Tracing a tall tale: was Elvis really in the building?

Photo of Elvis Presley in 1970
Blue moon, you saw me standing alone, without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own…

The myths and stories in any family history are tenuous things. Often self-serving, they mesmerize us—trapping us in visions of the past filtered through glossy hindsight and half-baked truths. The tales in my own family’s history are certainly no exception. However, even these spurious and specious tales may be lost and forgotten, ravaged by time, and become yet another casualty of Alzheimer’s Disease, dementia, or memory loss. I believe that “true or not,” we as family historians are obligated to protect, explore, and secure these stories. It’s what makes our pursuit somehow different from more academic fields: the preservation of the personal.

My step-mother was the source of many family tales of dubious origin, particularly when she was suffering through the early pains of dementia. Her best story will always be the one about her evening with Elvis Presley, and how that famous crooner sang a song for her one night. In light of the cruelties of her dementia (and my skepticism of her other tall tales), I wondered—how I could ever possibly know if it was true? Was there any way to trace back her shadowy tale of Elvis to see if what she said might ever have happened?

The story went like this: my stepmother claimed that her second husband’s mother, a woman named Opal Russ, was connected to Elvis. Opal may have known or worked with Elvis’s mother, Gladys, at some point in their lives, though my step-mother was never clear on the details. She was married to that husband between 1963 and 1971, and lived with him in Los Angeles. Apparently during that period, Elvis decided to either rent or purchase a house in LA, and contacted Opal Russ to “help make the house ready” for him. After moving in, he invited “them” up to the house for an evening, during which he played the piano and serenaded my step-mother with the song Moon River.

Now I don’t doubt that like any of of us, my stepmother was capable of telling a good fib. But please keep in mind that at the time my step-mother told me this tale of Elvis, there was no Google, and no easy way (outside of perhaps the newspapers of the day) for her to research background for any tall tale she might want to tell. As with most legends, myths, and lore, where was the kernel of truth to start it? I had to know more.

Consider the first part of the story: that her former mother-in-law, Opal Russ, had somehow known Gladys Presley or been associated with her. I went back to basics and started with the 1950 census. While the Presley residence at 185 Winchester Ave in Memphis is well celebrated,1 I was somewhat surprised to see Opal Russ and family living not far from there at around the same time, at 446 Malvern Place. So I did what we all do these days: I looked up the distance from the Presley’s to the Russ’s on Google Maps. As you can see, they indeed did not live very far from each other.

1950 U.S Census record which shows a young Elvis Presley living at 185 Winchester in Memphis

1950 Census Record showing Opal Russ living at 446 Malvern Place, Memphis

Screenshot of Google Maps displaying a 6-minute traveling distance between 185 Winchester and 446 Malvern in Memphis

However, Memphis is a big city, and it was a big city in 1950 too. So how do I reconcile this information? Can I file it under “yes,” that 2.2 miles forms a “reasonable radius” for Gladys Presley and Opal Russ to have at the very least run into each other at a market, church, or Britling Cafeteria?2 There’s little way that my step-mother could have known of this proximity otherwise. While she might have heard in 1970 what the Presley’s address was in 1950, and also known where her second husband’s family lived in 1950, would she have bothered (or known how) to ascertain the distance between these two addresses, using her 1965 model desk lamp and a Rand McNalley map? I doubt it. And while Gladys Presley had died by 1958, I think we can still score one for Gladys Presley and Opal Russ in the category: “possible associates.”

Next, I wanted to see when Elvis Presley might have lived in the Los Angeles area between 1963 and 1971, the years of my step-mother’s second marriage. This was going to be tougher. I reasoned that the only way my stepmother could have encountered Elvis was if he had been in Los Angeles County during that time frame. To this end, I was surprised to learn that he had performed only one concert in the LA area during that time, as part of a concert tour in November of 1970.3 The previous time was in October 1957, well before my stepmother ever came to California. But surely Mr. Presley had many reasons to be in California outside of concert appearances. My field of options to verify her story was growing too big, covered in too many shadows.

