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Updated on May 30, 2013

Rock Legends at the Orpheum Theater, 1984

I never have been a big concert goer. The parking, the crowds, the poor sound quality, are enough potential annoyances to convince me to stay home. But there was one time a few decades back...

The year was 1984, in the fall. I was working for a television station in Little Rock, Arkansas, and doing a weekly feature on rock and roll (called 4 the Record, to match the channel number of the TV station, get it?). I heard about a Saturday night concert coming up in Memphis, less than a two hour drive away. The names of the performers were eye-popping:

Roy Orbison

Carl Perkins

Rick Nelson

Sam and Dave

Ace Cannon

Otis Blackwell

Holy smokes--who could resist that line-up? And thanks to my job at that time, my wife, my photographer, and myself would all get backstage passes. No way was I going to pass up this opportunity.

So after some telephone calls to agents and promoters to try to line up interviews, off to Memphis we went. The historic Orpheum Theater in downtown Memphis was the site, and the atmosphere was electric, both inside and outside the venue. The audience in the seats was surprisingly small, but backstage, everyone was rockin' beyond belief.

The first artist to arrive was the ever-gracious and always accommodating Carl Perkins. He never acted like the rock king he was. Carl was more than happy to sit down for an extensive interview going over his illustrious career--how he wrote "Blue Suede Shoes," how poor he was as a child, his struggle with alcohol, and his career-saving alliance with Johnny Cash. He even signed one of his Sun Record releases for me, "Glad All Over."

Next to arrive and starting to jam backstage was Ace Cannon, whose greatest hit was "Tuff" on Hi Records,a label located right there in Memphis. One of the great, unappreciated saxophone players in the rock era, Cannon was somewhat reserved but more than willing to talk about his career, not only as a performer, but as a recording session artist for other performers.

There they were--the original Blues Brothers themselves, Sam and Dave. Along with all their musicians, mostly from the horn section. How better to belt-out "Soul Man" than with a wall of sound like that? Friendly, and hugging everybody, Sam Moore and Dave Prater talked about their career which peaked right down the street at the legendary Stax Records.

One rock icon didn't show. Otis Blackwell was not feeling well, so he decided to skip this particular gig at the last minute. Too bad. I could hardly wait for his good memories: Writing "Don't Be Cruel," "Breathless," "Great Balls of Fire," "Return to Sender," and "Handy Man." And maybe the not-so-good memories, like being forced to give up half of his "Cruel" writing credit to Elvis Presley, who never wrote a lick. That was Col. Tom Parker's way--his way or the highway. And as Otis would later say, I could take 50% of a million dollars or 100% of nothin.

Finally, the two headliners showed up. Roy Orbison first, then Rick Nelson. Neither one was keen on interviews. Roy didn't want to be bothered, and Rick may have been on some kind of medication. At first, Rick's agent was all gung-ho for a TV appearance, but after seeing the condition of his client, changed his mind.

There was one get-together, though, that would have made for great television, and worthy of being placed in the archives of the future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Nelson and Orbison wanted to meet, and jam with, Carl Perkins, in Carl's dressing room before the concert ever started. I tried mightily to get a camera in there--after all, Nelson made no secret of the fact that Carl Perkins was his hero. The first record he ever bought, according to his mother, Harriet Nelson, was "Boppin' the Blues," one of Perkins' first releases on Sun. Orbison and Nelson had a history together, too, if only on the Billboard Hot 100. Orbison's "Running Scared," and Nelson's "Travellin' Man," kept trading Number One and Number Two positions at the top of the charts back in 1961. An historic Memphis meeting at the Orpheum, lost to the ages.

Finally, the concert began and the hits were unbelievable. Orbison's pulsating "Oh, Pretty Woman" rocked the house, and Sam and Dave's "Hold On, I'm Coming" created such a sensation that the artists resumed hugging everybody in sight.

Finally, at nearly 2 o'clock in the morning, Rick Nelson emerged from his dressing room in heavy makeup, looking straight ahead like a robot, not speaking a word, walking directly to the stage. But whatever medication he may have been on, or whatever demons were raging inside, you could never tell. "Hello Mary Lou" and "Travellin' Man" sounded ten times better than the record, and his voice was full and strong. What a shock, then, that about a year later, on New Year's Eve, Rick's life would end in a tragic plane crash near the Texas/Arkansas border.

Rick, Roy, Carl, Dave, and Otis are all gone now. But just like Camelot, don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment...that was rock and roll.


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