Memories from the Piano Playing Heathen, David Gibson…..
My life now as an elderly, retired psychology professor is stupefyingly dull. So, if you will, kindly indulge me some brief reminiscences of a more golden era. Thanks a bunch!
I started playing piano by ear as far back as I can remember ... even further if you count toy pianos. My folks rented a piano, but I refused to take lessons because none of my childhood friends were into music, and I figured after-school hours and weekends were for fun and just hanging with the guys.
Along with puberty came a momentous discovery ... namely, girls really fell for guys who could play piano well! So ... no more ‘jock envy!’ I was quite fond of ‘Sheila’ whose parents were members of the Colonial Country Club in Memphis. Consequently, I was invited to parties there where there were lots of kids my age and, as luck would have it, a piano. The first time I was asked to play, the girls learned that I could play any popular tune they wanted to hear. After that I had more invitations to parties everywhere than I could accommodate, and girls started calling me at home ... usually around supper time. It was the early fifties, and we shared our phone line with two sets of neighbors who complained because the line was busy all the time. This upset my mother no end, and she began limiting my extracurricular activities.
I vividly recall the first time I met Elvis Presley although I don’t remember the exact year. I do know I was old enough to ‘date’ if somebody’s mom did the driving, so I’m thinking 1953 or 1954. Elvis was working as an usher at Lowe’s Palace Movie Theater in Memphis, and he escorted my date and me to our seats one summer evening. He was tall, thin if not cadaverous, had sandy brown hair, sported full, muttonchop sideburns, had bad acne and was dressed in an all -black usher’s uniform. Hardly your typical early fifties teen! What I can never forget is his ‘surly’ facial expression when he looked at me. I felt as though he resented middle class, crew cut, ‘Leave it to Beaver’ types like me who could afford dates with pretty girls! Months before we even knew his name, we guys nicknamed him the ‘Undertaker’ and the ‘Scarecrow.’
At no point did I ever want to be a musician, but along about 1955 I started playing with guys who lived in east Memphis just to hang out and have fun after school…
Some of these fellows were acquaintances from East High where I attended, some were from White Station School where I had gone before transferring to East in the 10th grade, and some were just invitations over the phone before I came to know them. I met and befriended some truly talented folks in those informal jam sessions ... including a very young Jim Dickinson and my East High classmate Roger Fakes. Roger nicknamed me ‘Piano Man’ which, along with ‘Hoot’ stuck for a couple of years. Occasionally some of us would form a short-lived group and give ourselves a name ... like ‘The Desperadoes’ and ‘The Bill Roland Combo,’ named for a drummer friend. We got some ‘gigs’ and played for little more than ‘free plus tips’ at The Eagles Nest, the Rainbow Terrace Room, the Silver Slipper and elsewhere. I could talk for hours about things that went on at ‘The Slipper,’ some of which involved Hollywood starlets whose names I’m sure you would recognize from old movies or TV re-runs. I won’t go into this, however, because I’m not certain about the statute of limitations. I don’t need any criminal indictments at age eighty!
The Eagle’s Nest was popular with the beer and fries crowd and featured country music entertainment. I guess I played ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ hundreds of times, maybe ten to twenty times on the same evenings. I was too young for the beer, but, hey, nobody cared, and you’re only young once, right?! Entertaining there was fun, but the real fun was ‘spectatorship,’ i.e., forming a circle around and clapping for the girls as they were dancing to the music. They wore these long dresses in those days you see, but the dresses flared up and it got really ‘snowy down south.’ Scientifically speaking, there was a negatively accelerated positive growth function between the boldness of the ladies and the loudness of the clapping!! Needless to say, we clapped until our fingers ached! The more ‘upscale’ Rainbow Terrace Room was favored by the college crowd including Wink Martindale and his Memphis State Kappa Alpha fraternity brothers. Elvis patronized both The Eagle’s Nest and the Rainbow Terrace Room and sometimes played these venues before he became famous. On occasion, Elvis was in the audience when I played with Bill Roland and other, mostly impromptu, groups. I remember coming off a set once at the Terrace Room and getting into a fight with some fellows because I grabbed one’s beverage and drank it as I passed their table. Wink and his buds saved my donkey that night! Long live Kappa Alpha! I don’t remember Elvis being there that time.
