Elvis Presley died 43 years ago today — on Aug. 16, 1977, at the age of 42 — which means the legendary singer has now officially been dead longer than he was alive.
Considering Elvis has been gone that long, it’s probably safe to tell you now that when Elvis came to High Point — on Feb. 7, 1956 — we didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet for the future King of Rock ’n’ Roll.
Oh sure, Elvis drew large crowds — mostly shrieking teenage girls — when he performed four shows at the Center Theatre downtown, but not everyone was enamored of the 21-year-old upstart singing sensation.
For starters, Elvis was famously dissed by the city’s favorite radio announcer, the late Max Meeks, who became a High Point institution over the airwaves. As the emcee of a show, Meeks used his WMFR radio station connection to interview the Grand Ole Opry stars who were sharing the billing with Elvis — the Louvin Brothers, June Carter and Justin Tubb, for example — but he passed up a shot at interviewing that Presley kid, whom he’d never even heard of.
“He was an embarrassment,” Meeks told The High Point Enterprise on the 50th anniversary of “Elvis the Pelvis” coming to town. “With all of that hip-shaking going on, a lot of folks were embarrassed by it.”
Theater manager Dan Austell had never heard of Elvis, either, even though the singer was just coming off of two national TV appearances with Jackie Gleason. In fact, when the theater owner sent Austell a letter telling him who was coming, he didn’t even realize the company had blundered by referring to the singer as “Alvis Presley.”
In hindsight, though, perhaps nobody disrespected Elvis more than The Beacon, a popular High Point scandal sheet better known for writing about sensational crimes and cheating husbands. On Sept. 20, 1956, The Beacon published a scathing review of Elvis, including a huge, front-page headline calling him a “CHAMPION HOG CALLER.”
We do not know what prompted this unsigned review. After all, it was published more than seven months after Elvis came to town, so it clearly was not written in response to his performances here. Maybe the critic’s wife or significant other suggested he should get a ducktail haircut like Elvis, and he didn’t take kindly to the advice.
Regardless, when you call a singer a “champion hog caller” — in large capital letters, no less — them’s fightin’ words.
Here’s how the author began his diatribe:
“For the coveted designation of ‘Creep of the Week,’ The Beacon nominates the slack-jawed hog caller who has become famous for owning four Cadillac automobiles at one time, the male burlesque dancer who bumps and grinds while emitting strangely inhuman sounds to the accompaniment of an obviously demented assemblage of off-key choristers, Elvis Presley.”
The critic went on to describe Elvis as a “petulant, wholly untalented former truck driver … who has amply demonstrated his utter lack of appreciation for the social graces by wiggling and twisting in a suggestive and degrading manner before millions of televiewers.”
According to our irritable ink-slinger, Elvis reduced radio airplay “to the level of the barnyard,” and those who adored him were “a slavering herd of imbeciles.”
“The sad part of all this,” the critic concluded, “is that Elvis himself is beginning to think he is pretty talented. The secret of Barnum’s success was that he was a fraud, knew it and bragged about it. The certainty of Presley’s eventual decline is that he is miserable and lacks the perception to realize it. He will probably be the last to know.”
More than 60 years later, of course, Elvis remains a musical and cultural force, even in death.
Max Meeks may have snubbed Elvis at the time, but at least he later acknowledged his error in not interviewing the young singer, and even laughed at himself for the missed opportunity.
We’re not so sure The Beacon’s anonymous critic ever evolved in his cynical view of Elvis. Probably long since dead by now, the critic may be sitting on a cloud in heaven, still grumbling about that “petulant, wholly untalented former truck driver.”
The critic was wrong, of course, but he will probably be the last to know.
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