Elvis birthday week creates tourism boon in the Mid-South

by George Jared ([email protected]) 383 views 

President Richard Nixon greets Elvis Presley at the White House (1970).

Jerry Schilling got his Christmas bonus and he decided to use it to buy his boss a gift. Schilling, who spent many years in Hollywood as an actor and film editor, would go onto work as a producer and manager for the Beach Boys, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Billy Joel was nervous. His then boss was a tough guy to buy for.

“What do you buy Elvis?” Schiller asked a capacity crowd at Elvis Guest House on Thursday in Memphis.

The now 77-year-old settled on a gun that was found in Elvis’ Graceland estate after his death in 1977. Schiller, along with Priscilla Presley and others gave presentations throughout the week during Elvis’s birthday week in Memphis. Had the king survived, he would have turned 85 on Jan. 8. A concert in his honor will be held at Graceland Saturday (Jan. 11) starting at 7:30 p.m.

Events like this draw enormous numbers of music history fans, and Delta Cultural Center assistant director Thomas Jacques said there is a rich music history throughout the Delta Region and when a event is held in one place, it leads to tourism in others, he added.

“We see an uptick in international and national visitors. They’re in the area and looking for other music history attractions,” he said.

There are a multitude of options for visitors. The Johnny Cash homestead in Dyess is a popular destination. Many people, including a lot of locals, are unaware that musicians such as Charlie Rich (Colt), Al Green (Forrest City), Sam Cooke (Clarksdale, Miss.), and others were born and raised in the Delta, he said. Often, when visitors run out of things to do in Memphis, they venture out to surrounding communities.

One place visitors often stop is Helena. Hall of Fame musician Conway Twitty grew up in Helena, and it’s a piece of history the city often promotes. Twitty moved to the town when he was 10 during the early 1940s.

His first band was the Phillips County Ramblers. After high school, he spent time in the military and was even drafted to play major league baseball. He opted to pursue a career in music.

In 1958, he had his first No. 1 hit, “It’s Only Make Believe.” Twitty, born Harold Jenkins, would have 50 No. 1 hits, and he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Helena is also the home of the King Biscuit Blues Festival, one that honors “King Biscuit Time,” the oldest radio show in the country dedicated to Blues music. Jacques said he had a tourist from Massachusetts visit recently, and she had no idea it was the oldest in the country.

“It’s an amazing area,” Jacques said of the region and it’s musical heritage.

Not only are many of these musicians from the region, but nearly all began their performing careers here.

Louis Armstrong, Presley, Cash, Roy Orbison, Twitty, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sonny Burgess, and others played at honky tonks, clubs, and other venues along U.S. 67 in the 1950’s, extending from Newport to Pocahontas. Prosecutor Henry Boyce spends his spare time collecting exhibits for the Rock-n-Roll Highway 67 Museum – his own creation in Newport.

“Every single one of them played here,” Boyce previously told Talk Business & Politics.

Many of these artists were particularly drawn to Jackson County. The Silver Moon, the Bloody Bucket, Porky’s Rooftop, Bob King’s and many others offered these musicians much higher paydays than they could get in clubs in larger cities.

Why?

Gambling was illegal, but county law enforcement turned a blind eye to the dice, poker, and other games in these clubs, Boyce said. Club owners made enormous profits and used that money to book the best talent, he said. The club trend in Jackson County began in the 1940s as World War II raged. At least 2,000 servicemen were stationed at an airbase in Newport. On Friday nights they got paid and needed something to do, Boyce said. Glen Miller, and other “Big Band” musicians started to play in the clubs.

Those acts brought in patrons, but nothing like when a truck driver from Mississippi cut his first record with Sun Studios in Memphis in 1953. Elvis Presley played in Jackson County four times from 1954-56.

“He (Elvis) could make more money in one show in Jackson County than he could in Memphis,” Boyce said. “Jackson County was wide open back then. Elvis only played in a lot of places once. He played here four times. I think that’s significant.”

Besides the gambling, drinking was prevalent in the clubs. Guests were allowed to bring their own booze into places like the Silver Moon, but had to pay $2 for the cola they wished to mix with their whiskey, vodka, and other spirits, Boyce said. The Silver Moon was the most extravagant club, and it could seat as many as 800 people, he said. One club, the Sunset Inn, had a bear that would drink beer to entertain guests.

A piano recently acquired by the museum once was used inside Porky’s Rooftop. Elvis played at Porky’s, and if he played the piano that night, it’s the same one, Boyce said.

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