When Elvis conquered the Triad
The King of Rock ’n’ Roll had a unique connection with the Triad, the Gate City in particular, about which he declared from the stage, “Of all the places we’ve been to, you’re one of the most fantastic audiences we’ve had.” Many of Elvis Presley’s most exciting live performances of the 1970s were reserved for Greensboro Coliseum audiences. Presley made his first incursions into our state long before that. In the spring of 1955, this relatively unknown rockabilly performer and his rough-hewn, three-piece combo played their first dates in North Carolina at the New Bern Shrine Auditorium and Asheville’s City Auditorium on May 14 and 17, followed by September bookings in those towns, augmented with stops in Raleigh and Wilson.
Concert Date: Sept. 17, 1955
A raucous show at Thomasville High’s auditorium revealed a young performer possessing an unnerving intensity accented by quivering lips, unnaturally dark eyes and a slicked up, black ducktail pompadour that took three kinds of grease, and considerable time to prep, so it curled and flopped when he threw his head forward. Teen girls squealed and swooned uncontrollably at Presley’s pelvic gyrations and raw sex appeal, a source of great concern for many parents in this staid community.
Concert Date: Feb. 6, 1956
As his first single on RCA Records, “Heartbreak Hotel,” was rocketing up the charts to No. 1, Greensboro welcomed the up-and-coming 21-year old pop star. He was on tour with the Carter Sisters and the Louvin Brothers, for four electrifying performances at the ornately fashioned National Theater on South Elm (now a parking lot next to the Guilford Building). Cruising into town in a pink ’55 Cadillac Fleetwood, there’s a rumor Presley had trouble getting backstage, as the local crew couldn’t believe this greaser was their opening act. The next day, the troupe tore it up four more times at the Center Theater in High Point.
Concert Date: Feb. 15, 1956
On the night of Feb. 14, Presley motored into Burlington, checking in at the Piedmont Hotel. Dressed in a navy blue suit, he ate lunch at a nearby café, visited WFNS (now WBAG) unannounced, then gave away tickets at Margie’s Musicland for his 8 p.m. performance that evening at Williams High School. After that, it was on to Winston-Salem’s Carolina Theater but not before stopping at the Brightwood Inn in Whitsett. Louise Little waited on Presley that evening, stating that he ordered a “hamburger with lettuce and tomato, washed down with a glass of milk.” The booth he occupied is preserved as a shrine. After these days, Presley would never again be able to stroll the streets alone without attracting a frantic mob.
Concert Date: Feb. 16, 1956
Winston-Salem Journal’s Roy Thompson was blown away by Presley’s performance, one that, “Sent a matinee houseful of teen-agers and other music-lovers into an orgy of hand-clapping, foot-stamping and tonsil-straining screaming. It is extremely doubtful that the Carolina Theater has ever seen a more enthusiastic audience.” A month later, he appeared at the YMCA gymnasium in Lexington.
Presley left touring behind soon after, in favor of cranking out lightweight celluloid musical romps, filming as many as three a year. Kissin’ Cousins, Kid Galahad and Roustabouts could live a little, love a little, then spinout on the speedway in pursuit of Girls! Girls! Girls!
The Other Elvis Presley
One of the buxom objects of The King’s desire in “Tickle Me,” actress Francine York who passed away just last year, described Presley in 1965 to me as, “Not at all shy, very outgoing, great sense of humor. So gorgeous in person. Always kidding around, kiddingly talking back to Norman Taurog, the director. Very kind to me and complimentary. So different than a lot of stars who were stuck up.”
Within a few years, these hopelessly anachronistic travelogues with sappy soundtracks had diminished Presley’s stardom so completely he was considered washed-up.
An electrifying performance in December of 1968 on an NBC primetime special sparked the greatest comeback in show business history. Presley was again riding high on the pop charts, then conquered Las Vegas like a Southern Godzilla just as Sin City was losing its cachet. Other performers on the Strip typically appeared for two-week engagements while Presley’s gigs at the Las Vegas Hilton were month-long affairs. Had there been no Presley, that moribund resort town quite possibly would have dried up and blown away into the desert sands. Presley took his bombastic revue on the road beginning in 1970, breaking attendance records everywhere, but venturing no closer to the Triad than Cleveland until 1972.
Concert Date: April 14, 1972
Before the Memphis Mafia arrived in Greensboro, Presley’s advance men had already covered with aluminum foil every window on the top floor of the posh new high-rise Radisson Hilton on West Market; a sky parlor plunged into never-ending nighttime across the street from Greensboro College.
Documentary filmmakers recording Presley’s stage show rejoined the tour in Greensboro after a short hiatus. The footage was screened at a local theater for Colonel Parker, who was enthusiastic about what he saw, so cameramen at the Coliseum that night were strategically positioned within the orchestra to capture the entire performance for “Elvis on Tour,” Presley’s last motion picture, as it turned out.
