Site of Elvis Presley's first public appearance before Sun Records discovery
Elvis Presley with KWEM Radio DJ Texas Bill Strength
Credits: Commercial Appeal Newspaper, Robert Dye Photographer
A historical marker is being erected at the site of the old Goodwin Institute Building (demolished in 1973) in Memphis, Tennessee to commemorate the site of the KWEM Radio Station Saturday Night Jamboree, the location of the first major public appearance by Elvis Presley before signing with Sun Records a year later. The details of the Elvis performance in the 900 seat arena were unknown to the public before being revealed by Larry Manuel, Rockabilly star and son of KWEM's Joe Manuel who launched the Jamboree in early 1953. Not only did the young Elvis make his first major appearance there, other unknown artists including Johnny Cash, Reggie Young, Barbara Pittman, Lloyd Arnold, Charlie Feathers, and Eddie Bond were regulars on the show. The KWEM Radio Station was located in West Memphis, Arkansas, just across the Mississippi River from Memphis and broadcast many of the shows.
The Jamboree was a family oriented country music show that ran from February of 1953 to December of 1954 and was broadcast on KWEM Radio, one of only 7 radio stations in Memphis at the time. The format was much like that of the Grand Ole Opry but the Jamboree, fronted by popular Memphis radio personality, Joe Manuel, allowed and encouraged amateur country music singers and musicians to take the stage and perform for packed houses every Saturday night. Elvis Presley's first official "public appearance" and probably first radio broadcast (as an adult) happened at the Jamboree just months before making his historic recording of " That's Alright Mama " at fabled Sun Records.
Other unknown artists appearing at the Jamboree included future Sun Recording artists Johnny Cash and Barbara Pittman. Also appearing were other unknown artists including Bud Deckleman, Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, Reggie Young, Tommy Smith, Harmonica Frank Floyd, Lloyd Arnold, Kenneth Herman, Eddie Bond, John Hughey, Marcus Van Story, and many others. The Jamboree, according to the Bob Trimmers of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, may be the first location where a new music that would become known as Rockabilly was performed.
The Jamboree was so successful that it was extended to Friday Night for auditions to perform in one of the Saturday Night shows. Veta Arnold, niece of Lloyd Arnold, whose band was featured each week, recalls seeing Elvis for the first time standing in the shadows wearing a shockingly "Pink" sportscoat. The Jamboree was forced to close in November of 1954 when the Goodwin Institute decided to renovate the facility, but not before the fabulous history of a new music was created.
The historical marker will be erected in early 2012 at a ceremony with many of the notables of early Rockabilly and Memphis music in attendance. More information may be obtained by contacting the State of Tennessee Historical Commission.