Monthly Archives: August 2002

One Night With Elvis — Fans from across the globe visit Graceland to pay their respects.

One Night With Elvis

Fans from across the globe visit Graceland to pay their respects.

Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis is a bizarre slice of civilization strewn with dilapidated barbecue shacks, check-cashing pawn shops, liquor stores, car washes (one doubles as a burger joint that serves a “Murder Burger”), and umbrella-toting prostitutes winking at passersby in the pre-dawn rain. It’s hard to believe that this neighborhood is the eternal resting place for a star of Elvis Presley’s magnitude. A few thousand feet from Graceland, cheap Screen Shot 2017-08-16 at 3.37.17 PMautomobiles are available in a dismal looking car lot called Heaven-Sent Used Cars. Nearby looms one of the city’s several massive billboards that proclaim: “Johnny Cochran — America’s Lawyer,” a huge, imposing photo of the famous attorney accompanying his telephone number. Another billboard advertises “Dr. Nick’s Memories of Elvis” at a local casino, featuring Dr. George Nichopoulos himself, Elvis’ legendary prescription writer.

On the weekend of August 16, more than 30,000 worshippers solemnly filed past Elvis’ grave, each clutching a candle lit from another candle that was lit by the eternal flame at Presley’s tombstone on the mansion’s front lawn. Colored lights bathed trees in various hues as Graceland’s lawn stereo oozed Presley hymns and ballads around-the-clock, the only sound evident as several thousand worshippers patiently stood in a hushed, snail-paced line beginning at 5 a.m. on Friday to pay respects and proffer gifts at the grave of the King. Offerings included teddy bears, long-stemmed roses, poems, and assorted brands of pork rinds. In the middle of Presley Boulevard, devotees abandoned burning candles in parting tribute, creating an oasis of melting candlewax altars where flames sizzled as raindrops fell.

Screen Shot 2017-08-16 at 3.36.47 PM

Welcome Elvis Fans: Feeding throngs of fans proved too exhausting for this vendor.

“I stood in line for six hours,” said Becky Baker, a 55-year-old Detroit woman who credits Presley with putting an end to her suicide attempts. “I had no desire to live ’til I heard Elvis sing,” she sobbed uncontrollably to a middle-aged man with sideburns, a pompadour, and a white Elvis suit and who claimed to be Elvis Presley, Jr. “My mother was Bonnie,” the man explained with a shrug, “one of Elvis’ early girlfriends. I was conceived when they were both 14.” He admitted to harboring lingering resentment at Lisa Marie’s refusal to recognize him as her brother. The crying woman from Detroit rubbed his hand, nodded her head, and sighed, “I knew there had to be more children, ’cause Elvis had so many girlfriends.”

A disheveled woman with unkempt gray hair aimlessly wandered back and forth on the sidewalk in front of Graceland’s graffiti-covered stone wall. She babbled incessantly to herself while dragging a worn yellow suitcase with a Greyhound luggage tag dangling from the handle. Identifying herself as “Mary from Kansas City,” she explained that she had walked several miles from the downtown Memphis bus station to reach Graceland. She distributed photocopies of tabloid headlines about recent Elvis sightings in the Midwest. The woman ventured a theory that Elvis could have been abducted by curious aliens 25 years ago. Most of the mourners simply ignored her.

The annual Elvis Candlelight Vigil held each summer to commemorate Presley’s death is a world-class freak show that would have made the late Colonel Tom Parker proud. Nowhere else would this collection of oddities be afforded such dignity and respect. A midget Elvis posed for pictures with a group of Japanese tourists. A balding Canadian man with scraggly red sideburns said it was his third trip to the vigil. He moonlights as an Elvis and Roy Orbison impersonator in his native British Columbia, crooning a verse of “Love Me Tender” to convince all who doubted him.

The most notable curiosities, however, labeled themselves Presley’s closest confidants and assembled at a University of Memphis symposium. Framed by a backdrop of velvet Elvis paintings, the informal group recounted favorite stories about how much he had meant to each of their lives, offering nothing less than complete reverence and respect as they praised the man who at one time had most of them on his payroll.

Al De Goren, the man who coined the phrase “Elvis has left the building,” recalled Presley’s generosity. Julie Parish, Elvis’ costar in Paradise, Hawaiian Style, claimed that one afternoon the entire right side of her body had gone numb “after too many diet pills.” Presley laid his hands over her in a healing manner right there on the movie set. Elvis’ dentist remembered the day Presley refused painkillers before oral surgery. “Elvis hypnotized himself,” said the dentist, obviously still in awe. “He never blinked and he never moved. It was amazing.”

