It has come to my attention that I have not written about Elvis.
I have written about the governor, but not the King of Rock ’n’ Roll.
Today, I shall make up for that grievous oversight.
The occasion is the new biopic now playing in the proverbial “theater near you,” starring Austin Butler as Elvis Presley and Tom Hanks as his manager, Tom Parker, or, as he preferred to be styled, “Colonel” Tom Parker.
The movie is long, colorful, overwhelming to the senses. It also serves up two Virginia “Easter eggs” that give me a sliver of justification to write about Elvis. One is political, with roots in Henry County. The other is cultural, with ties to the Eastern Shore. Some modest spoilers lie ahead, but first some trivia.
Elvis played in Roanoke five times: twice in 1955 as he was becoming famous, then again in 1972, 1974 and 1976. He was scheduled to play Roanoke again on Aug. 24, 1977. Alas, he died a week before, on Aug. 16. You can still find people selling their tickets to that show; one listed recently on eBay was priced at $178.
Over the years, Elvis also played in Richmond and various locations in Hampton Roads, either Norfolk or Hampton – all the usual places you’d expect to find a major star on tour, either then or now. However, there was one other Virginia community where Elvis played – once – that does not meet that description. Can you guess what it is? Answer at the end. Until then, some discussion of the two Virginia ties referenced in the movie.
Elvis’ rise to fame came against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, and the movie spends a lot time early on showing how Elvis was intertwined with the racial controversies of the ’50s and beyond – a white Southerner who became famous singing songs by Black musicians, and doing so in a way that riled a lot of white sensibilities.
At one point the movie shows a series of newspaper headlines about the reaction to the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down school desegregation. “No integrated schools, says Gov. Stanley” the headline reads. I missed the masthead of the paper because I was so transfixed by the “Gov. Stanley” part. That Stanley was Thomas Stanley, a son of Southside who was governor when the court’s decision came down.
Stanley was emblematic of a generation of Virginia politicians who came to power through what we remember as the Byrd Machine, or, as it preferred to be called, “the Byrd Organization,” or simply “The Organization.” Although led by U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd of Frederick County, its political power lay in Southside, then far more politically and economically powerful than it is today. From the late ’40s until the early ’70s, five of eight governors hailed from Southside (I’m counting Mills Godwin’s two terms separately; otherwise it’s four of six) One of those was Thomas Bahnson Stanley.
Stanley was born in Henry County in 1890, the youngest of seven children. He married well – to the daughter of the founder of Bassett Furniture – and worked for a dozen years for his father-in-law before founding his own company, Stanley Furniture. In 1929, he was elected to the House of Delegates. (Trivia: His predecessor was Sallie Booker, just the third woman elected to the House.) By 1942, Stanley was speaker of the House. In 1946, U.S. Sen. Carter Glass – a Democrat from Lynchburg – died and the congressman from the 5th District, Thomas Burch of Martinsville, was named to succeed him. (See how so much political power was concentrated on the southern end of the state?) Stanley ran for Burch’s seat in Congress and won with 75.4% of the vote. Stanley was in Congress when Byrd tapped him to be the Organization candidate for governor in 1953. That’s how things worked in those days.
In normal times, Byrd’s nod would have been sufficient, but times were changing. Four years before, the Organization candidate, John Battle, had endured a near-death experience in the form of a primary challenge from the liberal anti-organization candidate Francis Pickens Miller. (Miller’s main campaign plank: state funding for school construction, an issue that continues to bedevil us today.) With Miller in the rearview mirror, Stanley’s ascension to the governorship seemed assured except for one thing: Virginia Republicans, heretofore insignificant, were starting to become a political nuisance for Democrats. Keep in mind that the political poles were reversed then: Most Virginia Democrats then were conservatives, conservatives of the segregationist variety, with some liberals such as Miller creeping in. Virginia Republicans, rooted mostly west of the Blue Ridge, were distinctly more centrist. The 1952 election had seen Dwight Eisenhower break “the Solid South.” He had carried Virginia and swept into office three Republican congressmen, from the three districts most politically out of touch with the Byrd way: the 9th in the Southwest Virginia (William Wampler), the 6th in the Roanoke and New River valleys (Richard Poff) and the 10th in Northern Virginia (Joel Broyhill). Now, in 1953, Republicans mounted an unexpectedly stiff challenge for governor with Ted Dalton of Radford as their standard-bearer.
Historian Virginius Dabney, in his seminal work “Virginia: The New Dominion,” describes Stanley as “affable and amiable” – and “wealthy.” Frank Atkinson, in his equally seminal book “The Dynamic Dominion,” says that Stanley was “a man of considerable wealth, warmth and conviction.” Encyclopedia Virginia is more unsparing, calling him “a man of few political gifts.” Unfortunately, the resulting campaign exposed that lack of political gifts. For a time, it appeared that Dalton might actually win, and a Republican winning statewide was simply unheard of in those days. Petrified, Byrd “virtually took over,” Dabney writes. “In the final week of the campaign it almost appeared to be a contest between Byrd and Dalton. The senator’s last-minute intervention turned the tide and Stanley won.” The 55% of the vote that Stanley received was the lowest by any winning candidate in Virginia since 1885. The future fault lines of Virginia politics were exposed.
