Jimmy Rogers and his dog, Honey, were walking, as they do every morning, in the comfortable, tree-lined Audubon Park neighborhood of East Memphis, Tenn. when he thought he smelled smoke.
“Someone must have a fire in his or her fireplace to take the chill out of the air,” Jimmy thought to himself. Honey’s loud barking indicated otherwise.
Audubon Park is located 19 minutes from downtown Memphis, five minutes from the University of Memphis Park Avenue Campus, and to the north, a one-minute walk from Jimmy’s house to a nearby residence on Audubon Drive.
A lovely, lush stretch of road, intersected by well-kept brick homes, with green, manicured lawns flanked by mature oak and elm trees, is a walk Jimmy and Honey enjoy before Jimmy has his first cup of Folger’s and Honey munches a bowl of Purina Puppy Chow.
The walk from Jimmy’s home leads, as it always has, straight to the modest one-story, wood-frame house, which looks much the same today as it did when Elvis Presley bought it in 1956 with proceeds from his hit “Heartbreak Hotel.”
Jimmy and his wife, Betsy, are the in-laws of our son, Greg.
Betsy Black Rogers, nicknamed “Street Ball Betsy,” months earlier had been inducted into the Horn Lake High School Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. Betsy was a dynamic scorer and noted basketball dribbler like no other girl in the state of Mississippi. She didn’t know Elvis; he was older, but she had heard all the stories.
Jimmy, a proud military veteran, retired from AT&T a few years ago. He is a renowned handyman in his neighborhood — like Chip Gaines without the long hair. His woodworking capabilities are legendary in the town known as the “Birthplace of Rock and Roll.”
Ironically, there is another man named Jimmy Rogers, but his name is spelled Jimmie Rodgers. He is an old-time country singer known as the “Father of Country Music.”
On Wednesday, May 25, 1955, Elvis Presley attended the third annual Jimmie Rodgers Memorial Celebration in Jimmie’s hometown of Meridian, Miss. The event attracted 10,000 people with Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow and many other country-and-western stars in attendance. Elvis and his “orchestra” performed at the American Legion Hall, according to the Meridian Star newspaper.
The next day, the Jimmie Rodgers Celebration continued with a noontime parade that attracted a crowd of 60,000. All of the performers rode in the parade, including Elvis, who subsequently performed a show at the junior college stadium.
Back in Memphis, Elvis bought the house and lived there little over a year during the period when he appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and recorded his record-breaking hits “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” Eventually, he moved from the house to Graceland as fans flocked to the East Memphis address as his fame rose.
A couple of years ago, Greg called and read me the plaque on the front of Elvis’ old home: “On March 20, 1956 Elvis Presley and his parents, Vernon and Gladys, moved into 1034 Audubon Drive, purchased with royalties from his first million-dollar-selling record, ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’”
According to neighbors, “Originally, there was no fence around the property, and all the neighborhood kids would come up and look in the windows, but Elvis didn’t care. Gladys would invite the kids to come in and sit down to visit.”
As Jimmy approached the house 63 years later, the smell of smoke grew stronger and more acrid.
“Oh, my gosh, there’s smoke coming from the eaves of the roof!” Jimmy said to Honey, who by then was barking furiously.
Jimmy pulled his cell phone from his pocket and called the Memphis Fire Department. It was Saturday, April 22, 2017. Memphis Fire Lieutenant Wayne Cooke said the department responded to the home just after 7:30 a.m. CT.
“The fire was under control by 7:52,” he said.
Jimmy later told Betsy that he and a neighbor were standing on the curb watching the firefighters when Lieutenant Cooke walked over to them.
“Which one of you gentlemen called the fire department?” the lieutenant asked.
Jimmy flared his nostrils, curled his lip, sneered as he knew Elvis would have done, and said, “I did, man.”
“And Betsy, with God as my witness,” the lieutenant smiled, “shook my hand, and just before he climbed back on the hook-and-ladder truck, he turned to me, handed me a towel and said, ‘Thank you. Thank you very much.’”
And with that he was gone.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County commissioner and former Clinton County sheriff.