The Browns and Elvis Presley - Maxine Brown Recalls
March 11, 2009
With the addition of their younger sister, Bonnie, the Browns would go on to record such hits as 'I Take the Chance', 'Scarlet Ribbons', 'The Old Lamplighter' and, most significantly, 'The Three Bells', which topped both the country and pop charts for weeks and even ascended to the Top 10 of the R&B rankings.
Maxine Brown : The first time I met Elvis, I told him my mother had predicted he'd be a big star. He just laughed shyly. In those days, he truly had no idea of how big he would become. I don't think he ever had a big head or even gave fame a second thought. He was too busy having fun and being young. I believe he would have been content to sing the way he did on the Hayride. His favorite music, by far, was old-time gospel. Many a night, we'd all sit up late and sing the old hymns. Elvis was the last to want to quit. He often said that his big dream was to make it as a gospel artist. That's what his mother wanted for him, too.
Who knows, that might have been best for him in the long run.
The Browns and Elvis at Pine Bluff's Trio Restaurant (1954)
Few know this, but there were actually two Elvises inside the one. As we traveled the road with him, we came to see both sides. He could be very, very shy, the sensitive momma's boy, and he could be as wild as a joker in a game of spit in the ocean. I know that others who call themselves biographers and scholars have written exhaustive books about Elvis. But all their pronouncements about him still come down to guesswork. They weren't there. You had to be with him day to day, facing the grind of the road, to really understand him.
It's a little strange now to look back and remember when the Brown Trio got top billing over Elvis Presley. Tom Perryman thought the three of us and Elvis and his group would make a good package.
Scotty Moore, Elvis Presley and Bill Black - September 9, 1954
So he arranged us a tour together all over Texas. Brown says Presley's manager, Bob Neal, contacted their booking agent, Tom Perryman, who then packaged the two acts together -- along with Presley's backup players, bassist Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore -- for a 15-day tour. They played the Hayride and worked the road with Presley for the remainder of 1954, all through 1955 and into 1956 before their careers diverged.
On January 26, 1955, the Browns stole the show from Elvis in Gilmer at the Rural Electric Association building. Then we did it again two days later at the high school in Gaston. I'm sure that few stole shows from him after that. I know for sure that the Browns didn't.
We worked fifteen straight days with Elvis. Our common band consisted of Scotty Moore, Bill Black, and J.D Fontana. That was it, but we put on great shows. Today it's unheard of for a musician to back two artists on the same show. After the tour was over, we again went to the Hayride's Horace Logan and Frank Page and told them that they should sign Elvis to a contract. We knew he had the voice and the talent to be a member. No other artist had the stage presence he did. He was driving all the girls crazy. Even the men liked and respected him. So we knew great things were about to happen.
In 1955, the Hayride sponsored us with Elvis, Jim Reeves, and Slim Whitman at the Jimniie Rodgers Celebration in Meridian, Mississippi. They designed and built a beautiful float for us to ride on in the big parade. I guess you could say that Jim Reeves was the star of the event. Elvis was just getting started, and a lot of the folks didn't really know who he was. Many of the artists there seemed very jealous of him. Some of the deejays wouldn't even play his record. One of them made an ugly remark to Elvis that I just couldn't take. I gave him a piece of my mind right there in front of God and everybody. His reply was, 'You can bet your sweet ass I'll never play another Browns record again'. I don't think the SOB ever did, but who cares? We didn't need narrow-minded people like him in the business anyway.
Above, this photo was taken in the summer of 1955. This was the first Cadillac Elvis bought. As we were driving down the road, Elvis suddenly pulled over at a paint store and bought a bucket of paint, and painted his name on both sides of this new Caddy. This photo was taken just after he painted his name. Forty years later, a woman gave this picture to Jimmy Rogers Snow, that she took at the paint store in Florida.
We met Elvis' parents, Gladys and Vernon, at the Ellis Auditorium in Memphis in March 1955, where we were booked with several other country artists. They reminded us so much of our own parents that we insisted they all come to one of our shows so they could meet our folks. They did in Texarkana, Arkansas. Elvis was getting so popular by then that the auditoriums and clubs where Tom was booking us couldn't hold all the people. So he booked us at the ball field in Texarkana. Our stage was a flatbed truck. My God, it was awful! There were no dressing rooms and certainly no bathrooms close by. We had to change into our costumes in the back seat of the car and hope that nobody would see our unmentionables. One of the artists on that show was Chet Atkins. Little did we dream that someday he would become our producer at RCA Records.
