The Overton Park Shell

Louis Perini Orchestra at the Overton Park Shell
Photo courtesy Christian Brothers High School, added Mar. 21, 2015

Overton Park is one of the first of several large parks in Memphis designed by landscape architect George Kessler that featured a picturesque landscape design, largely derived from the design traditions of New York City's Central Park.  The planning began in 1901 and the design was completed in early 1902, and initial development of the drives, open areas, lakes, and pavilions were completed by August. Today the park includes the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the Memphis Zoo, a 9-hole golf course, and the Memphis College of Art.

Aerial view of the Shell in Overton Park - 1953
Photo courtesy Save Our Shell, Inc. via FECC/e-cat

In 1933 and 1934 Ralph Dunbar produced two summer seasons of light opera and theater on a dirt stage at the foot of a natural bowl shaped slope in the Park and then advocated the construction of a permanent amphitheater on the site.  In 1936 the Overton Park Orchestra Shell is constructed for $11,935 by the Work Progress Administration (WPA) and the City of Memphis. The facility has enough wooden benches for 4,000 people and is dominated by the reinforced concrete orchestra shell patterned after the acoustical designs of similar shells in New York, Chicago, and St. Louis.  Dedication ceremonies on September 13 are attended by 6,000 as the newly formed Memphis Symphony Orchestra performs. The dedication program calls the Shell "A pledge to the future of music in Memphis".2

Flyers courtesy Save Our Shell, Inc. via FECC/e-cat

The following year the Memphis Open Air Theatre (MOAT) produces the first of fourteen seasons of light opera and musicals and in 1947 the Memphis Federation of Musicians inaugurates its "Music Under the Stars Program" series which will provide six to eight events a year over the next thirty years.2

Scotty and Bill with the Starlite Wranglers at a special show at the VA Hospital

Shortly after recording their first record and Elvis signed a contract with Scotty as his manager, Elvis appeared as a special guest with the Starlite Wranglers on July 17th at their gig at the Bon Air club on Summer Ave., a bar on the outer rim of the city limits in eastern Memphis.  When they performed the two songs they had recorded, all of the Wranglers had to leave the stage except Scotty and Bill since they were the only ones on the recording. Their performance was not received well and did not sit well with the rest of the band since the crowd was a hard drinking traditional Country and Western crowd and they didn't care for Elvis' look or music. After that night the they knew the Starlite Wranglers were finished as a group and Scotty and Bill gave their full attention to Elvis and the Blue Moon Boys. Sam Phillips then asked WMPS Memphis disc jockey Bob Neal to book Elvis on his Country Music Jamboree at the Overton Shell that featured Slim Whitman and Billy Walker as the headliners.  It would be their first professional public performance as a band.3  The ad in the Memphis Press Scimitar misspelled Elvis's name "Ellis" though the small article got his name right.

July 30, 1954 advertisement in the Memphis Press Scimitar
Ad Scans courtesy Ger Rijff

Advertised as a Hillbilly Hoedown, appearing in addition to Slim Whitman and Billy Walker were "Sugarfoot Collins, "Sonny" Harvelle, Tinker Fry and "Curly Harris.  The show began at 8:00 on the night of July, 30, 1954, and they started with "That's Alright Mama".  Elvis was so nervous he stood up on the balls of his feet and shook his leg in time with the music, a move he sometimes used in the studio. To his shock and horror the young girls in the audience went crazy, yelling and applauding. Scotty said, "We didn't know what was going on when all those people started screaming and hollering." Next they did "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and when Elvis got offstage he asked why people were yelling at him.  Someone told him it was because he was shaking his leg, which with the baggy pleated pants created a wild gyrating effect in time with the music.  Later in the show they returned and did the same two numbers along with "I'll never let you go (Little Darlin)", a new song they had been working on.3

Elvis backstage at Overton Park Shell - July 30, 1954
Photo Bill E. Burk

The following year they returned to the Shell for the second and last time for Bob Neal's eighth annual Country Music Jamboree.  The show also included Webb Pierce, Sonny James, Johnny Cash, Wanda Jackson and some 22 other country music and comedy performers.  They drew a crowd of over 4000.

