Elvis & Shake Rag - Fact or Myth?

"Long-gone part of town could have influenced musical career"

BY M. SCOTT MORRIS, Daily Journal, 2002

The ongoing renovation of the old Tupelo fairgrounds isn't the city's first attempt at urban renewal. Back in the '60s, homes, businesses and churches in an area known as Shake Rag were bought out and bulldozed.

"The BancorpSouth Center is sitting right in the middle of where Shake Rag used to be," said 69-year-old Henry Hellestine, who grew up in the area. Some believe Shake Rag had a pivotal role in shaping American popular music by introducing a young Elvis Presley to African-American blues and gospel.

It may be impossible to prove beyond a shadow of doubt that Elvis learned at least some of his guitar licks and singing style from musicians in that long-gone segment of town, but the oral history of the area has no shortage of Elvis sightings.

"He'd be in the horse barn in the auction ring picking his guitar," Hellestine said.

"That's how I remember him."

Cultural history: Some recall Shake Rag as a poor, black area of town with little value. Those who lived there remember a vibrant community with its own politicians, churches, barbershops, a boxing rink, a skating rink and more.

"We had a bunch of poor people who lived over there," Hellestine said.

"There were middle class people, too." Shake Rag also had music. Men gathered on front porches and storefronts with their guitars, harmonicas and banjos, said Nathaniel Stone, 69, a former resident of the area.

"B.B. King came and played there," Stone said. "He wasn't as famous as he is now. He was in the process of moving up."

Charles "Wsir" Johnson, who has interviewed numerous former Shake Rag residents for a documentary he's putting together, said the culture of the area would have been a natural attraction for a young man with Elvis' interests.

"I can appreciate a little kid saying, 'I like that music. Can you show me?'" Johnson said. "He was a musician." Sightings Stone said there weren't too many white boys walking freely through Shake Rag in those days, but it did happen on occasion. Odie Johnson Sr., who grew up in the area, knows for certain that Elvis was one of the few white kids who did visit.

"Elvis' daddy (Vernon Presley) used to work with me at L.P. McCarty," Odie Johnson Sr. said. "That was right here on Main Street in Shake Rag."

The area was certainly in walking distance from Elvis' home in East Tupelo. The Presley family also moved several times and lived near the area, according to childhood friendsBecky Martin and James D. Ausborn.

"People have told me stories of Elvis driving his Cadillac through there after he made it big," Charles Johnson said.

"Why was he there? He was visiting places he knew. Right?"

More questions: Stories of Elvis' forays into Shake Rag depend on memories from people past retirement age. With his documentary, Johnson is capturing the oral history and preserving it for future generations. And he fully expects those future generations to appreciate his efforts.

"As long as you have people trying to know how music evolved, people will always come back to Elvis," he said.

"People will come to Tupelo wanting to know more. What actually did he hear in Shake Rag? Did the culture have an effect on him?"

Some determined scholar is bound to be interested in finding the answers. American popular culture has paid unprecedented homage to Elvis in the 25 years since his death, and Odie Johnson Sr. sees no end in sight.

"People loved him when he was alive and they love him now," he said. "They're going to talk about him and talk about him and never let him die."

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