The Elvis Chronicler

Odd Collections, People
on February 10, 2002

Joyce Nichols first heard the name Elvis Presley on her favorite radio program, The Louisiana Hayride, in the fall of 1954. Saturday night after Saturday night, she wrote in her diary the names of the performers, the songs they played, and the announcer’s comments. This time, though, she couldn’t even spell the up-and-coming musician’s name.

“I wrote ‘Ellis Prestly,’” Nichols recalls of that October night nearly a half century ago. She was Joyce Railsback then, a teenager in Big Spring, Texas, (pop. 25,233) who was dedicated to the weekly radio show that aired live on KWKH, 470 miles east in Shreveport, La.

Presley’s first appearance on the popular program led to many more—creating a legacy for the Louisiana Hayride, KWKH, and everyone associated with it. And Joyce Nichols basked in that reflected fame when her diary helped form the backbone of a CD about the beginning of Presley’s musical career.

Like many who heard his first radio broadcast, though, Joyce wasn’t sure what to make of the unusual sound.

“He has a new and different style and might go places with it,” she wrote in her diary that night. On Jan. 8, 1955, she noted Presley’s 20th birthday and wrote, “He has on crocodile skin shoes. He also has a pair of pink shoes.”

On Dec. 17, 1955, she wrote, “Man alive! What a feeling he must have to know the people crave him and his music.”

After three years of weekly entries, she tucked the pages away for more than 40 years, though she said later she was not even sure why.

Then a few years ago—tuning in KWKH again in a burst of nostalgia—Nichols heard the familiar voice of Frank Page, the announcer who had first introduced Presley to the radio audience. Page asked fans of the long-defunct Hayride to share their memories and memorabilia; plans were in the works for Good Rockin’ Tonight: The Evolution of Elvis Presley, a CD tracing the singer’s two years as a Hayride regular.

Page couldn’t believe what he heard from Nichols.

“Who would take the time to do that, night after night after night?” he says, recalling the now-yellowed pages, scrawled in pencil. “We didn’t have that ourselves. It was great!”

Page and Joey Kent, writer and producer of the CD, also co-wrote a book about the Hayride titled Cradle of the Stars. It traces the Hayride’s history with regulars who included such music greats as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Kitty Wells.

Kent calls the 47-year-old diary his “Rosetta stone.” The written record helped him date the few available recordings of the old shows. But more than that, he says, it brought the audience to life.

“Joyce’s input was refreshing just because she was the target audience of Elvis,” Kent says.

In Kent’s creation of the double CD, Nichols—through her diary entries—becomes a real-life example of the typical Elvis fan. Her experiences and comments as read by Page give another dimension to the story of Presley’s early years. Page says meeting Nichols and her husband, who traveled to Shreveport to deliver the diary, was a chance to see firsthand how his beloved radio show had affected its listeners.

“We knew by the number of people that came to the show that we had many fans in west Texas,” he says. “But her dedication was something else. It was amazing to us.”

Kent, whose father had purchased rights to the Louisiana Hayride before his death in 1992, says seeing the diary confirmed what he already knew: The show reached across hundreds of miles and left its mark on many people.

Nichols is still an avid collector of Elvis memorabilia and says being part of the CD and book is a thrill, but one that seems almost natural.

“I just loved Elvis so much,” Nichols says. “Maybe this is my way to be able to show it.”