Elvis and Texas Bill Strength at the Shell
Photo by Robert Dye EPE

Elvis backstage at Overton Park Shell Aug 5, 1955
Photo by Robert Dye EPE

The Memphis Press Scimitar on August 6 reported that the Shell was jammed with an overflow audience for the show and that several hundred were turned away.  Local amateur photographer Robert Dye who photographed Elvis at the Shell on August 5th recalled one performer loaning him his guitar after Elvis couldn't find his in time to go on and was pretty agitated after Elvis returned it with two strings broken.

Elvis backstage at Overton Park Shell Aug 5, 1955
Photo by Robert Dye EPE

On June 1, 1956 Carl Perkins and his brothers performed at the Overton Park Shell, barely two months after their accident while on route to New York.  Some 5,000 teenagers turned out that night for two hours of rock and roll by various artists including Perkins. Elvis made a surprise appearance at the show and they later were photographed jokingly exchanging autographs.

Carl Perkins on stage at the shell (not the neck brace on his brother) - June 1, 1956
Photo by  Robert Williams The Commercial Appeal

Carl Perkins signs autographs backstage at the Shell - June 1, 1956
Photo by  Robert Williams The Commercial Appeal

Carl Perkins and Elvis exchange autographs backstage for the camera - June 1, 1956
Photo by  Robert Williams The Commercial Appeal

Homes on the west and east side of Overton Park were leveled in the 1960s to make way for the construction of Interstate 40, but instead of going through, the interstate abruptly stopped before reaching the area after numerous lawsuits succeeded in halting construction.  The shell would eventually host several large name rock acts that included the Allman Brothers, The Grateful Dead and Neil Diamond.  In 1974 the fence was removed and the Shell resumed a schedule of free performances, thus ending the controversy over rock concerts.

Fenced in arena - 1972
Photo W. Bearden - Overton Park / Images of America courtesy FECC/e-cat

Last rock concert where admission was charged - 1974
Photo W. Bearden - Overton Park / Images of America courtesy FECC/e-cat

In 1982 at the request of the National Council of Christians and Jews, the Shell was renamed the Raoul Wallenberg Shell after Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat responsible for saving thousands of Jews from Nazi death camps.  In 1985, the stage of the Shell remained dark for the first season since its construction. Many Memphians thought the dormant and somewhat dilapidated amphitheater was doomed to be displaced by a parking lot.

Overton Park Shell - 2002

From the wings - 2002

Late in 1985, volunteers began repairs to the facility at no cost to the city.  A petition drive was begun, weekly meetings were held and the "Save Our Shell" committee was born.  Save Our Shell Inc. provided entertainment there through 2003 with 54 performances for 63,000 people in 2002 and 63 performances for 75,000 people in 2003.2

original mural at Overton Park shell

Years later a Christian and Jewish themed mural was painted on one of the rear outside side walls at the shell that depicted Elvis and subjects from the lyrics of one of the gospel songs he recorded, "Peace in the Valley".  One or more organizations apparently protested about the religious aspects of the mural and most of it was painted over.

revised mural

In October of 2004 the city once again closed the 68 year old shell citing code violations and liability concerns. An engineering study found that the shell needed about $550,000.00 worth of repairs and improvements.  It said this historic venue has decayed to the point that it is now a liability for the city.

In January of 2007 it was announced that the city had partnered with the Mortimer Levitt Foundation and a group of Memphians to revive the Shell. The Foundation, created in 1963 to support the arts across the U.S., has a history of helping restore amphitheaters, such as the Gold Shell in Memorial Park in the city of Pasadena, CA. That venue, built in 1930 and restored with a $250,000 grant from the foundation is now called the Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts.

Aerial view of the Shell in Overton Park - 2007

In February The Memphis Business journal reported that renovations will cost approximately $1 million and construction is scheduled to begin in June with the first performances in Spring 2008.  The Memphis City Council approved capital funding of $500,000 to be matched by the Mortimer Levitt Foundation and the Friends for the Levitt Pavilion Memphis. The Friends will raise an additional $1.75 million to operate the Shell for the first five years and intend to produce 50 free concerts there a year.  Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects will design the renovation and is looking to make it environmentally friendly and sustainable, according to a release. "The renovations include replacing the two wings on each side of the stage and replacing the old benches with lawn seating and a few new benches for the elderly and handicapped," Lee Askew said.4

A computer-generated REVIT image shows the design of the renovated Levitt Shell
2008 Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects

