came into the picture. There would be screentests. Television appearances. But still, every Saturday night, down to Shreveport. The shows got wilder and wilder.
“I think he built the Hayride, he helped build it, it was already a big monumental show. I think by him just being there attracted more people.”
– DJ Fontana
And although Elvis was always on the bill with a ton of other people, audiences were now coming just to see him. A couple months before, the Louisiana Hayride audience was made up of families. A multi-generational experience. But with Elvis, it became primarily screaming teenagers, which changed the dynamic of the show entirely.
He ruined other acts, as good as those other acts might have been. If Elvis was put on the docket in the middle of the night, everyone who came on after him suffered. It was like everyone suddenly became an opening act for the main draw, Elvis. That was just the way it went down. People were unhappy about it, but you couldn’t deny the power of what was going on with this young man. It wasn’t his fault. But the Louisiana Hayride really had to DEAL with it because it was impacting their show. Elvis was put on last, always. But still: the balance was tipped. The screaming teenagers would suffer through the rest of the acts, waiting, waiting, for their man to appear. So either way you sliced it, it wasn’t a good situation for the other artists.
And it completely wrecked the hopes of young country-western hopefuls who, only 3 months before, had been hoping for a slot on the Hayride to follow in the steps of Hank Williams. Now nobody was looking for the next Hank Williams. Now everyone had to be like Elvis. This did not occur over a long slow period of time. It was overnight.
Late 1954 and all of 1955 filled with nonstop touring for Elvis and the boys. Shreveport was the beginning for him, though, and he really grew up there. He was out from under his mother’s worrying influence, and he blossomed and expanded. It was like one long Spring Break. Elvis didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, wasn’t a “partier”, in any way, but he loved the girls. And they loved him. It was a regular date: every Saturday night you were guaranteed to see Elvis in Shreveport. Groupies started showing up. Elvis would have girls coming in and out of his room in a long train of giggling excitement. (Reminds me of that classic story told by Dennis Hopper. Hopper went to see Elvis in 1956, 1957 when Elvis was staying at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. He hung around in the main room, with all of these girls who were waiting to see Elvis, and one after the other after the other, they would go into Elvis’ bedroom. It’s probably true that Elvis actually didn’t have actual intercourse all that much – fear of getting a girl pregnant and ruining his career had been drilled into him by the Colonel and his mama – and while he certainly had sex, most girls say he liked the foreplay part best. He loved fooling around. But Hopper, who was no slouch himself in the womanizing department, was amazed that Elvis would be able to handle 6 girls in a 2 hour period. When he and Elvis were finally alone, Dennis said, “Elvis! SIX GIRLS, man???” And Elvis said, totally sincerely, “Each one of ’em is different, Dennis!” Dennis Hopper would always roar with laughter when he told that story.) Scotty Moore, who was a bit older than Elvis, said that Elvis really “sowed his wild oats” in Shreveport. Boy got around. He had a ball.
But he had to move on. In just one year, he had become too big for not only the Hayride, but for the Opry, and for anything else. 1956 brought the television appearances, the screentest, Love Me Tender, and his first gold record, “Heartbreak Hotel” and “I Was the One”.
Here is the revolution in a nutshell: “Heartbreak Hotel” was #1 on Billboard’s pop chart, #1 on the country chart, and #5 on the R&B chart.
There was no precedent for that kind of crossover. It wasn’t even in the realm of possibility and it is still such a rare occurrence as to be almost unheard of. No one can cross over that much, can he? Can that many different groups of people respond to one person? Well, yes. And wait until he started putting out gospel records.
In the midst of that level of stardom, hauling ass to Shreveport got to be too much, a real drag, and a real hindrance on Elvis’ schedule. So he had to get out of his contract. The Louisiana Hayride, while sorry to see him go, were also probably relieved, because they had become a one-man operation (any time Elvis showed up anywhere, the venue became a one-man operation – the same thing happened at Sun) – and it was ruining the rest of their shows. The other artists were being impacted. The Hayride charged Elvis $10,000 to get out of his contract. They paid it. But they asked him to do one last show in Shreveport, which occurred on December 16, 1956.
In order to accommodate the crowd, the show was held at the Fairgrounds Coliseum, not the auditorium.
9,000 people showed up, the majority of whom were screaming writhing girls. That entire show still exists to be listened to, and words can’t express the excitement that the recordings convey. Elvis is a different boy from the one who politely says to Logan, “Do you have anything else to say, sir?”
He is totally in charge. He introduces songs, he makes stupid jokes, he screws up lyrics on purpose, you can hear him toying with the crowd, he stops and begs them all to stay in their seats, he shouts above the noise that he will get to all the songs they want to hear, but please quiet down … It’s freakin’ insane.
“When he came onstage he came by me and it just was nuts. The whole thing was nuts. It was great. The lightbulbs – the cameras – the flashbulbs were like … the brightest light you can imagine. Thousands of them all at once, just blinding you. Screams like high-pitched, you know so high – it was eerie.”
– Fred Carter
He had the Jordanaires with him too.
On December 16, 1956, he sang Heartbreak Hotel, Long Tall Sally, I Was the One, Love Me Tender (“this is from the movie where I get blasted!”), Don’t Be Cruel (imitating Jackie Wilson’s version for the first time, publicly), Love Me, When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again, Paralyzed, Hound Dog, and I Got a Woman (the most exciting recording of this song in existence – listen below).
He is out of control. He is in control. He is a star.
And, after the last song, over the pandemonium, you can hear the announcer say: “Elvis has left the building!”
And so that was the end of Presley’s stint on the Hayride. He changed everything. The Louisiana Hayride struggled to make sense of it, and find their way in this new landscape. Thankfully, near the end of Elvis’ stint came yet another rising star from the Sun label.
Tom Perryman, promoter for the Louisiana Hayride, tells it like it was:
“So within a period of a year, we had two unique different fresh new styles. And even though Presley had come along and a lot of the artists at that time – I have to say – it absolutely destroyed the Hayride. Nobody wanted to follow him, see. Because of the great tremendous response and the style that he did and the age group became younger and the people that started coming, see. And then just a year later, here comes Johnny Cash with basically the same instrumentation but a different approach. So there’s two within a year that started right there on the Hayride. It’s quite unique.”
Similar to Hank Williams and others before him, Johnny Cash moved on to Nashville in 1956. But he had captivated audiences with his voice, his lyrics, and his stage presence. This was clearly a unique artist. He connected with audiences in a way that was powerful and lasted for the entirety of his long career.
Jimmy C. Newman, another Hayride artist, speaks of Elvis’ influence:
“The change he did with the Hayride – whatever happened there happened with the music business and the entire country music business. We all had to change. I moved to Nashville in 1957. I recorded a song and was lucky enough to get on the same pop charts that he was dominating. I didn’t go up very far but I got on the pop charts. So it made us try harder and try something different.”
Source: Louisiana Hayride (the documentary), Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis.