ELVIS IN KILLEEN
by RAY CAMPI
As originally printed in Now Dig This. Used by permission of Ray Campi.
Rockabilly hero RAY CAMPI recalls his first encounter with The King of Rock 'n' Roll:
It was a beautiful Sunday morning in March of 1957. "You'll never guess who I've been hanging out with," Bobby Reed bragged. We were all zipping along Highway 81 South to San Antonio; "we" being my brother, Harvey, Henry Hill, John Maddox and finger-snapping "Doc" Shryock. Bob Tanner had agreed to let us record some new songs at the TNT studio at Poplar Street with the possibility of a new release on TNT Records.
"No, we'll never guess," we all chimed in, goading Bobby who was showing off in his new black 1957 Buick hard-top. Actually it wasn't his car; it was borrowed from his father's Buick dealership in Lockhart, Texas. It was just one of the perks of Bobby being born in the right place at the right time, to the right father.
"The Memphis Flash! Elvis, of course... we've become good buddies," Bobby went on. "He gets me into his shows free, and I play piano in jam sessions with him."
There was no doubt that Bobby Reed was the perfect piano man for me. He was a specialist in the exciting Sun sound and could imitate all of Scotty Moore's guitar solos on the piano. (He can be heard on several of my 1957 and 1958 tracks and on my live appearance on "The Louisiana Hayride." He is also on Guy Brown's 'Uh Huh Huh' on Roy Poole's Echo label from 1958.)
I had heard about his playing from Harvey and found out that he lived in West Austin, only a few blocks from where I lived at the time. He would drop by the house in one of several new Buicks, always dressed in the flashiest cat clothes of the day, he blond locks greased just right. He'd enter the living room, sit down at Estelle's piano and begin his shuffle, sending the whole family into a rocking frenzy. My parents loved him and eagerly anticipated his visits.
He was a braggart through, and yes, we were all impressed that someone we knew and who played with with us had the inside track on becoming a "Memphis Mafia" member.
We recorded four songs for TNT that Sunday, but Bob Tanner never had an engineer around on weekends and ran into trouble getting the Ampex to work, so little came of these below-average recordings of that day, although copies still exist.
But my friendship with Bobby was cemented, and shortly afterwards he played on some of the Austin Recording Company tracks with us. We laid some screen door springs on the strings of Roy Poole's grand piano, and Bobby gave us some great harpsichord-sounding solos. We played together off and on after that for about a year.
Harvey had the good fortune to take in one of Elvis Presley's appearances at The Skyline Club on the Dallas Highway, but I had never met this Presley fellow and hoped some day I'd do so.
I figured Bobby Reed was the way to get to him. I knew Elvis was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, a place I knew well for I had spent many summers there myself in training with the Texas National Guard.
"Bobby, let's take a ride up to Killeen. I'd like you to introduce me to Elvis," I petitioned. "Oh yeah, we'll have to do it one of these days... yeah, we'll have to take a ride," Bobby would always reply. And that was as far as I ever got with my piano pal. I could never pin him down; it seemed he wanted to keep Elvis from having any more new groupies. Bobby Reed - The Great Protector!
One day I heard on the radio that Elvis would be shipping out overseas to Germany and that his training in Texas would soon be over. I made one final plea to Bobby, but he backed out again. He did, however, give me the address of the rented house Elvis and his crew were occupying, so I headed out by myself on Highway 81 North, this time to Temple and Killeen.
I arrived at Elvis' place about 3:00 p.m., knowing that Elvis would be leaving for Germany the very next day. There were no visible signs that this was the correct house or one of an up-and-coming phenomenon; it was just a pretty, new looking tract home - much like the other ones occupying the neighborhood just outside of Killeen. I thought to myself, "Could this be one of the same houses I helped lay floor tiles in during my construction work days in 1952?"
The place was strangely quiet. Was anyone home? Did I have the correct address? Was Bobby putting me on? Was I making a fool of myself? I took a deep breath, knocked and waited. Soon a middle-aged man opened the door who I immediately recognized as Vernon Presley, Elvis' father. I sighed and stepped back one step.