The picture of Elvis at his first appearance at the shell on July 30th with the little boy , Charlie Torian Jr., was taken when he was brought backstage to meet "an entertainer" by his father, a Lieutenant with the Memphis Fire Dept. When Elvis died on August 16, 1977, that little boy, by then a Sergeant with the Memphis Police, was assigned to Graceland to guard Elvis' body.5

page added November 24, 2007

1 The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture.
2 compiled by John Larkin, Save Our Shell, Inc.
3 excerpted from "That's Allright Elvis" by Scotty Moore and James Dickerson
4 The Memphis Business Journal.
5 courtesy The Sun Years by Bill E. Burk, publisher of Elvis World Magazine

Special thanks to E-Cat of the FECC for his photo contributions

Levitt Shell's opening crowd amazes

Opening Night at the Levitt Shell - Sept. 4, 2008
Photo Commercial Appeal

Ecstatic organizers estimate nearly 1,000 attended each night
By Joseph Russell 
Special to The Commercial Appeal
Monday, September 8, 2008 

As an opener, the four-day inauguration of Overton Park's open-air band shell exceeded all expectations for those who helped make the $1.3 million renovation a reality.

The newly refurbished Levitt Shell, which had been closed since 2004 following many years of disuse and disrepair in the 1990s, began its premiere concert season Thursday. Performances ranged from a well-received opener by local roots-rock musician Amy LaVere and longtime stalwart producer/performer Jim Dickinson to homegrown jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum and the New Olivet Baptist choir on Friday. Saturday's event included a family-focused show and a Latin-infused evening performance by Melina Almodovar. The local performing arts troupe Watoto De Afrika performed Sunday.

Cloudy weather couldn't keep the crowd away from the dedication of the new Levitt Shell in Overton Park on Thursday. 

How did Dickinson put it on Thursday night? "I first played this venue 45 years ago. It was a different Shell and a different world. And this place has seen several miracles since then, and this is one of them."

The free concert series will run Thursday through Sunday for the next five weeks, concluding Oct. 5. The Shell will launch its spring session in May 2009.

With the weather cooling down and free music in the park, the Shell's executive director, Ann Pitts, said a wide variety of people took advantage.

"There was so much diversity out there," said Pitts, who took over management duties in early August. "It was a complete cross-section of the Memphis population, which is exactly what we were trying to get."

Every time she would look out at the crowd over the weekend, Pitts said, she was simply "amazed."

"I was probably expecting 500 or 600 people to come out. It's brand new and it takes a little while to see what's going to happen. It takes a while for word of mouth to spread," she said.

Instead, she estimated about 1,000 people in attendance each night.

"I was expecting something great and it's better than I expected," Pitts said.

Pitts said she saw evidence that the Shell can achieve one of its chief goals -- to inspire a greater sense of community.

"This is about music, but it's also about building the community," Pitts said. "Through music, by bringing everybody together regardless of age or income status, gender, race, ethnicity, regardless of that stuff we can all come together, and through that sharing experience, we form bonds."

Elizabeth Levitt Hirsch, vice president of the Mortimer Levitt Foundation, the New Jersey non-profit that provided the impetus and half the funding for the revitalized Shell, was on hand for Thursday night's dedication.

Started by the late New York clothier Mortimer Levitt in 1963, the foundation is dedicated to promoting free concerts in outdoor venues across the country. The foundation has helped establish a network of Shell pavilions, with locations in Westport, Conn.; Pasadena and Los Angeles, Calif.; and Harrisburg, Pa. A new facility opens later this fall in Arlington, Texas.

"Levitt pavilions are about community, which is what you see up on the stage, which is what you view all around you," Hirsch told the audience. "The thought of making music in Memphis with the Levitt Shell, building community under the stars, is something that makes my heart swell with pride."

Music critic Mark Jordan contributed to this report. To read his full review of Thursday's performance, visit

If you go

Concerts at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park are 7 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays. Saturday children's shows are at 5 p.m. In case of inclement weather, call 272-5159 for information.