Estelle Brown of the Sweet Inspirations told BBC2, “When Elvis walks out on stage it’s like the building is being torn down. People were screaming and hollering and falling out and throwing stuff on the stage, oh, it was just amazing. Not only did he have the Sweets and the TCB band but he had the gospel quartets like The Stamps or Imperials. If you include the orchestra it would be about 60, it was a lot of people on stage.”
For this night, Presley wore his Royal Blue Fireworks outfit, open to the waist, with an Owl Belt and matching cape, draped with one of the trademark scarves he occasionally bestowed upon fans. His every twitch generating ripples of excitement, Instamatic cubes flashing like strobe lights, rending teen angst from menopausal women, hands reaching up towards this heavenly body in desperate longing.
Cameras rolling, Presley decided spontaneously to attempt a new song he’d recorded weeks earlier. Holding a lyric sheet in front of him, the band struck the opening chords to “Burning Love.” The King’s final Top 10 smash was performed live for the first time in Greensboro. After his last number, Presley spread his caped wings, exiting like a condor amid much fanfare from the orchestra. A booming voice echoed across the Coliseum speakers — “Elvis has left the building!”
Concert Date: March 13, 1974
After a two-year absence, 16,000 tickets for Presley’s return to Greensboro sold out within minutes; scalpers commanding $200 for a front row seat that cost them $10 each. The King looked sharp that night in his high-collared, Blue Starburst belted jumpsuit with wildly exaggerated, pleated flairs.
A boy from the audience outfitted in a sequined jumpsuit and cape was ushered onstage, Presley draped a scarf around him then commanded jokingly, “Get him out of here, he’s dressed better than I am!”
Concert Date: July 22, 1975
Shortly after midnight on Monday, July 22, Presley and his entourage deplaned from a newly acquired 96-seat Convair 880. Christened the Lisa Marie, the airliner was customized, like all of Presley’s vehicles, by ’66 Batmobile designer George Barris. Moments after settling in at the Hilton, word went out to the manager of the Greensboro Coliseum that there was a problem. Armed with a telephone and the City Directory, he began waking up local dentists, starting with the “A”s, until he found someone who would see the star of that night’s concert for an emergency procedure. It wasn’t until Dr. J. Baxter Caldwell’s patient sauntered into his office on Pembroke around 3:30 a.m. that he realized he’d be working on the most famous mouth in America.
It had become common practice for Presley to remove one of his fillings, then be seen on a rush basis for what would eventually yield him a prescription or two. (Ironically, Caldwell was known for his reluctance to use painkillers.)
Christopher Newsom shared a snapshot of Presley leaving the Hilton for the Coliseum that evening, “My dad and his brother went and waited for him. His bodyguards told everybody he had a toothache or something and wouldn’t be hanging around to talk.”
Presley had, of late, been inexplicably pestering his female backup singers from the stage with crude insults, such as their breath “smelled like catfish” according to Snopes.com. Most of his vitriol was reserved for on-again, off-again girlfriend, Kathy Westmoreland who harmonized with the Sweet Inspirations. When it got to be too much, all but one of the women had walked off stage mid-performance the night before in Norfolk. Determined to quit for good, after a heartfelt apology from Presley, all but Westmoreland performed at the Coliseum on July 22. One local reviewer declared this concert, “better than ever.”
After returning to the dentist’s office for a follow-up, Westmoreland met with Presley as he sat on his bed in karate pajamas, brandishing a gun in one hand and a gift-wrapped watch in the other. More bewildering, the next afternoon the entourage discovered, at the airport, that Presley had flown ahead to Asheville without them. After the Lisa Marie was dispatched back to Greensboro and they finally made it the Rodeway Inn, Presley was contrite, showering everyone with what the jeweler that traveled with him called, “Practically a whole jewelry store!” He took the $40,000 diamond ring off his finger to give to J.D. Sumner of The Stamps. When The King didn’t receive his customary standing ovations in Asheville, he doled out expensive trinkets to audience members, some $85,000 worth altogether, then handed over his guitar to a random fan (who, in 2015, tried to sell it for $300,000).
Concert Date: June 30, 1976
At this point, theatrical practicality had taken over, Presley was only pretending to play guitar, his moves mere poses. The audience lapped it up nonetheless. Every year in the Gate City, Presley sported a different outfit, in 1976 it was the Blue Egyptian Bird. When he wore this elaborately beaded getup for the first time three months earlier, he ripped the seat of the pants, generating front-page headlines. That split across Presley’s fault line was such a touchstone moment in pop culture it rivaled the Beatles’ split.
