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Elvis Presley in 1955
Courtesy of Elvis Presley Music

Elvis' visit to Tallassee

By Michael Butler

Last week marked the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. It was also last week when I learned that the "King" made a pit stop in Tallassee.

No, this is not one of those - 'I saw Elvis at a truckstop' stories. This is a real account of an Elvis visit when he was breaking into the business, before he was the "King of Rock 'n' Roll."

WTLS signed on the airwaves on June 1, 1954 in Tallassee. In its 63 years of broadcasting, there have been thousands of visitors. Believe it or not, Elvis was one of them, so says John Culp.

"I was playing a Top 40 hit show on WTLS from 3:00 - 4:00 every afternoon," Culp recalled. "Somewhere in late 1955 or in '56, a guy drove up into the parking lot at WTLS and came into the studio. He held up a 45 RPM record, waved at me and asked if he could come into the control room. I let him in. When he came in, he stuck his hand out and said, 'Hi, I'm Elvis Presley. I record for the Sun label. Will you play this 45 RPM for me?' I looked at it, and the title of the song was "Mystery Train."

Culp in the 1950s

"We talked a little while. I had never heard of Elvis Presley and didn't know who he was. Not many people had at that time I guess. We had a few comments and shared a few stories. He went out and I put the song on. It hadn't quit playing when the phone started ringing and people asked, 'Who is that?' That was my brief encounter with Elvis Presley."

It may seem far-fetched that Elvis would have driven from town to town requesting that disc jockeys spin his record, but for small record labels distributing from door-to-door was common.

"I think he stopped at every radio station that he could get hold of," said Culp. "This was typical of budding young artists in those days."

Elvis went from relatively unknown to superstar status almost overnight.

"When RCA released "Heartbreak Hotel" it immediately hit the top of the charts," Culp added. "Of course I played it on my show. Every day the teenage girls would call in over and over asking for (it). I would tell them I had just played it. They said play it again.

"One day I got a little warm under the collar with all the calls coming in and played "Heartbreak Hotel" over and over for 30 minutes. (Ned Butler) found a pay phone and called me. He let me know pretty quick that if I didn't stop playing that song over and over that he would fire me. He got my attention, but the teenage girls kept calling."

Elvis had 16 No. 1 records on the Billboard Charts from 1956-'60.

"I never would've thought that," Culp noted. "I wish I had known (now) what I didn't know back then. I would've talked to him more. My impression of him was that he was a very nice young man. That stood out very clearly."

Culp today

After his radio days, Culp worked around the U.S. and overseas and always enjoyed telling of his chance meeting with Elvis.

"I often tell this story. Everyone that I tell the story to is amazed. 'You actually shook hands with Elvis Presley? What did you think about him? Do you still have that record?' I still get that."

Unfortunately, there is no trace of the record that was hand delivered to WTLS in its archives.

"A couple of years ago, I told the story to our Sunday School class," Culp continued. "I downloaded "Mystery Train" and played it to our class. Everyone said, 'That sounds like Elvis.' It was an early introduction to the style of music that he was going into."

Culp called those days, "The Golden Age of Radio." It was 60 years ago when he was just 24. He is now retired from the Tennessee Valley Authority and living in Florence, Ala.

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