'I was born right here in Memphis', reports Pittman. 'I was born in an attic on Easter Sunday. We were very poor. I have twelve brothers and sisters all together. My father tried to be the father of our country, I do believe. We were right in the city, in a, just a horrible poverty situation. But we overcame, and we all made it. I guess just because you're born in poverty doesn't mean that you have to turn out bad'.
At the age of three she got her first taste of showbiz. 'My uncle by marriage used to have a pawn shop on Beale Street, and that's where I grew up. There was a record out at that time, I forget who it was, but I liked it and started singing, 'He may be your man but he comes around to see me sometimes'. And everybody on Beale Street started gathering around me to hear this little half-pint sing those lyrics. I've been singing the blues ever since'.
With a note of wistful nostalgia in her voice, Pittman explains her connection and relationship to Presley. 'I grew up in the same neighborhood in north Memphis. It was the white poor neighborhood in Memphis. You had the poor Irish people and poor little Southern people. It was cheap living and cheap housing there. That was just where everybody ended up when they came to Memphis. Of course I was a few years younger than Elvis, but my brothers knew him at school; they all went to Humes. My older brother knew him from the teenage years.
'From that time on, I would see Elvis around town. My Uncle Abe and I would go to the movies uptown all the time, and he was an usher at one of the theaters. That was while he was still in high school. I was just a little girl and I was running around behind him and suddenly one day I grew up and he says, 'Hello dere!''
Pittman's mother also knew Mrs. Presley quite well. 'They were both dietitians at St. Joseph Hospital here and that's how they met each other. They had Stanley parties, which were like Tupperware parties today, and they'd get together and sell these little brushes and combs and everything and play these little games. And my mom would go to their house or Mrs. Presley would come to ours.
'His mother used to tell us we looked like brother and sister; then we'd get in a fight! He'd look at me and say, 'I can't be that ugly, Mom'. So I wouldn't take that! I shot right back, 'Well, I certainly don't look like you!' I called him 'Bumphead' because he had little knots on his head. We were kids, you know. But he grew into his face and became gorgeous'.
Many biographies have reported that the young Presley had hygiene problems and 'green teeth'. Pittman says that's just not true. 'He had the prettiest teeth I've ever seen in my life. His mother made him take vitamins, brush his teeth, and I never smelled anything but good on him. He washed his hair every day. That's the softest, prettiest hair I'd ever seen'.
Pittman not only shared Presley's love of the blues, she also had an itch to perform - an itch that got the teenager in a spot of trouble. 'My first singing job where I got paid was with Elvis at the Eagle's Nest, and the juvenile court authorities found out I was there and made me quit. My stepfather turned me in. I couldn't even work in Memphis after that because I was too young'.
She received another blow to her ego when she tried to latch on at Sun Records. 'Well, Elvis had introduced me to Sam Phillips, and I went down and did an audition for him. He told me to go out and learn how to sing and then come back. Now Marion Keisker [Phillips's receptionist, the woman who discovered Presley], who didn't want any women in that studio at all, told me to go out and learn how to type or get married because I couldn't sing. I hadn't been singing very long. God, I was just a little kid'.
Undaunted, Pittman secured work with movie cowboy Lash LaRue's traveling road show, where she was employed as a babysitter and part-time entertainer. She remembers the show well. 'Well, you know he was 'King of the Bullwhip', and he did the regular things like knocking ashes off of a cigarette, putting out fire, and doing a fight scene with a stunt man he had with him, and singing a song. He had a pretty good voice. And we ended the show doing a gospel song and that was our show.
'We had a little trio with us. I did things like 'I'll Never Let You Go' and I even sang some of his original material he had written. I didn't do that much. I'd go out and sing two or three songs but mostly he'd have me out front selling his picture.
'We traveled all over the country. He signed a contract with my mother that he would tutor me and everything. He took very good care of me until the tour was over and he dropped me at a phone booth in Columbus, Ohio. Fortunately I had a cousin who lived there so I stayed with them for a while before I came back to Memphis'.