Charlie Hodge, the man responsible for handing Presley his scarves and glasses of water on stage, told of the evening Elvis and the Colonel purchased 150 seats behind the stage for a group of blind fans — except no one told Elvis they were blind. Each time Presley tossed the group one of his scarves, it would simply flutter to the ground as if no one cared to catch it. Elvis almost became unglued during the performance, convinced that he had lost his ability to mesmerize an audience.

Struggling with English in a thick Korean accent, Master Kang Rhee, Presley’s long-time karate instructor, remembered that Elvis often didn’t know his own strength when using bodyguard Red West as a practice dummy. Rhee used to applaud enthusiastically as Elvis smashed up hotel furniture with hand chops and flying kicks. “Master Tiger [Elvis] deserve all kind of black belt,” Rhee noted, praising the star’s martial arts prowess. At the end of his talk, Kang Rhee, dressed in a black business suit, removed his shoes and socks to give a karate demonstration, complete with grunts and the classic air punches that became a staple of Presley’s Las Vegas act.

Larry Geller, Elvis’ hairdresser and spiritual adviser, called Presley “an Adonis and modern-day Robin Hood” who had hair “so fine that it needed lots of hairspray.” The hair stylist has previously claimed that Elvis was reading a book about Jesus the moment he died, a book the barber had given him five days before his death. Geller at one time had been ostracized by Colonel Parker and the Memphis Mafia, who blamed him for Presley’s fascination with different religions. At one point, Colonel Tom refused to let him be alone with Presley, limiting barber sessions to a half hour with a chaperon. The Colonel eventually confiscated all spiritual books Geller had given the singer, which Priscilla convinced Elvis to burn one night at Graceland.

Red West was the unexpected guest. West and his brother Sonny had written a tell-all book entitled Elvis, What Happened? after being fired from their bodyguard roles. Presley contemplated having the pair killed after the book came out but failed to carry through with the scheme. Years later, a tearful West has nothing but kind words for his former boss, and recollections about various attempts to break the monotony of life with Elvis in Las Vegas. For one prank, the Memphis Mafia staged an assassination attempt on Elvis, loading everyone’s guns with blanks in an afternoon shoot-out where Presley played dead as those not in on the joke jumped on his body to protect him from the imaginary bullets.

Leave it to Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records and the man who discovered Elvis, to be the one speaker willing to toss a few irreverent barbs in everyone’s direction. Phillips is widely regarded as the man who unleashed rock ‘n’ roll with the release of “Rocket ’88′” by Jackie Brentson. In the early 1950s, Phillips had discovered a black singing group known as the Prisonaires incarcerated at the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville. Impressed, Phillips began soliciting tapes of songs from other convicts, including one who sounded an awful lot like the Presley kid that had made acetate recordings 10 months earlier at Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service. Phillips was forced to give Presley a second listen, eventually hooking him up with guitarist Scotty Moore’s group, the Starlite Wranglers. Moore was initially impressed more with the singer’s name than voice because he thought the name “Elvis Presley” sounded like it came from a science fiction movie. Two years later, Phillips sold Presley’s contract to Colonel Tom Parker for $35,000.

Admitting that “anybody this damn old ought to be dead,” Phillips opened his address expressing admiration for the RCA microphone before him. He praised its aluminum strip and magnetic poles as he noted, “You make the performer feel like he owns that microphone,” the excitement rising in his voice. Admitting that he had more tolerance for Red than Red’s brother Sonny, Phillips praised West for being “exactly what Elvis needed in a bodyguard.” He said the brothers’ tell-all book wasn’t written to make money, but rather “to help Presley straighten his life out.” Phillips spoke in a stream of consciousness delivery that veered off on various tangents before suddenly returning to the topic at hand as he forgave West for writing the book.

