Once Upon A Time: Elvis and Anita (Memories of My Mother)

by Jonnita Brewer Barrett

 

Book Review by Nigel Patterson (Oct 2012)

The 'fairytale' story of Elvis' relationship with his first very serious girlfriend, the strikingly attractive Anita Wood (Brewer) - a favorite of Gladys Presley's - has been published.

Written by Anita's daughter, Jonnita Brewer Barrett, Once Upon A Time: Elvis and Anita Memories of My Mother, is a wonderful record of an incredible time in music history, a story grounded at its heart by a love story - one which, had Elvis not been drafted into the Army, quite possibly would have seen Anita become Mrs Elvis Presley!........

........When Anita, referred to by Elvis as "Little (Itty Bitty)", eventually did marry it was to another well known person, Johnny Brewer, an All-Pro NFL tight end with the Cleveland Browns and the New Orleans Saints.

Long time fans will recall that Anita Wood was a radio dj and singer. She recorded for Sam Phillips' iconic Sun label (the 1961 single - SUN #361: I'll Wait Forever*/I Can't Show How I Feel) and subsequently for the also Memphis based (and largely forgotten) label, Santo.

In Once Upon A Time: Elvis and Anita the reader comes to understand what it was like being the girlfriend of the world's then most recognisable celebrity and the balancing act the talented Ms Wood had to perform in being with Elvis while also pursuing her own bourgeoning entertainment career.

Once Upon A Time: Elvis and Anita provides the reader with many interesting stories of Anita's time with Elvis (much of it spent living at Graceland).

Jonnita's narrative is well written, revealing and entertaining; and by reflecting her mother's account of her relationship with Elvis at an incredible time in his life, is a very important one.

The joy and spirit of two people very much in love is brought vibrantly to life as are emotionally confronting moments including Elvis being drafted, the sudden death of his beloved mother, Gladys, and the heartache and betrayal felt by Anita when she realised her relationship with Elvis had to end.

Throughout the book, Jonnita endearingly refers to her mother as Momma reflecting a 'down south' custom.

There are many vivid and interesting incidents in Once upon A Time: Elvis and Anita which are simply riveting, among them Anita's first meeting with Priscilla which perhaps surprisingly did not occur until the Christmas following Elvis' death:

The man in the gate house approached our car. Momma's face lit up, like he was an old friend. I soon found out he was Uncle Vester, the brother of Elvis' father, Vernon.

"Hey Anita," said Vester. "It's good to see you! How are you doing?"

"I'm fine, Vester, thank you," Momma replied. "This is my momma, my daughter, Jonnita, and my sister-in-law, Karen. I came by to see Grandma and Mr. Presley. Are they up there?"

"Yeah, they are," said Vester. "But Priscilla is in town, so I better call up to the house first and make sure it's okay."

At that moment a sense of dread came over Momma, though she managed not to show it. She and Priscilla knew who eaxh other were, of course, but they'd never actually met - and since Momma hadn't anticipated seeing her, she didn't know what to expect.

...........

Priscilla was awaiting us as we pulled in behind the house. She was dressed in a long-sleeved silk shirt, and as we got out of the car, Aunt Karen noticed she was not wearing any makeup. Yet she looked absolutely stunning. She walked up to my mom, held out her hand, and introduced herself. "I'm Priscilla. It's so nice to finally meet you."

Then Priscilla said something I will never forget: "I have heard so much about you, Anita, I feel like I already know you."

On Gladys Presley, Anita remembers:

Gladys was about the straightest shooter of any mother I had ever known.

Anita's insecurity of dating the world's most desirable young man and Gladys Presley's support for her, is nicely recorded in this passage:

Momma used to tell her [Gladys] how inadequate she felt at first about being Elvis' girlfriend, especially with all the photographs she saw in newspapers of him with other girls. Gladys put her right at ease: "Don't you worry about that, Anita. Elvis has to pretend he likes those other girls because the Colonel wants him to. But you're the one he wants. Don't ever forget it."

There are important revelations in Once Upon A Time: Elvis and Anita, some of which confirm what many fans have long believed. For example....

While One Upon A Time: Elvis and Anita is essentially Anita's personal and very positive reflection on her relationship with the 20th century's greatest entertainment figure, on how serious her relationship was with Elvis we learn about the seminal (and not surprisingly) counter-influence of the Colonel:

Of course, if this were a typical relationship, you could say that he and Momma were practically engaged at this time. But because of Colonel Parker, they could never actually say that. In fact, now that Elvis was in the Army, Parker went on high (about not wanting any stories in the paper about Elvis and Momma), he ordered Momma not to smile if someone were to take their picture. Not only did that go against the grain of her personality, that's just hard to do, period.