By June, 1956, Elvis was popular all over the midsouth. Our ‘Bill Roland Combo’ entered a talent contest that month with Gladys and Vernon Presley as two of the judges. The contest was held on Summer Avenue in the basement of a Baptist church. We played two numbers, one of which was a very upbeat version of ‘When the Saints go Marching in.’ The song choice was my idea because, from what I had read about her and her background, I thought Mrs. Presley might like it. Boy, was I ever right!! She got up and danced during our number, and we won the contest hands down!
Our ‘first prize,’ included an invitation to meet Elvis and swim in the family’s pool at their home on Audubon Drive, an opportunity to cut a record for free at Sun Studios and an appearance on Wink Martindale’s televised ‘Dance Party.’ Elvis’ mom and dad and a cousin of Elvis whose name I don’t recall joined us in the pool. While we were wading, Elvis, Red West and another fellow drove up in a pink Cadillac. Elvis was wearing a fancy green shirt, the same shirt he had worn in either a ‘Look’ or ‘ Life’ magazine piece about a ‘controversial new artist’ with ‘sexually suggestive moves’ that Baptist preachers in the south were railing against. They shouted ‘hi ya’ or something like that and started to go inside to change clothes. Before they made it inside, however, a convertible filled with teen guys sped by with everyone ‘flipping the bird’ and yelling obscenities. Elvis and Red took off running after the car. The occupants were lucky they weren’t caught as Red West was one tough hombre, and Elvis was mighty angry. Immediately thereafter, Elvis and his friends drove off without another word which seemed to upset Mrs. Presley who was already crying over the gestures, cat calls and obscenities. She went indoors, and we left the pool after saying goodbye to the others.
Gladys Presley seemed genuinely fond of us ‘contest winners’ and would always come out in her yard to talk to us whenever we drove by on Audubon and stopped in front of the house. Once when we jokingly complained about not getting anywhere with our music, she hugged me and said ‘Boys, ... Elvis ain’t got no talent either and look where he is!’ Interestingly, we didn’t perceive this as a back-handed compliment, but, rather as an expression of deep sadness and loneliness, ... resentment too. It was on one of these visits in June, 1956, that Mrs. Presley invited to attend Elvis’ July 4th concert at Russwood Ball Park. We attended and sat with the Presleys down front.
Three things stand out in my mind about that concert: First, Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black gave a stunning performance. Second, the security on hand was insufficient to handle all the screaming fans, mostly girls, who tried to climb the stage and grab Elvis’ hair and clothing. Third, my friend Roger Fakes won the door prize ... Elvis’ diamond encrusted EP ring! I have photographs of Elvis handing over his ring to Roger. I doubt that many folks outside of Roger’s family have these same photos as he sent copies to me personally many, many years later and revealed that he sold the ring to a wealthy collector from Texas who flew his private plane to Memphis to pick up the ring and take him to dinner. I must say the crowd in attendance was not pleased that a young fellow sitting with the Presley family won the door prize! We had a few anxious moments leaving the ball park.
I recall cutting a record with the Bill Roland group at Sun Records and appearing on Wink Martindale’s ‘Dance Party’ subsequent to our winning the talent contest. To the best of my knowledge, nothing ever came of this. If the record was ever released, I never heard about it. I thought we sounded doggone good, however, and I would urge y’all to get out there and ‘rediscover’ it! Just kidding! While I remember playing at various times with younger East High classmates Colin Heath and Kaye Garren, I do not recall us making a record together at Sun nor do I remember their song, ‘Steady Girl’ although I know I did make the record. Honestly, this doesn’t surprise me as I was pretty torn up at the time over a girlfriend moving from Memphis to Phoenix, and I was making plans to travel by Greyhound to visit her over Christmas vacation and New Year’s. I was also concentrating on my studies after years of neglect and holding down two part time jobs after school. I remember thinking Kaye and Colin were a beautiful and talented couple as well as serious lovebirds. Kaye was so vivacious that I probably would have made a move had I not respected both she and Colin and the extraordinary relationship they had.
The mid to late fifties were exciting times, and Memphis was a great frontier, an adventuresome place to be young and full of vinegar! I can’t begin to tell you just how proud I am of having been even a tiny part of Memphis rich rock and roll history! I wish you all the best. Enjoy your life. Savor each day.
David Gibson February 28, 2019