I explained the reason for my visit and Presley Sr. kindly told me that his son and his entourage were on their way back from Dallas before preparing to ship out for Europe in the morning. I told Mr. Presley that I would return around 7:00 p.m. as he suggested. He told me that Elvis always set that time aside to meet fans and to sign autographs on the front patio of the house.
"What to do, what to do?" I had several hours to kill so I drove into Killeen, a real boring small town where the sale of beer was illegal. During my National Guard tours we'd all have to head to The S&S Club in Temple to get a cool beer after 14-hour days in the 110 degrees of Texas summer.
I did some window shopping and rode over to the Copras Cove. In '53 myself and a floor covering crew all slept on the floor of a little place there when we weren't sleeping behind a new school that was being built. Killeen was growing new subdivisions like Texas pecans. Our crew some days laid five houses of floor covering. Just about the time I found this one-room shack I realized it was well after 6:00 p.m.; time to get on the road.
Soon I was again in front of Elvis' rented house. The Cadillac was in the driveway this time, and again I wound up at the door and knocked, this time with much more confidence. It was Gene Smith, Elvis' cousin, who answered the door and told me Elvis would be out shortly to greet people. As I waited, cars driven by beautiful mothers began to pull up in front of the house. Excitedly bursting from the cars were younger carbon copies of these admirable ladies. (Is this what show business is all about?) Within a few minutes I was surrounded by lovely Texas women, bursting with affection. Unfortunately, their attention was not directed to me and when the impressive Elvis Presley suddenly emerged from the door I learned the complete meaning of the expression "alone in a crowd." Dressed to the teeth, the handsome singer was soon immersed in full skirts and autograph books. And the cars kept pulling up.
I found myself moving to the fringes on this group and it looked like I might not get to meet "The Flash" after all. In a few minutes I struck up a conversation with a fellow Austinite who knew Bobby Reed, was staying in the house at the time and who introduced himself as Lamar Fike. We talked together for about an hour about people we knew, touring and, naturally enough, Elvis. (I vividly recall Lamar telling me that the purpose of Elvis' visit to Dallas that day was to record the song "One Night," although I recently discovered the song was actually recorded in February 1957.)
Lo and behold, when we both looked around all the ladies had left, Elvis had gone back into the house and Lamar and I were the only people there! Had I missed my big chance? It looked like I had. Lamar was a bit embarrassed as he said to me, "Don't worry, I'll go in and get Elvis to come back out." He did just that; an act of kindness I'll always remember him for.
Elvis came back and met me (we were alone at last - ha!). We talked about mutual friends and I told him I had made a record for Bob Tanner. That really got him talking as he had a great feeling for Bob as they had had some frightening moments together on the tour of West Texas that Bob had set up for him. Tanner had told me some of these stories; it was a tour full of fun, surprises and disasters. Imagine what happened when Elvis and Bob realized they were booked in two different towns on the same night! (Thank you, Bob Neal!) They tried to make both shows and towns, the first at 8:00 p.m. and the second with Elvis getting on stage after midnight. One stage-struck girl had been driving from one town to the other, missing Elvis both times. She pulled in front of Elvis' motel in the wee hours still looking. Tanner and Elvis had fun putting her on when Elvis pretended to be only a band member and sent her off to another motel across town. The band reached the second show late because the car ran out of gas and someone had to hitch-hike to another town with a gas can in his hand to get them all moving again.
I'll always appreciate Elvis' kindness to his fans and how he made a little extra effort to be nice to me. I knew he was tired after his trip to Dallas on that hot day in mid-September of 1958. Our visit ended with him telling me to give his best regards to "Mr. Tanner" and he hoped we would meet again some day - which we did. This was in April of 1960. The place was one of the sound stages of Paramount Pictures during the first day of rehearsals for the film G.I. Blues. But that's another story and I'll tell you about it in next month's NDT! [See ELVIS AT PARAMOUNT (part one)]
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