Last week we took a look at the first big concert in the new Graceland Guest House Theater. Actually, big does not adequately describe the Joe Walsh “All Shook Up at Graceland” event.
It’s a package deal including two nights in the hotel, two parties, Graceland tour, a combination concert/ Q&A session/slide show by Joe Walsh, and much more. And it cost $1,795 per person.
There have been other concerts in the Guest House, and they have been on a more modest scale. For example:
This was a two-night package back in February, with Mark209 in concert on Friday, February, 24th, and Memphis Soul City performing on Saturday, February 25th. Anyone booked in a two-double bed room with a view of the central courtyard ($219 per night, double occupancy, plus 21% taxes and fees) could go to the concerts for free.
This is a straight concert, with no hotel room tie-in. You can be staying at any hotel or motel in town and come see this show for $25. T.G Sheppard had dozens of top 40 country hits, but his last was in 1988. He is 73 but maintains a busy touring schedule along with his wife Kelly Lang. I suspect that the Guest House will present more concerts of this nature than the extravaganza packages like Joe Walsh.
That being said, I would like to suggest three performers I think Graceland would be wise to schedule. While they are all up in age, they are still performing. And best of all, they all have a connection to Elvis, and I would love to see any of them in a concert.
In 1955, Wanda Jackson was a seventeen-year-old aspiring country singer, with some minor hits to her credit and a half-hour radio show on KLPR in Oklahoma City. In July, she was booked on one of those packaged touring country music shows that were popular in the fifties. It was here that she met Elvis Presley, and they became fast friends. Wanda and Elvis performed in other touring shows in August and October, 1955, and again in early 1956.
Elvis and Wanda dated a bit, but her dad was her manager on the road, so things never got hot and heavy between the young singers. In an interview in Rolling Stone magazine, she said, “Our dating amounted to what we could do on the road. If we got in town early, we might take in a matinee movie. Then, after the shows, we could go places with his band — and my dad, of course… It was very important, a girl’s reputation, in those days. There were things you could and couldn’t do, and my daddy made sure I never crossed the line.”
Elvis urged Wanda Jackson to branch out and try rockabilly music. He said, “It’s the next big thing, and you need to be singing it.” She took his advice and decided to try her hand in this wild new world of rockabilly. “He broke my train of thought and made me realize I could stretch myself.” Rockabilly songs are what made her mark in music history. As Rolling Stone said, “Her songs were full of vinegar. She sang them all with gravel-throated gusto.” The Smithsonian Institution would later refer to her as the sweet lady with the nasty voice. Her first national hit was “Let’s Have A Party,” which Elvis fans know he originally recorded for the movie Loving You in 1957. Jackson liked the song and recorded it in 1958 for her self-titled first album.
Wanda Jackson went on to have great success in other four different genres – rockabilly, country, gospel, and rock and roll. She had huge popular success in Europe and Japan. In 2009, Wanda Jackson was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 2007, she recorded an album in tribute to her old friend titled I Remember Elvis. “[Elvis] has been a big part of my life. I worked with him and loved him very much for the person that he was, so it only seemed right that I should do a special tribute to him. I chose the songs he was singing when I was working with him in the fifties, and that gave it purpose. At the end of the CD, I also tell stories about my remembrances of the first time I met him, the first night I worked with him, and the last time I saw him.”
Although Wanda Jackson will turn 80 this year, she still does the occasional concert. I would be thrilled to see her perform at the Graceland Guest House Theater, and I’d bet she would pack the place. How about it, EPE? Please schedule Wanda Jackson while you still can.
Johnny Rivers’ connection to Elvis started the same year as Wanda Jackson – 1955. At that time, he was Brooklyn-born John Ramistella, a twelve-year-old growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Young John and a buddy went to the local high school to see a country concert starring Minnie Pearl and Little Jimmy Dickens. Opening the show was an unknown singer named Elvis Presley. Minnie Pearl introduced him as “The Hillbilly Cat,” and he came out wearing a pink suit and white buck shoes. Elvis sang only two songs, “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Rivers recalled, “All that sexual energy up there on stage, people didn’t know what to make of it.” He said to his buddy, “Wow. This guy’s really cool.”
Johnny got a second look at Elvis after that high school concert. He went around behind the auditorium and saw Elvis, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black loading their gear in a trailer. Actually, Scotty and Bill were doing the loading. Elvis was talking to some of the country acts. Johnny remembers this about Elvis: “He was bouncing around, he couldn’t stand still. I’m thinking this is the coolest guy I ever seen.”
Within a year, Johnny was playing guitar in local groups, and by age fourteen, he was fronting the band “Johnny and the Spades.” In 1958 he performed at the Lousiana Hayride in Shreveport. Later that year, Johnny traveled to New York to seek work in recording studios. It was there he met legendary disc jockey Allen Freed, who convinced him to change his name to Johnny Rivers.