A typical day started around 3 p.m. with Presley partying with his bandmates past sunup. Other than getting in and out of a limousine, the group wouldn’t see the light of day for weeks on end. As one of The King’s courtiers put it, “At a point you get nuts.” Close associate Red West described Presley in 1976 as, “A boy in a man’s body who could not handle the celebrity he had now become. I had a sinking feeling that I would not see my best friend again. And I didn’t.”
What the Public Couldn’t Know
By the spring of 1977, the King of Rock ’n’ Roll had been on a years-long rocking roller coaster of Amphetamines and downers. A full-time staff and a national network of unknowing physicians kept Presley medicated between near-fatal overdoses and brief periods drying out. Weighing in at over 250 pounds, after 20 years of hit records, movies and sold out concerts; the greatest superstar of the 20th century was effectively broke and needed to be constantly on the road earning.
While Colonel Parker deserved credit for making his protégé a star, he was pocketing around 50 percent of everything Presley earned, with under-the-table side deals abounding. A carny show charlatan of W.C. Fields-ian proportions who’s real name was Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, ‘Parker’ had fled the Netherlands to escape murder charges, a criminal past no one in Memphis or Hollywood knew anything about.
Parker made business decisions for his only client based primarily on how much money he needed to pay down his losses to (among others) the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas. A casino owner’s dream who once squandered $10 million (adjusted for inflation) in one sitting, he’d throw down on every number on the roulette table (so, even when he won he lost).
Concert Date: April 21, 1977
Opening night for the last 10-week tour before The King’s untimely death was in Greensboro. One concertgoer recalled, “My dad had a part-time job at a dry cleaners. They received a call from the Greensboro Coliseum. They needed an ‘emergency cleaning.’ My dad drove over; it was Presley’s outfit for his concert. Presley was laying on a couch when my dad went back there. Evidently, something happened to his costume.”
The enthusiastic, capacity crowd that night was treated to one of the strongest and most exuberant of what would be The King’s farewell performances. Presley was feeling frisky in his golden Mexican Sundial suit, singing three favorites long ago dropped from his repertoire: “Little Sister,” “Little Darlin’” and “Fever.” Still sending shrieking shock waves throughout the audience, Presley’s pelvic thrusts were a thing of the past. Action onstage was reduced to dispensing as many scarves as possible, his naturally drowsy eyes now noticeably woozy.
Elvis had been prescribed more than 5,300 pills for this outing, a mind-numbing cocktail of Opioids, Amphetamines and central nervous system depressants that included: Valmid, Placydil, Valium,Pentobarbital, Phenobarbital, Butabarbital, Dilaudid, Demerol, Morphine, Biphetamine, Amytal, Percodan, Carbrital, Dexedrine, Cocaine Hydrochloride but most especially Codeine and Quaaludes.
Playing progressively smaller venues every year, The Colonel reasoned that small-town audiences would be grateful to see Presley regardless of how bloated or ill he became.
The Final Curtain…
Six hundred narcotics had been dispensed for Presley by Aug. 15, 1977, one day before departure for an excursion which would have bypassed Greensboro in favor of Asheville and Fayetteville. Indicative of his compulsively crepuscular lifestyle, the last photo taken of The King was snapped at dawn the next day by a waiting fan as he returned to Graceland from his dentist. Hours later, he was dead from an overdose at age 42.
When news broke out, Greensboro’s Southern Bell phone lines were overwhelmed with incredulous callers, as former operator Cathy Robbins remembered in an online post, “Every available person was working the board. Supervisors, upper management – everyone was answering calls! They told me not to attempt any calls to Memphis; their phone system had been blown out!” They could only relay the message, “We have no details at this time, stay tuned to your local T.V. for information as it becomes available.” It had been a little over 21 years after Presley’s first Gate City gig and barely four months since his last.
At the time of his passing, Presley had sold more records than any solo artist in history. “Elvis on Tour” was released posthumously, winning the Golden Globe for Best Documentary; a young Martin Scorsese supervised the montage sequences. The entire April 1972 Greensboro performance was released unofficially so that Presley’s flirtations with the Triad remain pressed between the pages of our minds, sweetened through the ages just like wine.
There are those who believe Elvis Presley’s restless spirit may still be making periodic stops in Greensboro. The Radisson Hilton is long gone, repurposed as The District at West Market, where a receptionist told me last year about furniture in the lobby that would, on occasion, be rearranged overnight despite no one detected on the security footage entering or exiting. Some on staff believe it’s the restless spirit of The King. Until recently, a lady was residing in the penthouse precisely because Elvis had stayed there. Perhaps Elvis hasn’t left the building after all.
The author of 5 books, Billy Ingram is one of the nation’s top experts on television history. Portions of this article appeared in a different form in O.Henry magazine. Ask your doctor if cocaine hydrochloride is right for you.