January 8, 2019
Perhaps more than any other musical artist this star’s rise was in concert with the era of Rock and Roll. There are those who say he defined the sound of the genre. There is no doubt – as his 115 songs which charted on the Billboard 100 prove it – Elvis Presley was “The King of Rock and Roll.”
Born on January 8, 1935, he would have been 84 this year.
His story was truly the stuff of fiction. He was born, and spent the first 10 years of his life, in a two room shotgun style house in Tupelo, Mississippi. Interestingly, Elvis was an identical twin but his brother was a stillborn. Although attracted to music from a young age, he suffered from terrible stage fright in the early years. Despite this – and despite being told he had no ability many times – he continued on in pursuit of a career.
There was moderate success. It was during a recording session with Sun Records in August 1953 when the 19 year old’s ‘sound’ was discovered. From the Infallible Wikipedia:
“The session, held the evening of July 5, proved entirely unfruitful until late in the night. As they were about to abort and go home, Presley took his guitar and launched into a 1946 blues number, Arthur Crudup’s ‘That’s All Right’. Moore recalled, ‘All of a sudden, Elvis just started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool, and then Bill picked up his bass, and he started acting the fool, too, and I started playing with them. Sam, I think, had the door to the control booth open … he stuck his head out and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And we said, ‘We don’t know.’ ‘Well, back up,’ he said, ‘try to find a place to start, and do it again.’‘ Phillips quickly began taping; this was the sound he had been looking for. Three days later, popular Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips played ‘That’s All Right’ on his Red, Hot, and Blue show. Listeners began phoning in, eager to find out who the singer really was. The interest was such that Phillips played the record repeatedly during the remaining two hours of his show. Interviewing Presley on air, Phillips asked him what high school he attended in order to clarify his color for the many callers who had assumed that he was black.”
Elvis’ self titled debut album was released in March 1956 and featured his first big hit, “Heartbreak Hotel.” Because Presley’s sound was so different from any popular music of the day, many radio stations refused to play it, unable to figure out where it fit. But when the teenagers heard it, they would call the stations and request his songs. It was the first rock and roll album to reach number one on the Billboard charts, a position it held for 10 weeks.
What followed for Elvis were television appearances, most filled with controversy in regards to his iconic on-stage gyrations. His suggestive movements were originally prompted by a combination of nervousness on stage and tapping his foot to keep the beat. But Elvis seemed to have an instinct for knowing what his fans wanted and, when they screamed for more, he gave them more. The hullabaloo over his antics only served to bolster his success.
Rather than pen about more of his career – after all there have been hundreds of books and articles written – you can read a synopsis of his life here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elvis_Presley
I never saw Elvis in concert. I never bought one of his records. In fact, by the time I was a teenager, he was 35-40 years old and his career was in decline. You can only be a teen idol for so long.
But I do have a distinct memory of meeting a man who played with Elvis. By the time I met Punky Caldwell, he and his family were living in Yakima. Punky, unfortunately, was suffering from the complications of diabetes. It was Thanksgiving weekend of 1977, a few months after Elvis’ death. It was a weird night. I had gone with my ex-boyfriend to visit a friend of his from high school – Thelma – and we ended up playing cribbage with her and her mother, Jo. We said hello to Punky. He retired shortly thereafter and then, during the cribbage games, the story of how he had worked with Elvis was told. I guess he must have played with Elvis before Elvis got big. The way I recalled the story is that Jo and Punky went to visit Graceland after Punky no longer played with Elvis, and that there were hundreds of teddy bears everywhere. She commented on the teddy bears to Elvis who offered her one, which she refused. Later, when she and Punky were back at the hotel, a package arrived from Elvis. It was a teddy bear.
Being that I was 20 years old I hadn’t yet emerged from my self-centered cocoon. I’ve always been sorry that I didn’t show more interest in that unique story or to find out how, exactly, the family got from the south to Yakima.
A couple of years later when I worked as the editor/reporter of a small weekly newspaper I discovered I had a talent and a love of writing stories exactly like this; stories about a regular person who, perhaps, has done something extraordinary at one time in their life.
So now the reporter instinct in me kicked in and I have been able to learn more about Punky and his legacy. I know that he mentored young musicians in Yakima, making a real impact on them personally. I spoke with Thelma and the stories she heard growing up were quite different from what I recalled.
Her dad was a talented saxophonist and clarinetist and had his own band in Arkansas in the 1950’s. He played with Elvis before the King made it big, touring as musicians do. Even after Elvis achieved international fame, Punky was one person Elvis always trusted because Punky never wanted anything from him. In fact, after Punky and Jo married and their two daughters were born, he decided his young family needed him home more and decided to cut back on the touring. This was at a time when Elvis’ career was launching out of the stratosphere.
Elvis kept asking him to become a permanent member of his band, but Punky always said no. Finally one day, Elvis sent a gift to Punky; a Cadillac! Immediately Punky determined that he could not keep the car as he would not join the band. According to Thelma (she was only two, so this is the story from her parents) words were exchanged between her parents as to the disposition of the car. In the end, both Punky and Jo drove the car back to Graceland to return it.
Punky, who spent his life in music, lived for a few years in the Midwest before moving to Yakima. He thought Yakima would be a good place to headquarter where he could get to west coast gigs more easily. Sadly, blues and jazz music – his specialty – were, by the 1970’s, no longer being sought after for live performance.
But the takeaway is this… you never know whose life you may impact and what legacy you will leave. Perhaps you will be as big and as famous as Elvis or perhaps your impact, like Punky, will be on far fewer. Oh but what a difference it can make to those few.
For more on Punky’s life, some photos, and HOW he came to be called Punky, here’s two links:
Update on January 8, 2021 – If you’d like to hear some of Punky’s music, this guy randomly picks an album which piques his interest and then folds laundry and listens to it, making comments along the way. I know, it’s a weird set up. But kind of interesting how he is skeptical of Punky’s work at first but comes to appreciate the talent. Enjoy! Also, I guess he liked it enough to do side 2 of the album which was posted on December 17, 2020.