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From The Vault Of Art Shay: Elvis Presley And Racquetball

By Art Shay in News on Jun 20, 2013 4:00PM

(Legendary Chicago-based photographer Art Shay has taken photos of kings, queens, celebrities and the common man in a 60-year career. This week, Art and pal Bo Keeley talk about one of Elvis Presley's great loves—racquetball.)

Later today my friends Jeff and Bev Dembo are driving me north to Milwaukee where a hotshot advertising company named Hanson Dodge is opening a big exhibition of my sports pictures. It will run through Sept. 20. Before the show opens I will be meeting with two famous, award winning movie documentarians , Brad Lichtenstein and Steve Farr, who are looking to possibly do a feature on me. One of my famous friends who collects my pictures of REAL icons, and who is every bit as vulgar as I am, says it's 'because e you've become a fucking icon."

As if in punctuation, comes a snapshot in my email of my archivist's son, George and two of his friends, Luke and Jake, getting an advance view of the entrance to Hanson-Dodge- a snap of them with my theme picture of a real icon, Muhammad Ali.

When I sat down to write this blog at midnight, my mind was teeming with bona fide icons for one reason or another: Someone has sent me chapter and verse on Frank Sinatra's work for Jewish causes—he once walked out on a baptism of one of his sons when the priest refused to accept the kid's godfather because he was a Jew.

There is poor Jimmy Hoffa's body, kidnapped and presumably murdered a few weeks after I photographed him for an ABC TV special in the 70's. It seems to be on the point of resurrection, so to speak. A good chance to use my picture of this lovable handball-playing sinner praying. But foremost in my mind was another icon of my time—Elvis Presley—via the work-in-progress of my favorite writing student and racquetball champ, historian, author and world class hobo, Steve “Bo” Keeley. (You'll remember him from my bawdy Keeley tales of Peru and Mexico.) Bo gave me permission to collaborate with him—for you—on "Elvis and the Memphis Racquetball Mafia." Huh?

Yeah. Steve trusts me to do a precis with minor retouching before he gets around to focus his initial observations.

These begin: Elvis walloped the ball around the court like he was strumming a guitar for the fun of it. He looked like he was on stage except with the racquet , the moves in the court comparable to his gyrations onstage , and to work the audience with his physical performance. His guitar became more of a prop, and so did his racquet.

(Elvis’s eminence grise Colonel Parker wouldn't let him be photographed on his beloved private court because his flab would shake, rattle and roll to his PR disadvantage.)

Elvis and his Memphis Mafia loved the sport. E's main contenders at Graceland were touring pros: Davey Bledsoe, National Champ in 1977, an old pal of mine who worked with me and his own Nikon behind the then-new glass windows I designed for the sport; Randy Stafford, the Intercollegiate Champ and also a touring pro and Tennessee State champ; Mike Zeitman, three-time National Doubles Champion with three different partners; David Fleetwood, National Collegiate Doubles Champion who never ranked out of the top 16; and Elvis's sports physician, Fred Lewerenz, who was in the Michigan Racquetball Hall of Fame and had two years on the Pro Tour.

Other members of Elvis's Racquetball Mafia: His bodyguards Red and Sonny West; actor Dave Heble;, harmony singer Charlie Hodge; and road manager Joe Esposito. Friend Linda Thompson also played. Not a bad support group for a middling player .

Elvis was introduced to racquetball in 1968 by his then-physician Dr. Frederick Nichopolos, who told Keeley that he had started playing in 1955 at the Nashville Jewish Center by sawing off the handle of a tennis racquet. The doc coached his son Dean and a few other beginners, then moved his practice to Memphis in the mid 60's and coached Dean in his partnership with young Marty Hogan (who would become the sport's Babe Ruth and all-time highest money-winner. And a good friend and co-author of mine who helped get me into the Racquetball Hall of Fame recently for my pioneering photography that helped make the sport international.) When “Dr. Nick” began treating Elvis for saddle pain from his motorcycle riding, this blossomed into a lifelong friendship during thousands of racquetball games."

I'll spare you the almost infinite loving detail of Keeley's account, which will probably become a book, except to share some of the Elvis racquetball mystique:

Elvis wore white tennis shoes , shorts and huge safety goggles. White headband and white glove. He played day and night before heading out into the dark streets of Memphis and, presumably, its fleshpots. On his motorcycle, with his bodyguards and the Mafia in sidecars, they hit movies and nightclubs. The week before going on tour Elvis wore a rubber suit with tight wrists to sweat off five pounds. Bledsoe said he thought it would help him look good for his fans.

He had a strong forehand as an extension of karate, a standard club backhand. "To be honest," Davey adds sadly, "he wasn't much of an athlete. He just wanted to move around and get some exercise.” He did love the game and ended up building a $250,000 court in back of Graceland. Bledsoe sadly compares Elvis's racquetball to his own singing voice: "Horrible."

Steve Smith adds: "Elvis loved the game like he loved Gospel—he just belted it out." He never played "on the road." The fans would've mobbed the courts.

If you can't wait until this time every Wednesday to get your Art Shay fix, please check out the photographer's blog, which is updated regularly. Art Shay's book, Chicago's Nelson Algren, is also available at Amazon.