King of the Houston Rodeo
After Elvis’ performance at the 1970 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, Louis M. Pearce Jr. made sure he walked away with a gift fit for a king.
One way or another, with one title or another, Louis M. Pearce Jr. has been involved with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo ever since he bought his first bull in 1938, back when the event was still known as the Houston Fat Stock Show and Livestock Exposition. He is unabashedly proud of the millions the Houston Rodeo has raised in scholarship funds for participating Texas youths. (“A lot of these boys and girls,” he says, “probably would have never made it to college without the rodeo’s help.”) And he’s pleased to admit that, along the way, he’s met a respectable number of celebrities while helping attract entertainers for the rodeo’s concert series. But there’s no question about who made the biggest impression: Elvis Presley.
Concerts by star performers have been a Houston Rodeo tradition ever since Gene Autry entertained the crowds in 1942. But in 1966, when Stuart Lang was president of the show, “We moved from the old Sam Houston Coliseum, where there were eight or nine thousand seats, to the Houston Astrodome, where there were about 40,000 seats,” Pearce says. “After the first three years in the dome, it became obvious that if we wanted to stay in business — if we wanted to fill up all those empty seats — we had to do something to change our entertainment package.”
Fortunately, executive committee member Bill Williams happened to be a childhood friend of Col. Tom Parker, Elvis’ legendarily control-freakish manager. Not so fortunately, Col. Parker proved to be every bit as tough a negotiator as his legend suggested. Along with Houston Rodeo general manager Dick Weekley and president Buddy Bray, Pearce, then rodeo chairman, flew to Las Vegas, where Elvis was preparing for a sold-out engagement at the International Hotel, to strike a deal with Col. Parker.
“We started talking,” Pearce recalls, “and I said, ‘Colonel, this show is not something that I make money out of, or Buddy makes money out of, or Dick Weekley makes money out of. We’re all volunteers — everybody out there is a volunteer — and the money we make goes to educating young people, to give them an opportunity to go to college.’
“And I’ll never forget what he said: ‘Well, so we can get this thing off on the right foot: I won’t give anybody a stick of gum. Now y’all start talking.’”
Elvis himself proved to be more amiable during the negotiations. “He had beautiful manners,” Pearce recalls. “Everything from him was ‘Yes, sir,’ and ‘No, sir.’ I remember there were two things he told me. The first thing was, ‘Who’s your tailor?’ And I told him. And then he asked, ‘Let me look at that watch you have, please.’ And so I handed it to him. And he said, ‘That is the most beautiful watch I’ve ever seen in my life.’”
The singularly impressive timepiece was a solid gold Rolex King Midas, a very special gift to Pearce from fellow Houston Rodeo board members. As a token of appreciation, the Houston Rodeo gave Elvis a similar limited edition King Midas after his sold-out concert series. The watch remains on display to this day at Graceland.
Pearce and his fellow negotiators eventually agreed to pay the then-exorbitant sum of $70,000 for the King of Rock ’n’ Roll to perform multiple concerts during the 1970 rodeo — for record-setting crowds. But rest assured: A hunka-hunka lot of scholarships were financed by ticket sales.