tampabay.com

Earning our wings with the King

By AUGUSTA SCATTERWOOD
Published July 24, 2005


I was 10 years old the summer Elvis helped me win a frozen chicken. Too young for dating in cars, too old for building forts under the backyard fig tree. My two best friends lived on my block, and we owned every song Elvis had recorded. We carried our square green record boxes filled with 45-rpm discs from one house to the other and back again. We flopped across chenille bedspreads under a ceiling fan and sang along with Don't Be Cruel and Blue Suede Shoes till the grooves almost wore out. Some days we pasted pictures into our Elvis Presley scrapbooks. Most days we wrote "I love Elvis" over and over, trying out our new curly script on the pages of our Penny Diaries.

In 1956, Elvis wasn't yet the god of Graceland. The Elvis who set our hearts aflutter resided in a modest ranch house at 1034 Audubon Drive. He signed autographs in his driveway and waved from his Harley to the neighbors down the street. That Elvis loved his mama, Gladys, and our mothers loved him for it.

So it was easy to persuade my mother to drive us up to Memphis to worship at the shrine of our idol. Sitting in the backseat of my family's Plymouth station wagon, windows rolled down and Elvis singing on the radio, we flew up the flat dusty Blues Highway. That night I wrote in my diary, "Mama drove us by Elvis' beautiful house. The fence had music notes on it."

We didn't glimpse Elvis riding his motorcycle or signing autographs that day, but we had snapped our photos in front of those music notes and snatched a few drying blades of grass for our scrapbooks.

Toward the end of that summer, we three girlfriends escaped the Mississippi heat for Camp Skyline Ranch in the mountains of Alabama. There we hiked in the woods and overcame our fear of water moccasins by swimming in the freezing cold lake. And when the camp held a talent show, our Elvis act debuted.

We were the original Elvis impersonators. Long before fake Elvises zipped themselves into glitzy jumpsuits everywhere from Las Vegas to my friend Linda's anniversary party, we three girlfriends slipped into our brothers' blue jeans and white shirts, with collars ironed, starched and turned up just so.

I was Bill Black personified, on bass broomstick. My friend Judy smiled her best Scotty Moore grin and strummed an air tennis racket. Our Elvis put on her blue-painted tennies, curled up one lip, and like the King himself, dared anybody to mess with her hair.

Summer camp ended, and we stuffed dirty sweat shirts into duffel bags and boarded the overnight train for home. After we wowed the local Wednesday noon Exchange Club, "Scotty's" mother had an idea. "Why not try out for that Saturday morning talent show on the TV?"

WMCT-TV's Pride of the Southland played live to the greater Memphis viewing audience. As the hot, muggy summer turned into September, the three mothers and three daughters headed back up Highway 61 to Memphis with our hair blowing in the wind and high cotton out our windows.

Our audition must have been very good. By the time we'd returned to our little Mississippi hometown and unpacked those fake instruments, the talent scout for the show was calling with an offer: Could we appear the next Saturday?

We could and we would. Hair slicked back in ducktails that would make Elvis proud with Maybelline eyeliner sideburns as black as a jailbird's stripes, we were ready to rock 'n' roll.

Our closest competition, a jazz ensemble from up the road a piece, played real clarinets and saxophones and did a pretty fair job of it. But when our Elvis gyrated to Hound Dog and lip-synched an encore of Heartbreak Hotel, we were unbeatable. Elvis was a heartbreaker, all right, and the real Scotty Moore and Bill Black never looked so good.

This was no American Idol competition. No call-in votes, no celebrity guest judges. The Pride of the Southland host announced the winner, and we accepted our Brownie Instamatic camera and a package of frozen Purnell's Pride Chicken Pieces, first-place prizes from the show's sponsors.

But the real prize came later. Someone on the show, maybe that bigheaded, overeager, sour grapes of a boy playing jazz saxophone, started a delightfully vicious rumor: The only reason we'd been asked to perform on that particular Saturday morning, maybe even the reason we'd won, was that Elvis was in town. And Elvis loved nothing better than sitting in front of his TV, eating fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, watching Pride of the Southland.

Later that fall the three of us would see Love Me Tender 16 times. We would paste ticket stubs in our scrapbooks, next to the crumbling grass. Elvis would appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, and the morally concerned parents we read about in the newspaper wouldn't let their children buy Elvis' records or watch him on TV. But our parents watched and listened right along with us. They understood that when you dance in Elvis' shoes, you're liable to win more than a frozen chicken.

- Augusta Scatterwood lives in Madison, N.J., and St. Pete Beach.