When I was almost eight years old, I got to see Elvis.
Some of my earliest significant memories of music are of driving down some farm-to-market blacktop in rural west Texas, with my Grandfather. The AM radio would be tuned into some gospel program from far off Louisiana, cranked up to the max, with the both of us singing about as loud as we could. My grand father loved to sing gospel-bass in the Baptist Church choir. He loved the music and he had a wonderful tall and big physique made to accompany that guttural, deep, deep, low-down voice needed to sing his part of our two part harmony. He was like having a built in boom box right there in that old car we drove all about the county whilst he sold wholesale groceries at every screen-doored, cross-road grocery we would happen on. The deep reverberations of song would be rattling the windows as skidded onto the graveled parking area of those combination, gas, grocery and farm implement stores that are gone now just like my grandfather. The only stations we could hear would be WBAP, some backwoods Pentecostal station from Louisiana and the occasional skip of the station across the border at Laredo, where I later would dial to hear Wolfman Jack. Along the way the Stamps Quartet, the Blackwood Brothers, the Gaithers or maybe even the noon Lightcrust Doughboys show from Fort Worth would be our backup singers and choir.
From out of these summer day jaunts across the county, came my first happenstance meeting with Elvis. I just couldn’t get enough music and my Dad, though a genuine lover of music, had no great love of gospel, preferring big band brass over a vocal quartet. And so it fell on my Grand-fathers shoulders to take me out to the closest things to concerts that we had around Comanche in the 50’s. On the occasional monthly Sunday, my grandmother would pack up a box of cold fried chicken, a container of fresh potato salad, some roles and sugar sweetened tea and we would all head for Hodge’s Pecan Grove, over on the banks of the Leon River just outside of DeLeon. Blankets and quilts would be spread over a sandy spot of ground under one of the ancient native pecan trees, not so much to keep us from the sandy dirt, but to keep us from sitting on the abundant grassburrs of the area. As soon as the appropriate space was marked off, out would come chicken, potato salad, tea and if we were really lucky the Black Diamond watermelon that grand dad had secretly iced down in the trunk just for that occasion. We would meet and greet the other Sunday morning music lovers and then around 11:00 we’d start to hear the buzz of microphones and tuning of guitars and testing of the mikes signaling the soon to begin parade of musical worshipers. The performers dressed in their Sunday finest suits and white shirts and ties (in the unbearable heat of those still west Texas creek beds) would already have sweat clinging to their brows before the first note of the first song. Soon, a young choir director or maybe one of the local preachers would thump the mike to see if it was on. All eyes and ears would focus on the back of that big flat bed truck trailer, set up to be the stage and listen up for a reading of today’s program of performers. There would be a prayer and then a local group or two of unknown or barely known, would test the spiritual waters of the day. They’d only sing a song or two to encourage people to finish the greasy chicken and sloppy melon and to wash their hands in toilettes, in anticipation of clapping to the tunes that were about to begin. A young Pentecostal or maybe Baptist minister, down from the seminary in Fort Worth, would do a little preaching in in-between as if to pump the holy ghosts moving among the audience. The big acts would then come on preceded only by someone bringing up a set of drums or a steel guitar or maybe a minor tuning of the humidity tested piano.
The music of the main acts was often a mix of western swing, gospel and southern roots music with religious overtones. But the thing best of all of them was the fact that the music was delivered in quartets, quintets, sextets, septets and so forth (in essence always based on how many brothers in any family had a decent singing voice.). Oh the sound… The air would fill with the mighty harmonies of these men. It was if the very leaves of the pecan trees above would shake. That old pasture on the bank of that nasty old river would surely be a holy spot today because of songs floating out on it.
On July 4, 1955, the Blackwoods were the main guest quartet. And as had been the routine for the last couple of years, the leader would always dedicate a song or two to the brother that the Lord had taken in a plane crash a couple of years earlier. They would usually announce that they were still looking for the right replacement but just hadn’t found him yet. Somewhere between barbershop and rock and roll and gospel…these guys were the consummate traveling band. They didn’t just sing, they put on a show. They told wonderful stories, jokes about themselves as well as well as a few well-connected locals in the audience, and sweated like stuck pigs. But oh what a joyous sound they made….
