Memphis' Peabody Hotel may be famous for the ducks that live in a rooftop suite and make their daily trek to the fountain in the lobby, but its most interesting attraction is clothier Bernard Lansky, who arguably was as important to the young Elvis Presley's look as record producer Sam Phillips was to his sound.
Lansky is a fast-talking, 73-year-old Memphian with a drawl as thick as the MIssissippi is wide. For decades, he sold ultra-cool clothes to hip cats, including big-name musicians B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and a host of others. His most famous and faithful customer, however, was Elvis, who did business with Lansky right up to his last days at Graceland.
As Lansky tells it - and he's told it a lot - the future King of Rock 'n' Roll was a skinny teenager with a ducktail, adn far from famous when the two first met. Elvis used to stand outside the original Lansky's store at 126 Beale St. and stare longingly through the display window at the "cat clothes" - flamboyantly styled shirts and pants favored by the young black musicians and other hipsters to who Lansky catered.
"Our stuff was cutting-edge," Lansky explains. "We had the shirts with the balloon sleeves and two-tone pants with inverted pleats and no pockets in the back, so you could show off your booty when you were onstage."
When Elvis window-shopped, he often was on break from his job as an usher at the old Loew's State Theater, since demolished to make way for the Peabody Place office and shopping development. One day, Lansky invited him to come in and look around. Elvis did so and said, "I don't have any money now, but when I come back I'll buy you out." To which Lansky replied, "Don't buy me out, just buy from me."
Elvis bought a shirt or pair of pants whenever he had the money. "He was partial to black - pink and black," Lansky recalls while showing off a pink gabardine shirt with vents in the back. "When he graduated from high school, I made a pink and black tuxedo for him." Later, Elvis worked for the Crown Electric Company while trying to succeed in music. "I was the first one to give him a charge account," Lansky says proudly. "I figured he'd do something, so I took a gamble. He did all right, and so did I." Elvis wore clothes from Lansky Brothers on the nationally broadcast Ed Sullivan Show. He kept coming back to the store even after he started racking up hits like "Don't Be Cruel", "Treat Me Right" and "Hound Dog".
Lansky had his own string of successes. He and his son Hal have three other shops in the Peabody besides the clothing store, which opened in 1981. Lansky closed the Beale Street store in 1992 and now leases the property to Elvis Presley Enterprises, which converted it to Elvis Presley's Memphis. This lavish restaurant has on its menu Elvis' favorite dish - the fried peanut butter and banana sandwich. The store in the Peabody is thriving. A sign on the wall reads "Clothes That Rock".
As Lansky speaks, two young men with muttonchop sideburns examine two-tone dress shirts. "The kids want the vintage look, and that's what we've got," he says chuckling. "It's old to us, but new to them."
Though fond of Memphis, freelancer David McKenna makes his home in Philadelphia.