Savannah, the Varnedoes, and Elvis

by Chris Murray on April 1, 2015

010From left to right: Rev. Dr. Thomas E. Williams, Govinda Gallery artist Carlotta Hester, and Chris Murray at the First African Baptist Church of East Savannah. Copyright © Gordon Varnedoe. All Rights Reserved.

I recently visited Savannah, Georgia for a few days. I was shown around that beautiful city by my friend and Savannah native Gordon Varnedoe. Gordon invited me and Carlotta Hester to attend the Sunday service at the First African Baptist Church of East Savannah. The First African Baptist Church was organized in 1773. It was an inspiring and uplifting service. The gospel choir was wonderful and the congregation welcomed us with open arms. We were particularly pleased to meet Pastor Thomas Williams, who made us feel so at home. What a great way to spend a Sunday in Savannah.

FullSizeRender-8 Copyright © Carlotta Hester. All Rights Reserved.

Gordon took us the next day to the stunning Telfair Museum’s Jepsen Center located on beautiful Telfair Square. We visited the Kirk Varnedoe Gallery at the museum, named after Gordon’s brother Kirk Varnedoe, who was the legendary curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from 1988-2001. The Varnedoe family is a distinguished family from Savannah. Gordon and Kirk’s father Sam Varnedoe was a highly regarded Savannian.

FullSizeRender-3Gordon Varnedoe and Chris Murray at the entrance to the Kirk Varnedoe Gallery at the Telfair Museums Jepsen Center. Copyright © Carlotta Hester. All Rights Reserved.
FullSizeRender-21Gordon and Kirk Varnedoe’s father Sam Varnedoe at the bridge in Savannah named after him circa 1985 over the Wilmington River.

Gordon Varnedoe took me to see the Savannah Sports Arena where Elvis Presley performed on June 25, 1956. It was a great experience for me to stand at that location where the 21-year-old Elvis Presley performed. Gordon invited me to cut the ribbon on a historic plaque he arranged to have installed at the site. Gordon attended that concert as a young man.

FullSizeRender-7Story about Elvis Presley’s performance in June 1956 at the Savannah Sports Arena. Copyright © Carlotta Hester. All Rights Reserved.
FullSizeRender-6Chris Murray cutting the ribbon on the historic plaque at the Savannah area with Gordon Varnedoe. Copyright © Carlotta Hester. All Rights Reserved.

I first got to know Gordon Varnedoe when he contacted me to congratulate me on editing and producing the book Elvis at 21: New York to Memphis by Alfred Wertheimer. Gordon is a true fan of Elvis Presley, and was the first person to buy signed original prints of Alfred Wertheimer’s photographs of Elvis. In Wertheimer’s inscription to Gordon in the book Elvis at 21, he refers to Gordon as “the discoverer”. It was a great pleasure for me to hear Gordon’s stories about Elvis and about his visit to Alfred Wertheimer to acquire some of his great photos of Elvis Presley.

withalGordon Varnedoe with Alfred Wertheimer at Cinergy in 1980.
bookThe inscribed title page of Gordon Varnedoe’s copy of Elvis at 21: New York to Memphis.

I went to Loyola High School in New York City and to summer camp in the Catskill Mountains with my longtime friend Fred Gretsch. Fred’s great-grandfather founded the Gretsch musical instrument company in 1883 in Brooklyn, NY. Fred moved the company to Savannah in 1989. Though Fred was not in Savannah on this visit I was happy to wear my Gretsch T-shirt at historic Colonial Park.

FullRender-3Chris Murray at Colonial Park in Savannah wearing the Gretsch t-shirt. Copyright © Carlotta Hester. All Rights Reserved.

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