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Flashback Friday: Elvis Presley performed in Twin Cities for first time with back-to-back shows in 1956

Elvis Presley signs autographs for fans on May 13, 1956, at the Minneapolis Auditorium. Photo: Star Tribune/file. Elvis Presley signs autographs for fans on May 13, 1956, at the Minneapolis Auditorium.

Kyle Brown
Updated: May 16, 2020 04:46 PM
Created: May 13, 2020 01:12 PM

Elvis Presley was 21 years old when he played two shows in each of the Twin Cities on a rainy Mother's Day May 13, 1956. He was just starting his music career, but expectations were high for the Memphis rocker's first concerts in Minnesota.

The "King of Rock 'n' Roll" kicked off the day with a 3 p.m. matinee at the St. Paul Auditorium — now the Roy Wilkins Auditorium. He would cross the Mississippi River for an evening show at 8 p.m. at the Minneapolis Auditorium, which has since been demolished. Tickets sold for $1.50, $2 and $2.50, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.

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The promoter who organized the two-show extravaganza, T.B. Skarning, paid an arm and a leg up front to get Presley up to the Twin Cities. He was expecting upwards of 25,000 attendees between the two venues, according to Rick Shefchik, longtime Minnesota journalist and author of "Everybody's Heard about the Bird: The True Story of 1960s Rock 'n' Roll in Minnesota."

There was plenty of reason to believe the gamble would pay off.

Presley was riding the success of his self-titled debut album, which he recorded earlier that year with RCA Victor records. It was the first rock album to top the Billboard pop album charts, and it featured career-defining hits, such as "Heartbreak Hotel" and a cover of Carl Perkins's "Blue Suede Shoes."

In the week leading up to the concert, "Minneapolis Tribune" columnist Will Jones gave readers a picture of the shows that would soon come to the Twin Cities. He quoted a Las Vegas publication that called Presley's shows "carnage" and "bedlam" and described his fans as a "shouting, idolatrous mob."

According to an account from the Tribune, fans started lining up outside the Minneapolis Auditorium at 6 a.m. the day of the concert. The hype was there, but the numbers, well, weren't.

Alas, as Shefchik wrote, Skarning "lost his shirt." Perhaps many of Elvis's young fans were kept home to stay with their families on Mother's Day or rain showers deterred would-be concertgoers. For whatever reason, the two concerts only scraped together roughly 6,000 attendees.

Jones's review of the St. Paul show ran in the Tribune the next morning. He described a "sea of empty seats" in the St. Paul Auditorium, where an estimated 3,000 people showed up. About the same amount of people were in attendance in Minneapolis that night.

Those who did show up didn't seem to care; "Elvis the Pelvis" dazzled all the same. Jones dubbed the St. Paul concert "an orgy of squeals."

"He vibrated his hips so much, and the 3,000 customers squealed so insistently at the vibrations, it was impossible to hear him sing," Jones wrote.

Elvis's penchant for hip-shaking wasn't popular with everyone, however. Entertainment columnist Bill Diehl's "Open Letter to Elvis Presley" appeared in the St. Paul Dispatch in the week after the concerts. He called the routine "low."

"On stage, Elvis, you were nothing but a male burlesque dancer," Diehl wrote. "Your gyrations were straight from strip-tease alley. Happily, you did leave your clothes on."

There was more to Presley's performance than hip gyrations. Jones wrote about how he would strum a few opening notes on his guitar, step up to the microphone stand and sing nothing. After drawing out a couple rounds of screams, he would then jump into the song.

Elvis swaggered, swayed and sweated himself halfway to exhaustion by the end of the concert — and he still had one more to go.

"He ended up limp and sweating and loped off the stage half-staggering," Jones wrote.

If anything about the show itself didn't live up to expectations, it was Presley's attire.

"Presley wore a Kelly green jacket, tight blue trousers, and, disappointingly, black leather shoes," Jones lamented.

The columnist was able to confirm with a fan that somewhere in the noise Elvis did at least sing "Blue Suede Shoes."

Just as earlier accounts had warned, a mob swarmed Presley as he made his way out the venue, but a police escort guided him safely to a waiting car.

Presley wouldn't return to the Twin Cities for another 15 years — Nov. 5, 1971, at the Met Center in Bloomington, according to Twin Cities Music Highlights. He played his last show in Minnesota on April 30, 1977, at the St. Paul Civic Center.


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