Stanley had been governor just four months when the Brown decision came down. Dabney writes that Stanley “received the decision calmly” and promised that “views of leaders of both races will be invited.” Dabney also writes that “the governor’s objective attitude was short-lived.” Byrd apparently sent Stanley a private message that this kind of equanimity would not do. “Within a week of the court’s ruling, Stanley had kept his promise” to consult with Black leaders, “but only in a technical sense.” He told them to ignore the court’s ruling. Not long afterward, Stanley declared, “I shall use every legal means at my command to continue segregated schools in Virginia.” And he did. This was what became known as Massive Resistance. By the time he left office in January 1957, Virginia schools remained segregated – and the legal framework had been laid that soon led to the closing of public schools in some places, including Prince Edward County. Virginia is still paying the price for that, quite literally: Virginia maintains a scholarship fund for students who were denied their education in that era. One of those students graduated this spring from Virginia Western Community College – see our story about her and how the fund will run out of eligible students before it runs out of money.
So that single headline flashing on the screen in “Elvis” carries a lot of history behind it.
The other Virginia Easter egg in the movie is not so obvious. In one of the early scenes, a young Elvis sneaks a peek through the cracks of a juke joint and watches the bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup – played by the musician Gary Clark Jr. – playing “That’s All Right, Mama.” That song, of course, later became Elvis’ first hit. At several points, the movie returns to that scene. The implication is that Elvis owes his musical inspiration to Crudup. That’s not wrong. Elvis recorded other songs by Crudup, too – “So Glad You’re Mine” and “My Baby Left Me.” The precise details of the movie scene with a young Elvis peeking through the cracks may have been contrived, but there were apparently some facts behind it. The pop culture website Consequence writes that not only was Crudup in Presley’s personal record collection, but “in a 1956 interview with The Charlotte Observer, Presley suggested that he’d also seen the bluesman in person as a child, saying ‘Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now.’” The Blues Hall of Fame has a quote from Presley in which he added, “If I ever got to the place I could feel all old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.” If Elvis in his prime thought he wasn’t yet at Crudup’s level, how spectacular must Crudup have been?
Of course, Elvis was not alone in his admiration of the Black bluesmen of the ’40s and ’50s. Many, if not most, of the early rock ’n’ rollers grew up listening to what were considered at the time “race records.” In England, a group of young Londoners named their blues cover band after a Muddy Waters song, “Rolling Stone,” and did pretty well for themselves. To this date, there remains bitterness in some quarters because those bluesmen often got cheated out of their proper royalties when white musicians played their songs. Elvis became rich and famous as a result of playing Crudup’s music. Meanwhile, Crudup worked as a manual laborer (and some accounts say a bootlegger) because he couldn’t make a living from the same songs.
Now for the Virginia angle to that scene: Later in life, Crudup moved to Northampton County on the Eastern Shore, working as a field laborer and playing a little music on the side. In the early ’70s, many of those old bluesmen got some belated recognition and Crudup toured for a time as the opening act for Bonnie Raitt. Crudup died in 1974, at age 68. Those who made statements at the time attesting to Crudup’s influence included Elton John, Rod Stewart and John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival. The man some came to call “the father of rock ’n’ roll” is buried in Franktown. Music historians today still pour over Crudup’s music; some contend that “That’s All Right, Mama” should be considered the first rock ’n’ roll song because it might be the first song to contain a guitar solo break. Mental Floss says Crudup’s 1946 recording of the song “sounds a decade ahead of its time.” Virginia ought to find a way to leverage Crudup’s depiction in the “Elvis” movie as a way to reclaim and celebrate his legacy.
One of Crudup’s band members in his last years was Bill Blue, who those of a certain age remember working the club circuit in the Mid-Atlantic in the late ’70s and early ’80s. (I saw Blue play at the legendary Elbow Room in Harrisonburg back in the day when I was a student at James Madison University.) One of Blue’s more famous songs was a tribute to his days with Crudup called “On the Road For Big Boy.” You can see him playing it in a show in Richmond in 2018 – and talking about his relationship with Crudup – in this You Tube video.
Now, for the answer to that trivia question I posed: Where did Elvis play in Virginia other than one of the major metros? The answer is Danville. (Earlier, I said Ringgold, based on a webiste that listed Ringgold but I’m now told the fairgrounds at the time were in Danville and moved late). On Sept. 18 and 19, 1955, Elvis played at the WRVA Theater in Richmond. The next day, on Sept. 20, he played at the Danville- Pittsylvania Fairgrounds as part of the Grand Ole Opry Show. An ad in the Danville Bee promised “the greatest hillbilly show ever to be presented in Danville” — headlined by “the nation’s number one gospel group,” the Louvin Brothers — and mentions two other acts before it lists “handsome Elvis Presley, the 17-year-old hillbilly sensation from the Louisiana Hayride.” (He was actually 20 at the time.) The admission price was $1. If anyone still living saw that show, that memory is probably priceless.