'When we saw him...there was no turning back': Locals reflect on seeing Elvis in person

·7 min read

Aug. 13—TUPELO — While a new generation of Elvis fans have been introduced to the King of Rock and Roll through this summer's worldwide hit movie, "Elvis," plenty of Northeast Mississippians met Tupelo's native son or saw him perform live long before the jumpsuits and Las Vegas shows.

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In honor of the 45th anniversary of the rock and roll legend's death on Aug. 16, 1977, the Daily Journal spoke with several local people who saw him perform.

Gayle Hillhouse and Sharon Estes: fifth graders who met The King

Gayle Hillhouse of Plantersville and her lifelong friend Sharon Estes shared a classroom in fifth grade at Milam Elementary School. Both considered their teacher, Mrs. J.C. Grimes, to be "wonderful."

But Grimes was special in many ways, one being that she taught the one and only Elvis Presley during his formative years growing up in Tupelo.

The two 10-year-old girls were in class one unsuspecting day when there was a knock on the door. The class turned their heads to see none other than superstar Elvis Presley with his head in the door's window.

"We were sitting around the room, and Elvis's face was in that little window," Hillhouse said. "And we looked up and said, 'It's really him!'"

Hillhouse said Presley stepped into the classroom and gave his former teacher a hug.

"He said, 'Y'all better listen to this lady, she knows what she's talking about,'" Hillhouse said.

After school that day, Hillhouse was abuzz with energy.

"I saw him," she recalled telling her grandmother, who watched her after the school day ended. "I saw him; I saw him."

For Estes, Grimes' classroom and the Elvis encounter she had would come to be a full circle moment later in life.

"It's really strange because, years later, that was my classroom where I taught fifth grade," Estes said.

Hillhouse saw Elvis three times in concert, but Estes never got the chance to see him perform.

"I saw him in Huntsville, and you cannot imagine the excitement," Hillhouse said. "I came home and told my husband that it didn't matter if you did or didn't like Elvis, you would scream your head off."

Although Hillhouse's husband was lukewarm on the King at the time of the Huntsville concert, he's now a bona fide fan.

In fact, several members of the Hillhouse clan are diehard Elvis fans. Hillhouse, her husband, and their granddaughter, Ivy Brooke, all joined the Tupelo Elvis Presley Fan Club years ago. Elvis Presley provided a backdrop for many of Hillhouse's life changing moments, including the time she met her husband at 15 while attending a dance at the Elvis Presley Youth Center, now the Elvis Presley Birthplace.

Even though the once fifth grade girls only got to see Elvis up close and personal once in 1960, they have continued to carry on a love for the King more than 60 years later.

Barbara Mallory saw Elvis before, and after, he was famous

Barbara Mallory has been an Elvis fan since before he became the world's most famous musician.

Currently President Emeritus of the Tupelo Elvis Presley Fan Club, Mallory worked at the ground level to establish the club. Now, the Tupelo Elvis Presley Fan Club gives back to the community in big ways, just as Elvis did.

For Mallory, Elvis fandom is intensely personal. Mallory was 16 when she first saw the King at the Belden High School gym outside of Tupelo. That was in 1955, and the future King of Rock and Roll was still, as best, a princeling.

"He was not very well known," Mallory said.

Although Elvis had yet to become a superstar — that would come early the following year with the release of his worldwide hit, "Heartbreak Hotel" — Mallory had previously heard him on the radio and immediately liked what she heard.

"When we saw him, I tell people there was no turning back. He was different," Mallory said. "All the boys had crew cuts, and here he comes with a ducktail and a flashy dresser. But it was mostly his music."

When the Belden concert concluded, Mallory said that Elvis stuck around to sign autographs.

"I was just looking at him. I was shy and couldn't say a word," she said.

After Mallory's first encounter with Elvis, she joined his Memphis fan club.

"I wrote him a letter, and I got an answer to that letter dated September 26, 1955," she said.

Mallory said she can't recall the exact contents of that letter, but remembers she had asked Presley if he was married or planned on getting married.

"He answered and said he wasn't," she said with a laugh.

Mallory saw Presley again shortly after the Belden performance during a 1955 show at the Tupelo fairgrounds. She even has the ticket stub to prove it.

At the time, he still wasn't a headliner. However, when the 1956 and 1957 fairs came to town, Presley took center stage.

The next time Mallory saw Presley was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1971. For that concert, she brought her kids along with her. She then saw him one last time in concert in 1974 in Memphis.

The last time she got to see Elvis Presley was at his casket viewing. She said she had mixed feelings about attending the viewing but ultimately followed through with it.

"We grew up, and it was almost like he was a member of the family and part of my life so much," she said. "I just went out of respect."

Kay Mathews is pictured in iconic 1956 Tupelo concert photo

When Kay Mathews went to the 1956 Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show, she wasn't there to see Elvis.

Mathews, 78, was around 12 years old when she walked with the rest of her classmates to the fairgrounds from Tupelo High School, now Milam Elementary School.

Once she and her classmates entered the fairgrounds, everyone congregated near the stage where Elvis was set to perform.

"At that point in my life, that didn't mean anything to me," Mathews said.

But she found herself at the front of the crowd, nearly within arm's reach of the King of Rock 'n Roll. She vividly remembers his blue velvet shirt and white shoes.

"All of a sudden, when he starts, the older teenagers start the screaming and the hollering," Mathews said. "It was contagious."

She doesn't remember any of the songs Elvis sang, doesn't remember the concert ending, and doesn't know what she did after.

"I don't think I thought anything about, 'I'm seeing history' or 'I'm seeing something magnificent in the future,'" Mathews said. "I don't think that was part of what it was. It was just a fun day."

It took over 50 years for Matthews to realize that she is pictured in an iconic photograph from the show.

She and her husband had taken a trip out west to hike the Grand Canyon in 2007. After stopping to eat at a Route 66-type diner on their way back, Mathews looked through the Elvis memorabilia for sale there.

She picked up a gold-handled mug featuring a photo of the performance, and she instantly spotted herself.

"Yep, that shows I was there," Mathews said to herself.

A random childhood encounter with one of the most famous men who has ever lived linked their lives via a photograph.

These days, Matthews shares Elvis' passion for helping others, particularly children. After a successful career at the Regional Rehabilitation Center in Tupelo — first as a speech therapist, and later as executive director — Mathews retired in 2014 but continues to work there on a volunteer basis.

"It certainly ties it all together for me," Mathews said. "And the fact that Elvis loved children, he wanted to do things for children, and I'm here at the rehab center doing things for children and the fan club supports us here, it's just full circle."

When the Tupelo Elvis Fan Club was revived around the 50th anniversary of his fair appearance, Mathews was a founding member. It's more than a club; it's a service organization, one that donates tens of thousands of dollars per year to local agencies and organizations.

For Matthews, as it is for many of the rock legend's fans, Elvis Presley fandom runs deeper than just a love of the man's music. It's personal.

"I'm an Elvis fan because of what he means to Tupelo and what Tupelo meant to him," Mathews said. "And that all goes back to how we all, who were born and raised and grew up here in Tupelo, feel about Tupelo."

blake.alsup@djournal.com