There have been thousands of articles and books written on Elvis Presley over the last fifty years.  Chronicles have provided avid Elvis fans with details of even his most minor performances.  Lists have been published by Elvis enthusiasts, biographers, and historians purportedly noting every Elvis appearance from 1954 until hi death.
    Although Elvis’ appearances in Stephenville and De Leon have been listed in several publications, you the reader of the inaugural issue of The Messenger are about to become the first to learn of a unique and special Elvis appearance, the details of which have never been in print before.  You will also learn of another appearance that has never before been located by Elvis researchers.  Every detail has been confirmed by Elvis’ best friend and by the promoter of the shows.  The fact that the lost appearance has never before been noted has been been confirmed by an individual who may have assembled the most extensive list of Elvis performances ever published.
     Of the estimated 5,000 people who were at Hodges Park on July 4, 1955, virtually none were satisfied with the performance given by Elvis Presley, least of all Elvis himself.  That appearance was unlike any professional performance Elvis had ever given and he swore he would never do it again.  He never did.  It was also a day in which Elvis performed three times in Central Texas.
    For W.B. Nowlin, that Independence Day marked the eighth time he had held the Battle of Songs in De Leon.  The first event took place in J. Doss Miller’s pasture just west of the present football field.  The year was 1948 and Eddie Arnold was the featured attraction.  The next year the Battle was moved to Hodges Park just east of De Leon.  The show was held at the park annually through 1961 although Nowlin continued a series of shows under the name Battle of Songs through 1973.  Over the years, the Battle of Songs was held in forty-four states and 179 cities.  De Leonians usually referred to the show as the Fourth of July Picnic.
      Elvis biographers and historians have been unsure of exactly where Elvis performed on July 4, 1955.  To date (July 1994) none have been correct in their reporting.  Lee Cotten in his book, Elvis, Day by Day, states, “...Some confusion surrounds the location of this show.  One source lists De Leon, Texas as the play date.  De Leon is only twenty-five miles from Stephenville and apparently was erroneously listed in the pre-show publicity.  Stephenville was mentioned in an article after that date.  However, it is also possible that this was another round-robin with performances simultaneously in both towns.”  Cotten’s confusion is justified but he was right, it was a round-robin performance.
     On several occasions over the previous seven years, rain had threatened, but never actually interfered with the Picnic.  Previously, Nowlin had secured the De Leon City Hall Auditorium as an alternative location in case of rain but in 1955 he decided to hold two performances as a hedge against the weather.  One performance would be at Hodges Park while another would be held simultaneously at the Stephenville Recreation Center.
    Nowlin advertised the event in area newspapers using a photograph of the Statesmen Quartet.  In the ad it noted that in case of rain, only the performance in Stephenville would take place.  A third show, unrelated to De Leon and Stephenville would be held that night regardless of the weather.
     There was good reason for believing rain would be a threat.  Throughout the first three weeks of June, De Leon was plagued by capricious weather.  Tornadic winds from one storm uprooted trees throughout the town and knocked down many of the television antennas which in those days rose above nearly every home.  Repeatedly, heavy rains had soaked the area.  Just over a week before the performance a particularly dark and ominous cloud had moved over De Leon.  It was such a bad looking cloud that as the sky cleared, people from Dublin and Gorman rushed to De Leon  fearing the town had blown away.  Luckily, it had not been as bad as the earlier storm.
    Following the latter storm, and about a week before the Fourth, R.W. Blackwood Jr. published a notice in area newspapers that the De Leon performance had been cancelled and only the Stephenville performance would be held.  This resulted in much of the confusion.  Contrary to the announcement, the weather eased and the show at Hodges Park was held.  In fact, for De Leon in July, the weather even turned relatively cool.
    Given good weather, the Deep South Quartet, the Stamps and Ozark Stamps Quartets, and the Farren Twins led off the De Leon show.  They would then moved to Stephenville and performed at the Recreation Hall.  In Stephenville the early performance included the Statesmen, the Blackwood Brothers, R.W. Blackwood Jr., Elvis and Slim Willet.  They then came to De Leon for the second half of the show.  As it turned out, the 1955 show was impacted much more by events relating to the 1954 Battle of Songs, than by the 1955 weather.
     A year earlier, in the tradition that the show must go on, the Battle of Songs was short two advertised acts.  The Statesmen Quartet developed car trouble and did not reach De Leon in time to appear.  Also scheduled were the Blackwood Brothers Quartet which in mid June had won first place on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts television show.  Their new song, “The Man Upstairs” was sweeping the nation.  On June 30, 1954, only four days before the scheduled appearance in De Leon, the quartet was in Clanton, Alabama, where they were to entertain at the Clanton Peach Festival.  They arrived in their twin engine Beechcraft airplane that had been acquired four years earlier to facilitate return trips to their home in Memphis.
