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The day no one wanted Elvis - but my grandfather

In January 1956, just before Elvis Presley became a national sensation, Papa Fred had an exclusive chat with him. By PJ Grisar.

I knew that my grandfather interviewed Elvis. But until recently, that's about all I knew.

When Ad Age published an obituary for its former editor Fred Danzig (whom I called Papa Fred), it said he was the first entertainment reporter to interview Elvis Presley. Growing up I heard Papa Fred was the first East Coast reporter to interview Elvis, which, given my grandfather's care for the facts, seems more likely.

The day no one wanted Elvis - but my grandfather
The title page for Papa Fred’s story about interviewing Elvis, which appeared in a July 1959 issue of 'Movie Stars TV Close-Ups'.

That the two met - twice, I would come to learn - was more than just family lore, like the fact Barbara Bush was Papa Fred's classmate. Elvis' presence could be felt. I remember finding the afikoman in the same room as a shrine to the King: a glass-doored display cabinet with a decorative plate and an unboxed doll of Presley in the black leather jumpsuit from his '68 comeback special .

I have the doll now. I asked for it one day and my grandparents, as was their fashion with anything they owned, gave it to me the moment I expressed an interest. Apparently this took some wearing down. My older sister, who met no resistance asking for our grandparents' upright piano, wanted Elvis first; it was the only time she heard 'no' from Papa Fred.

I really had no right to the doll. I didn't know the first thing about Elvis and what little I did probably came from my asking about this bizarre toy, so unlike anything else in the house, whose décor otherwise constitutes tasteful reproductions of classic paintings, books and - in the kitsch department - a matryoshka doll of the Glasnost-era Politburo. Jews were not meant to have household shrines and idols before their God. Elvis was an evident exception. My grandmother Edith called Papa Fred's interest in the rock star a 'fixation'.

I never really spoke with Papa Fred about Elvis. Or really any music for that matter. I knew he liked Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong, and that he watched 'American Idol' long after much of the public lost interest. I remember him absentmindedly singing 'doobie-doobie-doo' as he drove, so Sinatra was on his radar. His record collection, still at the house in Eastchester, New York, where my mother grew up and where Edith still lives, includes some Sergio Mendes, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald and instrumental compilations. He has a couple albums by jazz trumpeter Neal Hefti (Papa Fred wrote liner notes for one of them when it was released on CD), the requisite show tunes and a Henny Youngman LP.

But as my mother says, they were a decidedly 'non-musical family'. That Papa Fred ended up writing four music columns a week for United Press International was something of a fluke.

Papa Fred's love of Elvis didn't quite make sense on its own terms. I long chalked it up to loyalty, or respect for a gentlemanly 21-year-old he met when he himself was just 30.

Elvis 'was a very polite young man', he always told my mother.

I figured Papa Fred probably liked Elvis for the same reason he liked the Dallas Cowboys, despite the fact that he'd lived nearly his entire life - minus some time in Army training and the European Theater - in New York: He experienced a rising phenomenon firsthand, saw how it changed the game and became a lifelong fan.

But when I did some digging I found there was more to Papa Fred's admiration. He always showed up for Elvis, because when they met, no one else did.

When they crossed paths on Jan. 31, 1956, my grandfather was the only reporter in New York who bothered to pay a visit to the RCA studios on East 24th Street, where Elvis was on his second day of recording what would become his self-titled debut album. Despite a publicity blitz, Papa Fred had the singer's full attention between sessions, and sat down with him for around a half-hour. Peter Guralnick's 1994 Elvis biography, 'Last Train to Memphis', goes over the details of their discussion in about two pages.

As Papa Fred told Guralnick, he knew about Elvis courtesy of Marion Keisker , a radio host and station manager who was the first person to record Presley and the one who brought him to his first label, Sun Records . Papa Fred's work with United Press also had him polling over 700 DJs for their favorite artists in each genre. While the airwaves in New York had yet to hear the rich baritone of the boy from Tupelo, Presley, who had by then had a few charting singles for Sun and performed on a TV show called 'Louisiana Hayride', came in at a respectable ninth place on the National Disc Jockey Poll's Country-Western list.

So, when Elvis came to New York in early 1956 - unprepared for the cold weather and appreciative that, unlike the women in the South, the girls there didn't swarm his Cadillac - Papa Fred was already briefed on all the fuss. Even if, in the North, there wasn't any yet.

'You're the first interview for Elvis', an RCA Victor publicist, Anne Fulchino, told him, according to a 1959

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