Bernard Lansky has seen a lot of Memphis history in his 78 years, and from his elegant haberdashery, which he runs with his son, Hal, he's furnished the wardrobes of rock 'n' roll royalty for more than a half-century. His original shop, on famed Beale Street, is where music and fashion made beautiful harmony.
Elvis Presley and Bernard Lansky.
Elvis Presley was raised on the sound of gospel music sung at church services he attended with his parents, Vernon and Gladys. The family moved to Memphis in November 1948, when Elvis was 13 years old.
Bernard, meantime, was one of nine children of immigrants from Kiev. His father bought a used clothing store at 126 Beale Street for Bernard and his six brothers, ensuring they'd have secure jobs working as their own bosses. But Bernard took one look around and said, 'It ain't me'.
He tried an Army-surplus clothing business, but the postwar inventory eventually dried up. 'So I started high fashion for the ethnic people', he says. 'They had bands and concerts'.
The store took off. 'Cut, make and trim. Lot of people wanted to look hot on Saturday night. They'd come into the store on Friday night, we were so busy. One day I saw a bright young man walking on Beale Street. I knew he went to church down there where they had gospel singing'.
Elvis Presley and Bernard Lansky.
Bernard and young Elvis struck up a conversation. 'He looked in the window and said, 'You have some nice stuff in there', Bernard recalls. 'When I get rich, I'll buy you out'. I said, 'No, don't buy me out, just buy from me'. Elvis was an usher at Loew's theater at the time. He cashed his paycheck and made his first purchase, a $3.95 shirt. Later, while still attending L.C. Humes High School, he had the tailor create an ensemble set of black pants, pink coat and pink-and-black cummerbund for the junior-senior prom. 'He always wanted to be the belle of the ball', Bernard remembers. 'One day he came in and said, 'I'm going to be on TV with Ed Sullivan'. So, I got him dressed and told him how much it was. Elvis said, 'I got a problem. I got no money'. I told him, 'Yes, that is a problem. But I'll tell you what, I'm going to float you'. That was the key in the lock for him and me'. It wasn't long before Elvis bought Graceland--he was 22 years old. 'He got good and did a lot of concerts', says Bernard. 'Memphis had a lot of pimps, gamblers. We had high fashion in the window. I'd do tailor-made mohair, silk and wool. Flare leg, no back pockets. Twenty-six-inch knee, 14-inch bottom drape. Then I made thinner legs'.
Elvis Presley at Lansky's.
Word got around in the music business. 'Elvis Presley was my PR man all over the world', Bernard recalls. 'I put clothes on Johnny Cash. He brought me a Prince Albert tobacco can and pointed to the man on the cover. 'I want this', he said, 'a black suit'. I made a cutaway coat with black pants. Didn't have to worry about him, he always wore black'. The stream of entertainers kept coming: Frank Sinatra, Sonny Burgess, Carl Perkins and others. But Bernard never forgot who put his little store on the map.
'I used to make deliveries for Elvis at Graceland. Gladys, his mother, would greet me at the door. They used to stay out all night on gigs. They'd eat breakfast at four o'clock in the afternoon. Gladys would tell me to take the clothes up to Elvis' bedroom and come back down and eat breakfast with them. Vernon Presley was sitting right there. Every time he went out on gigs with Elvis, Vernon would get three suits'.
Bernard was shopping in Dallas in August 1977 when he learned that Elvis had left the building for the last time. 'We flew right home, and I went out to Graceland', Lansky remembers, sadly. 'He was a heck of a nice guy. I put him in his first suit, and I put him in his last suit'. Bernard Lansky's creations suited the King, but they never brought acclaim from the fashion world. An article in
TV's 'Best' Dressed that year was Hal March, according to style authority Irving Heller. The dishonor stung, perhaps, but then, who does entertainment history remember? Elvis or Hal March?
Today you can still stroll through the formal lobby of the grand Peabody Hotel in Memphis and up to the ornate glass doors of Lansky's haberdashery. The world's top fashions are on display, along with signed guitars from the likes of Jimmy Dean, Johnny Cash and the King himself. Behind the counter you'll still find Bernard Lansky. At 78 years old, he has a wiry frame, and is usually dressed in a designer tie, blue shirt and sleeveless cardigan. He still shakes hands with a strong, bony grip. Every morning at six o'clock, the tailor to the King is in, and ready for the next big thing.
In Mid-August 1957, Elvis traded his three-wheel custom-built
Messerschmitt for a two-and-a-half hour shopping spree at Lansky Brothers' clothing store on Beale Street in Memphis.
Interview with Bernard Lansky of Lansky Brothers
Q : Mr. Lansky, since your store is called Lansky Brothers, how many brothers are involved?
A : Just my son and I.
Q : That's the way it has always been?
A : No. I bought my brothers out years ago.
Q : What happened to your brothers? Are they still around?
