Gotta Find My Baby!

December 07, 2022

Marilyn Evans: Elvis' Lost Girlfriend

Elvis, Marilyn Evans and Johnny Cash during the famous Million Dollar Quartet jam;
Sun Studio, Memphis, Tennessee; December 4, 1956. (© George Pierce)


On December 4, 1956, Elvis, now RCA Victor star and world-renowned for his performance in "Love Me Tender", made one of his unscheduled visits to Sun Studio, where his meteoric career had begun two years earlier.

Sam Phillips did not miss the opportunity to call the press and make a big marketing out of it, even more having as a friend the entertainment editor of the newspaper The Memphis Press-Scimitar, Bob Johnson. The journalist, in turn, brought the UPI representative, Leo Soroca, and a photographer to the studio to capture the event and publish it in the next day's edition of the newspaper.

Phillips obviously had a bigger plan than just showing that Elvis had come to visit. It was a great opportunity to showcase their newest artists as Carl Perkins, who had recently achieved success with "Blue Suede Shoes", would already be in the studio that day. Sun's big national hit Jerry Lee Lewis couldn't be left out, let alone the relatively unknown Johnny Cash, so Sam asked the two to also attend. It was a media frenzy, with photos and reporters everywhere, but well controlled and planned by the astute owner of Sun Studio.

Elvis' reception at Sun Studio. Left to right: Bob Johnson, Sam Phillips, Elvis and Leo Soroca;
December 4, 1956 (© George Pierce)


But far from any star, a beautiful girl, whom Bob Johnson enthusiastically quoted in his article, had arrived along with Elvis. It was a novelty at the time and remained so until very recently.

Marilyn Evans had only appeared in that newspaper article and all the photos used on albums with content from that jam session did not include her in the final art, being cropped to fit only the stars of the event.

There was doubt about her existence even among Elvis scholars, but most agreed that the female voice heard in parts of the recording could only be hers because there is evidence, albeit scant, of her dating the King of Rock.

The main proof is the photo in Bob Johnson's article and his explanation of who the girl was: "That lovely creature sitting on top of the piano is Marilyn Evans, who dances at the New Frontier in Las Vegas. She is Elvis' house guest thru Friday."

As the article was forgotten in time and the photos from that session never included her, many were led to believe that she never existed or that, if she existed, she had disappeared in time as well as her history with Elvis.

Bob Johnson's article on The Memphis Press-Scimitarwhere Marilyn also appears; December 5, 1956

Colin Escott, music historian and co-author of the play "Million Dollar Quartet", called her "Elvis' lost girlfriend" in a September 2011 interview with the Chicago Tribune, in which he explained that "given that lawyers govern everything these days, they said, if you don't know where [Evans] is, [then] we had to create a fictitious character, calling her Dyanne."

The journalist who had published the article about the play, Jason George, had already received several messages about who the mysterious girl in the photo could be. The most common hunch was that it was Patsy Cline, but the names of several Hollywood stars were also mentioned, and the occasional "it was my mother's aunt".

No one gave enough proof of the girl's identity and whereabouts or really knew who she was, except reader Mary Green.

Restored photo from Bob Johnson's article in the Memphis Press-Scimitar (© George Pierce)


Green nearly fainted when she opened the newspaper and saw the picture of that jam session. "My God, it's Marilyn!" she exclaimed from her home in Barrington. Mary had been friends with Marilyn since the 1960s, when they were both studying dance and frat sisters at the University of Utah, and she knew that her friend had dated Elvis in Memphis, but she had no idea that session at the Sun had taken place.

Green called Marilyn's husband who, in turn, wrote to the newspaper saying that this was his current wife and that she was still as beautiful as in that photo.

Jason George, who was already tired of so many leads that led nowhere, was not very convinced by this but returned a phone number where Marilyn could contact him. Two days later he missed a call, but completely relaxed when he heard the message left on his answering machine: "Hello. This is Marilyn Evans..."

On November 11, 2008, the newspaper published an interview, the first of her life, with the now 71-year-old Marilyn Knowles-Riehl.

A transcript of the same follows.
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Marilyn in 2008
When a promoter called Marilyn Evans in summer 1956 and asked her to join the chorus line at Las Vegas' New Frontier Casino, she could hardly contain herself -- this teenager from Fresno, Calif., lived to dance.

"I thought it was probably the most sophisticated thing that had ever happened in the whole world," she said last week with an easy laugh.

She came to a Las Vegas in its infancy, a relatively innocent place, where the dancers enjoyed good pay -- $135 a week -- sports cars and soirees with such headliners as Mickey Rooney and George Chakiris. "It was just very exciting: two shows a night, seven days a week," she said. "I was loving it."

Between shows, the dancers would gather in an employees-only coffee shop within the casino. It was there that Elvis walked in one night and sat at their table.

"Wow," Evans thought. "He's beautiful -- really, truly."

Within an hour, Elvis had slipped Evans a scrawled note on the back of a napkin. It read: "Can I have a date with you tomorrow night or before I leave?"

