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When the King came to King Street (and some other Charleston spots, too)

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Elvis 1956

Mary Lois Tennyson, (left), 14, and Loudean Tennyson, 16 (right), pose with Elvis Presley after a concert held at the old County Hall on March 18, 1956. Provided

Dozens of folks claim they spotted Elvis Presley in Charleston. Many pin the King's whereabouts to King Street. Others offer sightings at a peninsular ballpark. 

It’s true, the year of these sightings was 1956 — when a king in the making roared into a smaller, sleepier Charleston not once, but two unforgettable times.

On March 18 and June 28, Elvis packed ecstatic houses, played with a tender heart or two — and even broke the flesh of an arts reporter, sealing his reputation in the national media.

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That year happened to be a very big one for a 21-year-old baby-faced, duck-tailed, hip-pivoting, rock-and-roll rascal that caused heads to turn and girls to swoon. He did so by borrowing heavily from Black music, then helped to break it through to mainstream America.

As writer Peter Guralnick put it in his book “The Lost Highway,” “He hit like a Pan-American flash, and the reverberations still linger from the shock of his arrival.”

This year marks the 65th anniversary of Presley's two visits to Charleston. Most of the ticket holders, who were teeny-boppers or younger in 1956, are now in their 70s or 80s. Many still recall with starry-eyed fervor their brushes with the King.

Elvis - file not in Charleston

Elvis Presley visited Charleston twice in 1956. Presley shakes, rattles, and rolls as he performs at the Mississippi-Alabama State Fair, Tupelo, Mississippi, Sept. 27, 1956. File/RCA Victor/AP

Elvis ascending

By the beginning of 1956, Presley was gaining attention, filling a slot on the southeastern concert circuit, touring with marquee acts and filling halls in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia and Florida.

As the months progressed, his poster billing switched from “hillbilly singer” to “Mr. Dynamite.” He cut his first album for the RCA Victor label. He inked a seven-year contract with Paramount Pictures, and readied for his first leading role in “Love Me Tender.” And he took to the stage of national TV shows, among them his sensation-making and seminal Sept. 9 performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

But six months before his appearance on the Sullivan show, as Presley fever was set to spike, Charleston was in the sweet spot.

The King on King Street

On March 18, Presley took to the stage for an afternoon show at Charleston’s County Hall, the entertainment arena at 1000 King St. near Grove Street that hosted everything from traveling musical acts to wrestling matches.

The stars were already aligning. It was weeks after four national appearances on “The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show,” performing songs including “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Blue Suede Shoes.”

Then on March 3, his single “Heartbreak Hotel” made “The Top 100” in Billboard’s popular hits list. On March 13, RCA released his first album, “Elvis Presley,” entering Billboard’s Top Pop Albums on March 31 at the No. 11 spot and soon reaching the top position, where it held for 10 weeks to become the genre’s first million-selling album.

Posters on that tour promote Presley on a bill playing with The Blue Moon Boys, and featuring other stars including Grand Ole Opry comedian Rod Brasfield, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters and The Jordanaires.

Those who shared their memories of the concert often did so with the same unbridled glee that, by all accounts, screamed through the arena that day.

Margie Weathers, who was 11, went with a friend with whom she recently shared recollections. “She remembered that June Carter sang prior to Elvis and I recall Elvis singing 'Blue Suede Shoes' and throwing something into the audience, which I’m thinking was a shoe.”

There were others, too. Bunnie Buchheit, who was pregnant with her first child at the time, was struck by his beautiful voice and luscious looks. Ron Taylor piled in a car with four other boys to drive to Charleston from Cottageville. Mike Musgrove was taken by “Blue Suede Shoes,” a song he knew from Carl Perkins’ recordings that he already performed on his guitar for fellow seniors at James Island High School.

A 15-year-old Bill Agee, at his first live concert, witnessed boys in the audience harass Presley, who stopped mid-song and said, “Would someone please get a shovel and move that?” 

