Elvis Presley's first visit to Detroit in never-published photos
By Susan Whitall / Detroit News Music Writer
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It's May 1956. Americans were fretting about President Eisenhower's health, slugger
Mickey Mantle was the toast of the baseball world, and 21-year-old Elvis Presley was
about to make his first appearance at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. It had been a whirlwind
five months for the soft-spoken truck driver from Tupelo, Miss., who recorded his first Sun
Records session in January, yielding "Heartbreak Hotel," which shot to No. 1. Elvis was
winding up a tour of the Midwest when he came to Detroit on Friday, May 25.
Fifty-five years later, never-published photographs of the day Elvis first came to Detroit
have been brought to light by author Michael Rose for a forthcoming book, "Spring of
'56." The photographs show Elvis in and around the Fox Theatre, greeting Detroit Times
contest winners backstage, relaxing in a downtown arcade and enjoying himself at an
Detroit teenagers may have been ecstatic at Elvis' arrival, but newspaper writers barely
hid their disdain.
Vera Brown wrote in typically snappy, Detroit Times tabloid style of Elvis: "He rarely gets a haircut, does a kind of hillbilly derivative. When he winds himself
around a mike and gives out, the kids go crazy. Nothing like it since the early Frank Sinatra days. … Only way to keep calm about all this is to try to
remember how silly you were in your high school days."
Brown met Elvis at the airport, where she demanded to know why he needed four Cadillacs.
"I just like automobiles," he said. His latest one was pink with white leather upholstery. Brown also described his turnout: a black shirt open at the throat, and
black pegged pants.
Why, the columnist demanded of the singer, was he so popular?
"If I knew I would tell you," Elvis replied politely. "I honestly don't know how it took place, but if I
can go on from here into the movies, that would be swell." He told reporters he doesn't drink
and has no girlfriend yet. "I still love my mother who lives in Memphis."
Incredibly, the day before Elvis' three Friday shows (4, 7 and 9:45 p.m.), Bob Bothwell,
managing director of the Fox Theatre, said good seats were still available.
As if Elvis wasn't enough entertainment for the $1.50 ticket, there were numerous other acts on
the bill: The Jordanaires (his backup singers), Frankie Connors, Jackie Little and Maurice King
and the Wolverines (the house band at Detroit's Flame Showbar).
At age 14, Carol Bainbridge was one of the "teeners" who really didn't care what snarky,
middle-aged newspaper writers thought of Elvis. Her father, Larry McCann, had interviewed Elvis on his WXYZ-TV talk show, and he scored her two tickets to
the 4 p.m. show. Bainbridge and a girlfriend took a bus downtown from Three Mile Drive and Mack, and sat in the front row. "I touched his shoes and
screamed my heart out while he sang in front of me," Bainbridge says.
Elvis had been introduced at that early show by a young Detroiter, Lee Alan Reicheld, who held down the all-night air shift at WJLB. Reicheld, better known
by his later disc jockey name, Lee Alan, was told by WJLB's top jock, "Frantic" Ernie Durham, that he had a gig for him.
"He said, 'You've got to go to the Fox Theatre and introduce Elvis,'" Alan recalls. The young jock went to the Fox as ordered, and was preparing to open the
stage curtains when he heard a soft voice behind him say, "Hey, what's your name?" Alan turned, and it was Elvis, ever the gentleman. He really wanted to
know. "Lee Reicheld," Alan told him. "I didn't think he could pronounce it anyway." But he did, and always remembered Alan's real name after that.
By the time Alan opened the curtains to yell, "Ladies and gentleman, Elvis Presley," the
screaming was already so loud that nobody heard a thing.
"I screamed so much I never heard a word he sang," Bainbridge says. "I'll never forget how
he dressed, the way he held the microphone, moved around on the stage. He stood legs
apart to swivel, then crouched down to touch outstretched hands. He was different, original
and, damn, he was cool. The girls today would say 'hot,' and he was."
Reviews of Elvis' show are inadvertently hilarious. The Detroit Times reviewer complained
that Elvis did "unknown" songs like "I've Got a Woman" and "Long Lost Sally" (meaning,
"Long Tall Sally.")The Detroit News reviewer recognized "Long Tall Sally," but deployed
several zingers, describing Elvis as an ex-trucker with a shimmy, and sniffing: "The guitar
seldom got twanged, because Elvis was too busy flexing his knees and swinging his thighs
like a soubrette in the palmy days of burlesque."
Meanwhile, backstage at the Fox, another Detroit radio personality was making his way to Elvis' dressing room to meet the legend. Robin Seymour had been
embroiled in controversy since he'd dismissed Elvis on his WKMH radio show as a fly-by-night phenomenon that wouldn't last. "There were 100 kids on bikes
in front of my house with signs," Seymour recalls, laughing. "'Get rid of Robin Seymour, he's a jerk!'"It was a gimmick, Seymour insists; he didn't really dislike
Elvis. But Seymour didn't introduce the singer at the later shows — that honor was reserved for Mickey Schorr. Seymour did want to meet him, though, and
Fox manager Bothwell got him backstage.
There Seymour was to discover that, despite the wholesome reports in the press about not drinking and such, Elvis was having big fun. When the dressing
room door opened, the disc jockey was startled to see several naked girls.
"He was sitting on the couch wearing a silk robe; there were about five girls trotting around," Seymour says. Showgirls from the nearby Stone Burlesk? He
hasn't a clue.
"I didn't stay that long," Seymour says with a laugh.