The premier of the Sun Records, an American drama television series based on the musical Million Dollar Quartet, has certainly created a buzz amongst music fans. After all, the ground-breaking events in Memphis during the 50s changed the course of popular music. Today, hundreds of thousands visit the cities of Memphis, Nashville and New Orleans every year to take in the museums and locations where famous artists lived, played and recorded their music.
Before the members of the Million Dollar Quartet shot to stardom, they were honing their skills and promoting their music by performing in smaller cities and towns in the regional areas. As they trail blazed their way from town to town their popularity grew. Many from that generation can remember being caught up in the excitement and some were fortunate to have seen these young artists as they mingled with the locals.
To have caught a glimpse of an artist such as Elvis Presley or to have seen him perform before he became a megastar would have been pretty special. To hear stories about him from those who were there and witnessed it is a privilege, especially when being told the story while standing in proximity to where it occurred. This is exactly what happened on a road trip through the north-west corner of Alabama where a wonderful story was shared with us at the location where it happened over 60 years ago.
We spent two amazing days in the the Muscle Shoals area with friends who volunteer their time supporting The Singing River Sculptures initiative and also help promote the rich music heritage so deeply entrenched in this part of the world.
We were visiting and standing around one of the Singing River Sculptures located in Sheffield. Although this 18 foot aluminium sculpture of a man with a guitar singing into a microphone isn’t suppose to be Elvis Presley, I’d like to think it is “The King” as there’s a fascinating piece of history associated with this location that the average tourist would not necessarily know about when visiting the “Hit Recording Capital of the World”. As we were taking in the facts about this unique piece of art, local resident and one of our hosts for the day, Sandra, mentioned that some of the big names use to perform in Sheffield. “Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley would come to town and would date girls at my high school. You would see them driving around when they were in town, hanging out at the popular local restaurant. It was like the American Grafitti movie”, Sandra said.
Now I love a good Rock ‘n’ Roll story especially from those who were there to see it. There was some serious name-dropping going on and while Sandra regaled us with her memories of seeing some of the members of the Million Dollar Quartet hanging around town chasing girls back in the mid 50s, all I could do was to try to stop my jaw from hitting the pavement as we stood in the hot Alabama sun.
Here are some of Sandra’s memories:
“I believe it was 1955 and Elvis was beginning to be ‘known’ in the South-east. He came to the Shoals from Tupelo, Mississippi and the Memphis area where he was performing.
Many of the early stars booked the Community Center in Sheffield, which was A-1 for these early performances. They included Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis. When Elvis came to Sheffield, the word got around the high school that he had a date with one of the senior girls. It became the talk of the town, who would be Elvis’ date for the event?
The Woody Mac Corral was a local restaurant where the teens would go after a movie or just to be seen. After the Elvis concert The Woody Mac was packed, inside and the parking lot. Sure enough, Elvis arrived with his date, driving a white cadillac convertible. It was one of the senior girls from Sheffield High School. Big Deal….very exciting. This would become the trend when Elvis came to perform.”
If you can think about Elvis’ career and the stratospheric heights it rose to, Sandra’s story takes us back to when he was still a minor in some states and on some tours he had Gladys and Vernon in tow. With stage moves that weren’t yet widely accepted, this was a twenty year old armed with a voice, a trend-setting style and a hit single (That’s All Right) recorded a year earlier at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio. This young man from Tupelo was certainly causing a stir wherever he appeared. Elvis was taking Rock ‘n’ Roll to a new level and changing the course of pop music history…as well as creating some unforgettable memories for those who were fortunate to be there.
Having visited Graceland, Sun Studio and Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo, hearing Sandra’s recollection of the events in Sheffield was like finding a missing link in what I perceived as Elvis’ timeline and curiosity had me looking for more information on his Sheffield shows in 1955. I came across some history on a social media posting about the restaurant Elvis frequented while in Sheffield. It was great to see locals marking that point in time and it’s always musicpilgrimer.com’s duty to precisely pin-point and share where that historic event occurred. The Woody Mac Corral Drive-in and Restaurant mentioned in this story was the first of two diners with this name and was located on South Jackson Highway across from Keller Hospital in Sheffield.
Coincidently I came across the story of Caroline Cahoon-Hauser’s encounters with the young Elvis, whom she met and dated during one of his stops in Sheffield. I ended up corresponding with Caroline and thought it to be amazing that I was possibly speaking with Elvis’ date from Sandra’s story! Caroline has written a book called How ’bout A Date?: Encounters with the young Elvis offering a rare glimpse into Elvis’ early life and the connection she made with him while and after he had played at the Sheffield Community Center. Caroline kindly granted me permission to use the trailer for her book as well as some photographs you see here.
Whether it was intended or not, the Elvis-like sculpture we came to visit is only a stone’s throw away from what was once the Sheffield Community Center. The shell of the building is still identifiable but today the interior serves as apartments. The sculpture certainly does the job of representing an aspect or influence that contributes to the legendary Muscle Shoals sound but I’d also like to think that the imposing artwork’s location also marks where “The King” was making Rock ‘n’ Roll history on those three nights in 1955.
Thanks to Sandra, Caroline and Ian for helping this Music Pilgrimer “connect the dots”!
Musicpilgrimer.com is a directory of Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll attractions in a website application for the music-loving traveler. Currently focused in and around the area in the United States known as the “Birthplace of America’s Music”, many of the points of interest featured are off the beaten tourist path, giving the discerning as well as the adventurous music fan a resource that helps plan and explore the music pilgrimage of a lifetime.