The Back Story: Elvis in Marianna


Few cultural phenomena compare to the meteoric rise of Elvis Presley in the 1950s. Sure, the Beatles had their moment a few years later, but they were an import. Elvis was a purely American creation — the poor boy from Tupelo, Miss., who took gospel and rhythm and blues and packaged it into a hip-shaking, Brylcreemed personification of Everything that Made Parents Nervous. It was sexual, soulful and 100 percent rebellious.

In our last issue, AY Magazine celebrated the 40th anniversary of Elvis’ death by focusing on his time in Arkansas. One photo we featured was taken at a show in Marianna. Chester Key, a 9-year-old at the time, was in the audience with his older sister, Marie. That evening, a packed house had gathered in the auditorium of the T.A. Futrall High School to watch the future King of Rock ‘n’ Roll along with an up-and-coming Arkansan named Johnny Cash — a fantastic double-bill with a price of only 50 cents. Energy in the room was electric and people knew they were seeing something life-changing.

“His dancing stood out — he had the moves,” says Key. “Back then, you just didn’t see a lot of that. It was kinda shocking, you know, that he performed like that and was that good of a dancer. Of course, the ladies, they loved it. He was quite entertaining. The crowd got into it. It was something that was new and he had started it.”

According to Key, Elvis wasn’t the only person dancing that night. A young man who Key only knew as “Booger Red” began dancing in the aisle that separated the rows of folding chairs. Marie was shocked. “She thought it was a put-on, but it wasn’t a put-on. That was just Booger,” Key says. When the song was over, Elvis thanked Booger for adding to the show.

READ MORE: See the places Elvis visited in Arkansas

Marianna was just one stop on Elvis’ grueling tour circuit that featured other legends like Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Cash. John Heath, an avid Elvis fan and memorabilia collector, says that the King’s early touring days took him down east Arkansas through Little Rock and even down to Texarkana and Camden. Just after cutting his first single, “That’s All Right, Momma,” at Sun Records, Elvis played for three hours on a flatbed truck at P&G Motors in West Memphis. This work ethic helped him secure a gig with the Louisiana Hayride, shortly after flopping at the Grand Ole Opry. Once he signed with the Hayride as a featured performer, he and the band bought a used Cadillac and traveled the show’s circuit, performing throughout Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana. This caught the attention of Colonel Tom Parker, who got Elvis booked on CBS’ Stage Show, hosted by the Dorsey Brothers. And that caught the attention of America.

Before becoming an international superstar, Elvis played Marianna twice and put on shows in neighboring Aubrey, along with other places like Forrest City. Much like Key, Heath saw Elvis for the first time at age 9, but in Memphis on July 30, 1954. His memories of that first show parallel Key’s experience (minus Booger Red, of course).

“Me and my cousin got dragged to the concert,” Heath says. “My mother and aunt loved country music. It was hot as blue blazes and we were sweating profusely. The impression [Elvis] made was unbelievable. Nobody looked like or sang like Elvis Presley. He was like a prince from another planet. So different in style. He beat down the doors.”

LEARN MORE: Read stories from the August issue

Over the years Heath and his son, John Michael, have amassed quite a collection of Elvis memorabilia and the elder has even consulted with the archivists at Graceland. Some of his prized pieces include the jumpsuit that Elvis wore during his last concert in Memphis on July 5, 1976, along with a super-rare acetate of “That’s All Right” — one of three copies printed — that was sent out to local radio stations to hype the release of Elvis’ first single.

As for Elvis’ enduring legacy, Key thinks it goes beyond the music to a personal connection. “There will never be another Elvis,” he says. “He was good with the crowd, good with people. You could just tell by his personality, you know. He was a poor boy who made it big.”

Heath echoed that sentiment.

“Elvis loved his fans and was very generous,” Heath says. “He’d do things for them. He never denied anyone an autograph. He said if it wasn’t for them, he wouldn’t be on top. His fans made him, and he showed appreciation to them. I think that’s why he’s so ingrained in the minds and memories of the fan base. He’s a remarkable person. To be part of that history and observe that history is remarkable.”

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