   After landing in Clanton with no problems, the pilot, R.W. Blackwood Sr. noticed that the airfield had a rise in the runway and that trees encircled most of the field.  Since the group was to depart Clanton after dark, R.W. decided he had better make a couple of practice takeoffs during the afternoon.  Bill Lyles, the quartet’s bass singer and Johnny Ogden the son of the concert promoter who had just completed service in the Air Force, decide to accompany him.
    The practice take off went smoothly.  As the plane came in for the landing, it hit the hump and rose into the air.  Blackwood allowed the plane to climb and circled the town before coming in for a second attempt.  On that try, the plane was again thrown into the air but at such a steep angle that it stalled.  As the plane headed nose first toward the ground, it regained power and momentarily it appeared that Blackwood would be able to pull it out of the dive.  He was unsuccessful and the plane crashed killing all on board.
    James Blackwood reorganized the quartet bringing in Cecil Blackwood and J.D. Sumner.  Cecil Blackwood was perhaps Elvis’ closest friend and J.D. Sumner would accompany Elvis later in his career.
    The 1955 Battle of Songs kicked off in De Leon promptly at 10:00 a.m. with De Leon’s Jimmy Duncan serving as Master of Ceremonies.  Nowlin handled the De Leon show.  His son-in-law, Raymond Carter handled the Stephenville show and Nowlin’s brother O.J. handled the final show.
    It is sometimes hard to separate the truth about the day’s events from the recently recalled memories of those attending.  People remember that Elvis was late and that W.B. Nowlin told him “that if he was ever going to make it, he better never be late again.”  One individual said Mrs. Clyde Hodges would not let anyone eat until Elvis performed.  Others remember that his band was late.  Still others remember his arrival in his pink Cadillac.  Actually, little or none of this is true but most have some basis in what did happen.
   At the morning show in Stephenville, Elvis sang several of his more popular songs including “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”  He visited with some of the teenage girls (Elvis was only 19 himself) and then headed for De Leon.
    Elvis arrived at Hodges Park in his new white (not pink) Cadillac along with his parents and his two guitar men, Scotty Moore and Bill Black.  While they waited to perform, the group gathered in the Blackwood’s new air conditioned bus, away from the crowd.
   When the second part of the show began, the Statesmen Quartet led off.  Early in the performance, a slightly inebriated member of the audience gave the quartet a loud “amen.”  Hovie Lester, the piano player heard the “amen” and not knowing exactly where it came from quickly began a friendly banter with the audience.  Soon the Statesmen had the crowd completely involved and participating in their performance.
    From the spirited fun of the Statesmen, the show turned somber.  The Blackwoods had prepared a special tribute to the deceased members of the quartet who were to have appeared in De Leon a year earlier.  R.W. Blackwood Jr. who was not a member of the quartet, joined the group for this special memorial.
     The reorganized Blackwood Brothers Quartet included James Blackwood (lead), Cecil Blackwood (baritone), Bill Shaw (tenor), Jackie Marshall (piano) and J.D. Sumner (bass).
    Taking the stage dressed in white suits, the Blackwoods began the memorial as James related the story of how they were to have performed in De Leon as the next stop after Clayton.  The audience in contrast to the friendly exchange with the Statesmen sat in silence as he told of the attempted landing, the crash and ensuing fire; and of the funeral service at which Governor Clement of Tennessee gave the eulogy and the Statesmen and the Speer Family sang.
     R.W. Blackwood Jr. then sang several of the songs that were his father’s favorites.  The quartet followed with songs that the deceased members had loved over the years including “Key to the Kingdom,” “Someone to Care,” “He Bought My Soul at Calvary,” and “I Want to be More Like Jesus.”  By then many in the audience were near tears.
      One of those near tears was Elvis Presley.  He had been friends with, and a classmate of Cecil Blackwood since the age of 15.  Through high school they often ran around together, either in Elvis’ 1941 Studebaker or in Cecil’s 41 Lincoln.  They had performed gospel music together in many of the churches in Memphis along with another soon to be star, Mehalia Jackson.
     Cecil showed up at Elvis’ home two weeks after the plane crash to tell Elvis that he was going to join the Blackwoods and that Elvis could have his spot with the Songfellows.  Initially, Elvis replaced Cecil but left them when Bill Hammil tried to force him to cut his sideburns.  He then joined the Louisiana Hayride where became well known throughout the south, and especially in Texas.
     As Elvis listened backstage to the Blackwoods, he came over to Nowlin and told him that he “could not do what the young people had come to see.”  He felt that following the intensity of the Blackwoods, the audience would not be in the mood for his type of music and that in any event he couldn’t perform that kind of music right then.  He asked that he be allowed to perform gospel.
