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Elvis - An Icon known as 'The King' but I knew him as neighbor - An interview with Virginia Blackford
Migration to Memphis
The great depression left a legacy of migration for young parents trying to make a better life for themselves. My brother and his wife and three small children packed up what little belongings they had and left the farm, as did hundreds of young families like my brother and Vernon and Gladys Presley.
Memphis was one of the better places to move because of the varied industrial enterprises.
At that time , President Franklin Roosevelt developed the WPA, (Works Project Administration) as a relief measure with a variety of programs to stimulate the economy with jobs.
Roads, bridges, highways, buildings, and one of the first housing projects ever to be introduced, the WPA Housing Development.
My brother and his family and the Presley family were among the tenants at Lauderdale Courts under the management of Memphis Housing Authority.
WPA Housing Project
These apartments were built around a court yard with a specific purpose to create a community atmosphere. People who qualified to live there could earn no more than 3,000 a year. Rent for a two bedroom was $35.00 a month.
Under the management of Memphis Housing Authority, the apartments had modern kitchens and parquet floors.
There was no stigma attached to living at the courts.
Many outstanding leaders of the community grew up there, one of them being Elvis Aaron Presley.
My brother’s three children, Virginia, Jerry, and Darlene knew everybody in the courts. It was a real community of people with like circumstances dreaming of a better life.
Many, new to city life, found it comforting to be where 'everybody knows your name'.
With no air conditioning in the summer months, the windows were open and the smells of southern cooking floated the air while children gathered and played in the evening light of the courtyard.
Virginia and Elvis were classmates at Humes High in their junior and senior years. Occasionally, in conversation, she slipped bits and pieces of information about him, especially as his popularity began to rise.
Just lately, I decided to pin her down and ask her specific questions. I called her in Peoria and after two hours of reining her back in from other unrelated topics, I finally hit on a couple of things that has never been published and are unique only to her.
Q. Since you lived close to Elvis, did you ever visit his house?
A. No. My brother Jerry did. They both played guitar and they would practice together. Vernon and Gladys liked Jerry because he sang gospel songs with Elvis.
Q. Did you ever sing with him?
A. No. He was more rock and roll, although he did like gospel. Jerry, my sister and I formed a gospel trio and we performed at the Ellis Auditorium at all-night gospel sings with the Blackwood Brothers, the Jordanairs, and others. Elvis loved it. He didn't have the money to get in, so he would come to the back of the auditorium, and one of us would let him in.
Q. Was Elvis involved in courtyard activities?
A. He liked to play football with the guys. Of course, we rode bicycles, but he gravitated mostly toward music. He eventually performed out in the courtyard. He was a little shy, but the reaction from the other kids gave him confidence.
Q. What was he like in school?
A. He was a big flirt. He winked a lot. He winked in the hall. He winked in study hall. He also blew kisses at pretty girls. But he was always respectful. Teachers liked him. He brought his guitar to school and performed in school plays. He liked ROTC. Sometimes he wore his uniform for no reason. He was happy and energetic, like his cup was full and spilling over.
Oh, Jesus Take The Wheel!
Q. Did you ever think of him romantically?
A. Not really. He was cute. He stood out. He dressed in loud colors. He wore black a lot, pink shirts with popped up collars. Everybody else wore conservative clothes including me. He very definitely was set apart in the clothes department. He was just different.
Q. Did anybody have a car? How did you get to school?
A. Mostly we walked to school. Everything was close and convenient. School, downtown, movies. But Elvis did have a car. I often wondered how he bought it. It was a CLUNKER. The windows didn't work, and the steering wheel was not even screwed down. One day he drove me to school on a stretch of street, and he took the steering wheel clean off, laughing, pretended to turn corners in the air. When the car drifted over to the curb, he'd stick it back on. I walked into class that day with a frayed look on my face, and frazzled hair.
