Elvis Presley became a rock ‘n’ roll icon with the help of Memphis clothier: ‘That changed everything’
Before Elvis Presley was “The King,” he was a “dirt poor” usher at a movie theater in Tennessee with dreams of making it big.
The high school student, then 17, would often admire the window of a clothing store called “Lansky Bros.” located in the heart of Memphis’ music district. The shop was a favorite among musicians; B.B. King was a known regular. During one summer in 1952, owner Bernard Lansky saw this “young, skinny kid” who easily stood out on the street.
Hal Lansky said Elvis Presley would admire Lansky Bros.’s storefront before Bernard Lansky invited him in.
“Beale Street was a street for African Americans, so if you were White, you were out of place,” Lansky’s son Hal told Fox News Digital. “So my dad knew that this shy kid was out of place around here. He would just stare and stare at the window. So one day, he invited him in. He said, ‘Come on in, young man!’ My father showed him around and Elvis could only afford a $3 shirt. He said, ‘Mr. Lansky, these are beautiful things. I like everything. I don’t have no money now, but when I get rich I’ll buy you out.’ And my dad said, ‘Don’t buy me out, just buy from me.’ And that’s what started their friendship. My dad showed this young kid a little respect, and it sparked a friendship for life.”
Bernard Lansky welcomed a shy Elvis Presley into his store. That move would spark a decades-long friendship that lasted until the singer’s death.
Presley’s transformation from timid aspiring musician to rock ‘n’ roll icon with Lansky’s help is chronicled in Baz Lurhmann’s biopic titled “Elvis,” in theaters now. Hal said he not only saw the film three times – with a fourth screening already planned – but actor Austin Butler, who starred as Presley, visited him while he prepared for the role that would skyrocket him to fame.
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“It’s a fabulous movie – Baz and his team did an incredible job, and we were just so tickled to be included in the movie,” said Hal. “We were part of Elvis’ life. It was a short one, but he encountered so many people during that brief time, and he never forgot them. I’m just thankful that the Lansky connection was a part of that story. And Austin did his homework. We shared some time with him and Baz. They visited the store in September 2019. Austin really grew up since then and my God, he did an amazing job. He’s got a great career in front of him.”
From left: Baz Luhrmann and Austin Butler visiting Hal Lansky at Lansky Bros.
The patriarch passed away in 2012 at age 85 in Memphis. Today, Hal and his daughter, Julie Lansky, are determined to keep the family business – and musical legacy – alive. Lansky and his brother Guy first started their retail business in 1946 with the help of a $125 loan from their father. It began as an Army surplus and uniform store, but by the early ‘50s, Lansky focused on high-fashion men’s clothing. Lansky and Guy parted ways in the ‘80s, and the store moved from Beale Street to the Peabody Hotel a few blocks away.
Hal Lansky, Bernanrd Lansky’s son, said Elvis Presley remained a loyal customer.
Most recently, Hal and his daughter teamed up to write a children’s book titled “Come On In, Young Man!” in hopes of sharing their father’s story with a new generation of Presley fans.
“This is our 76th year in business,” said Hal. “We’re having fun with what we’re doing. My dad always believed in people. He always said you meet the same people going up the ladder as you do going down the ladder. So treat everyone with respect.”
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Presley never forgot the simple kind gesture Lansky gave him. For his high school prom, he splurged on black pants, a pink coat with a pink-and-black cummerbund.
“Every time Elvis got paid, he’d come in maybe once a week and buy a pair of pants or a jacket – something simple,” said Hal. “But he just kept coming and coming. And then one day, he said, ‘Mr. Lansky, I’m gonna be on a national TV show.’ My dad said, ‘That’s great Elvis! What show is that gonna be?’ Elvis replied, ‘The Ed Sullivan Show.’ My dad just went ‘Whoa!’ Back then in the ‘50s and ‘60s, that was a huge deal. It was like the ‘American Idol’ of our time. My dad started showing him some clothes. But then Elvis looked at him and said, ‘Mr. Lansky, I got a problem. I don’t have any money.’ My dad told him, ‘Elvis, you do have a problem, but I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna give you some credit, but you better pay me back.’”
Elvis Presley performing on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’.
