Texas teenagers were among the first to recognize the supercolossality that was, and is, Elvis Presley. He knew and appreciated it. “Texas put me over the top,” he told a reporter once.
But what Elvis didn’t know, which was the real beauty of him, was that he was over the top from the first time he dressed the way he wanted, wore his hair the way he wanted, spoke, sang and moved the way he wanted. When his first record producer, Sam Phillips, asked him whom he sounded like, Elvis said, “I just sound like myself.” When we, the teenage boys of Johnson County, saw him for the first time, the way he looked and dressed, we realized we had been dressing like Mickey Rooney in the Andy Hardy movies.
Mothers, though, must have seen Elvis as a threat. Reporters called him “Elvis the Pelvis” and so on. Teachers warned us about him, and after the preachers got a load of Elvis, they gave Satan a break for a while. But Elvis was immune to their rejection because his mama loved him. He simply went on being himself until he found regular work at the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport and began playing small East Texas sites on his nights off.
In Cleburne, Floyd “Buddy” Halyard was the first Elvis imitator I knew, at least one of the first to wear white buck shoes and comb his hair in ducktails. He was the first kid I knew who bought an obscure 45 record on the Sun label called “That’s All Right (Mama)” with “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the flip side. As soon as we heard that sound we knew instantly that, for us, then, all other music was obsolete.
Elvis-itis was an epidemic with kids everywhere by then, and when news spread that he would be playing at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on October 11, 1956, Cleburne girls mailed in their $1.25 money order for a ticket posthaste. One caller to the Cleburne office of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation program wanted tickets to Elvis’ Cotton Bowl show, saying there must be tickets for sale there because “cotton was part of its business.”
They were open with their Elvis adoration. Boys also loved him but never admitted it to the girls. Like the adults, we ridiculed the “oily haired truck driver.” But secretly, we wanted to look like him and have what he had.
Which might include our girls for an evening, maybe forever.
We had read those newspaper accounts of his shows: “Lewd and dangerous,” one report said. So we knew the looming danger as our girlfriends prepared to join the motorcade that would depart on the afternoon of October 11 for the Elvis hysteria at the Cotton Bowl.
In those days, Cleburne’s Chaf-In diner had booths along the north side with windows facing West Henderson Street, which becomes U.S. 67 leading to Dallas. We gathered there to watch, maybe get a last look, at our lovelies in hoopskirts, sweaters and bobby sox, radiant with Revlon, passing by in cars driven by desperate mothers bound for “Love Me Tender” land.
We fed our sorrow with cheeseburgers and fed our fears that our girlfriends would be among the ones rumored to follow him after the show. Sometimes, it was wildly speculated, they were never seen or heard from again.
“There’s 5,000 girls in his fan club already,” somebody said. “Maybe that’s the way he gets them, just collects them after the shows.”
“He probably keeps them in his hundreds of mansions that he has around the country,” someone else said.
Will we ever see them again? This was the unspoken but understood fear.
But they came back, all right, unharmed by the spectacle of rolling hips and quivering lips. “There was a high fence around the stage,” one told us, cementing then and there our lifelong affection for fences.
Not long after that, Elvis became a soldier at Fort Hood in Killeen. When he was discharged, he went to Hollywood, got married—became a father like the rest of us.
In later years, he came back to Texas, where he had first gone over the top, but it wasn’t the same. The Elvis girls were wives and mothers by then with grown-up obligations. The boy that had been lewd, crude and dangerous to know had become respectable. His once raw, simmering wail with its otherworldly echo was now a cool and earthly baritone, crooning out gospel songs. He even wore a girdle so his glittering Liberace-like outfit wouldn’t rend asunder.
Today, the Elvis girls have grown grandchildren. But somewhere in their safe suburban houses, there may be a little Elvis shrine, the centerpiece a photo of the young Elvis with the petulant, heartbreaking eyes following them wherever they go in the room.
As for their husbands, Buddy Halyard and the rest of us, we also have a shrine. In a secret corner of our memory, there is a distant image of a cool-cat, ducktailed daddy-o that we probably never were—and couldn’t have even dreamed of being had Elvis never existed.
Tom Dodge is an author and frequent contributor to Texas Co-op Power.