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"He always called me Mister Lansky." The unmistakable Southern accent echoes through the clothing store in the lobby of the regal Peabody Hotel at 149 Union Avenue, Memphis. "I told him, 'Call me Bernard.' But Elvis always said, 'Thank you, Mister Lansky.' He was brought up right. His mother brought him up a gentleman."
Bernard Lansky has seen a lot of Memphis history in his 78 years, and from his elegant haberdashery, which he runs with his son, Hal, he's furnished the wardrobes of rock 'n' roll royalty for more than a half-century. His original shop, on famed Beale Street, is where music and fashion made beautiful harmony.
Elvis Presley was raised on the sound of gospel music sung at church services he attended with his parents, Vernon and Gladys. The family moved to Memphis in November 1948, when Elvis was 13 years old.
Bernard, meantime, was one of nine children of immigrants from Kiev. His father bought a used clothing store at 126 Beale Street for Bernard and his six brothers, ensuring they'd have secure jobs working as their own bosses. But Bernard took one look around and said, "It ain't me."
He tried an Army-surplus clothing business, but the postwar inventory eventually dried up. "So I started high fashion for the ethnic people," he says. "They had bands and concerts."
The store took off. "Cut, make and trim. Lot of people wanted to look hot on Saturday night. They'd come into the store on Friday night, we were so busy. One day I saw a bright young man walking on Beale Street. I knew he went to church down there where they had gospel singing."
Bernard and young Elvis struck up a conversation. "He looked in the window and said, 'You have some nice stuff in there,'" Bernard recalls. "'When I get rich, I'll buy you out.' I said, 'No, don't buy me out, just buy from me.'" Elvis was an usher at Loew's theater at the time. He cashed his paycheck and made his first purchase, a $3.95 shirt. Later, while still attending L.C. Humes High School, he had the tailor create an ensemble set of black pants, pink coat and pink-and-black cummerbund for the junior-senior prom. "He always wanted to be the belle of the ball," Bernard remembers.
"One day he came in and said, 'I'm going to be on TV with Ed Sullivan.' So, I got him dressed and told him how much it was. Elvis said, 'I got a problem. I got no money.' I told him, 'Yes, that is a problem. But I'll tell you what, I'm going to float you.' That was the key in the lock for him and me."
It wasn't long before Elvis bought Graceland--he was 22 years old. "He got good and did a lot of concerts," says Bernard. "Memphis had a lot of pimps, gamblers. We had high fashion in the window. I'd do tailor-made mohair, silk and wool. Flare leg, no back pockets. Twenty-six-inch knee, 14-inch bottom drape. Then I made thinner legs."
Word got around in the music business. "Elvis Presley was my PR man all over the world," Bernard recalls. "I put clothes on Johnny Cash. He brought me a Prince Albert tobacco can and pointed to the man on the cover. 'I want this,' he said, 'a black suit.' I made a cutaway coat with black pants. Didn't have to worry about him, he always wore black." The stream of entertainers kept coming: Frank Sinatra, Sonny Burgess, Carl Perkins and others.
But Bernard never forgot who put his little store on the map. "I used to make deliveries for Elvis at Graceland. Gladys, his mother, would greet me at the door. They used to stay out all night on gigs. They'd eat breakfast at four o'clock in the afternoon. Gladys would tell me to take the clothes up to Elvis' bedroom and come back down and eat breakfast with them. Vernon Presley was sitting right there. Every time he went out on gigs with Elvis, Vernon would get three suits."
Bernard was shopping in Dallas in August 1977 when he learned that Elvis had left the building for the last time. "We flew right home, and I went out to Graceland," Lansky remembers, sadly. "He was a heck of a nice guy. I put him in his first suit, and I put him in his last suit." Bernard Lansky's creations suited the King, but they never brought acclaim from the fashion world. An article in the January 1957 Sunday New York Daily News column "What's on TV" in fact named Elvis "'Worst' Dressed Male TV Star." TV's "Best" Dressed that year was Hal March, according to style authority Irving Heller. The dishonor stung, perhaps, but then, who does entertainment history remember? Elvis or Hal March?
Today you can still stroll through the formal lobby of the grand Peabody Hotel in Memphis and up to the ornate glass doors of Lansky's haberdashery. The world's top fashions are on display, along with signed guitars from the likes of Jimmy Dean, Johnny Cash and the King himself. Behind the counter you'll still find Bernard Lansky. At 78 years old, he has a wiry frame, and is usually dressed in a designer tie, blue shirt and sleeveless cardigan. He still shakes hands with a strong, bony grip. Every morning at six o'clock, the tailor to the King is in, and ready for the next big thing.