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Memphis is the migratory habitat of choice for any musician worth his roots, the home of blues and rock. It's said that the Mississippi Delta begins at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, so it's natural that the man who has dressed America's musical royalty for half a century does business at the Peabody, in a posh store that doubles as a museum and as the source of the best rockabilly duds in the country.
That man is Bernard Lansky, and his store Lansky Brothers remains the one-stop shop for all your superstar needs. Trim and dapper at 74, Bernard's a Southern charmer who could sell snake oil to a cobra. Instead, he got into the rag trade when his father, Samuel, a businessman, bought him a shop on Beale Street after World War II. Sam's brother Meyer Lansky followed a different drummer, but two of Sam's sons -- Bernard and Guy -- kept their eyes on the prize: a decent living on an indecent street.
At first an Army-surplus store, Lansky Brothers morphed into fashion central as Beale Street beehived into jazz and blues clubs, restaurants and dope dens, attracting workers from the plantations and city folk out for a wild night on the town.
''I got a real education on Beale Street,'' Bernard says, ''and I learned fast. Every week bands would come in wanting something new, something sharp. You gotta walk the walk and talk the talk. And if you're broke, you're a joke.''
His customers were mainly black; some were pimps and gamblers who liked that gangster-elegant, one-of-a-kind look. The musicians playing the Beale Street and nearby clubs outfitted themselves in the finest mohair and sharkskin, in plaid tuxedo jackets and peg-leg pants. Count Basie, Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington were clients. A young guitar wizard from Indianola, Miss., who called himself the Beale Street Blues Boy, was a regular, too. After he shortened his name to B.B. King, he moved from mohair to brocade, and Bernard was there to cater to his every whim.
But it was Elvis Presley who afforded Bernard the unique title he occupies today: Clothier to the King of Rock 'n' Roll -- a name he's trademarked in tandem with the Presley estate.
When Bernard moved to the Peabody (just two blocks away from the original store) in 1981, he kept the land and building where Lansky Brothers was established. He was willing to sell the package for $2 million, but instead worked out a 20-year lease with Elvis Presley Enterprises, which opened Elvis Presley's Memphis, a live-music shrine with food, liquor and faultlessly tacky souvenirs. No matter, Bernard's a happy camper. ''It's a good deal for me: I get a monthly check. Looks like a Social Security number,'' he jokes.
''I put Elvis in his first suit, and I put him in his last,'' Bernard says, more seriously. Bernard was not responsible for the Vegas-style jumpsuits that Presley wore later on, but he did provide him with his first flashy clothes: the hi-boy collar shirts, the pegged pants and the black suits with pink piping, the King's favorite color combination. ''Those 'Loo-siana Hayride' shows, the Dorsey brothers TV shows, I dressed him. The Sullivan show he did in 1956, I dressed him for that, too. Elvis used to say: 'Mistuh Lansky, when Ahm rich, Ahm gonna buy you out.' And I'd say: 'Elvis, don't buy me, buy from me.'''
It's a story Bernard relishes, since after the skinny kid dyed his hair from dirty blond to black and shook up the world, he remained a Lansky loyal. ''I'd say: 'Call me Bernard. My father's Mr. Lansky.' Elvis'd say: 'Yessuh, Mistuh Lansky.'''
Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records, recalls: ''Elvis loved the look and feel of black styles more than anyone. Black folks' convention was: Keep it different! No gray seats and shiny bottoms, no worn-out overalls.''
Not only did Elvis flip for Bernard's modish cuts, but so did Otis Redding, Bobby (Blue) Bland, Ace Cannon, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, the Temptations and the O'Jays. And lately, the Stone Temple Pilots and the Backstreet Boys have also sampled his wares, which in 2002 will include a new line of Elvis duds, from skinny belts to gold lame shirts.
Bernard sized up his customers and learned a thing or two about rock 'n' roll style: no back pockets, short-waisted jackets, velvet cuffs or rolled collars. All of this went into the mix, and out came musicians who were the talk of the town. And in 50 years, Lansky Brothers style has never hit a false note.
S.S. Fair writes frequently about music and fashion.