“I’d like to say thanks for all the spins, Charlie, you’ve been givin’ me. And you really been a friend to me, and I want you to know I really appreciate it, and I’ll be lookin’ forward to comin’ back and visitin’ you.” — Elvis Presley in an interview with DJ Charlie Walker of KMAC radio in San Antonio on April 15, 1956
From the very beginning of his career, Elvis Presley recognized the importance of radio station disc jockeys in bringing his music to the public and building his popularity. While touring the country in the fifties, he often took the time to grant DJs interviews and thank them for playing his records. Some of them played significant roles in his rise to fame—Dewey Phillips in Memphis, Bill Randle in Cleveland, and Red Robinson in Vancouver B.C., to name a few. But there were hundreds of other DJs in the fifties who defiantly played his records at a time when others were trying to get them banned from the air.
Among those rebels of the airwaves was Bob Hough, who spun records on KNEW, Spokane, Washington’s first rock ’n’ roll radio station. Bob died this past March 12 in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, at the age of 89. Seeing his obituary in the newspaper brought to mind the pleasant afternoon I spent with Bob in his living room back in July 2003. He had retired from radio work, and I was soon to do the same from classroom teaching. Thinking that freelance writing might be a fun second career, I had contacted the Spokesman-Review about writing an article on Elvis’s 1957 appearance in Spokane. Someone mentioned that “Bubblehead Bob,” a DJ I’d often listened to during my teenage years, and who had met Elvis back in 1957, was still living in the area. I rang him up and Bob graciously invited me over to talk about Elvis and early rock ’n’ roll.
Bob was 27 in 1955 when he took over the midnight to 6 a.m. shift at KNEW. Most radiomen of Bob’s age resisted rock ’n’ roll. “The manager of KREM, our rival station, said, ‘Oh, it’s just a fad; it’ll last six months,” Bob remembered, “but all of us at KNEW thought that it was the greatest. I mean, it was manna from heaven. Man, we thought it was the greatest. We could do no wrong.”
Among the early rock ’n’ roll stars Bob and his fellow KNEW DJs helped bring to Spokane were Fats Domino, Ritchie Valens, and Jerry Lee Lewis. But it was Elvis Presley I wanted to hear about, and Bob’s eyes lit up when I asked about him. “The new owner of KNEW imported Bob Salter from KJR in Seattle to run the station, and he was the one who set up the whole thing with Elvis. It was his promotion all the way.” Hough recalled KNEW running promotions and giving away tickets prior to Elvis’s scheduled appearance on Friday, August 30, 1957.
Elvis had arrived in Spokane by train late the night before his show and checked into the Ridpath Hotel. The next day he remained ensconced in his room until about 7:30 in the evening, when a police escort led him out to Memorial Stadium in the Northwest corner of the city.
• August 29, 1957 … Elvis Presley is in town!
Throughout the day of the show, the KNEW DJ on air played Presley records, along with other rock ’n’ roll platters. According to Bob Hough, while one rhythm and blues number was playing, someone called in wanting to know the record’s title, who was singing it, and the label it was on. The DJ finally asked, “Who is this?” The response came, “This is Elvis Presley.”
Later in the afternoon, callers to the station started reporting that Elvis was driving around the city sitting in the back of a convertible. “Some people said it was an imposter,” Bob noted, “but we didn’t know. That’s just what we heard was going on.” (A newspaper columnist later confirmed that it was an imposter.)
Colonel Parker notified the station that Elvis would hold a press conference in the football dressing room at Memorial Stadium prior to his show there that evening. Four of the five “Bobs” working as DJs at KNEW—Bob Salter, Bob Hough, Bob Adkins, and Bob Fleming—were at the press conference. (Bob Carmichael was working his shift on air that night.)
In Bob Hough’s living room that summer afternoon in 2003, I learned for the first time about the press conferences Elvis held before his concerts in 1957. (The idea of writing a book about all his tours that year didn’t come to me until a couple of years later.)
• Press Conference … “It was like a freak show”
Bob remembered the eerie atmosphere in the Memorial Stadium dressing room:
“The place was just jammed with media people. All these young investigative reporters were there. It was like a freak show. Everyone’s still wearing sidewalls for haircuts. But then this guy comes in and he’s got the black, greasy hair. And he’s got this medallion hanging down on his bare chest. The feeling was like, ‘Wait a minute … where are we? This guy’s a space case.’”
All of the KNEW DJs had dealt with entertainment celebrities before, but even they felt out of place in Presley’s presence. “We were there standing right next to him,” Bob recalled. “But you’ve gotta remember that we were still beginners in the rock ’n’ roll thing. We didn’t know what we were doing. It was powerful, the reaction he got.”
Once the press conference questioning started, Bob sat back and enjoyed the show:
“Most of the questions were dumb. They had no relevance. I mean, this guy’s a rock star. They tried to put the heat on him, but he just sloughed it off. He had his head screwed on right. He answered all the questions without getting uptight. Some of the reporters were just itching to get something controversial going, but it didn’t go. It was so funny. I loved it.”
After the questions ended, Elvis posed for pictures with fan club officers, high school journalists, contest winners, and anyone else who was interested. The four KNEW “Bobs” come forward for a group shot, a framed copy of which hung on the wall in Bob Hough’s living room as we talked in 2003.
(Below: Bob Hough, Bob Salter, Bob Adkins, Elvis, Bob Fleming)
• Elvis … “he was singing right to me”
Following the press conference, Elvis climbed into the back of an open convertible, which drove him down a ramp to a stage facing east on the football field’s 50-yard line. Bob and the other DJs watched the show from “about 30 to 40 yards away.”
“Elvis would sing a song. Then he’d go over to the piano and sing Fats Domino’s ‘Blueberry Hill.’ I recall thinking that he sang like he was singing right to me. He was spontaneous. He did a lot of funny things, like he might make some remark, and people would get a kick out of it.”
Bob retained vivid memories of how Elvis ended his show that evening and its aftermath. In 1967, on the tenth anniversary of Presley’s appearance in Spokane, “Bubblehead Bob” reminisced during his show on KNEW:
“‘Oh, yeah,’ I said, ‘we had this great time at Memorial Stadium when Elvis was there, and he did all this great stuff.’ And I said, ‘You know one of the neatest things I ever saw was when he got off the stage, went over to the running track, got down on his knees, and sang, ‘You ain’t nothing but a Hound Dog.’ And I said the thing that was exciting about it was seeing these high school girls vaulting this six-foot wall, coming down and scooping up dirt and putting it in their purses.’ Well, I got a call that day after telling the story, and the lady says, ‘I have my purse up in the closet in the back of the house with the dirt still in it.’”
• Bob Hough cherished his encounter with Elvis
Bob Hough continued his career on Spokane radio for many years after meeting Elvis in 1957. He later welcomed to the city other rock stars, including Chubby Checker and The Beach Boys. According to his obituary, he was the “go to” DJ for record hops throughout the Inland Empire surrounding Spokane. He helped put a country music station on the air in Spokane, helped introduce talk radio on the city’s FM dial, and was the announcer for the Spokane Indians baseball team.
Bob Hough was 30 years old when his life intersected with that of Elvis Presley for a few hours in 1957. He was 76 in 2003, when he told me of that episode, and yet he described it as if it had happened just yesterday. “It was powerful, the reaction he got,” he noted. The impression Elvis made on Bob that day was typical of the one Elvis left on many others, including fans, DJs, journalists, critics, and even impartial citizens, who had experienced in their lives a momentary encounter with Elvis Presley. (Alan Hanson © April 2016)
My next Elvis blog posting will be
Thursday, May 5, 2016
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