A : A couple of them died. Some of them are in different business. One's in the hat business. One's an architect. There were six brothers and two died. One was in the hair products (business). He died and my oldest brother died. There are four of us left.
Q : Did your store mainly cater to musicians and show-biz people when it opened?
A : We got out of the Army and our father bought us a store on Beale Street. They were waitin' on me to come back from the Army. When I came back, my father bought us the store, which I didn't like. I said 'this is not my forte'. Anyway, we got in the Army surplus. The merchandise he bought for us, I threw away. When I walked in and saw what it was, it wasn't me. So, I just threw it out on the sidewalk and said 'we're gonna start something different'. We went out to the Army Depot and started buying Army surplus. We did fairly well with it. We were right on top of it. We had crates in there. We had tables in there. Everything laid out. T-shirts and pants. Everything from Army surplus. We did a very good job. Then, all at once, all this stuff started running out. But, there was a void in the market down on famous Beale Street ... high fashion. So, my brother and I started out in high fashion. I went to the market. We started picking up real sharp merchandise.
As you know, Beale Street was an all ethnic street. We had all the blues singers and bands. You had the theatres down here. People used to come and walk up and down Beale Street.
So, I started doin' windows. I knew how to dress widows. I started makin' real sharp windows. These bands would cut records for Stax Recording Company and they all started comin' in. Word of mouth started bringing people in here. We were doing fantastic.
Q : You said you were buying clothes from the market. What are you referring to? What market?
A : We went to Californian and New York markets, buying real high fashion merchandise.
Q : The market was what though?
A : That's a clothing market.
Elvis Presley and Bernard Lansky.
Q : All the designers would display their merchandise?
A : Exactly. We went to the market to see what's happening. We were cherry-picking different things, what I thought would be sharp for my clientele.
Q : So, you don't design clothes?
A : Not at that time?
Q : But you do today?
A : Today. From then on, I started designing. I had my own tailor shop. I had my own piece goods that we used to buy. We had cut making trim. You know what cut making trim means? We'd come in, measure the customer. We'd tailor for 'em. I had my own tailor shop. We had fifteen tailors in the tailor shop. I was in charge of all the tailors, make sure everything was cut out. I used to cut piece goods.
I used to lay it out on the table and design it and had them ready for them and things like that. We had tailor shops in our shop. We had all our own piece goods ... silk and wool, mohair, different piece goods that we had. People would pick out what they'd want and we'd take the measurements and we'd take it into the tailor shop and cut it out. In about a week or ten days, we'd have it ready for them.
Q : And how unusual was that for a shop to do all that?
A : No. It's not unusual. You'd want something different and we were different.
We had piece goods that no one else had. We had real sharp merchandise.
Q : You first saw Elvis looking in the window of your store?
A : Right.
Q : You went out to greet him. Is that something you'd normally do?
A : It was very seldom to see a white dude come down on Beale Street to look and see what's happening. He was there 'cause he was interested in seeing what we had in the window. The merchandise, the piece goods. Not only the piece goods, but the way I had it laid out. You know, you had your shirts and your ties; your silk and wool pants, your no back-pocket pants; your flair bottoms and your bell-bottoms. I made it like they wanted. I'd come up with different styles, different things that we had. It was different styles that we were coming up with. Everybody wanted something different. A band didn't want what the other band had. They didn't want the same piece of goods. We had walls full of piece goods that we could lay out. We could do whatever we want with it, or make it like they want it, like I want to give it to them.
Q : You sold him what?
A : No, wait a minute. As I invited him in, I showed Elvis around, not knowing who he was. He said 'I like all of this. It's fantastic. I don't have any money now, but when I get rich, I'll buy you out'. Elvis used to work at the theater around the corner from us. He used to come down and look in our windows. He used to walk up and down Beale Street and see the sharp windows I had. That's what he liked. He had his hair all combed back in that ducktail. It was real sharp. One day he came back in. Before that, he'd come in and buy a couple of shirts. At that time, shirts were $2.95 or $3.95. He was working at the theater. I don't know how much money he was making. He would always come in on Friday and buy a shirt. When he really got coming up and I knew he has something going for him, he was playing guitar and working for Sun Recording Company. He came in and said 'Mr. Lansky' and I said 'yeah Elvis, what do you need?' He said 'I've got a contract. I'm going to New York and be on Ed Sullivan ... Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey. I got some gigs and I'm gonna be on television. I need some clothes'. I said 'fine, no problem'. I put all the clothes out and showed him everything, all the different styles. He said 'fine, I like this, but I have a problem'. I said 'what's the problem?' He said 'I don't have no money'. I said 'Lord have mercy, what's next?' But we took care of him and charged it out to him and he started paying. He started coming in and being one of my regular customers. I saw him on television and put all the clothes on him. I said 'I like them. That's my man! That's my main man!' At first I didn't know what the hell he did. But after he came up and I saw him on television, I said 'this guy's got to be something!' And he did. He was fantastic. Not only that, he was my p.r. (public relations) man. After he started having these gigs with Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, he was on the Louisiana Hayride and getting gigs all over the country, he started coming here. Everybody liked what he wore. Man, where'd you get those clothes? Lansky Brothers down on famous Beale Street. Everybody started coming in and buying what Elvis used to buy.
