“An Evening at Elvis” with Bill Frisell

Posted on March 27, 2015


1425084773By Ashley Dill

Pulling onto Audubon Drive, there is nothing extraordinary about the neighborhood or its location, except, of course, that Elvis Presley lived there in 1956. As you drive further down the street, Elvis’ first house can be recognized by the large “P’s” displayed on off-white awnings covering the windows of a dark green, one-story house with a large front lawn surrounded by a black iron gate.

Elvis bought this house off of the royalties of “Heartbreak Hotel” in 1956. He lived there for a short thirteen months before moving to Graceland because of the lack of security and privacy. There are quite a few stories from neighbors and visiting friends in 1956 that tell stories of girls knocking on Elvis’s bedroom window trying to get their few precious moments with the King.

The Mike Curb Institute at Rhodes College, founded in 2006, was established through the Mike Curb Family Foundation to begin to understand the musical traditions of the South and study music’s effect on culture, history, and economy. The Institute provides opportunities and support for students to partner with the Memphis community in order to preserve, research, and celebrate what Mike Curb calls the “Tennessee Music Miracle.” The Curb Foundation believes in supporting education across the country through music. They have established Curb Centers, Colleges, learning labs, and chairman positions at Vanderbilt, Belmont, Daytona State, Fisk, Claremont McKenna, Baylor University, and Honolulu Community College, funneling nearly 50% of Curb proceeds back into education for music and the arts.

With the founding of the Mike Curb institute at Rhodes, the Institute also became stewards of Elvis’ first house, restoring it to its original glory in order to use it to host a concert series called “An Evening at Elvis.’” The idea behind the series is to host musicians from Memphis and around the country, to reflect on their careers in relation to Memphis, and acknowledge these musician’s regional effect on music. Seven years later on November 15, 2015 the Curb Institute was finally able to host and film its first performance featuring the Memphis-based band called Star and Micey. Since the series has begun, it has hosted artists Rosanne Cash, Bobby Rush, Valerie June, and more.

This series is driven by the idea that it is student-conducted, allowing for not only experience in film, photography, recording, performing, and interviewing, but in the historical preservation of Memphis music and its effect on the surrounding region and the country. Dr. John Bass, director of the Mike Curb Institute, compares it to a laboratory for students to gain real-world skills on real productions.

Snowflakes fall on a cold February night in Memphis as I drive to Elvis’ first house for my third “An Evening at Elvis’” concert. Cars endlessly line the streets as I approach the seemingly normal house. I walk inside a screen door on the side of the house and enter a home that has been transformed back into the ’50’s. Finding myself in the kitchen, I walk through the house; the floor is covered in academy-award colored red carpet as the wallpaper draws in my attention with its blues, greens, and oranges, featuring birds, vines, and piano keys. Each wall possesses a black and white photograph of Elvis or of his family, taken by photographer Alfred Wertheimer, strategically placed to show Elvis standing, dancing, or laughing in the spot where you are viewing the photograph. As I enter the living room, mid-century sectional turquoise couches reminisce Elvis’ time and a record player sits atop a bar in the next room, displaying a varying record collection featuring Patsy Cline and Bobby Rush.

Although filled with the people, the room is hushed as the guests anxiously await the arrival of the night’s guest, legendary guitarist Bill Frisell. The house holds about seventy-five guests who do not look as familiar as the last audience. Usually the audience is filled with Rhodes College students and faculty, but tonight the atmosphere is different, as the guests I do not recognize seem to know each other. In essence, it is the music industry. I do recognize alumni of the show, Marcella Simien, daughter of Grammy-winner Terrance Simien, sitting on the second row.

As the lights dim and the cameras begin to roll, Bass takes the stage as Bill Frisell and drummer Kenny Wollesen emerge from a back room. After an introduction, they take the stage quietly as Bass begins to interview a soft-spoken Frisell. Frisell explains how he latched onto music, saying that “the guitar and music itself has been a world of harmony that makes sense.” Within the first few words from Frisell, the anxiousness of the audience begins to ease as it begins to feel more like friends gathered together. He recalls the first time he ever heard Presley’s music saying, “I remember this place in a basement… sort of like this room… I was with one of my friends and his sister in ’57 or ’58 and she put on Elvis and it was complete insanity… there was this electricity.” He continues, “Rock n roll was born during my childhood and it’s overwhelming for me… to come to these places… to be around here where so much has happened is incredible.”

He picks up his white electric guitar and begins to play with Kenny a seemingly un-agreed upon soundtrack to life hitting chords that struck utter joy, nostalgia, deep depression, hope, loss, failure, and relaxation all at once. Audience members’ eyes are either glued to Frisell’s hands or are closed in deep meditation of the gorgeous echoes of the guitar. They transition seamlessly from one song to another, and at some point, he brings Sam Cooke and “That’s Alright Mama” into the mix.

As time grew thinner, Frisell began to express his disbelief of being in Memphis, playing inside Elvis’ house. Before his last set he trailed off saying, “I can’t believe I’m playing in Elvis’ house… If you would have told me this…” and began to play the most stunning version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” that I had ever heard. It was the sweetest and most beautiful lullaby that you could not help but stay awake for.

After an unavoidable standing ovation, Frisell humbly thanks the crowd and the Curb Institute as the crowd begins to disperse. I found him among the crowd and thanked him for his beautiful recreation of Presley’s music as he easily responded with how natural it was because “this place puts a spell on you.”

Check out “An Evening at Elvis’” online at: http://eveningatelvis.org

Posted in: Music