This Month in New Bern – May 2019
By Claudia Houston, New Bern Historical Society
In 1954 a young man quit his job as a truck driver and began singing professionally as “The Hillbilly Cat.” His first Sun studio recording “That’s All Right Mama” rose to the number three spot on the Country-and-Western-charts. Despite discouraging words from the Grand Ole Opry and rejection by New York City Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, he made a six-state tour in 1955 with Hank Snow’s Jamboree. He would appear with them in New Bern in May 1955. His name -Elvis Presley.
As part of the Hank Snow several state Jamboree tour, Elvis Presley played in Jacksonville, Florida on May 13, 1955. At the end of the performance in front of 14,000 people he said “Girls, I’ll see you backstage.” That started a full scale riot in response and fans chased Elvis into his dressing room tearing off his clothes and shoes. At each concert that Elvis appeared in, the audience chanted his name and requested more playing time.
On May 14, 1955 Elvis Presley appeared at the Shriner’s Auditorium at the corner of East Front and Broad Street in New Bern. He played third bill, behind Hank Snow and Slim Whitman and he played two sets, one at 7 pm and one at 9pm. Tickets were $1 for general admission, $1.25 for reserved seating and children were admitted for 50 cents. Some locals later met Elvis at William’s restaurant (now the Chelsea) where he ate lunch and signed autographs. Although several ladies who attended the concert stated he brought the house down, there were no riots in New Bern.
At the end of the Hank Snow Jamboree, Elvis returned to Memphis. He soon left Sun records and negotiated a contract with RCA that brought him stardom. His first single with RCA, “Heartbreak Hotel” became his first gold record.
Elvis had a unique style of music and performance all his own - a combination of country and gospel. He danced around on stage shaking his hips and many adults were shocked by his music and dancing. When he appeared on TV, he was asked not to dance or was filmed from the waist up. Elvis began to appear on TV shows such as the Milton Berle Show, the Ed Sullivan Show and the Steve Allen Show. In addition to making records and performing concerts, Elvis began to star in movies. His first movie was Love Me Tender in 1956. He also sang the title song from this movie which went number one. Over the next 15 years, he starred in over 30 movies including Jailhouse Rock, Blue Hawaii, and Viva Las Vegas.
Elvis Presley was nominated for 14 Grammy awards, winning three times. He recorded forty top ten songs, including eighteen number one hits. He died of heart failure on August 16, 1977 largely due to increased weight and drug use and was buried at Graceland (the home he bought on the outskirts of Memphis, on March 17, 1955).
Elvis was one of the great musical icons of the 20th Century and became known as the “King of Rock and Roll” or simply the “The King.” And now you know, sixty-four years ago this month, the “The King” performed in New Bern.