Q : Did you sell him the pants with the green stripes down the sides?
A : No. That was a black pair of pants with pink stitching on it, and no back pockets. Something different, with a flair bottom. Real sharp.
Q : How much did you charge Elvis for that jacket?
A : (laughs) That was NC ... no charge. The guy was doing good for me. Why shouldn't I give him something? Hell, it'll be fantastic. It'll be advertising for Lansky Brothers on Beale Street. Everybody started seeing it and they liked it. After awhile, everybody wanted a gold lame' jacket. You know you got to give to receive.
Q : Did Elvis continue to buy from Lansky Brothers until the end of his life?
A : We used to ship a lot of stuff out to Graceland. If I wasn't out there, my son used to take stuff out there. When I'd go to the market, I'd cherry pick stuff. Something different for him.
He used to wear a lot of long coats with fur collars, the leather coats and things like that. In 1970, it was Superfly time. I made eight long coats for him, eight different kinds. I made leather coats, fur coats, which he liked. I made a couple of hats for him. I started putting hats on him too.
Q : Would you show Elvis samples of the material you would use or did you make the whole thing?
A : I made it. I knew what he wanted. He wanted something different. He wanted to be different. I knew that. I knew I had to plan out stuff, what he would wear, what would be sharp. Elvis was my P.R. man for the whole world. Elvis used to send people to Lanskys. He'd say 'that's where I buy all my clothes'. When he used to come in, I had kids look in the windows and watch him. That's Elvis.
Q : When Elvis got famous and he would come into shop, would you close the store down? I imagine his fans would create chaos.
A : They would, but you gotta be nice to everybody. You start running 'em out, that's when you lose your customers. You want to be nice to them when they come in and nice will follow.
Q : Do you have stores in other cities?
A : We have stores here in Memphis at the Peabody Hotel. We used to be down on Beale Street for many years. We have four stores in the hotel. We've been in the hotel twenty three years.
We've been on Beale Street for fifty years and we're still growing.
Q : Still growing?
A : Yes sir. You'd be surprised the people we get from all over the world ... the UK, Japan, all over to see Mr Bernard Lansky, Clothier to The King.
Q : Would you ever consider opening another store in another city?
A : I got people coming in, why should I spread myself thin? I'm here at the store. The people come to Memphis and can't wait 'til they see me. They all come to Memphis. They all know where I'm at. I get mail from all over the world. I still get telephone calls from everybody. I open these stores at six o'clock in the morning. You never know who's staying upstairs. We got five hundred rooms in the Hotel Peabody. The people that come in here ... unreal. I sign books for 'em. I sign autographs for 'em and everything.
Q : How long of a day do you put in?
A : I go home about five thirty ... six o'clock. Ya never know who's gonna come in to see me. And another thing, you like to be here when they come in, it's oohs and aahs. It's so fantastic. It makes you feel good. I'm seventy six years old and I'm still working every day.
Q : It almost sounds like you're a star.
A : Tell me about it. I'm on stage.
Q : When did you last see Elvis?
A : Not too long before he died. He was kind of big at that time.
Q : He wasn't ordering any clothes from you then was he?
A : No.
Q : You saw him at Graceland?
A : Yeah, exactly. I had carte blanch out there. I knew the Daddy and the Mama. Gladys was fantastic. We all big buddies. It's just like, make a delivery out there at three thirty in the afternoon and Gladys, the Mom, would be cooking breakfast for the group. She said 'Mr. Lansky, are you gonna have breakfast with us?' I said 'I'm going home. My wife is fixing dinner. If I eat breakfast and go home in the next thirty minutes, and I don't eat dinner, my wife's gonna be mad at me'. She said 'Oh I can understand Mr. Lansky'. I said 'thank you, thank you very much'. She was a doll. A very nice lady ... a plain lady ... and the Daddy, unreal. Vernon was a nice guy. They were real good people. Elvis used to always call me Mr. Lansky. I said 'Elvis, I'm Bernard, my father was Mr. Lansky'. Thank you. Thank you very much Mr. Lansky. From the time I met him, 'til the time he died, he never called me Bernard.
Q : He always addressed people as Mr. or Sir.
A : Exactly. That's how he was brought up. He'd kill ya with kindness. If he liked you, fantastic. You didn't have a problem. A real gentleman. Lisa Marie is a doll.
Q : You know her too?
A : Oh sure. The mother, she's fantastic. Priscilla and Lisa Marie come in here all the time. They stay here in Memphis. They stay at the Peabody Hotel. The got the suites up there. They come here maybe six times a year. They stay here and go out to Graceland to see what's happening and we still talk ... chit-chat. Talk about what's happening and things. But, they're all good people.
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