Later on, Tom Parker put together a tour with us, Elvis, the Wilburn Brothers, Ferlin Husky, Faron Young, Martha Carson, and the Carlisles. I think we had more fun on those tours than we did during the rest of our career. We were one big, happy, crazy family.
Ferlin Husky was everybody's favorite, especially when he did his Simon Crum comedy routine.
We were all having dinner one night after our show and getting ready for a long haul to the next big gig when Ferlin asked our waitress, 'What kind of soup do you have?' She said, 'Well, we have tomato, mushroom, chicken, and pea soup'. Ferlin ordered chicken soup. As the waitress walked off, Ferlin stood up and hollered as loud as he could, 'Hold that chicken and make it pea'. Everyone died laughing. I thought Elvis was going to crack a rib he laughed so hard. I felt like crawling under the table.
We worked with Elvis Presley in 1955 and 1956 at the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, and we did other shows together. We were the first artists to ever work with Elvis. We worked with him until Jim Ed got drafted into the Army in 1956. Elvis was the perfect gentleman and we had a lot of fun together. I remember when we got top billing over Elvis, but that didn't last long. He was a superstar. Bonnie was a beautiful girl. And Elvis was madly in love with her. I think she cared for him too. And he loved our mama's cooking.
Brown family get-together with Elvis (top right)
Elvis' mom and dad went down to the Louisiana Hayride occasionally when Elvis was singing there. Often they'd go through Pine Bluff and make the trip south with my folks.
They'd always sit together during the show and afterward we'd all go out to dinner together at the Al-Ida Restaurant and Motel owned by our good friend Junior Cloud.
One night when Elvis walked off stage after taking about five or six encore, Gladys got him by the arm and led him over to the side of the stage away from everyone and said, 'Elvis, don't you have any drawers?' He said, 'No ma'am, the only pair I own was dirty and Maxine wouldn't wash 'em.
I guess that's the only thing he could think of to say at the moment. I thought I would die laughing. But I had to keep it to myself because there was no way I could ever let Gladys know that her little boy didn't like to wear 'drawers', especially on stage. Hell, he knew what he was doing! Gladys would always remind me to please take good care of her son while we were out on the road. I guess she thought I could watch over him because I was the oldest member of the group.
But Lord hace mercy, who was gonna watch over me while I was watching over him?
Elvis began to spend a lot of time at our house in Pine Bluff after our shows rather than make the drive on to Memphis. Scotty and Bill, who were both married, would go on home. Elvis hung around our house and the Trio Club. Since our house was small, Norma would give Elvis her bed and sleep on the couch. Funny thing, though, Norma's bed was in the same bedroom with Momma and Daddy. But Elvis loved sleeping in the same room with them. He said he had grown up that way and liked the security of a mom and dad nearby.
Momma told us that Elvis was a troubled sleeper and had 'the nervous leg'. The proof of that was the way he ripped up Momma's sheets with his toes. He'd start a small hole and keep wiggling his foot in it in his sleep. By morning, he'd have that sheet almost in shreds. But Momma didn't seem to mind. She'd tell him she needed some new sheets anyway because everything she had was 'hole-y'.
Elvis couldn't sleep much at night no matter where he was. He never slept over three or four hours at a time at our house or in the motels where we stayed. Gladys always told us that he couldn't sleep at home either. I think the best sleep he ever got was in the back seat of the car while we were traveling from show to show. But even then he didn't sleep much. He was always pulling pranks on us as we drove along. Most of the time, he rode in our car with Bonnie, and I rode with Bill Black and Scotty Moore.
Elvis still spent nights at our house rather than driving on to Memphis. Momma put on a feast one night for Elvis, his band, and the Carter Family. We were all playing a show together, and they came to our little house at 34 Cypress Drive. My, that was a time! Elvis was in charge of the evening's entertainment. He played the piano and got all of us singing - the Brown Trio, Mother Maybelle Carter and her daughters. I was always amazed as the years went on at how well Mother Maybelle had taught her kids to play and entertain and still be the most polite young Christian girls you'd ever meet. Most people don't realize that June Carter was an outstanding comedienne before she gained fame as a singer and the wife of Johnny Cash.