Sam Phillips has claimed to have had no regrets about selling Elvis to the Colonel, whom he called “a fat boy with a long tongue and fat mouth.” But he can’t hide his disdain for the man who once had a carnival sideshow featuring dancing chickens on a plugged-in hot plate. “I’ll never say anything against Tom Parker . . . I wish he were still alive — then I would!” Phillips then turned his sarcasm towards Charlie Hodge: “It ain’t easy passin’ a glass of water to Elvis Presley. Forget the scarves.” He finally got around to exalting Presley, lauding him as a man of his word. “Elvis wouldn’t break a damn contract, even if it cost him his lower anatomy. He was the most important personality of the 20th and 21st centuries . . . I loved him because I wanted to kiss him and never got to.” As the audience laughed nervously at Phillips’ peculiar anecdotes, the legendary record producer concluded with a philosophical flurry of words that put a perspective on the two-day Memphis spectacle that few in the throng of 30,000 Graceland mourners would dare acknowledge. “We’re not talkin’ about no damn deities, and we don’t need another pope,” Phillips said quietly of the man who drew revelers from all corners of the globe on the 25th anniversary of his death. “No use in kidding ourselves. Elvis Presley got himself in the mess he made, and you know he did.” &

A Wizard’s Touch

A Wizard’s Touch


The most prolific and despised weed known to mankind is Toxicodendron radicans, or poison ivy, a member of the cashew family. The plant’s oily resin is absolutely malevolent, an evil essence legendary for driving humans to the edge of madness. The toxic ingredient is urushiol, an element so potent that a drop the size of a pinhead is enough to affect 50 people. Eighteen years ago, pharmacist Roland Nelson, owner of Reynolds Drugs on Green Springs Highway, decided he’d had enough. He began swapping ideas with other chemists to combat the dreaded menace and one day conjured up a potion revered for its remarkable powers to soothe the torturous itch of poison ivy. (without the aid of prescription ingredients). “This is just something that intrigues me,” Nelson explains about his fascination with blending medicinal compounds. “Compounding has always been one of my loves. Mixing drugs and putting things together.”

Nelson calls his concoction Medi-Summer Gel. His customers call it “goat juice” or “Roland’s magic poison ivy medicine.” Whatever the label, Nelson’s reputation as a wizard is not unfounded. “When I can do something like this and my patients come back to me and say this works, I get a real good feeling out of it,” Nelson confesses. The pharmacist brews a new batch weekly in a lengthy five-hour process.

The blend is really not so mysterious. “It’s mostly over-the-counter,” Nelson says, revealing the secrets of his homemade tonic: “We put diphenhydramine in, and we put promazine in it for the itching. We put hydrocortisone in it and put it in a base. And when it dries, it forms a film over the poison ivy so it kind of protects it a little and keeps it from draining. And we put a little menthol and camphor in it to help stop the itching and to give it a cooling effect.” Nelson doesn’t hesitate to brag about the potency of his mystical ointment, though he envisions no pot of gold at the end of the alchemy rainbow. “It has worked really well. It’s not something that I go out and advertise in the magazines and all that. Basically, I do it for my customers.”

Council Reaches for Piece of Lodging Tax

Council Reaches for Piece of Lodging Tax

Is the Birmingham City Council gearing up for another showdown with Mayor Bernard Kincaid? The mayor has voiced support for appropriating the entire three percent of a council-endorsed hotel lodging tax toward expansion of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC). Councilors, however, wanted to earmark a third of lodging tax revenues for the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau for marketing purposes.

At the suggestion of Council President Pro Tem Carole Smitherman, the council is now considering a third option: a three-way split that would direct $1 million of the expected $3 million lodging tax windfall to the council for city projects. The council could later redirect its one-third portion back to BJCC expansion once funding is fully secured.

Councilor Joel Montgomery remains the lone council member adamantly opposed to using tax dollars to expand the BJCC to a multi-purpose facility. Montgomery prefers that the city focus its spending on cleaning up the city, which he believes will attract business and boost the city’s population. “It’s where you want to put your priorities,” said the councilor at the July 30 council meeting. “Why can’t we do the same thing to clean up our neighborhoods and improve schools?” Montgomery asked. “It’s not rocket science.” Montgomery said that he had recently immersed himself in domed stadium feasibility studies, including a report from Harvard University, and had found no justification for any such construction. Montgomery says that he can’t believe that a Harvard professor would agree with “somebody as dumb as me.” He added that there are not enough conventions to go around to justify the $440 million expansion plan.

Insisting that the lodging tax will “rev up our economy,” Councilor Smitherman calls expansion of the BJCC “a revenue-raising venture which helps us fund education.” Smitherman said that the city’s location in a valley limits the type of business the city can bring in due to ozone problems. “The lodging tax gives us a new Birmingham,” she said. “So be it if the city of Birmingham is the entertainment district for the region. So be it if we are the banking facility for the state of Alabama and the Southwest [sic]. The more we promote where we live to other places, [the more] people want to come to our valley to see what we’re doing and how we live. We have a special place here and it’s up to us to promote it.” Smitherman added that a million dollars is not much to spend on promotion.

