The woman over Elvis' shoulder 

The King, the late, great Sam Phillips and the photo that connects them to me

Every August, Elvis Presley memorial magazines appear on newsstands as his fans commemorate the anniversary of his death on Aug. 16, 1977. Usually, at least one such memorial contains a 1955 picture of a sitting Presley signing a contract, flanked by two standing men: his first manager, Bob Neal, and the man credited with discovering Elvis, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, who died last month at the age of 80. The photo appeared in the first Elvis fan magazine, on the Complete Sun Sessions album cover and countless retrospective pictorial books and magazines.

In that photo, there's a fireplace mantel behind Elvis, on which sit several small, framed pictures; hanging on the wall above it is a large picture of a smiling dark-haired woman. She was not connected to any of the men in the photo, but her prominence in the scene, years later, aroused the curiosity of Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick, who called Phillips and asked who she was.

He didn't know at the time, but I did. She's my mother.

Five years ago, while researching my deceased maternal grandfather, "Papa Lou" Lowry, I traveled from my home in Atlanta to Memphis, my grandfather's hometown. I spent hours in the library squinting at microfiche reproductions of 1920s newspaper accounts of his football, swimming and basketball exploits. I spoke with his landlady and a policeman who had seen his body in the morgue after he was killed in a collision with a fire truck. I spoke with the still sorrowful driver of that truck. And I interviewed Phillips.

The old guy was still hip.

Papa Lou, a freelance photographer, had taken the now-famous shot of Elvis, Phillips and Neal, and I hoped Phillips might share memories of Papa Lou and tell what he could recall about the photo shoot.

Phillips, I had been told, gave few interviews, and I was an unknown writer. He was apparently weary of Elvis fanatics who simply wanted to be near someone who had worked with The King. He was also annoyed by media folk who treated him as an oddity -- as evidenced by his infamous appearance on "The Late Show With David Letterman," on which he was treated (in Phillips's opinion) patronizingly by Letterman. I expected to return to Atlanta without interviewing him.

A music writer at the Memphis Commercial Appeal suggested I call Phillips' recording studio. Roland James, the studio guitarist who answered the phone, suggested I write down the basic information and fax it to him; he would fax it to Phillips. I wrote about the picture Papa Lou took and my mom's picture on the wall. I noted how I regretted that Papa Lou had died when I was so young and hoped he could tell me what he remembered about him. That evening Phillips' assistant, Sally Wilburn, called and said he would meet with me the next day for 30 minutes.

Phillips lived in a U-shaped, one-story brick house graced by a well-kept lawn and sculpted topiary shrubs. In the middle of the U was a pool and patio. Wilburn escorted me to the living room, neatly decorated with sleek, angular late-'60s/early-'70s furniture and adornments. Adjacent to it was a long, narrow, spotless kitchen.

Soon, Phillips came skipping in, whistling. I was stunned that the 75-year-old looked like a man in his 50s. His thick reddish hair was brushed back; his beard also showed very little gray. He wore sunglasses, which he sometimes removed and replaced as he talked. His low voice sometimes growled when his emotion intensified.

He told me about how Guralnick, while researching his well-praised, authorized Elvis biography, Last Train to Memphis, called him and asked the identity of the woman in the picture. Guralnick, Phillips explained to me, researched meticulously.

"I have no idea," Phillips had replied into the phone.

"She must be important," Guralnick had said. "Look at how prominent her picture is. Is there any way you could find out?"

"I have no way."

Phillips then turned to me and roared, his eyes widening, "And now your ass shows up and tells me who it is! When I tell Peter, he's gonna fall out."

He spoke kindly of my grandfather. "I hadn't thought of Lou in many years, but when I got your letter, it brought back a whole hell of a lot of stuff. Everybody knew Lou Lowry. He was a well-respected, top-notch photographer that everybody liked."

