Presley’s Christmas Blues
Washing dishes was dirty work.
Even as John Fogerty sang of having “cleaned a lot of plates in Memphis” from the diner’s jukebox, there was nothing grand about loading and unloading the Hobart for eight hours. But the time laboring at that small diner in Forest Park, Georgia, a suburb just south of Atlanta, provided a few lessons in life that a church-going 16-year-old boy may not have absorbed otherwise. And besides, the food, most of it pretty good, was free. A waitress would serve it up as she would for any customer. She knew that before the first dish could be washed, the bus boy got his breakfast. What was it Tom Waits said? “Hash browns, hash browns, you know I can’t be late.”
Forest Park was no garden suburb, not even in the ’60s or early ’70s, when life there was quieter, with less asphalt, fewer strip centers and no golden arches. That was before Atlanta, determined to gain recognition as an international city, expanded its airport, located just west of Forest Park. The airport, now named Hartsfield-Jackson, in honor of the two mayors who saw aviation as the most direct passage to mercantile glory and prestige, kept expanding. All the while, Forest Park got noisy, with bigger jets zooming in and out at a steady pace several thousand feet above placid neighborhoods. Overall, Atlanta and its metro area celebrated the growth represented by flights heading across the waters. A special section in the January 18, 1970 Atlanta Journal and Constitution heralded the commerce and relatively progressive attitudes embraced in Atlanta. Ground would be broken on a new coliseum, The Omni, in March of the following year. The modern coliseum, with seating for over 15,000, would be home for the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and the NHL’s Atlanta Flames. The Omni would host ice shows, circuses, and concerts, featuring the likes of Elvis Presley. By the summer of ’73, Presley would begin a string of sold-out performances that would be an Omni record, until surpassed by the Grateful Dead in the ’90s.
Atlanta’s emergence as a big-league international city sounded great to the 16-year-old boy. Downtown Atlanta would beckon with professional sports, rock and roll concerts and a glamour known only in the big cities up north and out west. But in December 1970, working the all-night shift at the Forest House diner, Elvis Presley would be heard only through the primitive jukebox speakers placed above the noisy Hobart.
Out of school for the Christmas holidays, the dishwasher was put on the night shift, 11 p.m.-6 a.m. It was a different world than the one experienced working the day shift. Instead of the shopkeepers, postmen, bank tellers and mechanics who patronized the diner by day, the night shift’s customer base was made up of truck drivers, cops and other late-night blue collar workers. The scene at the diner after dark was edgier, less composed and far less reflective of the sleepy, dry Southern Baptist town the Forest House served. The people coming in for burgers and breakfast fare weren’t exactly the ghosts of Saturday night, but many were brusque and craving the last word in any discussion.
To no one’s surprise, a favorite on the jukebox that holiday season was Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas.” The song captured the mood possessed by many of the diner’s nighthawks. They were proud and boisterous, prone to bouts with the blues and often feeling various degrees of pain over some slight, perceived or intentional. The juxtaposition of Presley’s lonely guy taking in “decorations of red on a green Christmas tree” struck a chord with the crowd. Then too, the way in which Presley, his band and his back-up singers nearly cavorted through “Blue Christmas” turning the lament into something energetic and sprightly, was how the people at the diner would’ve liked to approach their own situations. The cook would tell you that “Charley’s had a hard life,” and then laugh at the hijinks and jokes delivered by Charley as he jumped up and down from his stool, running in and out of the diner to listen to a new 8-track in someone’s car. Throughout Forest Park, lights were out and folks were fast asleep, but the mostly downcast types came alive during those hours. They gathered where others were none too demanding or judgmental. It was the time and place for them to have their own fun. The cops would look the other way as the nighthawks brought in cans of beer to be iced down and enjoyed later. After all, it was Christmas.
As recorded by Ernest Tubb, “Blue Christmas” hit number one on the Billboard Country & Western (Most Played Juke Box Records) chart in January 1950. Seven years later Presley took what was already a good song and made it great. More than a half-century after it was recorded, Presley’s rendition still sounds like a deliberate romp, a holiday classic of the rock era, holding its own with John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” and several of the tracks on Phil Spector’s Christmas Album. The 16 year-old working the Hobart didn’t mind hearing “Blue Christmas,” repeatedly – it seemed – throughout the dank, dark hours of the night shift.
Even with the good food and the conviviality at the Forest House, there wasn’t much appealing in Forest Park, Ga. to outsiders. A book store, The Eller News Center, proved an exception, serving as the town’s unofficial cultural oasis. There tickets for sporting events, concerts and even pop festivals were sold. Its inventory of books, magazines and out-of-town newspapers was most impressive, but even more of a drawing card were the Eller children, who worked at the store from their mid-teens on up. Jimmy, Leo and Susan Eller were friendly, smart and always willing to talk about the culture at large. One might go in Eller’s to buy a Rolling Stone, but 30-45 minutes would pass after making the purchase, as one, two, three or more customers would be talking with the Ellers about music, local elections, sports and Vietnam. The war in Vietnam was always a big issue there, with the Atlanta Army Depot just across the highway. For the soldiers doing a stint there, just as Country Joe McDonald would say, the next stop was Vietnam.
