|LANSKY BATTLES CRUEL ILLNESS
The clothier to the King, Bernard Lansky is no longer religiously found in his store each day.
By Barbara Bradley (Memphis Commercial Appeal)
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Early one morning in 1995, an anxious Sheryl Crow was waiting at The Peabody front desk when she was approached by a dapperly dressed man who asked
if she would autograph a guitar. No, she would not, she said, and, mistaking him for the hotel manager, she frantically pointed out there were no cabs outside
to take her to the airport.
The man replied, "Honey, come with me."
He loaded Crow and her bags into his Buick Roadmaster with the wood-grain sides and drove her to the airport.
Only later did Crow learn her chauffeur was Bernard Lansky, "clothier to 'The King," and a galaxy of other music icons. She did eventually sign a guitar,
wrote him a beautiful letter and shopped Lansky's whenever she was in town, said Bernard's son, Hal Lansky.
Elvis Presley was merely the most famous patron of Lanksy Brothers, founded by Bernard and his brother, Guy Lansky, in 1946. Others were Jerry Lee
Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Isaac Hayes, B.B. King, Rufus Thomas and Otis Redding. Groups passing through, like The Beach
Boys and The Kingsmen, shopped at Lansky's. Robert Plant, former lead singer of Led Zeppelin, shops there, as do performers Chris Isaak, Steven
Tyler and Carrie Underwood.
Bernard Lanksy (born March 10, 1927) worked seven days a week even into his 80s at Lansky at The Peabody, which began under another name as a tie
store in 1981. But an era ended about two years ago when Alzheimer's left him unable to do what he lived to do -- serve his customers. A quiet family dinner
marked his 85th birthday on March 10th.
"We miss having him here," said Hal Lansky, who worked with
his father for almost 50 years. "We were a great team."
Lansky's was at ground zero of a cultural revolution that
began with rock and roll.
In 1952, Beale Street was jumping with blues clubs, bars,
gambling dens and cool cats who liked to parade in loud suits
and snazzy shoes. Lansky Brothers menswear at 126 Beale
was the place to get them, not just for Memphis but for much
of the Mid-South.
Patrons were almost all black, except for the occasional
hipster wannabe like Elvis, then 17, whom Lansky would see
pressing his nose to the glass until Lansky finally went out to
meet him. Lansky would become a key player in creating a
distinctive style for a rising supernova.
While other young rebels were wearing T-shirts and jeans,
Elvis, with Lansky's help, blazed forth in silk suits, blousy
shirts and voluminous trousers with peg-leg pants that only
accentuated his flying legs and rotating pelvis. He wore
bright-colored shirts, especially pink and black (when men
didn't wear pink) and lime-and-black combinations. His shoes were a novel black-and-white spectator look, or white bucks or patent ankle boots.
Lansky helped create all the outfits Elvis wore to perform on the "Louisiana Hayride" shows that helped launch him, including a bubble-gum pink suit. He put
Elvis in the big plaid jacket and black pants that stood out even on black-and-white TV for his breakthrough performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
At the start, Lansky let the penniless Elvis buy on credit. A shrewd businessman, he knew that a hot young performer would be a walking billboard for Lansky
Another young artist Lansky would "float" was David Porter, who went on to become a legendary Stax singer and songwriter. Porter walked in one day in
1961, hoping to get a suit for his first nightclub gig.
"Bernard had an eye and a feel for what worked on stage," Porter said. "All the folks performing in and around Memphis were big fans of that store. And I
wanted one of those suits." He had his eye on a glossy sharkskin suit in steel gray. "It was sharp," he said.
In those days, the suit might have cost $69, which would be around $1,800 today.
Bernard Lansky and his wife, Joyce, who helped run the store in those days, let him have it on credit.
"That outfit just made me have that look and helped me get more gigs," said Porter, "so I feel deeply indebted."
It took Porter two years to pay back the Lansky's, but he never forgot their generosity. He shopped there for years and,
like Elvis, encouraged others to do the same.
Lansky had a gift for helping entertainers find their look. In the 1950s, another performer came to him carrying a can of
Prince Albert tobacco. He wanted to look like the guy on the can. Lansky found a black cutaway tuxedo coat and black
pants for the singer, Johnny Cash, who would later be tagged, "the man in black."
In the 1960s, Lansky's was the first major store to bring men the bell-bottomed Carnaby Street look, said Hal Lansky, who
helped research the book "Lansky Brothers: Clothier to the King," published in 2010 by Beckon Books. Kids who
wore them got sent home from school.
|Bernard Lansky with E.E.R's
Lee Dawson in May 2001
In the '70s, Lansky's was probably the only menswear store in America that kept a full-time furrier on staff to churn out "Super Fly" clothes that put men in
mink hats and mink-trimmed coats. Elvis had truckloads of it sent to Graceland. Isaac Hayes came by to get the stacked shoes the store designed for him,
as well as his leather coats and wildly coloured shirts.
In his store, Bernard Lansky nearly always wore a suit, a loud tie and dress shirt with a white collar and white French cuffs and a tape measure around his
neck. He never asked a customer what size he wore. He asked customers what size they needed.
He called most women "baby sister," and he was funny. To a customer who mulled a purchase too long, he would say, "You're not buying a Cadillac. You're
buying a shirt." To the customer who bought just one: "You're buying like a dead man -- one in a box."
When he got a patron looking sharp in a newly fitted suit, he liked to say, "the mirror's lookin' at ya and the street wants ya."
Sidney Mendelson, whose first job as a teen was working part time for Lansky, saw another side: "All I learnt about how to work with people came from him,"
said Mendelson, now owner of La Prensa Latina, a bilingual newspaper.
"We had thousands of people a week coming into that store, and they knew they could trust him to give them the finest clothes for the best price and if there
was a problem you could bring it back."
He was kind, but he ran a tight ship. Each shirt "had to be folded exactly perfectly," said Mendelson. "He wouldn't tell you but one time to fix them and you
would fix them."
Mendelson remembers when the store would open at midnight to serve Presley alone. Lansky advised him on more than clothes, he said. "I think he was a
father figure to Elvis. They were close."
His employers were pioneers in more ways than one, said Mendelson, who worked for them in the '60s. "The Lanskys worked in a multicultural facet before the
rest of us knew what it was," he said. Most customers and more than a third of the sales staff were black, he said. "They helped make people understand
Caucasians and African-Americans could work together."
In 1981, Bernard Lansky bought out his brother, and he and Hal Lansky opened a big-and-tall business. It grew to 11 Lansky Big and Tall stores and Hercules
stores in the Mid-South. In 1994, they sold for a nice profit.
Over time, Beale Street waned as a retail market, and in 1992, Lansky Brothers at 126 Beale closed. A few years later, Bernard and Hal Lansky began to
expand their presence at The Peabody, eventually opening Lansky 126, a contemporary and denim store for women and men, as well as a gift store and
A cruel disease now keeps Bernard Lansky from living the only life he has ever known. Some days he flips through the ties in his closet and thinks he's still at
the store. But it can't rob Lansky of his legacy.
"He had an awareness of how special it was to support entertainers," Porter said. "He created looks that helped create a market for entertainers all over the
Presley and others who helped make Memphis a mecca of blues, soul and rock and roll burst upon the scene as spectacularly to the eye as to the ear, and
Bernard Lansky was the man who made it possible.