This weekend one of the biggest and strangest cultural events in the Welsh Arts calendar should be taking place. Sadly, as we prepare to go back into lockdown it was inevitable that the Elvis Festival in Porthcawl would become another casualty of 2020.
For many years BBC Radio Wales has championed the festival with Owen Money regularly hosting a number of shows from the festival. This weekend we will try our best to keep the spirit of the festival alive on the airwaves with Elvis Tribute Acts singing live on the Owen Money show and a commitment to play all 21 UK Elvis No.1’s.
It started last night on my Late Night Radio Show. We open the lines every night asking people to call for a chat or a request and every night one of the most requested artists is still Elvis. So, when I was asked would we mind opening the weekend with Elvis’s first Number One, All Shook up’. My initial reaction was it will be unusual to play only one Elvis song on the show.
I then got to thinking about what else we could add to the show to give it an Elvis flavour. It was 20 years ago that I made a documentary series about 2 greats associated with Memphis called ‘The Kings of Memphis’. One was about the Rev Martin Luther King who was assassinated in that city in 1968, the other was about Elvis Presley.
My first visit to Memphis was on a Sunday in 1999. Nigel Hopkins from Fforstfach and I were in Nashville working on an album and found ourselves with a day off. We hired a car and headed west on the I40 highway ending up on Elvis Presley Boulevard on our way to Graceland. Thinking that this would be our only opportunity to visit the home of the King we bought our tickets for the Platinum tour. That was the day I fell in love with all things Elvis.
It was only a month later that I found myself back in Memphis. As often happens with these things sometime earlier in the year a TV documentary proposal had been submitted…and forgotten about. The idea was that I would explore the similarities between the way Black Gospel Music and Welsh hymn singing had provided solace for the communities where that music was made. With an unexpected sudden gap in a TV schedule the show was commissioned and together with a producer and film crew I headed back to the Deep South. We thought that the music and life of Elvis would be a good way to introduce our audience to the way Black Gospel music had influenced the whole of US popular culture.
I visited all of the Elvis places of pilgrimage in Memphis, including Graceland, before heading down to the town of his birth Tupelo. The idea for the programme was that I would write a verse of a travelogue song at each of the key points of my journey. Our guide in Tupelo was a lovely lady named Pat Rasberry. Pat worked for the local Convention and Visitors centre. As I sang outside the Hardware store on Main Street where Elvis had bought his first guitar Pat complimented me on my voice. By the end of the day she had booked me for the following year’s Gumtree Festival where I would perform and act as judge and part time compere.
For the next 3 years I returned every May. Every time I would take my tape recorder and make a documentary about the journey. The letters ‘BBC’ are recognised across the world and opened many doors. Its hard to believe now but on my first solo trip to Memphis I was asked to join the Pilot of the Jumbo jet in the cockpit as we flew down the East coast of the USA. He noticed a plane some miles to our West. I asked what it was. With that he cancelled the autopilot system, took the controls and flew a little closer so that he could get a better look.
On my first trip to Tupelo I had been introduced to so many people who had grown with Elvis. I thought a documentary about the King himself would be fascinating given the access I had to people who knew him really well.
Pat had lined up interviews with old school friends, his old Pastor, even his Auntie Annie. Looking back now at the photographs we took and listening to the voices tell their stories, once again I remember how lucky I have been. As someone told me you have the privilege of meeting people every day most people only hear on the radio.
Miss Becky had been in school with Elvis and remembered a shy boy. She talked about the time Elvis came to Tupelo after his first record had become a hit and how they had eaten ice cream together.
Miss Annie Presley and Miss Becky Martin
Miss Annie Presley had lived next door to Vernon, Gladys and Elvis. She told me that his mother had never got over losing Elvis’ twin brother at birth and that she had spoilt her precious baby. Even as a little boy his leg used to shake when he sang.
The Reverend Frank Smith
The Reverend Frank Smith had been the pastor of the little church where the Presley’s worshipped every Sunday before they left for a better life in Memphis. It was Frank who taught Elvis how to play guitar and also the song ‘Old Shep’ which Elvis sang at a talent show…coming second. Even after all those years later he still talked of how he had wished he had gone to see Elvis in those last few weeks.
Travelling around Memphis in a Pink Cadillac and stopping at Sun Studios
I also took the chance to spend a few days in Memphis to book end the documentary. My guide in Memphis was Tad. He owned a Pink Cadillac and organised cultural safaris. When he found out I was from Wales the first thing he asked me was did I know Owen Money.
Recording in Sun Studios
Tad took me to all sorts of hidden Memphis landmarks including Wild Bill’s Juke Joint. When we got there, Bill hadn’t arrived. I asked the bar tender why he was called Wild Bill. He told me that Bill liked his music wild and he liked his women wild. Knowing that Bill was in his eighties I asked if he was still wild. With a glint in his eye the bar tender told me, well he didn’t do so much music anymore!!!
If you would like to celebrate the Elvis Festival you can listen to my special documentary called ‘The Kings of Memphis – Part 1 ELVIS PRESLEY’ here
or watch the TV documentary ‘Heaven’s Sound
All that’s left for me to say is…thank you, thank you very much!