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Kentucky by Heart: Looking back at ‘The King of Rock and Roll’ Elvis Presley and his Ky. connections

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

Elvis Presley is, of course, one of the most recognizable names in the history of entertainment. Growing up in Kentucky, I noticed those around me often spoke of Elvis as if he was one of our state’s own celebrities. Now at the recent 45th anniversary of his 1977 death, I wondered what real-life connections he, in fact, did have with the Bluegrass State.

I figured the thought deserved some research, and what I found I’ll offer to my readers.

Barbara Tate’s Elvis-themed quilt (Photo courtesy Ralph Tate)

To start, I was pleasantly surprised to find Mila Raque’s article in Louisville Today talking about the crooner’s connection to the city. She reported that he performed three times in Louisville, once at the Jefferson County Armory in November 1956, and twice at Freedom Hall, at the Kentucky Exposition Center, in June 1974, and May 1977, about three months before his death.

Note: According to songkick.com, he performed at Freedom Hall on July 5 in 1976 but not in 1974. However, my wife claims she attended the Elvis concert in 1974, and I’ve never known her to be wrong about anything (much, anyway). The website also shows the popular heartthrob was in concert at the Rialto Theater, in Louisville, in December 1955.

Interestingly, though not related to Kentucky, I found that Elvis’s very earliest performances were often at high schools, and one was even at an elementary school.

An obvious state connection is a couple of Elvis’s songs, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” (written by Bill Monroe and the official bluegrass music song of Kentucky), along with “Kentucky Rain” (written by Eddie Rabbit).

Raque also shared some Elvis-related names of various local restaurant food choices around Louisville, including The Presley (peanut butter, banana, etc.), The Fat Elvis (milkshake with peanut butter and banana flavors), and The Elvis Sundae, and The Elvis Waffle.

Another Elvis tidbit mentioned in the article was about his grandfather Jesse Presley, who was a Mississippi resident. Jesse moved to Louisville in 1943 where he remained the rest of his life. He and his wife Vera (whom Jessie married after divorcing Elvis’s grandmother) are buried at Louisville Memorial Gardens. I also found a YouTube series called The Spa Guy that shows a documentary about Jesse, along with other Elvis connections to Kentucky.

For a celebratory Elvis entertainment event in our state, one might be interested in 2023’s “Elvis and Legends Fest Kentucky,” to be held July 20-22 at the Paroquet Springs Conference Center in Shepherdsville, Kentucky. The gathering will feature an assortment of entertainers playing tribute to Elvis and other musical legends.

And, I must make mention of Jonathan Rader, a former student of mine, now a teenager, from Jessamine County. He has become quite a “mover and shaker” by portraying Elvis. You can find out about him by visiting his web site at www.jonathanwilsonrader.com.

Gloria Strassner’s tickets to the Rupp Arena concert that never happened (Photo courtesy Susan Gall)

And then, what about that Elvis concert that DIDN’T happen? He was scheduled to appear at Rupp Arena, in Lexington, on the night of August 23, 1977. But to the heartsick dismay of legions of his fans, he died one week before the date, on August 16th. An example of an “all shook up” person is Gloria Strassner, who had tickets for the concert. She now resides in Largo, Florida, but then lived in Lexington. “I was terribly disappointed,” said Gloria, “as I was a huge fan of Elvis and that is why I always kept these tickets. It was the closest I ever got to seeing him in person.”

Barbara Tate, recently deceased, also had tickets for the Rupp concert. When she and her husband, Ralph, moved to Port Richey, Florida, she got busy making an “Elvis quilt” in tribute to The King. The quilt became a hit as it was shown around. It won several quilting show ribbons and has been viewed by over 100,000 fans all over the southern U.S., always drawing enormous reviews and praise. Barbara made sure that others knew she had tickets for the Rupp show by creating facsimiles of them on the lower right-hand corner of her quilt.

Seems like a “pattern” of Kentucky and Elvis togetherness, doesn’t it? This likely only skims the surface. Hope you’ll email me YOUR connections to the icon… sflairty2001@yahoo.com.

Sources: youtube (The Spa Guy, Grandfather Jesse Presley); Louisville Today, Aug. 2022; etafestivals.com/kentucky; Paraquet Springs Conference Center, Shepherdsville (interview with manager); interview with Susan Gall

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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  1. Ralph B Tate says:

    Thanks for using the article that I sent and for giving my departed wife credit for the construction of the quilt.
    Ralph B Tate

  2. Steve Flairty says:

    Honored, Ralph. She must have been very talented. All the best to you.

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