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New Historical Marker For Elvis In Memphis

December 20, 2011 | Other

A historical marker is being erected at the site of the old Goodwin Institute Building (demolished in 1973) in Memphis, Tennessee to commemorate the site of the KWEM Radio Station Saturday Night Jamboree, the location of the first major public appearance by Elvis Presley before signing with Sun Records a year later. The details of the Elvis performance in the 900 seat arena were unknown to the public before being revealed by Larry Manuel, Rockabilly star and son of KWEM's Joe Manuel who launched the Jamboree in early 1953. Not only did the young Elvis make his first major appearance there, other unknown artists including Johnny Cash, Reggie Young, Barbara Pittman, Lloyd Arnold, Charlie Feathers, and Eddie Bond were regulars on the show. The KWEM Radio Station was located in West Memphis, Arkansas, just across the Mississippi River from Memphis and broadcast many of the shows.

The Jamboree was a family oriented country music show that ran from February of 1953 to December of 1954 and was broadcast on KWEM Radio, one of only 7 radio stations in Memphis at the time. The format was much like that of the Grand Ole Opry but the Jamboree, fronted by popular Memphis radio personality, Joe Manuel, allowed and encouraged amateur country music singers and musicians to take the stage and perform for packed houses every Saturday night. Elvis Presley's first official "public appearance" and probably first radio broadcast (as an adult) happened at the Jamboree just months before making his historic recording of " That's Alright Mama " at fabled Sun Records.

Other unknown artists appearing at the Jamboree included future Sun Recording artists Johnny Cash and Barbara Pittman. Also appearing were other unknown artists including Bud Deckleman, Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, Reggie Young, Tommy Smith, Harmonica Frank Floyd, Lloyd Arnold, Kenneth Herman, Eddie Bond, John Hughey, Marcus Van Story, and many others. The Jamboree, according to the Bob Trimmers of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, may be the first location where a new music that would become known as Rockabilly was performed.

The Jamboree was so successful that it was extended to Friday Night for auditions to perform in one of the Saturday Night shows. Veta Arnold, niece of Lloyd Arnold, whose band was featured each week, recalls seeing Elvis for the first time standing in the shadows wearing a shockingly "Pink" sportscoat. The Jamboree was forced to close in November of 1954 when the Goodwin Institute decided to renovate the facility, but not before the fabulous history of a new music was created.

The historical marker will be erected in early 2012 at a ceremony with many of the notables of early Rockabilly and Memphis music in attendance. More information may be obtained by contacting the State of Tennessee Historical Commission.

sitdown revamped wrote on December 20, 2011
Any ideas about the song that was performed? Probably a ballad...Any radio transcriptions?
Tony C wrote on December 20, 2011
It is sad that so little documentary evidence exists on any pre-Sun Records live appearances, most are just based on personal recollections which can be very inaccurate. Throughout Elvis' lifetime, we were lead to believe that Elvis had only made two such appearances, in Tupelo in 1945 and at a Humes High School concert by the students. Since then, we have had vague details of other shows and radio spots which Elvis himself never publicly mentioned. He pretty much stated that other than the two appearances I have mentioned and the acetates, he had done nothing. Much of this information came to light in the writings of the late Bill Burk, but sadly it was all very light on actual facts. I do not doubt Bill Burk's pedigree and integrity as he was, after all, around during those years but I do wonder how many of the stories by the people he interviewed have been embellished over the many years. As for any recordings being in existance from such performances, I would have thought the chances are extremely thin. Radio shows were not routinely taped as they are today and anything recorded was done so for specific reasons. Elvis' debut on the Louisiana Hayride show was captured on tape just by chance, the radio station wanted to prove to a sponsor that their commercials were aired as promised. If not for that, we would probably never have heard it. The other Hayride recordings were made specifically because they featured Elvis, the man who was started to create a storm with his music. While I would never rule out new discoveries, we must be realistic and understand that is is unlikely that anything earth shattering is out there waiting to be found.