1956: The year Elvis visited Burlington and left high school gyms way behind

One of my favorite features we published during my second tour of duty with the Burlington Times-News was this one by Alamance County historian Walter Boyd. It’s about the 18 hours music icon Elvis Presley spent in Burlington in February of 1956, including a performance at Williams High School. That story published in 2015, in turn, got me to do a little research into that pivotal year in the emergence of Elvis from small-time singer to the soon to be King of Rock’n’Roll. He was a busy guy in 1956. I remember liking this column when I wrote it in 2015 but it got very little response. By 2015 the whole strange Elvis Phenomenon had definitely worn off.


Elvis poster 1956

Elvis is everywhere

Elvis is everything

Elvis is everybody

Elvis is still the king

As what turned out to be his pivotal professional year of 1956 began, Elvis Aaron Presley, born in little ol’ Tupelo, Miss., wasn’t a well-known figure, much less the King of Rock’n’Roll he ultimately became. But there’s not much denying that he at least lived up to one line in the 1987 song by Skid Roper and Mojo Nixon back in those days. Elvis was indeed everywhere — especially in 1956. He was even right here in Burlington.

The tales about the visit by Elvis for a performance at Walter Williams High School that year are nearly legend in these parts and always include the almost equally mythical visit to the Brightwood Inn out on U.S. 70. When Elvis climbed aboard the stage at Williams High on Feb. 15, 1956, he was just a month past 21 and touring — as was the custom of the time — with a group of musicians traveling by car or bus from one town to another playing about any venue they could book. There were five acts in all on what was called the “East Coast Tour.” Elvis and his band were the outliers. They played neither country nor western music. It was sort of a hybrid of blues, swing, country, rock’n’roll and what came to be known as rockabilly. Some audiences on the tour didn’t take to it very well. Think “The Blues Brothers” playing Bob’s Country Bunker.

Walter Boyd, a historian and collector of all things Alamance County, documented what were basically Elvis’s 18 hours in Burlington and Alamance County. One of these days I’ll have to get Walter to recount the story of how he put this particular piece together. It would be a fascinating look at how singular events can take on lives of their own in the retelling by those who were there and others who really, most likely, were not.

In many ways it was much like the way my dad used to speak of the famous Rose Bowl football game played at Duke University in 1942. “If everybody who claims to have attended that game was actually there it would be 500,000 people,” he often observed.

Same with Elvis in Burlington.

Elvis 1956 carolina

IN 1956, things moved quickly for Elvis Presley. After two years of laying down a track or two every so often at Sun Records in his new home of Memphis, Tenn., and a montage of small regional shows mixed with appearances on the Louisiana Hayride, he was just about ready to come of age nationally as the year began if he was going to do so at all.

It began on New Year’s Day in what was one of the more metropolitan places Elvis played early that year, St. Louis. It ended on Dec. 15 in Shreveport, La., at Hirsch Memorial Coliseum, where he was recorded for the Louisiana Hayride radio show. In all, Elvis and his band hit 119 sites during the year, including seven stops in Shreveport for the Hayride. He played as many as four shows a day in some towns, including Greensboro.

In between is where it gets interesting. During the year he recorded “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog.” All three became signature songs and hits. He also appeared on TV shows hosted by Milton Berle, Steve Allen and, by September, Ed Sullivan. Huge ratings demanded that Sullivan book Elvis, much as he didn’t want to.

Elvis poster 1956 Berle

By the fall, Elvis was in his first movie.

He did it all while traveling, mainly by car, from Charleston, Miss., and Boonville, Miss., to Marianna Ark., and Beaumont, Texas. He did this night after night, from T.A. Futrall High School gym in Marianna to the YMCA in Lexington, N.C. In one stretch, he played 21 shows in 18 days. The day after appearing in Burlington for one show only, he did a matinee and three nighttime shows at the Carolina Theater in Winston-Salem.

AS THE CALENDAR rolled from month to month, the gigs got a little better. The venues, larger.

Elvis was moving up in the world.

On Feb. 10, for example, Elvis played two matinee and two evening shows at the Carolina Theater in Charlotte. When he returned to Charlotte four months later on June 26, he played the Charlotte Coliseum. On March 21, he performed at the YMCA gym in Lexington, probably one the last small towns Elvis ever played. The one exception that year came on Sept. 26, when he returned home to Tupelo for the Alabama Fair and Dairy Show, where he played two shows in one day.

From there, though, he belonged to the world. He stopped playing high school auditoriums, city theaters and YMCAs. He drew gasping crowds at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, and Fox Theaters in Atlanta and Detroit.

 About the only bump in an otherwise ascendant 1956 came in Las Vegas, of all places. From April 23 to May 6, he performed two shows a day at the New Frontier Hotel. He didn’t quite fit in with the Frank Sinatra champagne and martini crowd there yet. He was still a little too country.

Eventually, Las Vegas caught up with him. Burlington, though, was there first.



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