Before Elvis Was King
A snapshot of the Charlotte music scene from almost fifty years ago—focused on the night Elvis sold out four shows at the Carolina Theatre—reveals a lively mix of gospel, swing, and the classics
He wasn’t yet “The King” when he rolled into the Carolina Theatre on February 10, 1956. “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog” would come out later that year. But Elvis Presley already had the shake, rattle, and roll that would change American popular music forever.
On a tour of the Southeast with Mother Maybelle Carter and folks from the Grand Ole Opry, Presley played four shows at the Carolina, beginning at 2:30 p.m. Tickets were eighty-five cents for adults and fifty cents for kids. The Charlotte News estimated that some 6,000 people heard the twenty-one-year-old cover tunes like “Maybelline,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and “Rock Around the Clock.” For the nine o’clock show, the lines stretched around the block from Tryon Street in both directions, down Fifth and Sixth streets, all the way to College Street. More than a thousand were turned away.
Those who got in were mostly teenaged girls, with gum in their mouths and bobby socks on their feet. “The Brando-like singer took a rubber-leg stance and sent ’em with his new musical style,” reported the Charlotte Observer. Girls leapt up onto their seats and waved their arms. One girl cut a flip right in front of the stage.
In 1956, Charlotte, like Presley, was on its way to bigger things, but a rich and varied musical culture was already burgeoning.
Bluegrass and country music—musicians like the Briarhoppers and Arthur Smith—had long been a dominant force on Charlotte’s music scene. Smith had a daily radio program on WBT, and his weekly show on WBTV was the first nationally syndicated country music show.
By the mid-1950s, the city’s youth were boppin’ to the beats of Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, and Fats Domino. A February 1 concert by Big Joe Turner and Bill Haley and the Comets drew over 11,000 to the new Charlotte Coliseum (now Cricket Arena). Some kids had “near epileptic fits,” reported the Observer, and the police threw out a half-dozen or so for dancing on their seats.
As it is today, church music was also a vibrant part of the city’s musical culture; jazz was bigger then than it is now; and some of the city’s most respected classical music institutions had reached adolescence.
“It was just the roots of what there is now,” says Jackie Stegner, who came to Charlotte in 1955 when her husband George became a music professor at Queens College (now Queens University of Charlotte).
The Doris Day song “Qué será, será (Whatever will be, will be)” topped charts in 1956. Almost fifty years later, we know what came to be. Here’s a look at what was.
When Classical Was Hot
The Charlotte News christened Presley “the hottest thing in Charlotte.” But even so, the big event in the city’s music scene on February 10, 1956 was not the hip-shaking heartbreaker. Note for note, the Robert Shaw Chorale, led by the American patriarch of choral music, had more heft. Shaw’s chorus was reviewed in the next day’s Charlotte Observer; the review of Presley was held until Sunday.
“That was a wonderful concert,” says Jackie Stegner, who says she “didn’t even know of Elvis Presley” at the time. “I believe it was the only time Robert Shaw ever came to Charlotte.”
The Robert Shaw Chorale was presented by the Community Concerts Association (now the Carolinas Concert Association), which brought in big-name classical musicians for four sold-out concerts each year. The ’55-’56 season was CCA’s first in Ovens Auditorium. Just open five months, Ovens was also the new home for the Charlotte Opera Association, which would perform Mozart’s xThe Marriage of Figaro later that month, and the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.
That season, the symphony performed five concerts under the baton of Conductor James Christian Pfohl.
“He was a most unusual conductor,” says George Stegner, who played Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the orchestra that winter. “In performance, he’d sometimes take tempos he hadn’t taken in rehearsal.”
“He was difficult to work with,” adds Jackie, “but he was a promoter. He did a lot for the symphony.”
Tickets ranged from a dollar for students to as much as $2.50 for adults—more than twice as much as tickets for Presley, but equal to those for Gene Autry’s show on February 19. Attendance was always good, say the Stegners.
Even those who didn’t venture out Independence Boulevard had ready access to the CSO. Every Thursday night at 9:30, you could see the orchestra live on the WBTV show, xThe Carolina Hour.
Just as they had for “swing king” Benny Goodman twenty years before, teenagers went wild over rock ’n’ roll royalty—dancing in the aisles, jumping on their seats, and screaming and swooning. But for many in 1950s Charlotte, music’s monarchs were still men like Goodman and Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie.
“I never took those rock groups seriously for a long time,” says jazz pianist/vibraphonist Jim Stack. “I said, ‘This is not going to last too long.’”
Stack, who still plays two nights a week at The Cajun Queen, played vibes in the Billy Knauff Orchestra, a sixteen-piece big band led for nearly forty years by saxophonist Knauff. One night the band was performing in Radio Center, a club on South Boulevard, when a group of young rock ’n’ roll musicians asked if they could play during the break.