     Nowlin, who had paid Elvis $500 for his three appearances realized that he could not perform the rock and roll type show and gave him permission to do whatever he wanted.
     Elvis then gave a moving performance with consisted entirely of gospel music, including “the Old Wooden Cross”  Precious Memories, “Known Only to Him,” and “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”
   He came off the stage realizing that he had disappointed all the teenagers who had come to hear his “rock-a-billy” music.  But he had just given the only performance of his professional career that consisted exclusively of gospel music.  He swore he would never again follow a gospel group, nor would he ever do another gospel show.  That decision was reinforced only a few weeks later when Col. Tom Parker became Elvis’ manager and guided him to fame as the king of rock and roll. Few, if any, of the teenagers at the show ever realized that they and the 5,000 others who had paid a dollar to get into Hodges Park, had just witnessed what no other Elvis audience in the world would ever see or hear.
    There was a band that had failed to show.  It was that of Slim Willet.  Slim was really Winston Lee Moore, a native of the Victor area and the nephew of O.H. Moore the Justice of the Peace in De Leon.  His family had moved to Clyde in 1935 but at that time was he was living in Abilene where he worked for a radio station.
     Slim was to close the show with some of the many songs he had written.  His most famous, “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes” had risen to the number one song in the nation in 1952.  Without his band, Elvis’ guitar men tried to back him up but he soon had to stop them as they were playing in a different key.   He continued on his own with only his guitar for accompaniment.  He too felt the he had let the crowd down.  But the crowd considered Slim a “local boy” and enjoyed his performance as much or more than they had Elvis.
     At 8:00 p.m. Elvis his two guitar men, the Farren Twins and Slim Willet made the final appearance of the day in Brownwood without any gospel groups. Nowlin and the Brownwood Volunteer Fire Department sponsored the program at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall.  The Brownwood show has never previously been recorded in print as a play date for Elvis buffs.
     Elvis returned to Brownwood for a second time on October 10, 1955, appearing again at Memorial Hall and the show was again sponsored by the V.F.D.  Also appearing with Elvis were Jimmie Newman, Johnny Cash, Floyd Cramer, Jimmie Day and Wanda Jackson, all of the Louisiana Hayride.  Bobby Lord and Porter Wagoner of the Ozark Jubilee were also in the show.
    Few people in De Leon noticed a stranger who spent a few days visiting with the Nowlin’s on several occasions.  He was a heavy set man who moved slowly and somewhat cautiously.  He attended the Peach & Melon Festival and was on the streets of De Leon as he visited Nowlin’s office, then located in the Travelers Hotel.  For a man who was unable to maintain privacy, he was able to move freely in De Leon, a place where no one seemed to recognize him.  The man was Col. Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager.  He had been friends with Nowlin since the first Battle of Songs, held in 1948.  At that time he was managing Eddie Arnold.
    While in De Leon, he spent a lot of time on the telephone.  He negotiated Elvis’ movie contract with Paramount Studios from the Nowlin home and office.
     Several years later Parker was talking with Nowlin about Elvis.  He asked who Nowlin thought might be a good group to replace the Jordanaires as Elvis’ backup.  Nowlin suggested J.D. Sumner and Stamps Quartet.  The rest is history for they indeed became the replacements.
     After visiting with Mr. Nowlin, I was able to meet with Cecil Blackwood.  I asked him if I could talk with ham about an appearance he made with Elvis for W.B. Nowlin.  He immediately responded: “Yes, that was in De Leon, in a field with a bunch of trees, right?”  I was taken aback by his instant memory of an event that had occurred thirty-seven years earlier.  He said it was because it was the only time that he and Elvis had worked professionally together, although they had sung together hundreds of times around Memphis; it was the first time that he (Cecil) had performed on an outdoor stage with Blackwood Brothers; and he remembered vividly, the dedication of the performance to the Blackwood Brothers killed the previous year.  Cecil differed in only one detail of he day’s events from Nowlin.  He said he did not remember Elvis’ mother being at the park.  He remembered that everyone sat in the bus where the Blackwods took a lot of kidding from the Statesmen about the “cool accommodations” but he could not recall Mrs. Presley being there, although she could have been enjoying the show with the crowd.  If indeed his parents did attend the show(s) it was one of the few times that that they saw a show outside of the immediate Memphis area.
   The Blackwoods sang at both Mrs. Presley’s and Elvis’ funerals. James Blackwood was the last person to touch Elvis.  And, although I did not ask, Cecil assured me that Elvis is indeed dead.
     At the time this article was written a series of Bringin’ It Back magazines were being published by Peter Schittler in Wren, Austria.  Mr. Schittler had compiled the most complete list of Elvis appearances ever published to that time. This story was included in The March 1995 issue.
     Information was provided by W.B. Nowlin, Cecil Blackwood, Scotty Carter, Jack Hasty, Bonnie and Dale Singleton, and Patsy Stephenson Barton.   Moore_O.H..htmlshapeimage_2_link_0