The document Elvis was signing in the photo, he said, was not with Sun Records -- Elvis' first contract -- as my family had assumed. "I had already signed Elvis," he said. The document over which Elvis' pen-grasping hand was poised was a management contract with Bob Neal, the other man in the picture. Neal had called Phillips and said he wanted a picture of the three of them. Neal then contacted Papa Lou and arranged the shoot. When they arrived at Papa Lou's house, Phillips said Lou moved them around the room and finally picked a spot he thought was best. His daughter's engagement portrait -- which he had taken five years before -- happened to be situated prominently in the background.

I wondered if Papa Lou -- a back-slapping, gregarious man who had once taken portraits of a friend's favorite duck for the fun of it -- purposefully placed his only daughter near Elvis' head. I have a black-and-white 8-by-10 of smiling "Mama Lou," his wife, standing next to a young, pudgy, tuxedoed Liberace. I can imagine Papa Lou -- warm to strangers, fast with a quip -- charming him into allowing a picture with his wife.

Phillips was doubtful about my theory: "He might have -- that's the type of guy he was. But, of course, he didn't know at that time -- Elvis wasn't that big. He was taking up pretty big locally. We had been on the Louisiana Hayride ...."

Phillips paused, scratched his beard, looked upward, and said, "Let's see. I'm trying to think now ...." Finally, he said, "Now, this is the first picture taken of Bob Neal and me and Elvis." He paused again. "So you can say that this is the first picture taken of Elvis in a studio, the first professional, posed picture of Elvis. There were action snapshots taken before then, but this is his first posed, studio picture."

He seemed pleased to give me some significance to attach to the picture, perhaps because he had given me the disappointing news that the contract in the picture was not Elvis' first.

I thought of my mother's "Elvis and Me" talk, which she presents to church groups, civic clubs and senior citizens groups. (If she is speaking to church people, she ends by saying, "The King is dead, but we know The Real King still lives.") The talk is built around this serendipitous picture and the many places where she has seen it. She exhibits the desk and chair at which Elvis sat, which her mother passed down to her, and she displays all the books and magazines that she owns in which the picture appeared. A Southern Baptist pastor's wife, my mother was never a fan of Elvis, nor rock or pop music (she once scowled at me when I said I had attended a Bruce Springsteen concert, "Ooh, Jerry, he gyrates!"), but she has a theatrical flair about her.

She had always told her audiences this was a picture of Elvis signing with Sun Records. A good friend of hers, in fact, was convinced that Mom could finance her retirement by selling a package including the desk and chair, her portrait on the wall and a set of negatives of heretofore unpublished pictures taken by Papa Lou of Elvis at a Memphis March of Dimes fundraiser (in 1954, Phillips guessed). Perhaps an Elvis enthusiast with excess money would want to recreate the contract-signing scene in his or her home? This friend had exclaimed, "This is the desk where Elvis signed his very first contract! It's worth a quarter of a million dollars." I had been skeptical of that appraisal, but I did wonder how this new information might devalue the package.

Phillips not only allowed me those 30 minutes. And when I told him my mother would like to show him the March of Dimes pictures (which I did not have with me), he said she could arrange a visit as well. Several months later, my mom drove from Jackson, Miss., to Memphis and had her own session with one of the early fathers of rock 'n' roll. (Another segment of "Elvis and Me" was born.)

At the end of our talk, Phillips walked to a small office around the bend of the U, where he photocopied all the materials I brought. "I'd like to keep this," he said. "Man, this is great. I'm getting as big a kick out of this as you are."

Before I left, he allowed Wilburn to take pictures of him and me in the living room in front of a brass sunburst wall decoration.

She took one picture, then he said, "Let's take another one with our sunglasses on. I think it looks kinda cool."

music@creativeloafing.com

Jerry Gentry is the author of Grady Baby: A Year in the Life of Atlanta's Grady Hospital and is writing a biography of former Georgia Tech and Green Bay Packers football star Eddie Lee Ivery.

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