That night Elvis was at his very best. He was sweet and gracious and utterly charming, showing that winning side of his nature. Then, a few months later, he showed the other side. Late one night, we got a phone call from him. His car had broken down in the little town of Brinkley, halfway between Memphis and Little Rock. He wanted us to come and pick him up. Bonnie got out of bed, and she and Daddy each took one of our cars and drove all the way to Brinkley to see if they could get Elvis' car running. But his car had had it. It was a good thing Bonnie and Daddy had driven separately. You would have to know my Daddy to see how generous and willing he was to help out a friend. He told Elvis, Scotty, and Bill, 'I'll let you boys borrow my brand new car'.
Daddy had just bought a brand new Pontiac, and he let Elvis take it to his show date while Elvis' own car was being repaired. Well, it didn't work out that way. Those boys kept Daddy's new Pontiac for six weeks; Elvis never even called during all that time to let Daddy know when he'd bring the car home. When they did finally bring it back, it had twelve thousand miles on it, plus some dents, scraped fenders, and worn-out tires. The fellow who brought it back (Elvis was careful not to bring it back himself) never so much as gave Daddy a 'thank you and kiss my foot'. I have never seen my daddy so mad. It was a pretty tacky way for a king to act.
'You can't trust a hillbilly singer', Daddy said. This was one time we had to agree.
Elvis bought himself a new Pink Cadillac right after this happened. The picture of Elvis and his first Cad was in all the papers. I felt sure he would make amends to Daddy for what he had done. But he never did.
Elvis had invited us to come by and see his new house in Memphis.
So on one of our return trips from a recording session in Nashville, we drove out to Graceland to see his fancy digs. His folks were the same great people, and Elvis was prouder of that mansion than old King Solomon was of all his riches. Elvis ushered us into the ice cream parlor he had installed in the house and took great delight in fixing each one of us monstrous ice cream sodas.
The grand mansion and grounds were, as any Elvis fan knows, as fantastic as the Arabian Nights. We sat out on his veranda and talked a long, long time with him and his mom and dad. He seemed content there. We were proud of what he had accomplished, and he knew it. But he seemed a little uneasy about having all the finery and riches. He kept asking us what we thought. Finally Bonnie told him 'This is all just great, and you deserve it if anybody does because you earned it'. I think she sensed that he was feeling guilty deep down because he and his folks had been so poor all their lives. I really think it was a battle that Elvis fought inside for years to come. Maybe that's what drove him so much and accounted for all his excesses. When you can have it all, you find out it doesn't mean that much, because you can never quite get over the times when you knew you didn't have anything. While we were there at Graceland, Elvis' dad, Vernon, took me over to the far side of the swimming pool and told me Elvis was in love with Bonnie. He was planning to ask her to marry him.
In the early part of 1957, we once again stopped by Graceland to visit with the Presleys.
Elvis told us how much he loved the words to our single 'Money'. He said he wanted to record it but that RCA and Elvis' manager, Col. Tom Parker, wouldn't let him. I said, 'Elvis, that song isn't your type. It's a fast waltz and doesn't even sound like you'. 'I would change the beat', he said. 'Here, let me show you'.
He tapped out the beat on the hood of our car and sang all the words. It was so beautiful. I can remember thinking, my God, if only we had done it to that beat, we might have had a hit. I think this showed just how talented he really was. I've often wondered why those words meant so much to him so early on in his career before having too much money became one of his problems.
Several times he came to see us after he got big. Until he left the Hayride, he would always come through [Arkansas] and visit us when he was on his way to the Hayride. So we kept in touch. Even after that, when he got out of the Army [in 1960], he invited us and some of his other real close friends to Graceland for a press conference he had ... But then it seemed like he got so big, after he went to Hollywood, that we sort of lost track of each other. That press conference was the last time I talked to him.
