The following is a condensed excerpt of my novel. It’s a story told by a Delta blues singer named Mississippi to my young narrator, Brooklyn, in her uncle’s boardwalk bar. The year is 1957.
“One night I was picking out a tune in a dive on some empty back street not a block from the Mississippi River. Memphis, it was. I’m strumming along when I hear a vroooooom from a motorcycle, a bang like a shotgun, then this here boy comes flying in through the front door. White boy, leather jacket, tight dungarees, greasy blond hair in a pompadour, long sideburns.”
“Wait a second,” I said. “Elvis isn’t blond.”
He held up a finger.
“Don’t know how he ever found the place,” he said. “There weren’t no sign outside.
“He’s strutting right up to me, grinning this lopsided grin, introduces himself and says, ‘I came to sing with the master, sir.’ Somehow he heard of me.
“‘Sure enough,’ I say, so I tell him the words to a song Big Mama Thornton taught me. Then I start strumming and he sings: ‘You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog, just a’cryin’ all the time. You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog, just a’cryin’ all the time. Well you ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine.’”
“You taught him that song!”
He held up a finger again.
“‘I ain’t never heard that song before,’ the boy says. ‘That’s a great song. Thank you very much for teaching it to me, sir,’ talking real polite like his mama taught him. ‘We’ll meet again someday, the good Lord willing, and when that day comes I’ll be rich and famous, sir.’
“‘I got three things to tell you, boy,’ I say. ‘Three pieces of advice on singing the blues. So listen up.
“‘The first is—blond boys don’t sing the blues.”…
“The second is, if you want to be rich and famous you got to change that trashy name. Elvis? Oh, Lord. What kind of a name is that for a blues singer? Call yourself Memphis.’
“‘But I ain’t from Memphis, sir,’ he says, real earnest-sounding.
“‘You’re from someplace, ain’t you?’ I say. ‘Call yourself after whatever town you’re from.’
“‘What’s the third thing, sir?’ he says.
“‘The third’s the most important. It goes against everything your mama ever taught you and your daddy, too. But whatever else you do in life, if we ever meet again or not, don’t you never, ever, call me ‘sir’ again. No one else, neither.’
“‘Yes sir, I mean, thank you sir, I mean thank you Mr. Mississippi. I’ll take that advice to heart, sir, I mean mister. Should I call you mister, sir?’
“He just couldn’t help it. I had to feel sorry for him.
“We never did meet again, but he did take my advice—about the hair color, that is. I often wonder how much more famous he’d be today if he’d called himself Tupelo.”
Hound Dog was actually written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, a couple of Jewish guys from the north who loved and owed a great debt to black music.
Yes, Elvis dyed his hair! I guess blonde was too sissy a look. Another fact about Elvis you might not know is he was part Jewish. Don’t get me wrong, he was a devout Christian, but if you look at his mother’s gravestone you’ll see a star of David on it. He was also part Cherokee, proving we should mix up the gene pool.
My husband and I have been living in Memphis, Tennessee since 1991, so we’ve been infused with the cult of Elvis and the traditions of the blues—music I love—which is one reason I picked a blues singer as a major character.
As they say down here: Shalom, y’all.