This article which originally appeared in July 1994 issue of The Messenger was written by Phil Tate

Left: Elvis at Hodges Park, De Leon, Texas, July 4, 1955

Above:  Cecil Blackwood of the Blackwood Brothers Quartet, 9 time Grammy Award winners.

   Evangelist Roy Blackwood, Cecil’s father organized the Blackwood Brothers Quartet in 1934.  Cecil joined the group following the death of his older brother R.W. Blackwood in 1954. 

    Cecil organized the teenage gospel group called the Songfellows in the early 50’s and was replaced in that group by Elvis.

  The Blackwood Brothers organized the National Quartet Convention in 1956 and later the Gospel Music Association.

  W.B. Nowlin served on the De Leon School Board and three terms as mayor.

  He began the annual Battle of Songs in 1948.  He was elected to the Gospel Music Association’s Hall of Fame in 1985.

   Nowlin died in Fort Worth at the age of 89.

A photo of Elvis and Slim Willet probably taken in 1954 during Elvis’ first visit to Abilene.  The Abilene Reporter-News’ photographer’s aim was a little off.

Click on the magazine to see the full text in German.

Click on the Elvis drawing to see more of Charles Chupp’s drawings.

Elvis Presley

Hodges Park

De Leon Texas

July 4, 1955

Stephenville Texas

Brownwood Texas

Blackwood Brothers

Gospel Music

W.B. Nowlin

Slim Willet

Winston Lee Moore