The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto (4 page)

BOOK: The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto

So we walk off, kinda shaking our heads, and I remember Hoot, the piano player, he handed Frankie a beer right after that, and when Frankie asked him what for, Hoot said, “Because you’re still in one piece.”

So, okay, flash ahead now, about a month later, we’re on a tour of the Pacific Northwest with Elvis and we’re booked to play in Vancouver, Canada, in a football stadium. Well, we come to find out Colonel Parker is talking to the army about Elvis getting drafted. The army wanted Elvis to start his service, and the Colonel is desperate to get them to delay until he can get more recordings in the can. He’s got a million-dollar tiger by the tale, and he’ll be doggone if anybody, even the United States government, is gonna take it away.

So the army agrees to meet with Elvis and the Colonel, but it’s a secret meeting and it’s in Virginia, on the day we’re supposed to play in Vancouver. They’re not budging, because some big-shot general is gonna be at that meeting, he wants to meet Elvis, and it’s either meet that day or get a draft notice, I reckon.

Now, most people woulda just canceled the show, but most people ain’t Colonel Parker. He didn’t want to give up the gate from a football stadium, not for nobody. There was supposed to be like twenty thousand people there. That was big money.

So the night before, up there in Vancouver, me and the fellas get called by the Colonel to come down to a little theater at midnight. It’s empty, no sign of Elvis, just a stage with all our equipment, and the Colonel is already there with—guess who?—Frankie. And he’s whispering, and Frankie’s nodding his head. We don’t know what’s going on. Finally the Colonel turns to us and says, “I want y’all to run through the show with the boy singing.” And we look at each other like,
But we don’t say nothing. We do as we’re told. We play. Frankie sings. And sure as I’m standing here, by the end of that rehearsal, if I shut my eyes, I couldn’t tell if I was listening to Frankie or Elvis. That boy was so musical, he coulda made a kick drum sound like a nightingale, you know what I mean?

Still, we’re wondering, how is this gonna work? He
like Elvis, but he
Elvis, you know? But when we’re finished, Colonel Parker says, “Now, listen here. The boy is gonna stand way back by you. He’s not to come to the front of the stage, ya hear me? And no talking in between the numbers. Y’all just go from one song into the other. Fast.”

Then of course he added his warning. “Any of you pickers tell one soul ’bout this, I’ll sue you so fast your head’ll spin off your neck.” He needn’t have said that. None of us was giving up the Elvis gig. We had a tiger by the tail as well.

So the next night comes. The real Elvis is somewhere in Virginia, with the government, and we’re out in Vancouver, Canada, in a black sedan pulling up to the stadium. Frankie’s in the back, sitting between us, dressed in that gold satin jacket, wearing sunglasses, being real still. I couldn’t tell if he’s super relaxed or scared to death.
was scared to death, I can tell you that. We were told to surround him when we walked to the backstage area, and not to let anyone, not even the police, get too close to him. We hustled Frankie to the edge of the curtain, and I can hear the rumblin’ of the crowd out there. And I’m thinkin’, There ain’t no way on God’s green earth we are gettin’ away with this.

But when we take the stage, we look at the fans, and they’re so far away, up in the stands, and there are these sawhorses on the field the Colonel set up, telling everyone they were for Elvis’s safety. We got a good forty-yard cushion, nobody is gettin’ close, which is just how the Colonel wanted it. And it’s still kinda light out, because this is late summer, so the spotlights aren’t on, which makes it harder to see details from far away. And I whisper to Bill, one of the other singers, “What do you reckon?” and he said, “Clem, if it goes bad, run to the right, that’s where the cars are.”

And then the announcer yells, “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis Presley!” and the place becomes one big scream. And out steps Frankie, wearing that gold jacket and a black shirt, a guitar around his neck, high on the straps, the way Elvis wore it. I braced myself for something, people booing or throwing stuff. But it never happened. They believed it one hundred percent! And Frankie stayed back with us like the Colonel told him, didn’t go out front where the cameras could catch him alone, and he didn’t do no talking, neither, just started right in with “
Well, since my baby left me
”—you know, from “Heartbreak Hotel”—and from that point, it might not have mattered if Frankie, me, or Pearl Bailey was singin’, it got so crazy you could barely hear. And suddenly all them kids come running out of the stands and out onto the field. And Frankie tears into “I Got a Woman” and “Rip It Up” and “Ready Teddy.” We’re looking at each other, smiling like bandits, because he’s good and we’re getting away with it. And the police are chasing the kids back up into the stands, but then they come running back onto the field again. With each song, Frankie is getting more and more into it, doing some of Elvis’s leg shakes and the way he’d thrust his hips. A couple times I shook my head at Frankie, like, Don’t do it, man, just lay back. Let’s get out of here safe. But then comes “Hound Dog,” and I guess he couldn’t help it, he just cuts loose. He pops out front and he’s shakin’ and windmillin’ his arms and he’s got that sneer on his lips just like Elvis—and that did it. The crowd mobbed the field, all of them—the police were trying to hold them back, whistles were shriekin’ and people were gettin’ knocked over. And as soon as “Hound Dog” was done, security hustled us off the stage, Frankie grinnin’ and wavin’ at the crowd like, good-bye, see ya!