Evans nodded in excitement and shock.

"He called backstage that night, set a time," she remembered.

And so, for the next couple of weeks she and Elvis explored Las Vegas, driving around, hanging out and walking through the casinos. (Neither enjoyed gambling, she said.) Asked why he picked her, she giggles and shrugs.

"I think he probably liked that I wasn't 'out there.' I was respectable," she said. "I still am respectable, you know!"

And what did this respectable teenager's parents think about her dating Parental Enemy No. 1?

Evans' father had died when she was in high school, but to head off any trouble she wrote her mother a letter that began, "Don't flip, mama, but I've become acquainted with Elvis Presley."

Momma did flip, a little; that is, until Evans put the young star on the phone.

Napkin with Elvis' original invitation
Like Evans, Elvis, too, was performing at the New Frontier -- his first Vegas engagement -- but when he left, the couple kept in touch by telephone. Then one day, he called Evans and asked her to come visit and stay at his Memphis home.

She said yes.

And so, 52 years later, what does she remember most about the house?

"I remember that phone just rang and nobody answered, which was odd."

In Memphis, Elvis and Evans spent their days riding motorcycles, going out to eat and watching rented movies at Elvis' house, a luxury the girl from Fresno could hardly believe.

"He was relaxed. He was comfortable there," Knowles-Riehl recalled.

And at night she slept ...

"... not with him."

"He was extremely honorable. He was young; I was young."

On Dec. 4, 1956, the couple, along with some of Elvis' friends, cruised around Memphis, as usual. But on this day Elvis stopped at Sun, where he had made his first record only three years prior. It was there, over the next few hours, that fate (and a tape recorder) would allow a rare glimpse of the musical passions of these four future legends, as they jammed on gospel, country and blues. It was a seminal session of rock 'n' roll's origins ... and one that Knowles-Riehl barely recalls.

"I remember that outfit I was wearing was all wool," she said with a shrug of apology. "A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then."

The fact that the session meant so little to her might help explain why she said she felt fine when the relationship faded a few weeks later.

"I always preferred classical music," she explained. "We were just into different things, not that one's better than the other."

Marilyn Evans at The New Frontier, 1956
"It was great, I loved it, it was terrifically exciting and wonderful, but I had other things I wanted to do," said Knowles-Riehl who, the next year, began attending the University of Utah.

Asked why she never broadcast her brush with stardom, Knowles-Riehl said she never thought it among her life's highlights. Instead she prefers to gush about her two husbands -- her first died -- her son and a dancing career that includes 13 years as the director of the Fresno Ballet.

"It's like people whose high point of their life is their senior prom," she explained. "My senior prom was good, but a lot of stuff has happened that's been great since then."

Such as ...

"When it's not driving me crazy, I enjoy genealogy," said Knowles-Riehl, who divides her time between Carmel, Calif., and Salt Lake City.

She also continues to dance -- she's as physically fit as a 40-year-old -- and she runs her own belly dancing troupe.

"It's pretty much the opposite of all my training, but I love it," she said.

Until last week, Knowles-Riehl had never listened to the recording session from that day in Memphis. But when she did, she quickly nixed the popular theory that she's the one who requested the song "Farther Along."

"That's not me," she said, as the female voice on the recording speaks with an obvious drawl.

"I wouldn't pick up a Southern accent that fast," she said, chuckling.

And yet, in listening to the rest of the album from that day's session Knowles-Riehl stumbled upon another female voice, this one requesting "End of the Road."

"That's me," she said, as her wide brown eyes grew wider.

"It's like otherworldly," she said of hearing herself, "out of body."

With the headphones still on, Knowles-Riehl appeared in that moment as she does in the '56 photograph: Her face bright and blushing, wondering how could it possibly get any better than this.

'It's amazing'

Peter Guralnick, author of the definitive two-volume Elvis biography "Last Train to Memphis" and "Careless Love," tried to locate Marilyn Evans but couldn't.

"And no one is more dogged than Peter Guralnick," said Colin Escott, co-author of "Million Dollar Quartet," the play about the 1956 recording session. "If he couldn't find her, I assumed she was lost to history."

Thanks to a Tribune reader though, we found Marilyn (formerly Evans) Knowles-Riehl. "It's amazing, truly. This means there's three survivors from that day: Jerry Lee Lewis, Jack Clemont [the session engineer] and now Marilyn."

Escott said he'd love to have Knowles-Riehl see the show at Chicago's Apollo Theater. The play features a fictitious Elvis girlfriend who sings and dances with the quartet.

Asked if she'd be up for it, Knowles-Riehl exclaimed, "It'd be fun to see!"
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Original articles: compiled from Elvis Australia & The Chicago Tribune
Photos: George Pierce, Elvis Australia & Google
Research and structuring: Elvis Presley Index | http://www.elvispresleyindex.com
>> the re-availability of this post is only allowed if the credits are kept and without edits. <<

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