A Deep Dive into The King’s Arkansas Ties

A new book delves into Elvis’ early years in Arkansas
“Elvis Cools Cats Down To a Dungaree Delirium,” from the sports section of the Arkansas Gazette, May 17, 1956 | Image courtesy of Joe Walker

THERE’S A POST on the Elvis in Arkansas Facebook page from a few months back that breaks down The King’s performances over his lifetime: “From 1954-1977, Elvis Presley performed 1,684 shows and was seen live by an estimated 12 million people.” Although the 40-plus shows that he played in Arkansas might seem insignificant when stacked beside such a figure, when you consider the stories produced during Elvis’ early years in Arkansas—about performances in high school gymnasiums, about accompanying fans to drive-ins, about a time he was all-but unknown—it’s clear those years had no small measure of influence. And for this, we can thank author Joe Walker, whose upcoming book, Elvis in Arkansas, offers a meticulously researched account of the musician’s Arkansas ties—and a history that was once all but unsung.

1. What first sparked your interest in Elvis?

My mother grew up during Elvis’ rise to fame and had the opportunity to see him perform several times at the “Louisiana Hayride” shows in Shreveport, so I was aware early on that he had performed across the region during his early career. And being a history buff, I would occasionally see references to Elvis performing at some small town in the state. That sparked an interest to learn more, and soon I discovered that Elvis was all over Arkansas during the 1950s. I never had the opportunity to see Elvis in person, though it’s ironic that my mother saw him at one of his earliest shows, and my brother saw him in one of his last concerts, in March 1977, just a few months before Presley’s death.

2. Your favorite Elvis story?

My favorite Elvis story? There are several, but the birthday party has got to stand out.

In the summer of 1954, Charlie Thornton, a student at Arkansas State University, would book musical acts for fraternity and sorority events. He had booked an act for a birthday party for Toni Roderick, when the act canceled at the last minute. Hearing the bind Thornton was in, an ASU fullback named Gerald Parsons told him about a kid he had attended high school with in Memphis who sang and played the guitar. Thornton, desperate for an act, booked 19-year-old Elvis Presley over the telephone for $75.

Charlie Thornton would recall how things went that night at the birthday party:

“I remember he was different looking. He had that greasy hair. Elvis played really bad that night. He played mostly gospel songs—at a high school party! At intermission, he and Toni came over to me. Elvis apologized for his selections. He told me he wanted to come back over and play for Toni again, this time for free. I said I would never book him again—even for free. I think this was the first time Elvis Presley ever got paid for a gig.”

Adding to the absurdity of the gospel-music-themed birthday party was the fact that Elvis, known for being painfully shy, insisted at times the lights be turned off so he could sing in the dark, terrified of the people watching him.

Charlie Thornton would go on to work as assistant athletic director under coach Paul “Bear” Bryan at the University of Alabama. He did cross paths with Elvis again, at a concert in Tuscaloosa in the 1970s, when they recalled the infamous birthday party, meeting backstage before Elvis’ concert.

3. Were you surprised to find such a large audience on Facebook?

When we established the Elvis in Arkansas Facebook page, we did it as a means to reach out to people who might have a memory or story about Elvis’ time in Arkansas they would like to share. We expected a few hundred to visit the page, but that has grown far greater than we ever expected. We post regularly to the page with Arkansas-related Elvis information. The response has been amazing, with many of the posts viewed by thousands of people. We’ve even had several post views exceed 50,000 people, with many providing comments and stories about their encounters with Elvis Presley during his time in Arkansas.

And of course, even the people on Facebook can create their own stories. I was approached by a 20-something-year-old female wanting me to assist her in digging up Elvis, extracting his DNA, and proving she is his daughter. When I explained to her that Elvis had been dead over 20 years before she was even born, that didn’t seem to deter her.

4. Any wild-goose chases for artifacts or stories? 

There are scores of “Elvis Ate Here” or “Elvis Slept Here” stories. Trying to separate fact from legend has been trying at times. I want Elvis in Arkansas to give an accurate historic accounting of Elvis Presley’s time in Arkansas. And in many cases, the “Elvis was at so-and-so drive-in and bought my mother a coke” stories were just something I couldn’t include in the book, as in many of these stories, there was just no way to verify the information.

Of course, discovering long-lost Elvis-related items has been rewarding. I was working with a young lady from southern Arkansas to identify several Elvis-related items in her deceased mother’s scrapbook when she described an early Elvis publicity photograph in the scrapbook that her mother had received after a 1955 show in Camden. Having learned Elvis’ backstage routine following his early shows, I suggested to the young lady she remove the photograph from the scrapbook and turn the photograph over. I heard the squeal of delight when she realized that on the back of the photograph, Elvis had inscribed “Best Wishes — Elvis Presley” to her mother.

5. Let’s say that time/space didn’t matter, and you were able to see Elvis perform one given show: What show would you like to have been at?

Without a doubt it would be the Sept. 6, 1955, show in the high school gymnasium at Bono, Arkansas. On this particular night, Elvis shared the billing with Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, three-quarters of the famed “million-dollar quartet.” And while the crowd was polite to Cash and Perkins, they swarmed the gym floor the moment Elvis stepped behind the microphone. This was raw Elvis, not the jump-suited “Vegas Elvis” that today’s generation imagines when they think of Elvis Presley. He worked the crowd into such a frenzy that night that the enthusiastic crowd caused a portion of the gymnasium floor to collapse. Those attending that night recall Elvis grinning broadly as he watched what was happening around him. Throughout his career, he would retell the story of the night the gymnasium floor collapsed at Bono, Arkansas. 

Visit the “Elvis in Arkansas” Facebook page for a visual history of Elvis’ time in Arkansas. Or—better yet—order the book for a full-blown history lesson when it’s released Dec. 1. For more information, visit ElvisinArkansas.com