EIN Note: This was arguably part of a very successful strategic move on the part of the Colonel. With Elvis about to go into the Army and being a person quickly maturing to the uncompromising realities of life as an entertainment superstar; Priscilla around the corner; and what would turn out to be a largely film driven - musically insipid career in the half decade plus years immediately post 1960, the seeds of where Elvis was heading were being well cultivated.

Elvis and Anita's relationship (away from the glare of media cameras) was in many ways stereo-typical of the romanticism of 1950s Americana. At its core, theirs was a relatively uncomplicated relationship based on mutual attraction, affection, shared interests and respect.......albeit fundamentally destined to be destabilised by the extreme availability of and hormonally driven temptations of an entertainment world that confronted them both, but especially Elvis.

Before Elvis was drafted into the Army,were Elvis and Anita headed towards a fairytale ending?:

Momma was so happy that night, for a moment she tought she was dreaming. But it wasn't a dream: Elvis had finally put a timeline on when they would be married. He would repeat this promise many times while he was in Texas, and again throughout the two years he was stationed in Germany. This gave my mother the fortitude to endure the complications of being in love with Elvis Presley.

Visually, Once Upon A Time: Elvis and Anita has numerous (black & white) photos (many of Elvis and Anita, at times somewhat grainy but not disappointingly so - eg. there is a fantastic 'Reunion at the Airport' image on page 63), others from Anita's career/recording days and with her family post marriage to football star, Johnny Brewer.

Long time Elvis fans will recall the special relationship Elvis had with the president of the Memphis Elvis Fan Club (the Tankers), cerebral palsy victim, Gary Pepper. There is a great visual of Gary with Anita and Johnny at their wedding in 1964......and I really liked an unusual image from the Memphis-Press Scimitar of Anita guest starring as "Miss Matzo Ball of 1960" in a local Memphis production and a photo of Anita painting on the very popular TV program, The Andy Williams Show (sadly Andy Williams recently died).

Other interesting photos include Anita in front of Graceland with Vernon (wearing a hat), with two of Elvis' young stepbrothers and an unidentified relative or friend. A glamorous publicity shot of Anita, courtesy of one Dr John Carpenter (of FECC board fame?), appears early on and there are striking visuals of Anita modelling for the Holiday Inn hotel chain and singing on stage at the Black Orchid nightclub in Chicago.

The visual element to Once Upon A Time: Elvis and Anita is an important one, and well complements its more powerful narrative element.

Once Upon A Time: Elvis and Anita is supported by a five page bibliography of books and articles. It does not contain an index.

There are one or two factual errors in the book but these are minor (eg. Elvis recorded My Happiness as a birthday present for Gladys).

EIN Note: Anita Wood as a recording artist had an assured vocal quality and was very, very good. Her sound was late 1950-early 1960s catchy and made for the times.

Had Sam Phillip's Sun Record label operated out of the 'big cities', Anita's resonant country infused pop sound (plus the Phillip's studio production magic) could well have resulted in a solid Top 40 hit for Anita.

Interestingly, one of Anita's singles for ABC-Paramount in the late 1950s was Crying in the Chapel!

Trivia: Anita worked with Andy Williams and is the uncredited vocalist with him on "The Hawaiian Wedding Song (Ke Kali Nei Au)," a Top 15 hit in early 1959.

Archival Note: In 1976, Anita's husband, Johnny Brewer, sued the Memphis Publishing Company for libel when it reported that Anita Brewer was divorced from Brewer and reunited with Elvis in Las Vegas.  

Verdict: Once Upon A Time: Elvis and Anita is an emotionally engaging and revealing love story of two people destined not to be together forever. Its release is long overdue!

 Comment on this review

* While myth has it that Anita’s SUN single (#361), I’ll Wait Forever, was about Elvis, its release date in June 1961 suggests this was not the case.


Reader Comments

Marty Lacker: Anita was absolutely great for Elvis because she exhibited a real love for him and understood him very much back then. Fact is Anita was a lot like Elvis' mother in that regard.  She is basically and fundamentally a good and friendly person who also got along greatly with those of us in the Memphis Mafia and was not threatened by us always being there.
 
I strongly believe that if Elvis had married Anita his life would have been much better and more enjoyable for him as well as her and would have turned out to be very different with him possibly not dying at such an early age.  She would have nurtured him in a very good way which is something Priscilla was not capable of doing. For one thing, Anita was not as self absorbed that Priscilla was and still is.
 
Anita was is in the top two of girls that Elvis was with as far as most of us guys are concerned and that opinion of course is based on our close, first hand observations.
 
Anita is still that good person to this day.

Jeanne: Thank you for a nice review of Anita's book. She was always a classy lady and her story shows how fate can change our lives.

Sarah Elliott: I've always thought how different Elvis's life would have been if he'd married Anita and not Priscilla. Anita and Priscilla seem to be very different personalities and Anita's similar background to Elvis could have been a stabilising factor for him. Anita is a lovely person and I will buy the book to read.

 

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