The next stop was Nashville, then back to New York City, and finally Los Angeles. In 1963 Rivers and his group began an extended stay as the house band at a local nightclub. This led to a lucrative offer to open the new discotheque Whiskey A-Go-Go on the Sunset Strip. Soon, his first album Johnny Rivers at the Whiskey A-Go-Go was released, and it quickly sold a million copies. Johnny Rivers’ career was on a roll.
With his newfound wealth, Johnny Rivers moved into a mansion in exclusive Trousdale Estates, and regularly drove his maroon Jaguar over to Elvis’ place in Bel Air for weekend football games, with other stars like Pat Boone and Jan and Dean.
Johnny Rivers and Elvis had one other interesting connection – the song “Memphis” written by Chuck Berry. Elvis recorded it during a two-day session in Nashville in May 1963 that produced fourteen songs. Time constraints limited “Memphis” to just two takes, and Elvis was not happy with either one. So, on January 12, 1964, Elvis went back in the studio to re-record “Memphis” and one other song. He wanted a more exciting, modern sound, because he planned to release “Memphis” as his next single. Elvis was dedicated and focused. He was in good voice, and he loaded up the studio with three guitar players and two drummers.
Elvis left the studio very pleased with the results, but “Memphis” was never released as a single – and Johnny Rivers was the reason. He and Elvis had jammed together on the song back in Bel Air. Rivers liked it so much he incorporated it into his repertoire at the Whiskey. In May 1964 a live version of the song hit the market and quickly went to #2 on the charts. That killed any chance of “Memphis” ever being an Elvis single.
There is one last Elvis/Johnny Rivers connection. I would strongly recommend his 1991 CD The Memphis Sun Recordings. Rivers recorded it at Sun Studios, with James Burton and Carl Perkins as special guests. It contains cover versions of four Elvis songs and three Perkins hits, plus others by Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich. It’s a terrific CD, and I play it a lot.
I find it hard to believe, but Johnny Rivers has not been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. How can they ignore an artist with 17 Top 40 hits, 9 Top 10 hits, and a Number 1 hit “The Poor Side of Town.” His most notable song over the years has been “Secret Agent Man,” which peaked at #3 in 1966.
Johnny Rivers will turn 75 this year, but he still performs regularly.
So, my second suggestion for an artist to appear at the Guest House Theater is Johnny Rivers. He could certainly wow the audience by performing the four Elvis songs on the Memphis Sun Recordings CD: “Mystery Train,” “Tryin’ To Get To You,” “That’s Alright, Mama,” and “I Forgot to Remember to Forget.” Plus there is “Memphis.” Rivers also released an album Blue Suede Shoes, and the title song is the best version I’ve ever heard. If Graceland books Johnny Rivers, I guarantee there will be dancing in the aisles.
Jerry Lee Lewis
Did you see this choice coming? How absolutely cool would it be to have Jerry Lee Lewis perform at the Graceland Guest House Theater?
I presume it isn’t necessary to detail the connection between Elvis and Jerry Lee. However, stories about their rivalry persist, so that’s worth mentioning. Elvis had been gone from Sun Records for over a year before Jerry Lee burst on the scene. In some ways The Killer had the better of it in this presumed competition. For one thing, Jerry Lee had much bigger hits at Sun Records than Elvis did. The sales of “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire” absolutely dwarfed anything achieved by Elvis’ five Sun releases. “Breathless” and “High School Confidential” also made the Top 40, something not achieved by an Elvis song until he went to RCA. Jerry Lee’s career also shot out of the gates quicker than Elvis’. His first release “Crazy Arms” went nowhere, but the second, “Whole Lot of Shakin’,” instantly made him a national star.
The supposed feud between Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley is on pretty shaky ground. Consider what Elvis said after the famed “Million Dollar Quartet” session, his first musical interaction with Jerry Lee:
“That boy can go. I think he has a great future ahead of him. He has a different style, and the way he plays piano just gets inside me.”
Jerry Lee wasn’t afraid to put his stamp on Elvis songs. He has recorded “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Hound Dog,” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” Elvis covered Jerry Lee’s’ “Whole Lot of Shakin,” and a few lesser-known Lewis songs.
Both men are charter members of the Rock& Roll Hall of Fame, inducted together in the inaugural class of 1986. Check out the picture the RockHall uses as their stock Jerry Lee Lewis photo.
These days, Jerry Lee doesn’t climb up on the piano. He will turn 82 this year and his performance schedule is pretty skimpy.
He performed at his own club in Memphis this past New Year’s Eve, and then at a Country Music Festival in late February in Indio, California. His website does not list any upcoming appearances.
Hopefully, there is still enough time for EPE to book Jerry Lee Lewis for the Graceland Guest House Theater, but they better hurry.
He lives on his ranch just south of Memphis in Nesbit, Mississippi. They could send a stretch-limo down there and transport him to the Guest House in style. They could put him up in the Vernon and Gladys Suite.
All that would probably run up the price of tickets, but I don’t think they’d have any problem filling up the place.
Jerry Lee Lewis is a Rock and Roll legend.
Come on EPE. Bring him to Graceland.
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