When Elvis Came to Lincoln in 1956
By Nick Furgason
Today he is remembered as The King Of Rock and Roll. But in May of 1956, Elvis Presley had a very different nickname to promote his upcoming show in Lincoln, Nebraska, and others across the country.
Dubbed “The Nation’s Only Atomic Powered Singer,” teenagers across Lincoln were going wild with anticipation over Elvis’ upcoming show at the University of Nebraska Coliseum. The Journal Star reported “3,000 Teen-Age Fans Scream for Presley” the day after his May 19th concert. For these 3,000 screaming teenagers, it would be over 20 years before Elvis would come back to Lincoln again. Anyone who had the opportunity to see both would’ve symbolically seen Elvis at the very beginning and very end of his career.
Elvis grew up loving the music he heard on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, and in the local black churches. He studied it in a way that a lot of white people at the time would not have, and that comes out through the passion in his voice and in the way he moved. Elvis was hardly the first one playing rock and roll, and he drew heavy inspiration from black artists such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Big Joe Turner, and many others. Even though there were already people making rock and roll, the way Elvis blended Tennessee blues, country, and black gospel with a soulful voice and passionate energy was truly original. He, like all great artists, took inspiration from his surroundings and made it his own. But, for some Elvis represents the cultural crime against the black community and is seen as another “white hero” the world is told to love. Others see Elvis as someone who brought black and white music together at a time when it was legal to separate people based on their race. Fellow musicians James Brown and Little Richard both praised Elvis and what he did for their mutual genre, with Richard once saying, “I thank the Lord for sending Elvis to open that door so I could walk down the road, you understand?”
By the time Elvis arrived at the University of Nebraska Coliseum in May 1956, he was in the middle of a meteoric rise to super-stardom. In the first half of the year, Elvis made his first recordings in Nashville for his new label (RCA Victor), released his self-titled debut album, and made his first appearance on a major network radio program on NBC’s Milton Berle Show. Even in his early days, Elvis already had a fanatic effect on his fans and a knack for creating polarizing discussions surrounding himself. Nebraskans debated the merits and morality of the shows for days after his shows in both Lincoln and Omaha. A big part of it was Elvis’s “gyrations” and their effect upon young women. Omaha police even reported having to stop one young woman who tried to take her clothes off during the show. A World-Herald opinion writer said in a letter published a few days after the shows, “What’s happened to our teenagers? Are their morals and standards so low that they have to watch this Elvis Presley perform his downright immoral and filthy actions?”
Another issue, not dealt with as openly in Nebraska media, was the music’s racial roots. Whatever the performer’s race, “rock-n-roll” was rooted in black rhythm and blues and people opposed it crossing over to white audiences. On the same day as Elvis’s Omaha performance, members of the White Citizens Council in Birmingham, Alabama, picketed a mixed-race rock-n-roll show headlined by Bill Haley and the Comets. The World-Herald reported the news on page one, right below its report of Elvis’s Omaha show.
It would be 21 years before Elvis came back to perform live in Lincoln. While he made another Nebraska stop with an Omaha concert in 1974, in 1977 Elvis was on tour filming a new TV Special for CBS: Elvis in Concert. This tour included back-to-back Nebraska shows in Omaha and Lincoln on June 19 and 20, respectively. The plan for the TV special was to film the Omaha show and the show in Rapid City, South Dakota, two days later, and use the best footage from the two shows. Even though the Lincoln performance wasn’t filmed, it was the same setlist, with the notable addition of one of the first live performances of his rendition of “Unchained Melody.”
The Elvis that came back to Nebraska in 1977, was much different than the one who had come decades earlier. With a progressing issue with prescription drugs and poor dietary habits, Elvis was depressed, and two months away from his death on August 16, 1977.
His Omaha show on June 19th is considered to be the worst show of the whole tour with spectators stating Elvis sounded very drowsy and couldn’t speak well. He still managed to perform some of his songs fantastically, but most considered Elvis’ Lincoln show on the 20th to be far better. Performing in Lincoln’s Pershing Municipal Auditorium in front of a small crowd of 7,500, Elvis was much more pulled together. Due to his performance problems in Omaha, most of the footage seen in Elvis in Concert is from his June 21st show in Rapid City. This concert featured what many consider to be Elvis’ last great performance moment, with a powerful and moving rendition of “Unchained Melody.” One last time, Elvis showed his fans in Nebraska why he was The King.