Naturally, Forest Park was no hotbed of political protest. Most conversations against the war were conducted rather quietly unless someone got too excited at Eller’s. Besides, most of the people in town were happier discussing football. Forest Park High School’s football team, the Panthers, was among the state’s best in the late ’60s and early 70s. The Panthers, especially at the Forest House, were the talk of the town.
Also a subject of interest was Diana Goodman, a Panthers cheerleader. Nature had been real good to Ms. Goodman. The judges who named her Miss Georgia USA in 1975 knew it to be true. So did Elvis Presley. For a time, speculation was rife about the former cheerleader and the hunk -of- burning-love. According to Peter Guralnick in his book, Careless Love, The Unmaking Of Elvis Presley, Goodman joined Presley on his summer ’75 concert tour. That was swinging in the major leagues, especially for someone out of Forest Park, but in the mid-70s, reports about Presley’s health were a larger concern.
The 16- year-old dishwasher worked another year or so at the Forest House before landing jobs in and around the record business. There’d be a few trips from the Midtown Atlanta apartment to visit old friends at the Forest House. The diner’s jukebox had new speakers, which made the handful of Presley records on the machine more audible. That pleased much of the diner’s clientele, which even slipped dimes through the slot to hear “Edge of Reality,” a mostly-forgotten Presley single that made it all the way to 112 on the singles chart in ’68.
During Christmas season ’70, a lot of Presley product was wrapped and put under trees. Prime gift material was Elvis Worldwide 50 Gold Award Hits, Volume 1, a career-spanning 4-record set released earlier in the year. Presley’s On Stage: February, 1970 and That’s the Way It Is peaked at 13 and 8, respectively, on the charts that year, joining five Presley singles that made the Top 40. Elvis had delivered in 1970 and so would Santa.
Nearly six months had passed, but Michael Jarrett believed Santa was still making rounds for Elvis. It was May ’71 when Jarrett received the momentous phone call, the one that every scuffling songwriter dreamed about. Upon grabbing the phone, Jarrett heard the news: Elvis Presley was going to record not just one, but two of his songs.
In June, Presley’s recording of Jarrett’s “I’m Leavin'” hit the Billboard charts, peaking only at 36, but leaving an impression that’s endured. “I’m Leavin'” is a dark, but engaging song that challenged Presley’s artistic sensibilities. Unlike other songs he’d breeze through, Presley treated “I’m Leavin'” as a labor of love, declaring in the studio “the thing is worth it.”
Presley also gave special attention to a Christmas song Jarrett had written, “I’ll Be Home on Christmas Day.” As with “I’m Leavin’,” Jarrett’s Christmas song has a disquieting tone. On the demo sent to Presley was Jarrett singing to his own bluesy piano accompaniment. “I’ll Be Home on Christmas Day” was hardly a Hallmark greeting, but a lonesome late-night lament, more wishful thinking than a promise. People like the guys spending their early morning hours in the diner would relate to the feelings of regret the song conveyed, especially at a time of the year for taking stock.
In Presley’s hands, “I’ll Be Home on Christmas Day” is similar to Willie Nelson’s classic, “Funny How Time Slips Away.” The similarity is especially clear on the Alternate Take 4 of the song. It makes one long for the blues album many of us believed Presley had in him.
Michael Jarrett enjoys all of the takes Presley made of both his songs. He’s also still thankful that over 40 years ago Presley picked his songs, and in doing so, helped keep a roof over his head since. Prior to the release of “I’m Leavin’,” Jarrett was homeless, sleeping on a friend’s couch. As if it were only yesterday, he still savors the thrill of first seeing a copy of the album, Elvis Sings The Wonderful World of Christmas, which included “I’ll Be Home on Christmas Day,” when it was released in November ’71. Last week Jarrett told Like The Dew, “It was exciting to see my song listed on the cover…… Each song listed on the front cover of the album had its own Christmas ornament or symbol with the song title. To have the King of Rock and Roll choose and record my song was amazing beyond words for a 32 year-old kid. He was the first person of stature to record anything I’d written.”
Jarrett also remembers his first Presley “pay day.” His first royalty check for the Presley recordings was for $6,000.00, a lot of money in 1971, when the minimum wage was $1.60 per hour. “$6,000.00 went a long way back then. I was so blown away when I opened that envelope and saw that figure, ” Jarrett says, adding that he still depends on the Presley royalties.
The late-night clientele at the Forest House diner would have also been impressed with $6,000.00. It would take more than a year for most of them to earn that much. Living hand-to-mouth made for a deep case of the blues. Sometimes the only cure was slipping another dime in the jukebox so Elvis Presley could lift the spirits. Especially at Christmas.