Elvis really is everywhere, even if the last name isn’t Presley
When Elvis Presley catapulted into stardom in 1956, his name sounded too good to be true, as if it had been snatched straight out of the humid Memphis air.
It proved to be the perfect foil for conservative pundits, who nicknamed Elvis “the Pelvis” and rolled their eyes at the singing hip-swiveler christened with the cornpone name.
Yet Elvis Aaron Presley, who was born in East Tupelo, Miss., on Jan. 8, 1935, was hardly the first Elvis on the planet.
In fact, he was named for his father, Vernon Elvis Presley.
And according to Kevin Kern, media relations manager at Elvis Presley Enterprises, no one on the staff at Graceland knows just how Vernon’s parents came up with the name.
Some Presley fans believe the name has Cherokee roots, but most baby books state that Elvis is Scandinavian in origin and means “all wise.”
The name spiked in popularity in the early 1900s, then again in the 1950s and once more around 2000.
While Presley is the most famous Elvis of them all, a quick pop culture survey turns up others, such as football players Elvis Peacock and Elvis Grbac, ice skater Elvis Stojko, film critic Elvis Mitchell and singer-songwriter Elvis Perkins (son of actor Anthony Perkins).
Here in Memphis, dozens of Elvises live and work in near anonymity.
Seven of them — including one woman, a handful of African-Americans and a man who actually got to shake Presley’s hand — agreed to tell their stories.
If you’re thinking about bestowing the name on your next child, try heeding Southaven resident Elvis Banks’ advice.
“Names carry heavy connotations,” he cautions.
“I can take the humor with the best of ‘em, and I’ve learned how to deal with being Elvis, but I would never wish it upon anyone else.”
“It’s always been part of the picture,” Memphis native Elvis Goldsmith says of her first name, which came from her grandfather, Eli, who died six weeks before her birth in July 1924.
“I’m older than Elvis Presley, and besides, I had the name first!” she chuckles.
Nevertheless, Goldsmith says that it’s “really kind of interesting” being Elvis — particularly in Memphis.
“At least once a week, I get asked a lot of questions about it,” says the 83-year old, who still gets tickled by strangers’ reactions.
“I had a teenager ask me about my name, and when I told him it was real, he said, ‘Awesome!’ Then the other day, I was checking into the Atlanta airport, and the first thing the man said to me was, ‘Your name is Elvis, and you’re from Memphis!’ ”
“The next question they always ask is, ‘Your name is Goldsmith — are you connected with the store?’ ”
Again, she answers in the affirmative; her late husband was Robert Goldsmith, a descendent of the department store founder.
“It’s been a nice way to meet people,” says Goldsmith, who married in October 1958, when Presley’s career was going full steam.
“My husband and kids used to say I was a good sport about it, but for me, it hasn’t really been different than any other name.”
“Elvis [Presley] was a very good citizen. Memphis has always been proud of him. When we have visitors here, the first thing we do is take them to Elvis’ house!”
Born at St. Joseph’s Hospital in 1926, Elvis Paul Chambers pre-dates Elvis Presley by nine years.
“My mother and father named me Elvis, and I have the feeling it’s a family name, because I’m supposed to have some relatives in Switzerland,” says the 81-year old Chambers, who lives in East Memphis.
Because he was nearing 30 by the time Presley cut his first single for Sun Records, Chambers had no problem retaining his own identity.
Even so, he recalls Presley’s meteoric rise as if it were yesterday.
“It was quite interesting, because about that time, all these teenage girls were getting fascinated with the other Elvis,” Chambers says.
“They’d look in the phone book and see my initials, ‘EPC,’ and think it was a secret way of listing his name. I’d get several calls a day. Before they’d hang up, I’d tell them I wasn’t the Elvis they were looking for.”
A longtime MLGW lineman, Chambers took up photography in the 1950s.
The hobby eventually led him to a face-to-face meeting with Presley.
“I was in a camera club, and every once in a while, we’d take trips around town,” he says, “and I took a few pictures of Elvis at a show at Russwood Park.”
“Later, when he was more famous, he appeared down at the fairgrounds, on his motorcycle. We got to talk a while, although I’m sure he met a lot of other Elvises in his life.”
For Elvis Howard, the comments never stop. Howard was born in the Delta town of Tralake, Miss., in 1942 and moved to Memphis just a few weeks later.
“In high school, my classmates called me Elvis Presley, instead of Elvis Howard. Now I work with a gentleman named Bill Pressley, and we both get teased about being Elvis Presley.
“Even when I go to the store and present my credit card and driver’s license, people say ‘You’re named after Elvis [Presley]!’ ”
Even so, says the 65-year old Howard, “I’ve never considered changing it. Elvis is actually a family name. I got it from my great uncle. Over the years, I’ve come to find out that it’s a pretty common name, too.”