“They came up on stage with guitars and drums, and we went outside,” says Stack. “After a few minutes, we heard this horrendous noise. You just could not believe how loud it was!”
Knauff’s band attracted many of the city’s best musicians to town. One such musician was pianist Loonis McGlohon. McGlohon, Stack, and a handful of other local jazz artists could be heard live every Tuesday and Thursday night from 10:15 to10:30 on WBTV’s Nocturne. Robert Raiford, who now plays “curmudgeon-at-large” on the John Boy and Billy radio show, was the announcer.
“It was a very sophisticated show, a very low-key, quiet sort of thing,” says Raiford. “It would come on with a theme that Loonis wrote—the group had a sort of George Shearing sound—and I’d say something like, ‘It’s a quiet evening here in Charlotte.’ My on-the-air persona was the soft-spoken Ivy League intellectual. I was twenty-five or twenty-six and very suave—or at least I thought so.”
On weekends, McGlohon and Stack would play in clubs like the Oasis on York Road or The Lodge on Wilkinson Boulevard.
“I believe it was originally called The Barbecue Lodge,” Stack says. “It had small, dark rooms and a little stage in one corner. Oh my God, the smoke in that place! My blue suit would be just saturated with smoke.”
And 1956 was well before Charlotte sold liquor by the drink, so every one “brown-bagged.”
“You brought your own liquor in a brown bag, and they’d charge you for the setup,” says Stack. “I kept something in the trunk of my car all the time.”
Talk to the Man Upstairs
Nancy Hefner and a friend tried to get into the Carolina Theatre to hear the new “RCA Victor Singing Sensation” who was selling more than 20,000 records a week.
“We went flying up to the ticket office and it was slammed full. I frankly didn’t know who Elvis was, so I was really surprised that it was sold out. But it wasn’t long before we knew who he was.”
Like Presley, Hefner was a gospel fan. Attracted by WBT and WBTV, her husband, Bill, had come to Charlotte the year before and started the gospel quartet, The Harvesters, where he sang tenor.
“We left our families behind [in Alabama] and stayed at the Y in uptown Charlotte. They had a big grand piano at the Y and we’d sing for our supper, so to speak,” says Bill Hefner, who later became a North Carolina congressman.
Soon, The Harvesters had a large following and a top-rated weekly show on WBTV. The quartet would sing some pop tunes and a little country, but mostly it sang gospel songs like “It’s No Secret,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Talk to the Man Upstairs.”
The Harvesters toured and recorded for Columbia, and twice a year, the group hosted a “gospel sing” at the Charlotte Coliseum, like the one held one week after Presley played the Carolina. For fifty cents (for children) to $1.50, nearly 15,000 patrons heard their local quartet join gospel groups from all over the Southeast.
And the Hefners were able to buy a 1956 black Ford convertible.
“It cost $2,300, but it didn’t have a radio or a heater,” says Nancy. “We had to go to Sears to buy us a heater and a radio.”
Stompin’ at the Club Bali
Owned by Raymond “Flat Tire” Mason, the Club Bali on Beatties Ford Road was one of the hottest hangouts for the young professional members of the African American community in the 1950s and ’60s. Mason, nicknamed “Flat Tire” because he was less than five feet tall, was a drummer and had a fifteen-piece band that played for all the socials and dances in the community. His Club Bali, a small, members-only club, was open seven nights a week.
“We didn’t open until seven o’clock,” says Edith Shearin, who was the club’s barmaid and manager. “On Sundays there’d be people outside standing in line to make sure they’d get a seat.”
The Bali served fried chicken, pork chop sandwiches, and “setups” for alcoholic drinks. A jukebox played music most nights, songs like “Who Threw the Whiskey Down the Well” and “The Twist,” while patrons danced the jitterbug, the two-step, and the slow drag.
“You’d call that ‘dancing on a dime,’ because you didn’t move too much,” says Gloria Kendrick, who managed the Hi-Fi Country Club on nearby Estelle Street.
Rhythm and blues musicians who came to town, such as James Brown and his Famous Flames, would visit the Bali after their shows. And some nights, Mason’s band would play tunes by Duke Ellington and Count Basie, while the diminutive bandleader danced and jumped around like Cab Calloway.
On weekends, patrons at the Bali could walk to the Hi-Fi, a large, barn-style club with a horseshoe-shaped bar and a stage in back, where Mason’s band and traveling musicians such as Ike and Tina Turner performed. After the Hi-Fi turned out the lights, it was back to the Bali.
“We’d sometimes be there until nine o’clock the next morning,” says Shearin.
“Yes,” agrees Kendrick. “The milkman would be bringing the milk and we’d sit there and drink it.”