MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The telegram sent by Elvis Presley to his parents in November 1954 gives a glimpse into the young singer’s priorities and his optimism, as he begins what will become a career as a rock ‘n’ roll icon and cultural phenomenon.
“Hi babies,” says the telegram, sent from Houston by Presley to his parents, Vernon and Gladys, who were in Memphis. “Here’s the money to pay the bills. Don’t tell no one how much I sent. Will send more next week. There is a card in the mail. Love, Elvis.”
The note is being displayed in an exhibit at Graceland, Presley’s longtime Memphis home that today serves as a museum and tourist attraction. The exhibit, which opened Monday, commemorates the 60 years since Presley cut his first record, “That’s All Right,” at Sun Studio in July 1954. It was played on the radio days later, and many believe its release marked the birth of mainstream rock ‘n’ roll.
There are other theories about the creation of rock ‘n’ roll, which was born from a truly American mixture of styles such as country, blues, jazz and gospel. But in the eyes of Priscilla Presley — Elvis Presley’s former wife — it was a defining moment in Elvis’ life, when as a shy 19-year-old he walked into the studio run by visionary producer Sam Phillips and sang the lyrics, “Well, that’s all right mama, that’s all right for you.”
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“It had to be on his mind for a long time to get up the nerve to go in that place and want to meet Sam Phillips to record a song for his mother,” Priscilla Presley said in an interview at Graceland on Friday.
“That’s not something that he would have just thought about doing at the spur of the moment,” she added. “I think it took him some courage to do that.”
Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Miss., on Jan. 8, 1935. He moved to Memphis with his parents as a teenager and made the city his primary home. He lived at Graceland until his death at age 42 on Aug. 16, 1977.
Elvis and Priscilla met in 1959, and her first visit to Graceland was in 1962. They were married in 1967 and divorced in 1973.
The house opened as a museum in June 1982, and a complex built across the street houses permanent exhibits, two airplanes owned by Presley, gift shops and restaurants. The tourist attraction draws more than 500,000 visitors each year.
The temporary exhibit is in a room next to the house called the “annex.” Visitors with a VIP ticket (about $72) can see the exhibit in about 15 to 20 minutes. It details the trajectory of Presley’s career through his hit songs, such as “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “Suspicious Minds.”
It’s also the first new exhibit since Authentic Brands Group bought Elvis Presley’s intellectual property from CORE Media Group in November.
Authentic Brands also is partnering with the founder of another company to operate the tourist attraction across the street from the home. Elvis and Priscilla Presley’s daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, still owns the Graceland home and the original items inside it.
Along with the telling telegram, the “60 Years of Elvis” exhibit features jumpsuits worn on tour by Presley and an organ he would play in his California home. There’s Presley’s copy of the original “That’s All Right” record — with “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the other side — and the original contract Presley inked with RCA in November 1955 for a $5,000 signing bonus.
Priscilla Presley said her husband talked about befriending Phillips’ secretary Marion Keisker, who is said to have recognized his talent and facilitated the first “That’s All Right” recording.
“The timing was right … under her guidance, it worked out,” Priscilla Presley said. “He was nervous that day, as much as he was the day they first played his song on the radio.”
Elvis also was nervous about how listeners would react to the song, which was played by influential disc jockey Dewey Phillips on his “Red, Hot and Blue” radio show on WHBQ a few days after it was recorded.
“Elvis was really shy by nature — I don’t know if you all know that or not, but I do for sure,” Priscilla Presley said.
Despite the flashy garments, confident onstage persona and sex appeal, Elvis was not one to boast about money. She said the phrase in the telegram asking his parents not to divulge the amount he sent is proof.
To this day, it remains unclear how much he actually wired.
“Enough to pay the bills, let’s just put it that way,” says Priscilla Presley, laughing.