(Photo by Steve Oroz/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Presley agreed and thanked Lansky profusely. Hal said his father tuned in to watch Presley perform in his new flashy threads – and was stunned by what he witnessed.
“My dad had never seen or heard Elvis perform,” Hal chuckled. “He knew Elvis was destined for stardom. And we like to take credit for the black and pink look he wore. Back then, young men did not wear pink. If they did, they were thought of as being too feminine. And of course, everybody wanted to beat Elvis up because he looked a little bit feminine for that time, and he was taking everyone’s girlfriends away! But Elvis was determined to stand out. He knew what he was doing. And he was confident in his appearance. That changed everything.”
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According to Hal, Presley remained a loyal customer even after achieving stardom. Lansky was not responsible for the sequined jumpsuits that Presley adopted during his Las Vegas years, but the demand was still there.
Elvis Prelsey would shop after-hours at Lansky Bros. to avoid crowds.
“Elvis became so famous that he couldn’t come to our store without getting mobbed,” Hal recalled. “We had to open the store at night just so he could avoid the crowds and shop. But we also delivered him clothes to Graceland. I became known as the delivery boy to the King. I would bring all the clothes he ordered. And let me tell you, Elvis loved to shop, so I was making deliveries quite a bit. I remember I had a station wagon just full of clothes. I would ring his doorbell, and it was just magical. I saw Elvis at the top of the stairs, and he came down each step just so regal. He would have his hand in his pocket where he carried a little white revolver – Elvis loved guns. It freaked me out a bit, but Elvis was just so happy. I don’t think he was necessarily happy to see me, but he was happy to see his clothes.”
Austin Butler as Elvis Presley in the biopic ‘Elvis’.
“I remembered he ordered all of these long leather coats with fur to match the hat and collars,” Hal continued. “He walked into the dining room, swung open the doors and just showed off his clothes. He was so proud of his new outfits. That was quite exciting for me to see. I don’t know how long I was there, but it seemed like an eternity. It was all in slow motion. But I remembered Elvis was so cool. He looked good in anything. And I think he knew it.”
Hal said that his favorite story his father loved telling was the time when Presley first sold a million records.
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Elvis Presley with a young Hal Lansky (right).
“They gave Elvis a Messerschmitt, this three-wheeled German car,” said Hal. “Elvis brought over the car to the shop to show my dad. He said ‘Mr. Lansky, look at this car!’ Elvis was just so proud of himself that he finally made it. Well, my dad said, ‘Elvis, when you’re finished with that car, I want it.’ A couple of months later, Elvis traded in that car for a two-and-a-half-hour shopping spree in our store. He remained loyal to the end.”
It was 1977 when Hal said he and his father were at a coffee shop in Dallas, Texas. Someone rushed in exclaiming, “Guess what? Elvis died!”
Presley was found unconscious in his Graceland mansion. He was rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead at age 42.
Elvis Presley, seen here in 1956 as he prepared for an appearance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’, would be dressed by Bernard Lansky one final time for his burial.
(Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)
“We were just devastated,” Hal admitted. “We took the next plane out to Memphis. You always remember where you were when you heard Elvis died… And when we saw the body in the casket, we just couldn’t believe what we were seeing.”
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It was Lansky who chose the white suit and blue tie Presley wore to his grave. The patriarch later said, “I put him in his first suit, and I put him in his last suit.”
Hal said that over the years, his father loved sharing his memories of Presley with whoever would stop by his store. Today, they still receive plenty of letters and visitors from around the world. He also noted that his family has remained in touch with Presley’s.
Hal Lansky (left) and Bernard Lansky in 2001. The patriarch passed away in 2012.
(Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)
“Elvis was a decent man,” said Hal. “He didn’t have a bad bone in his body. He was a practical joker, a Southern gentleman. And he was so generous. He used to write checks anonymously to charities because he genuinely cared, not because he needed the publicity. His story was a remarkable one – a sad one – but there are so many parts to it.”
Hal Lansky today at Lansky Bros.
For Hal, Presley never really left the building.
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“I’m glad this movie is out to show the younger generation the impact Elvis had not only on Memphis or even music but on the world,” he said. “It’s amazing how much power Elvis still has today.”