I used to do the laundry for all of us. I'd find a washeteria, and we'd all save our nickels and dimes, and I'd wash our clothes. One time I happened to wash a red pair of silk panties that I had -- I was so proud of them. And I know I'd seen my mother wash them a hundred times. But I happened to throw them into the laundry, and everything -- undershirts and socks -- came out pink.
Everybody else was real upset, but Elvis wasn't. He loved pink. I told them, 'Don't worry about it. I'll [get a friend] to show me how to bleach them'. So I did. I bleached everybody's underwear and socks, except Elvis'. He would not let me touch them. He said, 'I want them to stay this color'. He wore those damn socks, I know, for a month. He was scared to death that if I washed them, they'd fade. They got to smelling so bad that someone -- I think it was Scotty Moore -- caught him asleep one time and took those socks off of him and threw them out the window, along with a pair of his shoes.
We got way on down the road [from where we'd been staying]. Elvis was mad. And they said, 'Well, we'll just stop at the next place and get him a pair of shoes'. We had a show the next day. But I told them they weren't going to be buying any shoes [that day]. This was back when they had the 'blue laws' [which prohibited Sunday sales of certain merchandise]. All the grocery stores were closed. All the department stores were closed. You couldn't buy a pair of socks or shoes to save your life. So we had to go back and look for those socks. You're not going to believe it, but we found them. Even the buzzards wouldn't have them.
Elvis - by Jim Ed Brown
Going back just a few years, a lot of people don't realize how influential your family was with Elvis during the early years. How did that friendship happen?
JEB: It came about because Maxine and I had just started recording. We were getting some pretty good songs out on the charts. We were working quite a few dates, especially around south Arkansas, east Texas and Louisiana. We were already on the Louisiana Hayride by then. It was around then that Elvis came out with 'That's All Right, Mama'. My mother first told me about him. She said, 'There's a new boy that's come out with a record that I really like'. Finally, after two or three weeks, she heard the song again and got his name. Not long after that, it was 1954 by then, Bob Neal, who was managing Elvis at the time, called me and said, 'Jim Ed, you're playing a lot of dates down there where we're planning to book Elvis Presley. Why don't you all team up and do some shows?' So we did. The first tour was fifteen days with his band - Bill Black on bass and Scotty Moore on guitar - backing us up. Believe it or not, we were the headliners at first. (laughs) That didn't last long. We did quite a few dates together for about two years or so as Elvis was just getting started.
Did you have any idea then-did anyone, even Elvis, have any idea how big it would get?
JEB: He brought something different to the table, didn't he? If I would have known how big he was going to get, I would have taken a bunch of pictures and had him sign everything in sight! (laughs)
Who did know? I don't think anyone could have predicted how big he would get. Something like that only comes along once in awhile.
What was he like?
JEB: He was a nice young man, very polite.We enjoyed being around him. He spent alot of time at our home, since Pine Bluff wason often on the way from wherever he and his band were playing. Sometimes, on days between shows, he would stop at our place instead of returning to Memphis. He'd play the piano, and we'd sit up all night and sing hymns. He stayed there many nights. Nobody had much money back in those days, so he knew he was always welcome for a hot meal and a bed if he needed it on his way through town. When his car broke down, he knew he could borrow ours. It was that kind of a relationship. It was a fun time for all of us.
Your sister Bonnie has a funny line about why there aren't a lot of photos of the three of you with Elvis.
JEB: It's true. People always want to know, 'Why don't you have pictures from back then?' Well, as she says, 'We didn't have money to buy film, much less a camera!' Needless to say, things changed for him in a hurry.
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Never before have we seen an Elvis Presley concert from the 1950's with sound. Until Now! The DVD Contains recently discovered unreleased film of Elvis performing 6 songs, including Heartbreak Hotel and Don't Be Cruel, live in Tupelo Mississippi 1956. Included we see a live performance of the elusive Long Tall Sally seen here for the first time ever. + Plus Bonus DVD Audio.
This is an excellent release no fan should be without it.
The 'parade' footage is good to see as it puts you in the right context with color and b&w footage. The interviews of Elvis' Parents are well worth hearing too. The afternoon show footage is wonderful and electrifying : Here is Elvis in his prime rocking and rolling in front of 11.000 people. Highly recommended.
Tupelo's Own Elvis Presley DVD Video with Sound.