Bernard Lansky, Memphis retailer, and owner of the flashy clothing store Lansky Brothers, on Beale Street, has died. Mostly famous for his most-famous lifelong customer (Elvis started buying clothes there in high school), Lansky was an influential member of the Memphis business community and helped provide all of the musicians flowing in and out of town at that time with the sharp wardrobes that would mark the rise of honky-tonks, rock and roll, and rhythm and blues. Elvis’ taste for flashy pink suits with black striped pants and “chartreuse fucking shirts” (to quote Sam Phillips) made him stand out, which was obviously the point. No matter what else happened, Elvis was determined to be “unignorable” (to steal Dave Marsh’s word). Bernard Lansky would see Elvis, a pimply teenager, hanging around outside, peeking in through the windows at the clothes.
One of Lansky’s favorite Elvis stories was how he first met the future King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Presley was a teenager working as an usher at a nearby theater and liked to window shop at Lansky’s.
“He said, ‘When I get rich, I’m going to buy you out,’” Lansky said in a standard version of the story. “I said, ‘Don’t buy me out. Just buy from me.’ And he never forgot me.”
Elvis shopped at Lansky’s his entire life. Naturally, once he became a superstar, he couldn’t shop during regular hours. He couldn’t do anything during regular hours. So he would have his buddies go to Lansky’s and pick up stuff they knew he would like, or he would have Bernard Lansky stay open all night so Elvis could stop by and basically buy the entire store.
Lansky Brothers was on Beale Street for decades before moving to the Peabody Hotel, where it still is today. The building on Beale Street is empty (at least it was during my visit), but there are faded photographs in the windows of Elvis shopping, trying on clothes, getting fitted, pics of Elvis in some of the famous suits made for him by Lansky.
Elvis had a distinctive style of dress even before he was famous. Picture that shy weird boy peeking through the window after school, and thinking, “Some day I am going to be dressed in head-to-toe pink with black accents”, in a world where his fellow students were wearing jeans and checked button-down shirts, and you can get an idea of how out there Elvis was for his time.
Loyalty is a rare quality in anyone, but even rarer among stars, where it is easy to go so far away from your roots that you forget, you may never find your way back. Elvis had a ton of problems in his life, but that was not one of them. He rented homes in Beverly Hills, but his home base was Memphis, where he had lived since he was 13. He was doing the same things for fun, at the same damn venues, when he was 36 as when he was 16. It’s all a bit boring to think about, but picturing Elvis’ fame and the stress that such fame would place on a sensitive ego, it makes sense.
Elvis loved Lansky Brothers. They helped him create his look that got everyone talking, along with everything else about him. Elvis was superstitious, and also faithful. He had been chosen. It was his responsibility to be grateful and humble about it. It was also his responsibility to be good to people who had been good to him. He never forgot a slight, it’s true. But he also never forgot a kindness. (Lansky, for example, did not respond to teenage Elvis’ boast that he would one day “buy the store out” with “Please. You’ll never amount to that much.” or a sarcastic “Yeah, I had dreams once, too.” He accepted Elvis’ grandiose version of his own future, out of kindness, obviously, and the instinct of a good businessman, and signed up with it: “Don’t buy me out. Just buy from me.” Picture what a comment like that would mean to Elvis, and how it participated in his daydreams of his future.) Bernard Lansky was kind to Elvis, but more important than that: he opened a door into a world that Elvis wanted to enter, and Elvis wanted to enter it young. He dressed like he was “somebody” before he ever was (of course, though, we’re talking about Elvis, who became famous at the age of 19, so boy didn’t have long to wait.)
There were many factors in play that helped create the phenomenon of Elvis, and much of it was not in his control (things like youth demographics, more powerful radio signals, and peacetime leisure, not to mention television) – but the things that were in his control (song choice, onstage behavior, offstage behavior, persona-creation, fan relationships) he took on with gusto and specificity. He knew he had to give the audience something extra. He said that repeatedly. Otherwise they could just stay at home and listen to his records, why even bother coming out and seeing him?
Go to Memphis today and you can still see the building where Lansky’s once was, on a slightly tilted sidewalk, with a battered awning along the side of the building. Nobody goes in or out. But it is a landmark. There is a plaque. There are music notes on the windows, and a collage of photos of Elvis in his famous clothes, provided for him right there in that location. You can stand in the same spot Elvis did as a teenager, peering in at the racks of beautifully colored pink and green and yellow jackets and pants, and dreaming himself up … and out.
Daydreams are important. Daydreams are crucial. What Elvis dreamed for himself came true 100-fold. His imagination was fluid and susceptible and he saw Lansky’s clothes as the embodiment of his dreams for himself. It was as influential as listening to Dean Martin or the Blackwood Brothers. Elvis always wanted the whole package. He never wanted his life to be narrow. His dreams were huge.
We all need help along the way, especially dreamers. It’s hard. Because it’s hard to convince people to get on board with your dream, especially if it is an outrageous one (“I want to be world-famous and make millions of people happy”. It is my belief that Elvis held this dream very consciously. Nothing “just” happened. I think he had it planned all along, and that’s a hell of a secret to keep from people. It’s not that he was better or more talented, although he was that too. It’s just that he dreamed harder than anyone else.)
Elvis had a gift, and while he kept it private, he also had a way of gathering people around him who also believed. He would commandeer them at times, basically kidnapping his friends to go on tour with him, but beyond that, with other musicians, with jewelers, with horse-dealers, with car-dealers, with book-dealers … Elvis sought out what he wanted, and wanted it with such ferocity that businessmen, serious capitalist people, would devote their lives to giving Elvis what he wanted. He was a good customer. These men all realized that.
And so they tolerated being woken up at 3 in the morning by Elvis, asking if he could have 25 custom-made gold TCB medallions made and delivered to him the next day, or could he please get the car he wanted delivered in 10 minutes, or what about getting rare copies of esoteric philosophical books delivered to him by the caseload at short notice because he was about to get on the Lisa Marie to go to Vegas for 6 weeks. Elvis ran these people ragged. He made unreasonable demands. He would not take no for an answer. But business is a two-way street and businessmen who know which side their bread is buttered on will do what they can to please a customer like Elvis.
And it is important to remember: you don’t get to be as successful as Elvis was by being patient, and learning how to wait for things. Elvis was so impatient that on his way home from Vegas, or wherever, by train, he would often get off in Houston, rent a car and drive to Memphis. Elvis, that makes no sense. But it made sense to Elvis. He wanted what he wanted when he wanted it. He was unreasonable in that regard. If really successful people have one thing in common, it is that. They know what they want, and they go out and get it. End-stop. Whether it be world-wide fame, or a pink Cadillac or a diamond horseshoe ring or 25 TCB medallions, ordered at 3 in the morning and delivered by noon the next day. Or pink pants with black stripes down the side.
Elvis was loyal. He bought the same shit from the same people for 20 years. Business is a relationship and Elvis understood that better than most.
Bernard Lansky was 85. He never retired. He continued to open clothing shops around Memphis, many of which are still open. He was known as Clothier to the King (and that is the title of the book he wrote with his brother). Bernard Lansky was the one the Presley family reached out to when Elvis died, and it was he who chose the all-white suit Elvis was buried in.
Lansky used to say, “I put his first suit on him, and I put his last suit on him.”
Rest in peace.