Mary Walton Whiteman, a Charleston Day School student, managed to sneak backstage with a friend for the afternoon show. There, Presley enquired of her, "Want a Coca-Cola, kid?" She declined. While she still has the diary with the entry about it, she noted that she had no idea at the time how famous he would become.

She wasn't the only one who got backstage. Summerville resident Naomi Palmer was 12 when she went to the show with her mother, who knew the stage manager. When he took them backstage to meet Presley, the diminutive Palmer was a nervous wreck on meeting the towering star.

"He was very friendly and tapped me on the shoulder... and said thanks for coming," she said.

The Wilson siblings were thrice-charmed in their encounter with the King. According to Hugh Wilson, he and his siblings John, Nancy and Julia, who ranged in ages from 12 to 14 in 1956, were dropped off at the concert by their parents with the understanding they would then walk back to their South of Broad home.

Working their way to the stage, his brother John hopped up and snagged an autograph. Ushered backstage, they then set off on the long walk home. At Huger Street, a red light caused traffic to stop. Five feet away, from a car window, there was Elvis, a sighting that prompted them to erupt in “double whoops.”

Resuming their trek homeward, the four walked some blocks until reaching the Francis Marion Hotel. As they glanced into the coffee shop window, sitting at a small table was Elvis yet again, a triple-whoop event. The waitress, Wilson said, was also overcome when she realized who her customer was.

“Somehow, we were allowed a third sighting of this most famous man on the planet," Wilson said. "He probably wasn’t aware of how happy we were, but it was truly unforgettable.”

The following day, Presley also made a stop by McClain's Music House on Rivers Avenue. According to owner Bill McClain's son Scott, the local radio stations had broadcast the visit, which drew a big crowd in the small store.

McClain told his son that Elvis was surprised by the turnout of folks wanting to meet him and get autographs and seemed unaware of how popular he had become.

"Dad said he was personable and friendly, (a) nice guy and not pretentious."

Vaccine Opposition History

FILE - In this Oct. 28, 1956 file photo, Elvis Presley receives a Salk polio vaccine shot in New York City from Dr. Harold Fuerst (left). At right is Dr. Leona Baumgartner, commissioner of the New York City health department. File/AP

Out of the ballpark

On June 28, the King was back — and bigger than ever. To meet the demand, the concert relocated to the College Park baseball park on Rutledge Avenue, where it accommodated a crowd reported to be at 4,000, teeming with lines of teenagers.

An advertisement for the 8:30 p.m. concert gives Presley top billing as an RCA Victor artist, announcing ticket sales at places like Miller’s Drug Store and Fox Music House.

Writer Betty P. Wilkirson of The News and Courier wrote, “Attired in a mandarin-collared grey silk shirt, high-waisted grey trousers, Presley signed autographs with hands that bore two diamond rings — one a horseshoe of stones.”

According to Dave Sikes of Mount Pleasant, his father had the only large outdoor public address system and was contracted to provide the sound for both Presley performances that year. Sikes, 13 at the time, and his 18-year-old brother, who would occasionally help his father with equipment setup and breakdown, were on hand for both shows.

At the first show in March, Sikes said Presley performed for no more than 20 to 40 minutes, then exited by the stairs, shaking the hands of his father and brother while he watched in the background.

In June, Sikes got luckier. When Presley descended the stairs after his performance, he again shook the hands of Sikes’ father and brother. “This time, my father held Elvis's arm and told him he had another son who wanted to meet him. This is when I got to shake Elvis's hand. Then, he was off.”

Robin Collins of Mount Pleasant saw Presley with several of his Orangeburg High School buddies while spending a week at Folly Beach.

“On that warm summer night, we and our dates walked into the stadium,” Collins recounted, citing the huge 18-wheeler truck parked in centerfield, flush against the cement block fence, with its bed used as a stage. Wanting a closer view, they rented some metal folding chairs, placing them near the pitcher's mound.

