. . . a nation-state of my mind . . .

Stacks Image 344
I was a freshman at the University of Mississippi in 1965. My roommate was an old friend from high school, Bink Williams. We lived in a dorm on campus, and down the hall from us lived a yound man named Pete Dole. Pete was a music student and a singer. He was also quite a character. He had a job on the weekends singing at a club called the "Tradewinds” in Memphis, which is a fairly short drive from Oxford, MS. Pete was very social, quite a chatterbox.

He once took a group of us to his hometown of Tupelo. He took us to a friend's home in a big old Tudor-style place. It was late and we'd been drinking lots of beer. We asked the maid what we should drink after a lot of beer, and she said “gin and tonic.” So we all had gin and tonics on the veranda, which was a big, checkerboard patio somewhat overgrown with weeds. Pete said, “Let me show you something.” He took us upstairs and opened a closet door. Inside, was a huge, wooden pawn, about 3 feet tall. It was painted red. Pete said it was the last of a set that had been used before the Civil War. The slave masters would sit on the balcony above the patio and direct the slaves to move these life-size pieces around for their game of chess.

I think it was in January of 1966—I know it was winter and very cold—when Pete invited Bink and me to go to Memphis and listen to him sing at the “Tradewinds” on a Saturday night. We had nothing better to do, so we accepted his invitation. We piled into his old car. I think it was a 1949 Desoto, but I could be wrong. I'm pretty sure it had no heater. We made it safely to the club and sat at the bar while Pete went through his first set. He was a terrific singer in my mind. He had a deep, raspy voice, and he could really belt a tune. I remember two tunes which I think he recorded on each side of a 45 disk: “When Did You Leave Heaven” and “Lucky Old Sun.” “Lucky Old Sun” had a big finish and it was always a crowd pleaser.

After the first set, the bar tender told Pete that he had received a call. He went to the pay phone and called the person back. After the conversation, he came over to us and said, “That was a friend of mine, and she said she had been invited to a party being given by Elvis Presley. She said we could come if we wanted to. Do y'all want to go?” Sure, we're going to turn down an invitation to Graceland. He said he would call her back and get the details after the second set. We were both thrilled at the prospect of meeting Elvis Presley as insiders. I couldn't think of anything else for the rest of the set.

Unfortunately, when Pete called her the second time there was no answer. Pete didn't know where the party was supposed to be or what time it started. Bink and I were crestfallen. But Pete, with his usual optimism, said, “You know, sometimes Elvis likes to rent out a movie theater and have a private party watching the movie.” He decided the best bet would be the Memphian Theatre, so we hopped in the car and drove there.

The theater was dark. We drove by the parking lot and we could see a brand-new white Toronado parked in the parking lot. There was also a pink Cadillac. He must be there! We parked the car. Pete jumped out, walked to the front door, and knocked loudly. After a while someone came to the door. Pete said that he had been invited to the party and gave the name of his friend. The person replied that yes, Elvis was having a party, but the movie had already started and he wasn't going to interrupt things to go looking for his friend. Pete pleaded, to no avail. Another huge disappointment.

We thought about going home, but Pete had one last idea. “Sometimes he gets bored and leaves the party early. Let's go wait in the parking lot and see if he comes out early.” It was freezing out, and Pete's car had no heat, but we decided to give it a chance anyway. So we parked the car at the end of the parking lot and waited, probably pulling on a flask and smoking cigarettes. Well, I know we were smoking cigarettes. I think we might have been there for an hour when we saw the stage door open across the parking lot. A group of people emerged, and sure enough, Elvis was right in the middle of them!

We quickly jumped out of the car and hurried across the lot to greet him. As we got close, his entourage started to circle around him, but Elvis waved them away. We met him at his car. He was with a girl, a little shorter than he, with long, dark, straight hair down to her waist in the back. Priscilla? This was Elvis of 1966, in his heyday. He was in great shape. He seemed very slight, but I suppose one always expects stars to be a little bigger than life. He was wearing a black silk shirt open to the waist, bare-chested, with a long, heavy necklace of some sort.

I was completely mesmerized. I couldn't speak. It was freezing, but he stood there and talked to us for a while—I don't know, maybe five minutes. He was very cordial and polite. I remember him asking us where we were from, but I don't remember much else of the conversation. Pete did all the talking. And Pete was brazen enough to ask him if he was going back to Graceland to continue the party (hoping he'd say, “Sure, come along”). He looked at his companion and said, “I don't know about you, but I'm going to bed.”

He put her into the front seat, then walked around to the driver's seat, hopped in, and peeled off. The entourage, including the pink Cadillac, followed him into the Memphis night. And we piled back into Pete's old freezing car, elated.

We didn't make it to the party. We didn't get to go to Graceland. But we did get to meet Elvis, up close.