Q. So, tell me about graduation.
A. Oh honey, I didn't even go! Couldn't! I had a real bad case of sun poisioning. The senior class had a picnic and swimming party the day before. I am light skinned and easy to freckle, so I took extra precaution with the suntan lotion. Elvis sat beside me for a while, and I handed him the lotion. He pulled my hair to the side and slathered my back generously. Rubbing and humming. He was always humming. At the end of the day, he drove me and Rosemary Barracco home in his car (with the portable steering wheel). We stopped at a fruit market on the way, and while we were browsing around squeezing fruit, he asked me if I would go out with him. I made some kind of flimsy excuse, I don't even remember what I said.
Q. Are you sorry you didn't go out with him?
A. Shoot yes! Also, I am sorry I missed my own graduation. But I do have the memory of the most famous man in the world, rubbing my back with lotion. We were young and he was not famous yet. Just a kid from the neighborhood.
Q. What happened to your relationship after school?
A. He was climbing the ladder of success, and I got married to Bob Blackford and moved to Peoria Illinois. I lost contact with him personally, but I kept up with his career. I was proud of him. It was sort of a kinship I felt. You know, part of a community bond. I keep my year book handy. I browse through it once in a while. Elvis signed it.
Q. Some collector would give you a pretty penny for that.
A. Oh I wouldn't sell it for any price. It will stay in the family for my children. When I turn the pages to his photo, I don't see dollar signs--just an old friend who made good.
year book 1953 - Clip from Journal Star News
On The Air
Q. Did you ever use Elvis' name to impress your friends?
A. You better believe it! I milked it! It was a magnet for me. I love people and Elvis' name brought many fun experiences to my life. I treasure them. One day I was listening to WMBD radio here in Peoria, and the DJ was a big Elvis fan.
So being the 'ham that I am', I called him. That guy got so excited, he put me on hold and called me back. To shorten the story, he called me weekly on his daily radio show and we had 'on the air' conversations about peanut butter and banana sandwiches and Blue Suede Shoes. At the end of our conversations, he did a George Burns take...."Say it Mrs. B". And I would end the conversation with, "Thank yuh, thank yuh verra much". Soon I became Mrs. 'B'. His listeners asked questions. Lord, people knew me. I was invited to station functions. I was having a ball! Thanks to Elvis!
WMBD - AM radio
One last question
Q. How did you feel when you heard Elvis had died?
A. I was sad. I thought about him for days. How he hummed. How he flirted. How he winked. The steering wheel, the suntan lotion. His joy. It's still not real to me that he is gone after all these years.
He winked at the whole world and we flirted back. His star is still shining, sprinkling a little magic on us all.
What Price Fame?
Idol's and Icon's who are cannonized to fame at a young age often meet an early demise. The stress of paparazzi, long lens cameras, stalkers, obsessed fans, and tabloids forces them into isolation. It is a high-octane lifestyle. Many turn to substance abuse in order to meet their demands.
Elvis found his burning early in life and his talent could not sleep within him. He had to fulfill his destiny. He was a radiant flower in a field of grass and we wanted to hold the beauty. We picked it and watched it wilt away.
Lauderdale Courts Preserved
The Courts were slated for demolition at one time, but appeals from fans and Memphis Heritage Preservation placed it on the National Register of Historical places.
It has been renovated, and renamed "Uptown Square"
Sleep Where Elvis Slept
That's right. You can sleep in his bedroom. Reproductions of the furniture and memorabilia. All the modern conveniences, including a 1951 Frigidaire refrigerator. TV and Internet services. Swimming pool and fitness room. Up to 4 guest. 2 night minimum. $249.00 a night.
The address: 185 Winchester #328
Things to do downtown
Memphis is an exciting town with a touch of blues, a touch of country, and people with a southern accent. Eat world famous bar-b-q, ride downtown trolley cars,see the Hotel Peabody with parading ducks, Beale Street with W C Handy music, Mud Island, and the great banks of the Mississippi River, all in walking distance from the Courts. And of course, a few miles away...Graceland
Visit my hub on Memphis
I am now going to the grocery store. I will take a tip from Elvis. I am going to wink at somebody. It might be a baby in a shopping cart, it may be a young boy in the produce department, or it could be an old man in the check out line....whatever, winks count!
"Thank yuh, thank yuh verra much"