Unseen Elvis: Presley's first visit to Detroit in never-published photos. Cache of never-published photos from 1956 shows Presley performing, relaxing in Detroit
It's May 1956. Americans were fretting about President Eisenhower's health, slugger Mickey Mantle was the toast of the baseball world, and 21-year-old Elvis Presley was about to make his first appearance at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. It had been a whirlwind five months for the soft-spoken truck driver from Tupelo, Miss., who recorded his first RCA Records session in January, yielding "Heartbreak Hotel," which shot to No. 1. Elvis was winding up a tour of the Midwest when he came to Detroit on Friday, May 25.
Fifty-five years later, never-published photographs of the day Elvis first came to Detroit have been brought to light by author Michael Rose for a forthcoming book, "Spring of '56." The photographs show Elvis in and around the Fox Theatre, greeting Detroit Times contest winners backstage, relaxing in a downtown arcade and enjoying himself at an adult party.
Detroit teenagers may have been ecstatic at Elvis' arrival, but newspaper writers barely hid their disdain. Vera Brown wrote in typically snappy, Detroit Times tabloid style of Elvis: "He rarely gets a haircut, does a kind of hillbilly derivative. When he winds himself around a mike and gives out, the kids go crazy. Nothing like it since the early Frank Sinatra days. … Only way to keep calm about all this is to try to remember how silly you were in your high school days." Brown met Elvis at the airport, where she demanded to know why he needed four Cadillacs. "I just like automobiles," he said. His latest one was pink with white leather upholstery. Brown also described his turnout: a black shirt open at the throat, and black pegged pants.
Why, the columnist demanded of the singer, was he so popular? "If I knew I would tell you," Elvis replied politely. "I honestly don't know how it took place, but if I can go on from here into the movies, that would be swell." He told reporters he doesn't drink and has no girlfriend yet. "I still love my mother who lives in Memphis." Incredibly, the day before Elvis' three Friday shows (4, 7 and 9:45 p.m.), Bob Bothwell, managing director of the Fox Theatre, said good seats were still available.
As if Elvis wasn't enough entertainment for the $1.50 ticket, there were numerous other acts on the bill: The Jordanaires (his backup singers), Frankie Connors, Jackie Little and Maurice King and the Wolverines (the house band at Detroit's Flame Showbar).
At age 14, Carol Bainbridge was one of the "teeners" who really didn't care what snarky, middle-aged newspaper writers thought of Elvis. Her father, Larry McCann, had interviewed Elvis on his WXYZ-TV talk show, and he scored her two tickets to the 4 p.m. show. Bainbridge and a girlfriend took a bus downtown from Three Mile Drive and Mack, and sat in the front row. "I touched his shoes and screamed my heart out while he sang in front of me," Bainbridge says.
Elvis had been introduced at that early show by a young Detroiter, Lee Alan Reicheld, who held down the all-night air shift at WJLB. Reicheld, better known by his later disc jockey name, Lee Alan, was told by WJLB's top jock, "Frantic" Ernie Durham, that he had a gig for him. "He said, 'You've got to go to the Fox Theatre and introduce Elvis,'" Alan recalls. The young jock went to the Fox as ordered, and was preparing to open the stage curtains when he heard a soft voice behind him say, "Hey, what's your name?" Alan turned, and it was Elvis, ever the gentleman. He really wanted to know. "Lee Reicheld," Alan told him. "I didn't think he could pronounce it anyway." But he did, and always remembered Alan's real name after that.
By the time Alan opened the curtains to yell, "Ladies and gentleman, Elvis Presley," the screaming was already so loud that nobody heard a thing. "I screamed so much I never heard a word he sang," Bainbridge says. "I'll never forget how he dressed, the way he held the microphone, moved around on the stage. He stood legs apart to swivel, then crouched down to touch outstretched hands. He was different, original and, damn, he was cool. The girls today would say 'hot,' and he was." Reviews of Elvis' show are inadvertently hilarious. The Detroit Times reviewer complained that Elvis did "unknown" songs like "I've Got a Woman" and "Long Lost Sally" (meaning, "Long Tall Sally.")The Detroit News reviewer recognized "Long Tall Sally," but deployed several zingers, describing Elvis as an ex-trucker with a shimmy, and sniffing: "The guitar seldom got twanged, because Elvis was too busy flexing his knees and swinging his thighs like a soubrette in the palmy days of burlesque."
Meanwhile, backstage at the Fox, another Detroit radio personality was making his way to Elvis' dressing room to meet the legend. Robin Seymour had been embroiled in controversy since he'd dismissed Elvis on his WKMH radio show as a fly-by-night phenomenon that wouldn't last. "There were 100 kids on bikes in front of my house with signs," Seymour recalls, laughing. "'Get rid of Robin Seymour, he's a jerk!'"It was a gimmick, Seymour insists; he didn't really dislike Elvis. But Seymour didn't introduce the singer at the later shows — that honor was reserved for Mickey Schorr. Seymour did want to meet him, though, and Fox manager Bothwell got him backstage.
There Seymour was to discover that, despite the wholesome reports in the press about not drinking and such, Elvis was having big fun. When the dressing room door opened, the disc jockey was startled to see several naked girls. "He was sitting on the couch wearing a silk robe; there were about five girls trotting around," Seymour says. Showgirls from the nearby Stone Burlesk? He hasn't a clue. "I didn't stay that long," Seymour says with a laugh.
Are YOU in these photos? Did you meet Elvis Presley backstage at the Fox Theatre in 1956? Are you, or a loved one, pictured in the photos on this page and on 3C? If so, they would like to hear from you.
Author Michael Rose is putting together a book, "Spring of '56," on the subject of the memorable spring when Elvis broke out into mainstream success (and teenaged hysteria). We're looking for any of the lucky five people (photo on 3C) who as teenaged members of the Detroit Times' "Teens of the Times" Club, were pictured with Elvis after winning an essay contest (in 50 words or less, they were to tell "Why Teenagers Like Elvis Presley").
Other questions: Do you recognize the downtown arcade where Elvis is relaxing between shows at the Fox? Who are the two African-American reporters interviewing the singer backstage? And will the young woman posing with Elvis in a photo taken at a Detroit party that night please step forward?The first person to contact The News and identify any of the people pictured (except Elvis, of course!) will receive a copy of Rose's book. E-mail your identifications to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (313) 222-2156.