Mort Weiss: Two strangers on a train, me and another kid named Elvis Presley

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Elvis Aaron Presley. I spent most of a day and night with the cat, back in March or April 1956. Me? I was stationed at Fort Riley Kansas in the 1st Infantry Division — the Big Red One — and was going home to Los Angeles, California on leave, by train.

Most folks weren’t using airplanes back in that day. Once under way, I went to the club car. I don’t remember exactly how he and I met, but I was in uniform and he knew that his draft number was coming up — which it did — a year or two later. He was heading for Las Vegas for what was to be his first engagement there. I think it was at the new Frontier Hotel. I had heard of him, but didn’t really know or care much about what he did. I think he had done some television shows and started some riots — something to do with his hip movements. (Hip, as in body parts!)

Elvis wasn’t surrounded by any large entourage at that time — so we were able to shuck and jive with each other quite a bit. He’d never heard of any of the cats I dug like Bird, Diz, Bud, Lester, et al. But he had heard of and dug Fats Domino. I dug him then, and I dig him now. I feel that I should mention that neither he or myself were drinking. (I just remembered Kansas was a dry state.)

We both were the same age — 21 years old — and once again, I must say that I knew next to nothing about the cat. Growing up in Hollywood, doing a lot of live TV and some movie extra work, playing clubs and jams with some of the heavyweights of jazz … well, let’s just say I wasn’t an easily starstruck kinda guy. Elvis came across as a real nice person — and it was “yes sir,” “yes ma’am” to any of the older folks that approached him.

The part I’m coming to is what I remember vividly, and as I write this some tears are coming to my eyes: Ogden, Utah was where one changed trains, if you were going further West. Elvis and I got off the train, and there was a hour’s wait. It was about 1 a.m., and the station was almost deserted. Elvis and I, and some of his people, were walking along — not going anywhere in particular — and all of a sudden we see a magazine stand, then Elvis gives out a loud yell and runs to the stand. We hurried up to see what was happening and there’s Elvis holding a movie magazine, laughing and all excited — looking at his own picture on the front cover!

It was the first time that he had ever seen himself on the cover of a major publication, and I remember with total clarity the words he said upon seeing his picture, as he was running to a phone booth to call his mama: “She’ll be tickled.” Damn.

I put Elvis Presley up there with Jolson and Sinatra, and I’ll go one step further: Elvis was the greatest pop entertainer of the 20th century. Like Al Jolson, he gave his all when performing: He sang from his heart, his body, the very essence of his total being, when sharing what he felt.

“Mama will be so tickled.” We were all so very young.

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EPILOGUE: Elvis bombed terribly at that first Las Vegas appearance. He played to a house of Damon Runyon-types and mafia dudes of the kind that frequented Vegas in the early days, post-Bugsy Siegel. Those cats didn’t even know what a hound dog was, let alone what to think about hearing some guy yelling “you ain’t nothing but one!” They ended up cutting his engagement down from four weeks to two. But, he went back to Las Vegas another day, didn’t he?

Looking ahead, future articles in the Mort Weiss Meets series will include … the Iron Butterfly, Joey DeFrancesco, the Buffalo Springfield, Las Vegas, Ornette Coleman and Nature Boy Eden Abhez.

I remain, MORT WEISS

Mort Weiss

Mort Weiss

Mort Weiss is a bebop-oriented clarinet player with 11 albums as a leader. During his teens, Weiss studied with the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra's Antonio Remondi, and later soloed on several TV programs with the Freddie Martin Orchestra, aka “The Band of Tomorrow.” Since a return to music in 2001, he has worked with Joey DeFrancesco, Dave Carpenter, Roy McCurdy, Luther Hughes, Bill Cunliffe and the late Sam Most. Contact Something Else! at
Mort Weiss
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