So I moved on, hoping I could identify any house that might fit my stepmother’s narrative. She described the house as “up in Hollywood” or in “Beverly Hills,” but she didn’t know or didn’t remember much more. Unfortunately, this is where her tale gets really soggy. According to The California Homes of Elvis Presley,4 Mr. Presley owned or rented several homes in Los Angeles county:

  1. 144 Monovale Drive, Holmby Hills, California (purchased in 1970 and
    sold in 1975)
  2. 1174 Hillcrest Road, Beverly Hills, California (1967-1973)
  3. 525 Perugia Way, Bel-Air, California (Rented from 1960-1961 and from
    1963-1965)
  4. 10550 Rocca Place, Bel-Air, California (Rented in 1966)

My stepmother said that her mother-in-law Opal Russ was called upon to “make the house ready” for Elvis when he would “come to town,” but it’s anybody’s guess as to which house this tale might have been referring to. I have mostly ruled out the third address, as only the second rental period would fit the time frame,5 but it remains a viable choice. My personal favorite is the address on Monovale Drive. Needless to say, I can prove nothing.

Last but not least: my stepmother said that Elvis had serenaded her on a piano with his rendition of Moon River. To be honest, I felt like this was an odd choice of song. Wouldn’t he have picked one of his many other songs, like Can’t Help Falling in Love or Love Me Tender, rather than Moon River? It isn’t a song that I normally associate with Mr. Presley. The story of Opal’s connection seemed plausible, and even if the specific house remained in question, the events very much could have taken placed as described. But why would he sing Moon River?

Then I realized he likely wouldn’t have—or rather, that my step-mother could have been misremembering the title. She may have been talking about Elvis’s rendition of Blue Moon, which was one of his hits, and would be easy to mistake for Moon River in foggy retrospect.6 All stages of dementia are cruel, and the “early stages” are no exception. At the time she told us this story, her recollections were becoming increasingly shadowy and difficult to access.

Photograph of the author's step-motherIn the end, I cannot tell you for sure that my stepmother was indeed serenaded by Elvis Presley, or even that she ever laid eyes on him. Her memories are gone. I can only tell you that as with most “family legends” we were all mesmerized when she told us this tale. There are elements to her story that make it possible, but little to make it anything more than incredible. But maybe—just maybe—that’s the way family legends and stories are supposed to be. Maybe it’s the only way they can be.

In case you were wondering: I have reached out to members of my stepmother’s second husband’s family to see if the tales of Opal Russ and Gladys Presley have ever been heard by anyone else. I’d plan on writing to Priscilla or to Lisa Marie, but let’s face it—like the unanswered questions behind my step-mother’s shadowy memories, there’s a good chance those letters will only ever be marked Return to Sender.7

 

Notes

1 Lauderdale Courts apartments was the residence of the Presley family in 1950; information as taken from Roadtrippers.com and the U.S. Census.

2 Per Graceland.com: the Presleys moved to Memphis in 1948 and one of Gladys Presley’s jobs was at Britling Cafeteria.

3 Per https://www.elvisconcerts.com/real/november70.htm

4 Per https://www.lastmovieoutpost.com/the-california-homes-of-elvis-presley/

5 My stepmother was married to her second husband during this second rental time period for Perugia Way.

6 Elvis Presley, Blue Moon, RCA Victor, written by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart, Released August 1956.

7 Elvis Presley, Return to Sender, RCA Victor, written by Winfield Scott and Otis Blackwell, Released October 1962.

About Jeff Record

Jeff Record received a B.A. degree in Philosophy from Santa Clara University, and works as a teaching assistant with special needs children at a local school. He recently co-authored with Christopher C. Child, “William and Lydia (Swift) Young of Windham, Connecticut: A John Howland and Richard Warren Line,” for the Mayflower Descendant. Jeff enjoys helping his ancestors complete their unfinished business, and successfully petitioned the Secretary of the Army to overturn a 150 year old dishonorable Civil War discharge. A former Elder with the Mother Lode Colony of Mayflower Descendants in the State of California, Jeff and his wife currently live with their Golden Retriever near California’s Gold Country where he continues to explore, discover, and research family history.

32 thoughts on “Tracing a tall tale: was Elvis really in the building?

