Editor's note: Tuesday (Aug. 16) marks the 28th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death.
Photo Credit: Maxine Brown/University of Arkansas Press
Singer-songwriter Maxine Brown first laid approving eyes on young Elvis Presley backstage at the Louisiana Hayride in 1954. She and her brother, Jim Ed, were already members of the Hayride, having been propelled to the Shreveport-based radio show by their recent hit, "Looking Back to See." Although he was making some noise in Memphis at the time, Presley's first country hit, "Baby Let's Play House," was still a year off. He was looking for work.
Brown says Presley's manager, Bob Neal, contacted their booking agent, Tom Perryman, who then packaged the two acts together -- along with Presley's backup players, bassist Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore -- for a 15-day tour. The Browns headlined. But that didn't last for long, Brown says with a chuckle. They played the Hayride and worked the road with Presley for the remainder of 1954, all through 1955 and into 1956 before their careers diverged.
With the addition of their younger sister, Bonnie, the Browns would go on to record such hits as "I Take the Chance," "Scarlet Ribbons," "The Old Lamplighter" and, most significantly, "The Three Bells," which topped both the country and pop charts for weeks and even ascended to the Top 10 of the R&B rankings. Presley, of course, became the undisputed King of Rock 'n' Roll.
Brown devotes an entire chapter to Presley in her new book, Looking Back to See (University of Arkansas Press). Here, she tells of his passionate but short-lived romance with Bonnie, his frequent stayovers at the Brown's home, his love of her mother's cooking (especially banana pudding) and a particularly nasty episode in which Presley borrowed her father's brand new Pontiac to drive to one show and kept it for six weeks --and 12,000 miles.
Speaking to CMT.com just before leaving for Memphis for a round of book signings during the annual Elvis memorials, Brown has mostly fond remembrances of the superstar.
"He wasn't a flirt," she says. "He was a mama's boy. Very shy. Until you got on the road with him. Then he could be as wild as a buck. ... I never knew him to be moody. He was just always having fun."
Presley never got angry or "cussed" on those early tours, Brown says, nor did he drink or smoke. "The only thing he did was screw the women," she says. "He didn't cull anybody there. Of course, they were always throwing themselves at him. Elvis was absolutely good-looking, always so handsome. Just pretty."
Sometimes, on days between shows, Presley would stop at the Browns' place in Pine Bluff, Ark., instead of returning to Memphis. "He'd play the piano," Brown says, "and we'd sit up all night and sing hymns."
Brown is still puzzled about Elvis' treatment of her dad's new car. "He never mentioned it at all [afterward]," she says. "All his fans think he could do no wrong, but that's one wrong he did. It wasn't right. Someone else brought it back. He never even said, 'Kiss my foot' or anything." She says her family didn't expect much to come of Presley's love affair with Bonnie, given his roving eye and other appendages. He asked Bonnie to marry him, and she agreed, Brown says, but that prospect soon came crashing down when Bonnie spotted him entering a restaurant "all loved up with this other girl." Still, the two remained friends.
The generous impulses for which Presley later became famous were not apparent when he worked with the Browns, Maxine says. "But, you know, we didn't have any money," she admits. "We worked with him when nobody had money. People always want to know, 'Why don't you have pictures?' Well, we didn't have money to buy film, much less a camera. Elvis worked for $100 a day, and out of that, he paid Scotty and Bill $25 each. The Browns worked for $125 a day and split it three ways."
In 1956, the Browns left the Hayride to join Red Foley on the Ozark Jubilee in Springfield, Mo. This move effectively separated them from Presley, who, even though he was becoming famous, was still under contact with the Hayride.
"Several times he came to see us after he got big," Brown recalls. "Until he left the Hayride, he would always come through [Arkansas] and visit us when he was on his way to the Hayride. So we kept in touch. Even after that, when he got out of the Army [in 1960], he invited us and some of his other real close friends to Graceland for a press conference he had. ... But then it seemed like he got so big, after he went to Hollywood, that we sort of lost track of each other." That press conference, she says, was the last time she talked to him.
"I didn't write this in my book," Brown confides, "but I used to do the laundry for all of us. I'd find a washeteria, and we'd all save our nickels and dimes, and I'd wash our clothes. One time I happened to wash a red pair of silk panties that I had -- I was so proud of them. And I know I'd seen my mother wash them a hundred times. But I happened to throw them into the laundry, and everything -- undershirts and socks -- came out pink.
"Everybody else was real upset, but Elvis wasn't. He loved pink. I told them, 'Don't worry about it. I'll [get a friend] to show me how to bleach them.' So I did. I bleached everybody's underwear and socks, except Elvis'. He would not let me touch them. He said, 'I want them to stay this color.' He wore those damn socks, I know, for a month. He was scared to death that if I washed them, they'd fade. They got to smelling so bad that someone -- I think it was Scotty Moore -- caught him asleep one time and took those socks off of him and threw them out the window, along with a pair of his shoes.
"We got way on down the road [from where we'd been staying]. Elvis was mad. And they said, 'Well, we'll just stop at the next place and get him a pair of shoes.' We had a show the next day. But I told them they weren't going to be buying any shoes [that day]. This was back when they had the 'blue laws' [which prohibited Sunday sales of certain merchandise]. All the grocery stores were closed. All the department stores were closed. You couldn't buy a pair of socks or shoes to save your life. So we had to go back and look for those socks. You're not going to believe it, but we found them. Even the buzzards wouldn't have them."