As I was saying, it seems that on July 4, the Blackwoods had invited Elvis Presley to come and join them for a day. Elvis was not really ELVIS yet. He had made some recordings, but for every rocker there was a flip side gospel tune. He was still trying to figure out whether to honor his gospel roots or to reach out to early rock and roll stardom and had not yet made his mind about which road to take. The Blackwoods saw Elvis’ potential and had secretly brought him to the pecan grove that year, to sit in the big silver Blackwoods bus and make him an offer to be the replacement for the now deceased brother. I was not yet quite 12. When the Blackwoods came off their air-conditioned bus, they walked right past where we sat on our blankets. Walking along right behind them was something that we didn’t see much of around that part of the country. It was a young man, in tight dress pants, no tie or coat, and the coolest slicked back black DJ and sideburns, I had ever seen. I didn’t know who he was yet, but was already taken back by his presence. He stood at the side of the trailer while the Blackwoods sang most of their set, then toward the end; they brought him up on the stage and had him accompany them. They introduced him as “Brother Presley” and really sort of stood back and let him sing and they acted as the backup chorus. You could tell that they really like him by the glint in their eyes as they watched first him, then the audience and then him again.
Well, I don’t know what happened there that day, but I understand that when Elvis got back on the bus with them, that he graciously declined their offer.
I don’t think he ever came back to the pecan grove again, and in fact, it wasn’t too many weeks until he started getting more airplay on the radio, first from the station down in Mexico, and then on the night time skip stations from Louisiana, Nashville, and Chicago. WBAP would sometimes dig out one of his old gospel tunes, but they just weren’t ready for what Elvis was doing at that time.
It was another two years before his first appearance on the Sullivan show. In fact, by then I think we had a TV and the outdoor concerts at the Hodge’s Pecan groves had essentially moved up into the air conditioned coliseum at Will Rogers in Fort Worth. The on-the-ground chicken and watermelon fest ended, and eventually my musical taste changed.
Most people aren’t aware of how close Elvis came to being a gospel singer. If the coin he flipped on that fateful day in July of 1955 had landed on the other side, Elvis might be alive today, having had a long successful run as leader of a gospel quartet. The history of music would have been profoundly different. In fact, the lifestyle of my generation would have been significantly changed by that one tiny event. In a way, I was there, the day the music changed.
And page 2 http://heroeswest.com/doughboyfan/DmnBW2.html)
and http://www.biwa.ne.jp/~presley/elnews-GospelMusic.htm (this is a bit of a read, but it tells about how Elvis was offered a job with the Blackwood quartet and how he came to DeLeon to sing on July 4th, 1955)
Years, later, my grand-daughter and I were prone to doing the same sorts of things. We had our own back roads to travel and we preferred more later-day Texas favorites instead of the old gospel tinged favorites of my youth. And much like my Dad, her Dad wasn’t too crazy about me exposing her to “my kind of music”. But I guess in many ways, taking her to see my favorites was like a payback to my Grandfather for the grand experiences that I had had with him. I still love it when she clambers up into the front seat of the big blue pick-up and slides a Bodie Powell CD in the player, cuddles up under my arm and together we sing at the top of her lungs, "Pick Me Up at the County Jail" http://www.bodiepowell.com/. Or if my wife is with us, she and Queenie (Grand-daughter) sing Tom Russell’s “Gallo Del Ciello” while I make the appropriate Mexican whoops and hollers in the background. I oft wonder if she sings these songs of cock fights and getting sprung from jail to her playmates in elementary school. Maybe years from now, she will look back on these trips as I do now, the ones with my grand parent.
If you are interested in a dose of real Texas gospel history, Gruene Hall, http://www.gruenehall.com/aug2004.html just outside of New Braunsfels, has this awesome Sunday Gospel come-to-town-church get together that is incredible https://tickets.gruenehall.com/Event.asp?EventID=254. The ticket includes an array of Texas gospel and country artist followed by a real honest-to-gosh covered dish lunch in the center of the German hill country....outstanding food. It is a truly spiritual event.
If you get real lucky, you can go down the night before and sin all you want in Texas oldest and most original dance hall and then get up Sunday morning, go back to the exact same dance hall and ask for forgiveness...and considering the lunch you eat...you are forgiven. Haha. Then in the evening, stroll down to the Guadalupe River and lay out a blanket, take a nap and when you wake up, take a dip in some of Texas coolest, clearest spring-fed creek water. Awwwwww , what a week end. At the August shindig on Aug 7, Saturday night, it's Texas finest married singing duet "Albert and Gage". These guys are incredible all by themselves....and then Sunday morning, Brett Graham from Fort Worth (see White Elephant Saloon) starts off the proceedings and preaching is done by Baptist preacher Buckner Fanning. What a hoot.
Ok. No, I don't work for the place, although I have spent enough money there to own it by now. And yes, someday, I want to be a tour guide.....
ADDITIONAL NOTE: I found this picture of Elvis taken a couple of months before I saw him. The setting is not Hodges Pecan Grove, but it very similar. I also found out that on the Saturday, before seeing Elvis, he had played in Stephenville, and on the night of the 5th he played in Brownwood.