“One night, probably in late 1952, a teenaged white boy ‘came in there, didn’t have on any shoes, barefooted, and asked me if he could play my guitar. I didn’t want to let him, I don’t usually–I didn’t know him from Adam. I’d never seen him before. In fact, he was the only white somebody in the club. He made sure he won that one. He sang “You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hound Dog” and shook his hair–see, at the time I had my hair processed, and I’d shake it down in my face–he tore the house up. And tore the strings off my guitar so I couldn’t follow him.’ The boy turned out to have a name even more rare than Phineas Newborn–Elvis Presley.”
(Source: Stanley Booth, “Fascinating Changes” Rhythm Oil, 1991)
Booth is quoting Memphis musician Calvin Newborn (Phineas’ brother). Newborn, who is black, is responsible for the “Elvis as L’il Abner” imagery. Booth, who spent decades floating in the “whites-only” margins of the crit-illuminati (not quite cynical enough to be Nik Cohn and not nearly disciplined enough to be Nick Tocshes), supplied the bit about 1952.
I know everybody who reads this isn’t hip to Elvis-lore, but the dubious “he played Beale Street long before he was famous” story-line has always been around, fueled by quotes like this one. I’m sure Newborn meant no harm–and he does seem to have had some sort of friendly relationship with Presley–but there are at least two things in his recollection which are far more hallucinatory than the idea of Elvis Presley singing “Hound Dog” in 1952 (the song wasn’t written until 1953, Elvis did not perform it in public until 1956).
However far one has to reach into The Twilight Zone to conjure up the notion of Elvis ripping the strings off another man’s guitar in a cutting contest in a black night club on Beale Street in 1952 might be, it pales next to the image of Elvis (who really did shop for his ultra-hip clothes on Beale Street) doing all this in his bare feet.
Note that Booth–who prides himself on never having taken a wooden nickel from anybody (and who, in his one great “right-place-right-time-right-subject” moment, parlayed this self-delusion into a genuinely captivating account of the Rolling Stones at Altamont)–swallows every bit of it.
And if Newborn had finished off the imagery with E wearing some overalls with patches on the knees, you can bet he would have taken that as the gospel too.