According to Rollins, the show started with a warm-up band. “All of a sudden the lights dimmed and the spotlight shined on Elvis as he jumped on stage singing ‘You ain’t nothing but a hound dog.’ My date, a sweet reserved girl, lost it. She started screaming and jumping up and down. It was amazing the effect Elvis and his singing had on the audience, especially the ladies.”

Anna Wireman McAllister, who was 8 when her mother, June Wireman, took her to see Presley, said, “I remember him jumping off the platform, landing on his knees while singing ‘Hound Dog.’”

For 13-year-old Little League player Frank Atkinson, it was easy enough to dodge the ticket fee by instead scaling the park’s wooden gate with two friends in tow to watch the show from behind home plate.

The local reviews varied in their impressions, but confirmed that the entertainer had made one. Basil Hall of The Evening Post wrote, “You ever see a ball park jump? Well, I did. If squeals, shouts, moans and sighs are any indication, Elvis was a tremendous hit. Nobody fainted — they didn’t want to miss the show.”

Wilkirson, who likened the bumps and grinds to a burlesque routine, quoted Presley as saying he wasn’t afraid of the girls mobbing him, just afraid they’d quit. “Judging from the screaming, howling 4,000-voice reaction to his crawling, shaking onstage-offstage-understage performance, his fears of being overlooked are groundless.”

1956 newspaper

While covering “the King” News and Courier staff writer Betty K. Wilkirson was bitten by Elvis Presley during his second visit to Charleston in 1956. The Post and Courier archives

A kiss and a bite

In other accounts, Presley’s 1956 dalliance with Charleston started with a kiss and ended with a bite.

An iconic photo of Presley from that year, “The Kiss,” was shot during his June 30 Richmond, Va., stop. However the kissee in the frame traces back to his Charleston visit.

The image captures the King in a steamy, tongue-tickling exchange with an unidentified woman right before his show at Richmond’s Mosque Theatre. It is the work of photographer Arnold Wertheimer, who had been enlisted by RCA to take publicity shots.

In 2011, Vanity Fair magazine revealed that Barbara Gray first intersected with Presley on his June Charleston stop, when she struck up an intrigue over the phone.

“I just dialed the Francis Marion Hotel and asked for Elvis Presley’s room,” she told The Post and Courier from her James Island home in 2011. “We must have talked for about an hour. ... Then he invited me to go to Richmond with him and I said yes.”

The brief interlude offered ample flirtation and fodder for Wertheimer's camera-clicking, as the two cozied up to a cafe counter, canoodled in a limousine and finally had at it on a backstage stairwell.

Gray told The Post and Courier she declined Presley’s invitation to also join him in New York City for his engagement on “The Steve Allen Show” and only heard from him once thereafter via a Christmas card.

Now about that bite.

This incident involved Wilkirson, who reportedly found herself at the receiving end of the King’s pearly whites following his College Park concert, after leaning in his car window for a photo.

“I was bitten by Elvis Presley,” she wrote. “This, I have since learned, is a signal honor.”

After the incident, she said, she was in national media demand, being interviewed, tape recorded and appearing on radio shows and helping burnish Presley's image as an enfant terrible. 

“As a newshen gnawed by the nation’s top hound dog singer, I’ve been advised variously to sue for assault, take a rabies shot, inquire whether he brushes after every meal, offer my paw to the museum,” she wrote.

Destiny sealed

On Sept. 9 of that year, Presley made his historic first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It was one that sealed his destiny as the King of rock 'n' roll and forever changed American culture, bumping and grinding it out of post-war priggishness and replacing it with something raw, audacious and unapologetic.

That summer show before his stratospheric launch would be the last time Presley performed in Charleston. However, the memory of both appearances has lasted a lifetime for those who bore witness when the King came to King Street and thereabout to shake it and rattle it — and then roll.

Follow Maura Hogan on Twitter at @msmaurahogan.

Maura Hogan is the arts critic at The Post and Courier. She has previously written about arts, culture and lifestyle for The New York Times, Gourmet, Garden & Gun, among other publications.