Touring with LaRue gave her voice some needed polish, and once she got home Pittman was ready to give Sun and Sam Phillips another try. 'So, I went back and made a demo for Elvis called 'Playing for Keeps', something Stanley Kesler had written. I went back with the demo, which we made at the Cotton Club in west Memphis, and Sam listened to it, and he didn't realize that I was that same girl that had auditioned a year earlier. He said, 'Hey, who is this? This sounds real good and I'd like to get her in here and do some things'.
'Well, that's Barbara Pittman!'
'And Sam said, 'Well, I guess she did what I told her to'.'
Presley recorded her version of the pretty country ballad 'Playing for Keeps' for RCA in 1957 and liked her rendition of Hank Williams's 'Cold Cold Heart'. 'Elvis said I was the only one he ever heard who could really sing that song', Pittman recalls today. 'That really made me feel good'.
A well-endowed, Elizabeth Taylor-style brunette, Pittman was generally treated like everyone's kid sister at Sun. 'Well, I was so young and standoffish, I was scared of my own shadow', she laughs. 'I was really a shy kid. I was shaking so hard that when I'd get around Elvis he'd call me his vibrator. 'Hey, my back hurts, lean up against me'. Mostly, I was kind of a loner, and I'd go right home. The band would take me home and pick me up, and [disc jockey] Dewey [Phillips] was real protective of me too. Jack Clement and I dated, we were pretty close, and Elvis and I were close friends, but we were never really what you'd call lovers. We dated and everything, but I just wasn't his type. But anyway, I didn't really have any problems'.
Her relationship with Clement resulted in his writing 'Ballad of a Teenage Queen', a major crossover hit for Johnny Cash. 'That's true. She was a teenaged queen', affirms Clement. 'Oh, was she beautiful - I was in love with her'. He also produced her best rocker, the bold and lascivious 'I Need a Man'.
Hearing her daughter utter lines such as 'I've got plenty of cash and a fine mink coat, but they can't give me what I need the most, I need a man to love me' provoked an immediate reaction from Pittman's mother. 'She locked me in the closet for a week! She said, 'You can't go out. Just forget it'. Y'know, I looked so much older than my years because I was born with a training bra on. She was worried about me, but I was a good kid and she knew it, really'.
One of the Sun label's biggest weaknesses was its inability to concentrate on more than one or two artists at a time. Sam Phillips routinely pulled all his resources from one record to put behind another. Such was the case with Billy Lee Riley's 'Red Hot' and Pittman's recordings, which received solid airplay in Memphis, but never benefitted from a national push.
While Pittman's career floundered, her friend Elvis faced an even bigger crisis, the death of his mother. 'We were up in his room, I stayed with him the last night he was home, because Elvis walked in his sleep and couldn't be left alone', Pittman reveals. 'So, he couldn't be left alone, and he was still grieving over his mom. His mom had just died and he laid his head in my lap and cried, 'Why me? I know this is going to be the end of my career. My mom's gone and now my career is going to be gone'. And he was just very upset, and I comforted him. That's all there was to it. My brother was in the service but he wasn't giving up anything. As a matter of fact he was getting three good meals a day that he wasn't getting at home. But with Elvis, I could understand where he was coming from even then, and I was just a kid. He was mostly crying about his mom, he knew that everything was turning completely different from that point on in his life'.
Pittman agrees that everything about Elvis and his world changed with the death of his beloved mother, but insists that Presley was neither a mama's boy nor painfully shy. 'Well, he wasn't shy, and he wasn't the mama's boy they often make him out to be. He loved his mother like all Southern men do, y'know. I never seen one that didn't love their mother more than their father. He really did; he loved his mom - well, we all do. Southern people are very attached to their mothers. But Elvis was headstrong, hot tempered, and he knew what he wanted and went after it'.
