Elvis Presley visited North Carolina often - Carolina Country

Burnin’ Love

North Carolina’s love affair with the King of Rock and Roll

By Trudy Haywood Saunders | Photos by Scotty Moore

Burnin’ Love
Scenes from Elvis' Lexington performance

On a March night in 1956, country music star Eddy Arnold was scheduled to perform for the Lexington Civitan Club’s annual fundraiser. But as fate would have it, a last-minute cancellation sent a young, not-yet world-famous Elvis Presley to North Carolina as a replacement. Over 5,000 screaming fans were in attendance at the local YMCA gymnasium, police reportedly turned thousands away at the door, and Lexington has been all shook up ever since.

It seems that the people of Lexington can’t help falling in love with the King of Rock and Roll, even six decades later. After the traveling Broadway-style “Elvis’ 56,” sold out, and a successful Elvis tribute concert was held in 2019, people began begging for more. With overwhelming interest, Lexington organized its first NC Tribute Festival to the King in 2022 and the town was all-in.

Lexington isn’t the only place Elvis stopped in the Tarheel State in his early performing days. In the spring of 1955, he was a relatively unknown performer when he toured with the Hank Snow All-Star Jamboree for multiple shows at the New Bern Shrine Auditorium, followed by appearances in Asheville, Raleigh and Thomasville. In February 1956, he sent teenage girls swooning at the Carolina Theatre in Charlotte, where the press dubbed him a folk singer and a “good looking youngster.” Fresh off the recent release of “Heartbreak Hotel” and television appearances, his East Coast tour included stops in Greensboro, High Point, Wilson, Burlington and Winston-Salem.

“You can’t really define Elvis ... He’s such a timeless, classic figure, and had such a huge impact on not only the music industry, but the world, from his rebellion to his music—everything.”

“You can’t really define Elvis,” says Morgan Brinkle, executive director of the Lexington Tourism Authority. “He’s such a timeless, classic figure, and had such a huge impact on not only the music industry, but the world, from his rebellion to his music—everything.”

People are still fascinated with Elvis, and some people who attended that fateful 1956 concert are still in love with him, like lifelong Lexington resident Ramona Yarborough (who was 15 at the time).

“He was very new to us. He was unique,” Ramona says, now in her 80s. “We hadn’t heard all of that before, rock and roll.” Ramona attended the concert with her friend, Nancy Hunter, and remembers that it was packed, with people hollering and waving their hands, everyone thrilled that he was there. Later that year Elvis performed on The Ed Sullivan Show, and cameras would only rarely show anything but from the waist up. “Nowadays they show everything. Then, they wouldn’t even show him moving.”

“We ran up and down Main Street that night, trying to find him,” Ramona says. The concert promoters had said that he would be staying at the March Hotel, but he was actually at the Lexington Hotel. Ramona remembers being with a gang of friends, but being separated by the crowd. “Finally we invaded the place,” she says. “I guess that’s the only way you can say it.”

Her friend Nancy got to meet the King.

Elvis in Lexington, NC

Scenes from Elvis' Lexington performance

Long after Elvis “left the building,” sightings are still the subject or rumor and whispered about in small towns across the state. According to legend, he stopped in Lefler’s Cafe outside of Mount Gilead for a sandwich when the main road used to go by there. Amanda Keith, owner of Burnsville’s NuWray Hotel, the oldest continually operating hotel in the state, heard rumors around town that Elvis stayed there before buying the property, though his name isn’t in the guest book. Still, the NuWray has one of its nicer rooms decked out with Elvis memorabilia, a suite fit for a king.

For the inaugural festival, merchants and small businesses on Lexington’s Main Street decorated their windows with Elvis decor and life-size Elvises. There were glitzy, pink and sparkly displays and some were more traditional. “Everyone had a lot of fun with the cutouts,” Morgan says. “You would drive by and it really looked like someone was standing in the window.”

But it isn’t just the business owners that have a burning love for Elvis. It’s estimated that approximately 1,400 people attended the first festival in 2022, many decked out in Elvis gear, each with their own spin on it.

Elvis in Lexington, NC crowd

Scenes from Elvis' Lexington performance

“We see all kinds. Folks come dressed to the nines, like they are going to a Broadway show,” Morgan says. “We love seeing the little old ladies that come in with blue jean jackets, blinged with rhinestones and lots of glitter — everything head to toe Elvis, Elvis hat, Elvis purse, earrings, you name it. One of the kids wore a poodle skirt to one of the shows.”

Elvis hasn’t been spotted in Lexington since 1956, but the city and the rest of the Tarheel State still love him as much as a barbecue sandwich. Well, at least almost.

Ramona plans to attend the festival this year, being held April 26–28. “I think it’s going to be something that I need to review,” she says. “I think a lot of it will come back to me.”

Even for those with suspicious minds, the Elvis Festival is worth a visit.

“I think he’s always going to be around and always have a presence here,” Morgan says. “He’s such a timeless figure, and his music is timeless. Everybody loves it.”

About the Author

Trudy Haywood Saunders is a freelance writer and author of two mysteries for young adults. She lives with her husband and daughter in Montgomery County and is a member of Pee Dee Electric.

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