Eleven-year-old Sterling Smith was keen at being idle and solemn about his watermelon business. Those two qualities worked together for the young boy during the hot Mississippi summer of 1973 when he noticed four cars parading toward his watermelon stand on Highway 51 going northbound one scalding afternoon.
“I would play a game with myself to pass the time away,” Smith told me in Pearl, Mississippi, twenty years later. “I would count the cars that were coming by. Every time the tenth car passed, I pretended that was my car.”
“When I saw a line of cars coming, I was getting ready to count but noticed they were slowing down and I thought maybe I was going to sell another one (melon),” Smith recalled. He mentioned his mode of operation was to “stay put so they would be more likely to buy one if they got out of the car because they walked all the way over to inspect them.”
“Sure enough, all of four cars pulled over and I thought, ‘yes’, I might sell four watermelons,” Smith laughed, with four fingers pointed upward. “Quickly, a man with sunglasses on got out of the first black car and it was Elvis Presley.”
“Can you imagine that? Elvis Presley was walking up to ME to see MY watermelons and I just sat there because I was being cool, while they were hot,” grinned Smith. “Some other men and women walked up to look them over too and give them a good thump. It was scorching, but I knew my melons were tasty.”
Smith believed he’d stay calm under the shade tree that canopied over his watermelons. Presley asked him if there was a discount available if he bought four. Smith didn’t budge from the price.
“No sir’, the boy replied. “They is three for a dollar but you can pick the ones you want?”
Sam Thompson, who later became to be a member of the ‘Memphis Mafia’, working security detail at concerts and Graceland, collaborated Smith’s story some years after Presley’s death in August 1977. Presley generally had his group of inner circle friends on the payroll to take care of business and personal affairs.
“One time my sister Linda, my wife Louise, and I had been down with Elvis to see the old Circle G Ranch in Mississippi and were on our way back to Memphis in Elvis’ Stutz Bearcat,” Thompson explained. “We passed a little black boy, maybe ten or eleven years old, by the side of Highway 51.”
“It was summer; it was hot – dust in the air,” Thompson confirmed. “The kid was caked in dust, sitting at a little watermelon stand. We had this entourage, about four or five vehicles, and Elvis was in the lead. As we go by Elvis pulls over. Of course, everybody pulls over after him.”
“Everybody jumps out – Red West and everybody,” described Thompson. “They’re looking around. This is in the middle of nowhere. This little kid – I’ll never forget his face. I know he knew who Elvis was, but he wasn’t gonna let Elvis know that he knew. He was a businessman, this kid. He sat there and waited for Elvis to walk up.”
Thompson remembered “Elvis had to initiate the conversation, ‘How much are the watermelons?’ A price was established. The kid was real tough and he wouldn’t come off the price.”
“If I would have sold any of those watermelons for less than a quarter a piece, my Pappa and Daddy would have blistered my butt,” Smith chuckled again. “There was no way the money was not going to match the right amount it was supposed to because they (his father and grandfather) knew how many watermelons were there that morning when they dropped me of off.”
“So finally Elvis just turned around and said, ‘We’ll take the whole stand. Pay him’,” Thompson revealed. “That’s the only time the kid’s visage cracked!”
“Elvis took one watermelon, the choice one, and put it in the back of the car,” continued Thompson. “Off we drove and left the entourage down there to settle up. Elvis bought the whole watermelon stand, bought all those watermelons, and took them back to Memphis.”
“Daddy wanted to know what the hell happened to all the watermelons,” Smith mused. “He thought somebody must have robbed me or something. But I showed him the money. He wanted to know who bought that many watermelons.”
“Elvis Presley bought those watermelons, Daddy,” answered Smith. “It was Elvis Presley.”
Smith winked and couldn’t remember if he told his father about the five dollar tip he received that day, but when he recounted the story in 1992, the then 31-year-old claimed, “every time I hear that song ‘Polk Salad Annie’, I smile.”
Then, with a smile of remembrance, Smith began to sing:
‘Down in Louisiana where the alligators grow so mean, lived a girl that I swear to the world made the alligators look tame … stealing watermelons out of my tow truck … Polk Salad Annie …’.