Visit the Web site, for a complete schedule.

article added September 9, 2008 courtesy

Billy Lee Riley and the Little Green Men
at the Overton Park Shell

Photos courtesy Martin Willis

On August 19, 1958, Sun Records artist Billy Lee Riley and the Little Green Men performed as one of the acts on the last night of the season at the Overton Park Shell summer concert series. According to Martin Willis, they performed six songs*: Rudy's Rock, Rock & Roll Shoes, Mosquito, That's All To The Ball, Mr. Hall and Summit Ridge Rock. These photos are courtesy of Martin Willis' Facebook page.  They give an excellent look at the appearance and setup of a band and stage there in that era.  A community endeavor, as noted in the program, the grand piano for the concert series is courtesy of the OK Houck Piano Company in Memphis.

program1.jpg (274880 bytes)program2.jpg (117218 bytes)program3.jpg (229566 bytes)
Program for August 19, 1958 concert at the Overton Park Shell
courtesy Martin Willis

In comparison Riley must've seriously contrasted the other big band acts that night with their "assorted styles".  The Commercial Appeal advertised:

There'll be a hot time in the old Shell tonight -- and that's without regard to temperature, humidity or dewpoint. Four Memphis combos will batten down the lid on the 11th summer season of free concerts in the Overton Park Shell, and the downbeat -- the first one, that is -- will be at 8:15 p.m. In order of appearance, Hilburn "Pappy" Graves, Bob Taylor, Billy Riley and Colie Stoltz will pilot their groups through assorted styles of popular rhythms.

Pat O'Neil, Billy Lee Riley, J. M. Van Eaton, Martin Willis and Jimmy Wilson at the Overton Shell - Aug 19, 1958
Photo courtesy Martin Willis

Pat O'Neil, J. M. Van Eaton, Billy Lee Riley, Martin Willis and Jimmy Wilson at the Overton Shell - Aug 19, 1958
Photo courtesy Martin Willis

Pat O'Neil, Billy Lee Riley, J. M. Van Eaton, Martin Willis and Jimmy Wilson at the Overton Shell - Aug 19, 1958
Photo courtesy Martin Willis

Pat O'Neil, Billy Lee Riley, J. M. Van Eaton, Martin Willis and Jimmy Wilson at the Overton Shell - Aug 19, 1958
Photo courtesy Martin Willis

Pat O'Neil, J. M. Van Eaton, Billy Lee Riley, Martin Willis and Jimmy Wilson at the Overton Shell - Aug 19, 1958
Photo courtesy Martin Willis

Pat O'Neil, J. M. Van Eaton, Billy Lee Riley, Martin Willis and Jimmy Wilson at the Overton Shell - Aug 19, 1958
Photo courtesy Martin Willis

Pat O'Neil, Billy Lee Riley, Martin Willis, J. M. Van Eaton and Jimmy Wilson at the Overton Shell - Aug 19, 1958
Photo courtesy Martin Willis

Pat O'Neil, J. M. Van Eaton, Billy Lee Riley, Martin Willis and Jimmy Wilson - Aug 19, 1958
Photo courtesy Martin Willis

Pat O'Neil, J. M. Van Eaton, Billy Lee Riley, Martin Willis and Jimmy Wilson - Aug 19, 1958
Photo courtesy Martin Willis

section added March 20, 2015

*Regarding the hand-written titles on the program, please note that they refer to five songs, not six, as "Is That All To The Ball (Mr. Hall)" is one of the sides of Riley's sole Brunswick single, issued that same year under the name "Bill Riley" (all Sun singles referred to him as "Billy Riley", except the last one which also had his name noted as "Bill" - the "Lee" bit was added later).  Two of the other songs referenced are probably "Hang Up My Rock & Roll Shoes", the Chuck Willis song, and "The Green Mosquito", the Tune Rockers instrumental, both released earlier in 1958. "Rudy's Rock" is of course the Bill Haley instrumental number featuring Rudy Pompili, but I have no idea what "Summit Ridge Rock" unless it's a rock & roll adaptation of the 1940 Artie Shaw single Summit Ridge Drive.  I think it was Roland Janes who said that Jerry Lee used to play this song just for fun.  - courtesy FECC/Mister Moon - March 21, 2015
Interestingly, an artist named Jimmy Heap and the Melody Masters issued the first official recording of "Summer Ridge Rock" (Artie Shaw) two years later, in October 1960 for the FAme label. - according to Oct. 24, 1960 Billboard courtesy FECC/s drjohncarpenter - March 23, 2015


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