  1. Beautifully written as always. True or not, this tale says a lot about your stepmother and what she valued. I have a new way to look at my mother’s stories about my grandmother’s smoking a pipe, clog dancing, and singing “Rocky Road to Dublin” to her six children. True or not, the stories capture a moment in time that has truth.

    1. Rose, Many thanks for your kind words! I love the idea of your grandmother singing, “Rocky Road to Dublin” to the kids. I am going to investigate that song! You are so right when you say, “True or not, the stories capture a moment in time that has truth.”

  2. Really great story. When my family history book came out documenting the impossibility of the suspect tales of my uncle who claimed our great grandfather had worn a dress and blackface and concealed his medical instruments under bread in a basket, then managed to get through the Union lines at Gettysburg to tend to a wounded Confederate patient, his grandson said that I had stolen his Santa Claus. But the actual documentable stories seem to have restored his Christmas.

  3. As a sidenote, I had worked with Chris Child on Priscilla Presley’s ancestry; a man named Julian Riley had “discovered” Elvis’ unknown paternal great grandfather, as Elvis’s great grandmother Rosella never married. Through DNA and triangulation…he found out his paternal great grandfather was a man named John Wallace…although Rosella had kids by other men as well (documented with DNA, check book “Roots of Elvis.”

      1. Great story! I do have a question though. Why would Gladys say she was younger than Vernon when we all know she was older! Especially on a census report!

  4. I noticed in 1950 census, Vernon Presley’s mother, Minnie Mae (Hood) said she was “widowed,” but she was actually divorced. However, they have never found a marriage record between Jesse D Presley and Minnie which suggests they may have never been married.

  5. Elvis, if with friends and family, normally played on the piano gospel music, some country songs, only occasionally current hits or his own hits.

    1. Mike – Very much appreciate your perspective and knowledge on this. You bring up a very valid aspect of Elvis’s “song making” – and you help me validate my step mother’s memory as “possible” too. Many thanks for this.

  6. I have a new outlook and am hoping my family cousins will keep telling the “family legend” that Aunt Sandy was at Woodstock. I wasn’t, but somehow they collectively remembered that a few years ago. Although I have denied it, maybe I will just smile sweetly in the future for the heck of it!

    1. Scott – Many thanks for your suggestion. I’m attempting to reach out to her via social media. Wish me luck!
      Kind regards,
      JR

  7. This was a very entertaining read although what comes to question in my mind is ..why didn’t your stepmother or anyone else present at this meeting take a photo of such a major event? Compact cameras were cheap and readily available at the time. If there was a photo wouldn’t it have been seen by many family members to back up her story if it was lost? I don’t mean any disrespect to a wonderful story but that is what comes to my mind right away. True or false I think it’s a story to be treasured by your family..Al H.

    1. Elvis and the “Memphis Mafia”, for privacy reasons, did not allow the photographing of the interior of any of his homes or anybody at his gatherings: that is why no photos exist of the Beatles with Elvis when they met at his Bel Air home in 1965. I know…I asked at Graceland why no photos exist of the Beatles and Elvis and I got a straight answer.

    2. Thanks Albert – from what I’ve read from a fellow comment-er here is that Elvis didn’t allow pictures like that to be taken – I was like you and wondered the same thing.