“We have to spend money to make money,” said Councilor Bert Miller “Sometimes we outsmart ourselves. Let’s start using common sense. It’s so simple for our city. Birmingham is just a great big city waiting to explode around the nation. Once we build this thing people are gonna come from everywhere.” Miller urged “city-bashers” to move elsewhere and even offered to pay for a “Ryder truck” to help local malcontents relocate. For the record, approximately 20,000 residents have left Birmingham since 1990. &

Elvis Summer Heats Up

Elvis Summer Heats Up



As the 25th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s August 16 death approaches, the late singer currently has a number one hit in Europe with “A Little Less Conversation.” The chart-topper fulfills Colonel Tom Parker’s prophecy that Presley would be worth more to the manager dead than alive. His 1977 passing also opened the door for a new form of entertainment — the Elvis impersonator.

No one is more shocked by his chosen profession than impersonator David Lee. “It’s beyond my belief,” Lee observes about life portraying the greatest American icon of all time. “I don’t think anybody sets out to make a career being an Elvis impersonator.” The singer is revered as one of the top Elvis performers in North America, currently holding the champion’s title after having won the Canadian Elvis Fest 2001. He also placed third in the number one Elvis contest in the world, Images of the King 2001, which is held each August in Memphis in observance of Presley’s 1977 death.



Lee didn’t start out as an Elvis fan. “My best friend had Elvis playing all the time, and I thought, ‘Man, this guy’s a little strange.’” But he soon became a convert, and began impersonating Presley in 1995 after being told he sounded a lot like him. “Deep down, I’m just a big Elvis fan, but I took it to another level.” He presently owns nine Elvis jumpsuits, including the American Eagle costume (from Presley’s legendary 1973 “Aloha from Hawaii” concert), the Peacock outfit, and the white fringe suit. Lee focuses on the more obscure Presley tunes. “You go to the contests and you hear ‘Suspicious Minds’ and ‘Jailhouse Rock’ 3,000 times. I try to look for songs that people don’t do.

“I try to give the people an accurate account of what it might be like to see Elvis,” Lee says. “Of course, there was only one Elvis . . . So if you can give ‘em just a touch of it, you’ve done your job.”

David Lee will perform at the BJCC Theatre August 9 with the Promised Land band. Showtime is 8 p.m. He will also be at the Birmingham International Raceway August 10 with the Muddy King Orchestra. For tickets or information, call 205-266-3030 or visit

The Big Squeeze

The Big Squeeze

Joe Zasa entertains at a family Christmas party in 1941.

Accordionist Joe Zasa winks at a pair of women diners as the romantic, ominous strains of The Godfather theme recast Chez Lulu from funky Paris bistro to a 1960s Sicilian cafe. Zasa, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a grandfatherly Robert De Niro, uses his big hands to press accordion buttons and scurry across the white keys as he roams from table to table to take requests and chat with patrons. One of the women asks for “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” while the other wants to hear “Mack the Knife,” inspiring Zasa to acknowledge, “Yeah, that’s good stuff, ya know?” A flurry of movie themes soon follows as “Climb Every Mountain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” and “As Time Goes By” transport the dinner crowd to another place and time.

“Some of this modern music is crap, ya know that?” observes the 82-year-old musician as he sips Sangria and tosses another cigarette butt into the street. Between sets at Chez Lulu’s Sunday night “Monster Accordion Pull,” Zasa sits at a sidewalk table in the sweltering summer heat, complaining that his accordion weighs 40 pounds and recalling how much he despised the instrument when his father forced him to learn to play it at age 15. But it didn’t take long for Zasa to change his mind. Soon he was playing side gigs — something he would continue throughout his career as an electrical engineer. He’s currently the president of the Alabama Accordionists Association, a group of approximately 80 accordion enthusiasts that meets quarterly to share their fondness for the instrument. Association members arrange themselves into ensembles ranging from 3 to 30 accordions, performing everything from Beethoven to the “Beer Barrel Polka.” And while Zasa admits that the accordion is seldom considered among the more cultured of instruments, he is quick to defend his serious study of it. “When people see me play with no sheet music, they say, ‘Oh, you play by ear.’ But I can read music, so I’ve got a trained ear, and I’ve got it all memorized. I know more than 2,000 songs.”

The accordion swells of “It Had to Be You” add a dash of elegance to Chez Lulu’s quaint ambience before Zasa rips into the Mickey Mouse theme while a couple of children giggle uncontrollably.

The Monster Accordion Pull takes place at Chez Lulu on Sundays, from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. For more information, call 870-7011.