Twenty-two minutes. That was the whole show. Twenty-two minutes. We pulled it off. To this day, people talk about that concert as one of the wildest and craziest of Elvis’s career—and his last one ever in Canada. And only the band, the Jordanaires, the Colonel, and Elvis his own self, God rest his soul, knew what went on.

And Frankie, of course.

He left the band the next day. I don’t think he wanted to face Elvis. Maybe Elvis didn’t want to face him. Either way, he was gone, and I didn’t see him again until he asked me to come on tour with him a couple years later. He was different by then. More confident. More like a star, you know? I think that concert changed him. He had a taste of it, and he wanted it for himself.

Nobody said nothing about that night for damn near sixty years. But I’m eighty-two now, and Frankie’s dead, so the hell with it, he deserves the credit. You think about all them people who became Elvis impersonators, made whole careers out of it. But Frankie was the first—and you gotta say the best.

I mean, if the point is to make people feel like they’re seeing the King, he’s the only one who ever really pulled it off.



It is why that Spanish news crew is camped on the church steps, the large bearded man with a television camera, the well-coiffed young woman standing next to him with a microphone. A death as spectacular as Frankie’s will draw interest. But whatever tales are shared, none will tell the whole truth. Because no one knows the whole truth but me. Well. There is one other person. But that person, I can assure you, will not be here.

Where were we? Ah. Yes. The Mijares River. A winter morning. A fleeing woman. And a child tossed aside with no protection in this world beyond a gray blanket and the sound of his own misery.

None of this, mind you, would the boy remember. For Frankie Presto, memory would only crystallize in the next phase of his life, the part he would call his “beginning.”

But even beginnings have beginnings. Take the prelude, an established form of musical composition. Today, it can be beautiful and elaborate, a song unto itself, yet originally—in
beginning—a prelude was something an Italian lute player in the sixteenth century called
tastar de corde
, “testing the strings.” Not very poetic, but accurate. One must indeed test the strings in this life, bounce the bow, wet the mouthpiece, prepare for the deeper music that follows.

The prelude for Frankie Presto began with his calamitous birth and ended with a splash in the Mijares. In one year’s time, he had witnessed death, siege, hunger, and abandonment, and now the cold river water dripped into his eyes and made him blink repeatedly as the current began to carry him downstream. He should have quickly sunk and drowned, and I was present to collect his unfulfilled talent should that have happened. But there are moments inexplicable in your world, and all I can relay is what I witnessed: that the gray blanket—the same blanket that once lay beneath Frankie’s true mother, Carmencita—did not submerge. It acted as a vessel for at least three minutes, carrying the child back toward the city, while Frankie rubbed his eyes and cried at an incredible volume—crying until even the Lord above could not ignore the sound.

At this point, I will share something you are yet to fully discover. It is not just humans who are musical. Animals, too. This should be obvious in the thousands of birdsongs I have spawned, or the clicking of dolphins, or the moaning of humpback whales. Animals not only make music, they hear it in unique fashion.

On the river that day, Frankie’s crying rose to a sound beyond the human ear. Suddenly, a hairless dog, with thin, sinewy legs and black skin that seemed to be painted on, came charging down the riverbank. A leash, hooked to its collar, was flopping wildly. As Frankie’s squeals grew higher and more intense, the dog ran and yelped, and at a bend in the river, splashed in. The infant grabbed for the barking sound, his fingers ensnaring the leash. The dog bit down on the blanket and scrambled backward, until both of them were safe on the bank.

The child rolled over. The blanket slipped into the water, disappearing downstream. The dog put one wet paw on each side of Frankie’s head and lay its own head down, panting heavily.

Prelude complete.

No talent to collect.



can take only so long to dress and cars are filling the narrow streets), jump ahead and place Frankie in his next home, a residence on Calvario Street with a tile roof and a horseshoe arch and two slots in the doorway through which a cart’s wheels could roll. It was the house of a Mr. Baffa Rubio, the owner of a small sardine factory, an Italian automobile, and that hairless dog.

The man who found Frankie on the riverbank.

Baffa, unmarried and in his forties, went to church regularly and kept a cross on the wall of his bedroom, so the discovery of an abandoned child was, for him, a divine act, like finding Moses in the reeds. He took the boy in. He bathed him. Fed him. Rocked him to sleep at night. Not many men would do this. But I pay great attention to labels (
means you play me fast,
means you play me slow, and so on), and while Baffa’s last name, Rubio, means “blond” or “fair-haired,” his scalp was covered with thinning black bristle. This confirmed a man who could alter his destiny.

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