Memphis woman saw singer's transition from shy high-schooler to world-renowned performer. Dixie Locke Emmons was dating Elvis Presley in 1954, but her favorite singers at the time were Perry Como, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee.
"People ask, 'Didn't you like rock and roll,' but there was no rock and roll at the time," says Emmons, one of the few remaining friends who knew Elvis just before and just after he spun the world off its music axis.
Elvis would have been 69 this year. His Jan. 8 birthday begins a yearlong 50th anniversary celebration by Elvis Presley Enterprises of his first record, "That's All Right," which many consider the big bang of rock and roll.
The week also is the kickoff for a yearlong Memphis and national celebration of the 50th anniversary of rock and roll, the one hometown commodity better known than barbecue.
Elvis had been drawn to Emmons's church, First Assembly of God, because of his love of gospel music and the Blackwood Brothers quartet, which sang at the church. It was there that Presley and Emmons met.
"I thought he was the most gorgeous thing I'd ever seen. He was a very shy person, but when he started singing he put so much into putting the music across that he kind of lost himself. He threw himself into it completely," she says.
Soon after they started dating in January 1954, he was driving a delivery truck and doing odd jobs for Crown Electric Co. and studying at night to be an electrician. Six months later, on July 5, 1954, Elvis recorded a speeded-up version of the Arthur Crudup blues tune "That's All Right." With guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, the trio came up with a driving beat and a rollicking approach that turned the song into something feral and fresh.
Emmons had been out of town with her parents when disc jockey Dewey Phillips first aired the song on WHBQ Radio. She knew Elvis had been recording at Sun Records. "I knew what was going on, but neither he nor I had any idea of the magnitude of it. I got a telegram from him saying, 'They're playing my records on the radio.' He was ecstatic over it. It was almost like disbelief that the disc jockeys would even play it," says Emmons, 65, now executive secretary of the church.
George Klein, a former classmate of Elvis's at Humes High School, was working that summer as a disc jockey at station KOSE in Osceola, Ark. Klein says he returned to Memphis from the summer job and stopped by WHBQ to visit Phillips, who had first played the song the night before. Requests were so heavy he played the song seven times, says Klein, who took a copy back to Arkansas, introducing it to his listeners with stories about Elvis and how he had won the talent contest at Humes High School.