Plugging away at her own recording career, Pittman's last single for Sam Phillips, 'Handsome Man', came out on Sun's Phillips International affiliate and was the most expensive recording attempted by the label - and expense was something Phillips just could not abide. 'Well . . . that was the last record I recorded, and Charlie Rich wrote it and played piano on it', explains Pittman. 'We had a vocal group there and all the strings and all the basic instruments plus guitars. Everything happened in that studio, nothing was overdubbed. They were all union musicians charging union scale, and it was going on all night long. Charlie Underwood, who wrote the other side of that record, 'The Eleventh Commandment', was engineering, and he was the one who put this thing together. Sam was at home in bed with pneumonia. When somebody called him and told him what was going on, he got out of bed and came down during a blizzard to find out what in the heck was going on'.
Asked about working with the young Charlie Rich, Pittman shares a memory from the session. 'Charlie, y'know, kinda tilted the bottle a little. Well, a lot actually, and he was pretty well gone. We were just singing away and the vocal group was doing their 'ooh-wahs' and the violins were going. Suddenly we missed the piano and Charlie. There was a hole in everything and we looked at the piano for Charlie and he was under it! He was out, sitting there with his head resting against the piano bench. We got him awake and we went on with the session'.
The recording scene in Memphis ground to a halt during the early 1960s, so Pittman decided to try her luck in Hollywood, where she would see Elvis for the last time. It was then she realized that her old friend was in the process of some profound emotional changes. 'I never made any real money in Memphis', says Pittman. 'So, I went out to L.A. in '62, and I saw Elvis a few times out there when he was renting [Rudolph] Valentino's house. I wanted to see it, so I went over. But when he met Priscilla, he was talking about her even then, and he was saying that she looked like a female Valentino. He had this worship - he believed he was the reincarnation of Valentino. At times he would actually talk like he had dreamed he was [Valentino] at one time or another. Anyway, after that, when she came on the scene, I didn't go around him anymore'.
Fortunately, two other former neighbors from north Memphis were able to give Pittman a helping hand, Johnny and Dorsey Burnette. 'They were trying to get me on labels and everything. Then Johnny got killed and everything just stopped. That was the saddest day of my life. [Johnny Burnette died in a boating mishap in 1964.] But they were real good friends, Dorsey was very helpful to me. He got me going when I got out there'.
Pittman rattled around Hollywood for several years, appearing in clubs, singing on Sammy Master's television show and on a project spearheaded by Mike Curb. She also did some movie soundtrack work, played bit parts in the biker exploitation films 'Wild on Wheels' and 'The Hell's Angels', and recorded 'Making Love Is Fun' for the dubiously titled 'Dr. Goldfoot And the Girl Bomb'. A true showbiz foot soldier, she never really made the big time. She was nearly forgotten until the death of Elvis Presley caused a renewed interest in his fifties contemporaries, especially among European fanatics.
'Suddenly I was discovered', Pittman crows. 'It took me forty years before people started saying 'What about this one female artist on Sun?' I've been to Europe a few times and just had a ball! They treat you like royalty over there'.
That said, those European tours haven't been lucrative enough to completely support her year-round. Times have often been desperate for Pittman: she lost her home and went through a bankruptcy; a proposed recording deal fell through; and stateside bookings are thin. Yet she still loves to sing: 'It beats any food you could put in your mouth'. Moreover, she is grateful for her memories of her late friends.
'Sometimes I think that Elvis Presley and Dewey Phillips were the only people who ever really believed in me. Just the thought of that keeps me going a lot of times'.
This article reproduced from the book - Country Music Changed My Life (Chicago Review Press) by Ken Burke - with permission.
This is the Barbara Pittman chapter from the book. In addition to this there are interesting stories on Kitty Wells, Pat Boone, Glen Campbell, Brenda Lee, Joe Stampley, Bobby Bare, Little Jimmy Dickens, Jack Clement, Jerry Lee Lewis and many others ... plus a whole chapter titled The Elvis Factor, wherein Ken writes about Gordon Stoker, Barbara Pittman, Gary Bryant, and Wanda Jackson.
- Paperback: 356 pages
- Publisher: Chicago Review Press
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1556525958
- ISBN-13: 978-1556525957
- Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 5 x 0.9 inches
Ken is also a co-writer of The Blue Moon Boys - The Story of Elvis Presley's Band (Chicago Review Press).