  8. With out records and due to the year 2022 , we are losing , alot of information on Elvis and the back ,grown of his life , I was a kid who lost my father at the age of 9 , in 1972 , I turned to Elvis and his music , spending a life of singing his songs acting like him , I craved the stage and to due a show , for ,him , I’ve been asked a million times did Elvis die , or fake his death an move on , yes the Elvis we new in 1970 threw 75 died right before our eyes by the time 1976 and 1977 came the young , Elvis was gone but in life he was alive and still singing his song , Priscilla knows the truth , and a couple of people who were close to him knowed the truth , Him being seen in places after the 1977 death were people who really think they saw him ,was it there mind or just what . A pic takin on a roof top in Vegas, was a shocking , photo of Elvis and his doctor , on a parking garage ,roof , I meet Elvis when I was a kid in front of his house , in Memphis I was there with my mom and we were looking at the house , from out side , we stepped to the right of the gate a car was coming out it stopped due to traffic , I was looking dead in the window at Elvis he rolled the window down and said wait a min. He shook my hand and ask how I was I was in heaven it was Elvis we spoke a moment in time , I see it every day in my files in my memories, my girl just turned 22 she as with in my house grew up with Elvis . His music rocked her to a happy place , and me singing it to her , I just sent her a video , of Elvis singing , bridge over troubled waters , to my surprise ,she texted me and said ,I love Elvis and I cry every time I hear him or see him , as me being in some form of music , I would love to talk to priscilla and Lisa Marie, I would love to form a band , and take Elvis back to the streets and to the kids , of our country today , for I feel they are missing one of the greatest , people and his music , , we can set here and write words on lines in some ones stories , maybe that lady did as she said , maybe it was in her mind in a happy place , that she went to to make her word feel better , I thank wish I could have been apart of his world , but as I said there is dreams and memories of seeing him , today watching him on your , and in his movies makes a bad day turn into a peice of mind , thank you for your story , and keep watching and playing his music , thank you ,thank you very much,,,Elvis as left the building Thank you and good nite

  9. My name is Debra Agee, and Mr. Presley really did invite Me & My Sister In-law to his after Concert Party. It was when he played here in St. Louis in the 70’s. Two of the Stamps Quartet said Mr. Presley noticed you two Ladies & would like to invite you to his after concert party. Now we don’t know if he will show up or not, but we will make sure you both get home safely and this requires no “ hanky panky”!
    He just likes to do this for his FANS!
    Regrettably, My husband wouldn’t let me go!
    To this day that has been the Biggest Regret OF MY LIFE, cause I am such an Elvis Fan…,! BTW, I divorced HIM…! Just
    to late…!

    Sincerely,
    Debra Agee

  10. Elvis was in LA doing movies after he returned from the army 1960- 1969. House #2 also seems like a viable option. Its possible but unlikely he would have sung Blue Moon because he would rarely play his popular tunes. He would play piano and sing gospel songs. He was a very generous and appreciative person so it is viable he would have had them over his house to show his appreciation to Opal as an extra bonus to paying her to get the house ready. Also, Gladys worked cleaning houses and at a hospital. Maybe the 2 women met through their work? My mother in law had dementia. With research, we found her stories were mostly true with the details a bit mixed up

  11. I also have dubious stories from my g-dad’s geneology notes. A relative as child shipwrecked at Spice Islands off coast of NJ!. A g-ma whose father might have been a state governor. Have tried figuring these stories out w/no luck. Makes one wonder if there is some kernel of truth somewhere in these stories.

  12. Elvis rarely sang his own tunes while playing around on the piano on his own time and entertaining guests. He preferred to put his spin on his contemporaries songs. Moon River was popular in 1961 and 1962…an Audrey Hepburn movie (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and Andy Williams version in 1962 that he sang at that year’s Academy Awards. It is quite plausible that Elvis could sung Moon River! I would concentrate on the Perugia and Bellagio addresses. Elvis never tried to cover any Roy Orbison hits. Elvis thought he he the PERFECT voice and did not believe he could sing any Orbison’s song any better than he did.

  13. Mr Record I suggest you reach out to Elvis’ cousin Billy Smith and his wife Jo rather than PP or LMP. Billy’s daddy was Gladys brother. They all moved to Memphis together. They were very close. Billy and Jo lived with Elvis at Hillcrest and Perugia Way and later at Graceland.They talk of all living places all the time. They are great people. You can reach them on You Tube at their channel Elvis Fans Matter or on Facebook. I feel they may be able to help you a lot in your research. Good luck!!

  14. What a great story. Love it! Thanks for sharing Jeff.
    You definitely made me start thinking about stories I’ve heard at family gatherings.

  15. On the subject of meeting celebrities, guess I should document my attendance at a BBQ at Wayne Newton’s ranch north of Las Vegas in Sept 1976, as well as how I ended up standing next to him with his left arm across my shoulders at the photo session at the end. Would hate for my descendants to think this “Super Special Sunday” was just a figment of Grannie’s imagination!

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