Memphis, Tennessee, wasn’t just Elvis’ home; it was also his stage.
From small clubs to large coliseums, Elvis performed in many different Bluff City venues throughout his career. A few weeks ago on the Graceland Blog, we looked at the Presley family’s Memphis homes and apartments. This week, let’s look at a few of the Memphis venues where Elvis wowed his fans.
Elvis’ career started small, with gigs at the Bel-Air Club and the Bon Air Club. But his first official billed performance was on July 30, 1954, at the Overton Park Shell – now known as the Levitt Shell.
Elvis – billed as Ellis Presley – opened for Slim Whitman, and he was so nervous his legs began to shake. It worked in his favor, and he left that show with a host of new fans.
That gig got Elvis and his band a solid booking at The Eagle’s Nest, a country-western club that was just outside the Memphis city limits. The guys played weekend shows for the next three months of 1954.
The Eagle’s Nest was steady work, but Elvis wanted more. His career blossomed: He performed at the Grand Ole Opry, which didn’t go well, so he signed with the Louisiana Hayride.
Many of Elvis’ early shows were in high school and junior high auditoriums. In early February 1955, he performed at Messick High School and Messick Junior High School in Memphis. These were no ordinary shows; he actually performed there to help promoter Bob Neal’s son, Sonny, in his campaign for the student council.
Elvis’ next venue was one he knows well: Ellis Auditorium. His Humes High School graduation ceremony was held in that same venue, and just a few years later, he returned as a young rock star at the start of his career.
He shared the stage with the likes of Faron Young, and in between shows, promoter Bob Neal arrangeed a meeting between Sun Records president Sam Phillips, Col. Tom Parker and Tom Diskin across the street from the auditorium. They were all, of course, interested in Elvis.
On August 5, 1955, Elvis returned for a show at the Shell. Fans enjoyed his previous Shell show, but they really loved him at this concert.
The concert was Bob Neal’s eighth annual Country Music Jamboree, and Elvis shared the stage with Johnny Cash, Webb Pierce and Sonny James. The show drew more than 4,000 fans.
By this point, Elvis’ career is on fire. In a short amount of time, he signed with RCA, made television appearances and continued to tour. Elvis’ next performance in Memphis was May 15, 1956, at Ellis Auditorium, for Bob Neal’s Cotton Pickin’ Jamboree. Elvis was billed above the likes of Hank Snow and the Jordanaires. Neal announced to the the crowd that Elvis would return to Memphis for a charity concert on July 4 of the same year.
That concert took place at Russwood Park in Memphis. During the show, Elvis told his fans, “You know those people in New York are not going to change me none. I’m gonna show you what the real Elvis is like tonight.”
Elvis Presley goes from a star to a superstar in no time. In just the next few years, he performed on the Ed Sullivan Show, filmed several movies, served in the Army and, of course, purchased his beloved Memphis mansion, Graceland. He’s not just a local Memphis performer – he’s the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. No matter where he went or what he did, he always returned home to Memphis. But his next performance in the Bluff City wasn’t until February 25, 1961, at his old stomping grounds – Ellis Auditorium’s North Hall.
It was a charity concert, and Col. Parker told fans that even Elvis will have to purchase a ticket to get in. February 25, 1961 was declared Elvis Presley Day by Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb and Tennessee Governor Buford Ellington.
There were two shows that day, one at 3 p.m. and another at 8:30 p.m. The afternoon show drew 3,860, while the evening show drew 6,540. Comedian George Jessel introduceed Elvis as “one of the greatest singer-actors of this century.” The shows raised $51,612, with $47,823 distributed among 26 Memphis charities, and $3,789 went to the Elvis Presley Youth Center in Tupelo.
It’s another 13 years before Elvis performs in Memphis again. He was, of course, pretty busy during those years – he married Priscilla and started a family, wowed fans with his iconic ’68 Special, performed hundreds of sold-out shows in Las Vegas, made movies and toured.
His next shows in Memphis were in March 1974 at the Mid-South Coliseum. The first four shows that are initially booked sold out immediately. A fifth show was booked, and it was this show, on March 20, that was recorded and later released as Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis (complete with Graceland as its cover image).
Elvis won his third Grammy Award for Best Inspirational Performance for the live version of “How Great Thou Art” on this album.
Memphis was everything to Elvis, and he always came home – either to rest and relax or to wow his fans on stage.
Get closer to Elvis and rock ‘n’ roll here at Elvis’ Memphis mansion, Graceland.
Elvis’ Grammy Awards, concert memorabilia and stagewear are all on display at the king’s castle. Plan your Graceland experience today.
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