Elvis Presley, who would turn 88 this Sunday if he were still alive, never performed in Chattanooga. But he passed through town while on an extended train trip in 1956, and he once made a surprise visit to a Chattanooga radio station.
Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi but his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee when he was 13 years old.
Sun Records owner Sam Phillips gave Elvis a recording contract in 1954 but it was Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager for over 20 years, who secured him a recording contract with RCA Victor.
Broadcaster David Carroll, author of “Hello Chattanooga,” said he was unable to find any news account of Elvis doing a concert at either the Tivoli Theater or Memorial Auditorium. Carroll’s book says Elvis was part of a tour group that performed at the Memorial Auditorium in 1955 but for some unknown reason Elvis did not accompany the singers.
The TV news anchor and author said, “Elvis had a hold on his fans like no other. Even when he was in bad shape and his career was slumping, they would drive hundreds of miles to see him in concert. He was the right guy at the right time in the 1950s and early 1960s, when teens were looking for something new, and they never forgot him, even to this day. I will always regret not going with my older sister to see him in concert in Huntsville, not long before he died. 'I’ll go see him next time,' I said.”
Elvis was traveling by train on his way home to Memphis from New York after appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show and recording, “Hound Dog” and “Don’t be Cruel.” The train stopped at the Chattanooga Terminal Station, later the Chattanooga Choo Choo, on July 4, 1956.
Photos show the singer on the train and eating in the dining room sitting at a counter.
From Elvis Presley Archives:
"Chattanooga, Tennessee, July 4, 1956. The train from New York to Memphis, where Elvis was traveling back home - at 1034 Audubon Drive - makes a stop in Chattanooga to rest and have breakfast. Elvis is waiting for his eggs and sandwich at the Terminal Station Coffee Shop. The stop for breakfast was while changing trains.
"A black woman, standing, also waits for her breakfast, a tuna sandwich, but the counter is racially segregated and she can't sit down.
"Elvis frequented establishments regardless of the areas of racial segregation. Elvis always defended at the cost of everything that all people are equal. For him those barriers did not exist in a difficult time of strong racial segregation.
"As we can see, Mr. Alfred Wertheimer's photos not only immortalized the soul and essence of Elvis, they are also a reflection of the essence of American society and culture of the time."
The late Tommy Jett was on the radio in Chattanooga for over 50 years and no doubt Jett’s favorite singer was Elvis. The popular DJ went to Memphis when Elvis died in August, 1977. Jett had a specially made ring with a rose petal from one of the hundreds of floral arrangements. Mr. Jett would remember Elvis’ birthday and date he died with special radio tributes.
Elvis’ half-brother, Dr. Rick Stanley, was good friends with former Tennessee Temple University President Dr. Danny Lovett. Dr. Stanley spent a year at the school teaching and did several programs on TTU’s radio station, WDYN. Dr. Stanley provided security for seven years for the singer. While at TTU, Dr. Stanley discussed Elvis’ life, love for Gospel music and the singer's last few days.
Dr. Stanley recalled the last conversation with his 42-year-old half-brother was about a girl he’d known for years (Robyn) whom Dr. Stanley eventually married. Dr. Stanley said on the day before his death, Elvis told him, “Ricky, she’s telling you the truth; people who talk to you about Jesus really care.”
Dr. Stanley and Robyn were married 26 years before his death Jan. 7, 2019.
Dr. Stanley said Elvis’ favorite Gospel songs were “He Touched Me,” and “How Great Thou Art.” Dr. Stanley said he accepted Christ two months after Elvis’ death and shared his story at several Billy Graham crusades and many television appearances, including Larry King Live.
Talk Radio co-host Max O’Brien said he was working the overnights in the early 70’s at WDXB Radio with studios in the Read House basement. O’Brien said about 3:00 one morning someone came to the door and it was Elvis and three other men. O’Brien said Elvis told him he couldn’t sleep and wanted to tour the station. O’Brien offered several times to put Elvis on the air but the men with him declined his invitation. The DJ said Elvis and the others walked around the studio and spent some time in the production room. He said, “I don’t know what they were talking about, I was on the air.” O’Brien said after about an hour, Elvis and the others thanked him for the visit and left the radio station.
O’Brien said he offered again to interview the top rock and roll singer but was un-successful.
O’Brien said he’d heard that Elvis had visited Chattanooga before and might have stayed at the Read House.
RCA Victor says Elvis has sold over 500 million records, tapes and CD’s worldwide. He’s still a top seller today. Elvis starred in over 50 movies. Elvis died suddenly at Graceland in 1977 at the age of 42.