Elvis Wiley, a native, of Brownsville, Tenn., was actually named after a family friend, Haywood County resident Elvis Bond.
“I was born on Nov. 16, 1956, the same day that “Love Me Tender” opened in New York City,” says Wiley.
“We lived in the rural part of the county, and he would take my sister to school events,” Wiley says. “My mother said he was so nice that she decided to name her son after him, and that was me!”
Being Elvis, the 51-year old claims, “is what you make of it.”
“If anything, it’s probably a dream for a lot of people.”
In 1979, Wiley came to Memphis to attend then-Memphis State University as a broadcast major. He obtained music and communications degrees, and met longtime Elvis Presley pal George Klein in the process.
“I’d listen to (Klein) talk, and I began studying a little bit about Elvis. It’s interesting how many things have happened to us on the same dates. In a small way, his life has become something I can compare myself with.”
Today, Wiley’s the most popular checker at the Kroger at Poplar Plaza Shopping Center, where customers bring their kids by just to meet Elvis.
“It’s been tough being a black Elvis,” says 51-year old Elvis Moore.
“Growing up, kids would tease me, but over the years, I’ve gotten used to it.”
Although Moore doesn’t know for a fact that he was named after Presley, he’s always assumed so because he was born in January 1957.
“My aunt selected the name, and my dad must’ve really loved her to have gone on and given it to me,” he says.
“I’ve lived in Memphis my whole life, but I’ve never been to Graceland. I’m really not an Elvis fan. The only reason I enjoyed his movies was because they had a lot of girls in them!”
The Navy veteran who works for MLGW says his name isn’t unusual for a black person. When he was stationed at Moffat Field, a California military base, in the late 1970s, there were “nine guys, all black, from all over the South, named Elvis.
“All of them, except for me, went by their nicknames,” he says.
“Elvis Presley wasn’t the first Elvis; he just happened to make the name famous. I’ll be honest: I don’t get people traveling around the world just to get to Graceland. I grew up in Whitehaven, and when (Presley) died, I was lying on the beach in Guam, so glad that I wasn’t in Memphis dealing with all the traffic.”
Banks knows he was named for Presley.
“My mother let my sister, who was 16 at the time, name me. Why she didn’t override her, I’ll never know,” says the 46-year-old Southaven resident.
“I was born in 1961, right in the midst of the civil rights movement, when we had Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King Jr.”
“Why would you name me after a white rock and roll singer, when we were living in a world that was fighting black oppression?” Banks wonders.
Then, in his next breath, he notes, “Many blacks had a great admiration for [Presley] and named their children for him. There’s always been a rumor that Presley was racist, but this underscores the fact that he had crossover appeal. African-Americans saw him as a country boy from Mississippi, who was just enjoying life.”
Born and raised in Shaw, Miss., in the heart of the Delta, Banks says that being named Elvis was “no big thing, because it was all the kids had known.”
Then, as a teenager, he was the focus of taunts like “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog” and “Don’t step on my blue suede shoes.”
“During those formative years, I was self-conscious, and people were waiting to see just who this Elvis person was, which I found really unnerving,” he recalls.
In August 1977, Banks was a student at Hamilton High School, which is at Person Avenue and Elvis Presley Boulevard, right across the street from Forest Hill Cemetery.
“I could look out the window and see the people lined up for Presley’s funeral,” he says. “I felt a real sense of sadness. I thought Elvis radiated charm, and I thought that his music was great. I never really saw him in a negative light. I just didn’t want to be compared to him.”
Banks ultimately learned to exploit the disarming nature of his name.
“Once I became an adult, I kind of reconciled myself with it. Sometimes, I’ll start singing ‘Love Me Tender’ to show someone I have a positive mental attitude. Other times, I’ll sign my name, and put underneath it ‘The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ ” he says.
Being Elvis is toughest, he says, when he goes to work as a substitute teacher for Memphis City Schools.
“Whenever I’m wearing my school ID, I’ll hear some kid whisper, ‘His name is Elvis,’ or say ‘Hey, Mr. Elvis,’ trying to tease me.”
Elvis Harvey was was born in Queens, New York, in 1963, around the time when Presley’s 13th movie, “Fun in Acapulco,” was released.
“I’ve never asked my mom why I was named Elvis,” says Harvey.
“My father must not like Elvis, though. Instead of my full name, he’s always called me ‘Ellie,’ ” the 44-year old Harvey notes.
“In New York, Elvis is actually a very common name, especially among Latin Americans and Puerto Ricans. And for me, it’s become a springboard for conversation. When I introduce myself, sometimes it’s as ‘The King.’ ”
The name’s significance changed two years ago, when Harvey relocated to Memphis to work as an area general manager for HMS Host, the concessions company at the Memphis International Airport.
“I’m not really an Elvis (Presley) fan,” he confesses, “although I’ve learned more about him since I’ve moved down here.”
By Andria Lisle/Special to The Commercial Appeal
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