A dream to be 'the King' – come true
These young girls were Elvis impersonators long before it was popular.
In 1956, Elvis helped me win a frozen chicken.
My two best friends and I were 10 years old. We lived in Mississippi, and we loved Elvis. We carried our boxes of 45 r.p.m. records from one house to another and listened to his songs until we had memorized every word.
Maybe Elvis reminded us of our brothers, of big sisters' boyfriends, or of those black and white photographs on our mantles – slightly faded pictures of our dads dressed for dancing or wearing their Navy uniforms from Korea or Pearl Harbor. For a million reasons, we loved Elvis.
Music was part of my heritage. My father had lived in New Orleans before settling into the life of a small-town country doctor. Before I could pronounce the names of my maternal grandparents, I sang along with Louis Armstrong's "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" on the radio.
Before I could walk, I danced on the tops of my father's polished shoes to the beat of Fats Waller's band. I thought the "Blue Room of the Roosevelt Hotel" – where my dad had worked as a ticket taker to earn college spending money and free admission to the music acts – was an elaborately exotic term for a place I longed to visit.
Our mothers remembered schoolgirl crushes on crooners such as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, so they humored us in our love of Elvis. It was easy to persuade them to drive us the 111 miles north on Highway 61 to see our idol's home.
So with windows rolled down and the King singing on the radio, the six of us flew up that flat, dusty Blues Highway packed into my family's Plymouth station wagon.
As the car idled outside Elvis's house, we snitched drying blades of front-yard grass for our scrapbooks. That night – by flashlight with the ceiling fan turning – I recorded in my diary, "Mama drove us by Elvis's beautiful house. The fence had music notes on it."
With a tiny heart dotting the "i" in Elvis, I wrote "I love Elvis" in my best curly script, over and over again.
Soon after the summer drive to Memphis, we three girlfriends escaped the heat of our hometown for camp in the Alabama mountains.
One morning during breakfast, the camp director interrupted the announcements of a swimming race and an overnight trip with exciting news: There would be a talent show, she told us. All campers were encouraged to enter.
Our big moment had arrived. We signed up for the show.
Our talent? We three 10-year-old girls were Elvis impersonators. Wearing our brothers' bluejeans and white shirts with collars starched and turned up, we lip-synced our hearts out.
Today there are more than 85,000 Elvis impersonators. They spend years studying his music and mannerisms. There's even a professional association for Elvis impersonators. But that summer, they had nothing on us.
After camp ended, our "career" didn't. Our mothers had an idea: "Why not audition for that Saturday morning TV talent show in Memphis?" Our audition must have been good. By the time we'd returned home and unpacked the bass fiddle (a broom) and the guitars (tennis rackets), the talent scout for WMCT-TV's "Pride of the Southland" was calling: Could we appear the next Saturday?
We slicked our hair back in ducktails that would make Elvis proud, Scotty's mother traced on our Maybelline-eyeliner sideburns, and we headed back up Highway 61 to Memphis.
"Pride of the Southland" was no "American Idol." It had no 800 numbers to call and no screaming fans holding signs proclaiming their love. We stood on a simple wooden stage, faced the one live camera and blew our closest competition – a preteen jazz ensemble, playing real clarinets and saxophones – out of the water. When we gyrated to "Hound Dog" and "crooned" to "Heartbreak Hotel," our mothers couldn't have been prouder had their names been Gladys Presley.
When the host passed us our first-place prizes – a Brownie Instamatic camera and a package of Purnell's Pride Chicken Pieces, courtesy of the sponsor – we smiled and said, "Thank you very much."
Long after our TV debut, I continued to paste pictures in my Elvis scrapbook. But 40 years later, when my mother dismantled her house and decamped for a small apartment, the scrapbook crumbled and was lost.
Now my singing is mostly done alone in the car, listening to oldies radio, and my connection to Elvis eventually morphed into an occasional recipe from the "Are You Hungry Tonight?" cookbook.
My young granddaughter sometimes wears an Elvis T-shirt in honor of the idol of my youth, but I no longer own 45 r.p.m. records, my plaster-of-Paris bust of Elvis, or even that blade of grass from his yard. But on that long-ago Saturday morning in Memphis, as I sat on the stage holding my box of frozen chicken, it dawned on me – I could slick back my hair and rock 'n' roll. I could hit my own high notes, dream of my own Graceland.
I gave up my career as an Elvis impersonator but not the sense that something was unfolding, that awesome anticipation that comes when you are young. This is the thing my dad must have understood as he sat high above New Orleans listening to Fats Waller at the Blue Room of the old Roosevelt Hotel.
Once you've danced in Elvis's shoes – or even on the shiny tops of your daddy's wingtips – anything is possible.