From winning the 1954 Mid-South Fair Youth Talent Contest in Memphis at the age of 16, the Jackson, Mississippi teen went on to lead radio and TV shows, including co-hosting the "Top 10 Dance Party" program in Memphis, where Elvis first became infatuated with her.
Anita Wood was a talent to be reckoned with. She was gorgeous, she had charisma, and she had a great singing voice.
Anita Wood - William Morris Agency portrait, June 1958
Shortly after she and Elvis began dating, she bid him farewell as he left for a tour.
Spokane Daily Chronicle, Wednesday, August 28, 1957
But Anita didn't sit at home and cry, counting the days until Presley's return. Just a few weeks later, she lit out to Hollywood to do a screen test for "Girl in the Woods," after winning the "Hollywood Star Hunt" contest and getting a contract with the William Morris Agency.
Elvis made sure to let Anita know he would be thinking of her while she was in California.
Williamson Daily News, Friday, September 20, 1957
Elvis had only just completed his tour when he quite visibly -- and literally -- picked up Anita at the Memphis airport.
Meeting Anita Wood at Memphis Airport - Friday, September 13, 1957
Photo: by Bob Williams, Memphis Commercial Appeal
Note the "friendship" ring on her right hand. Anita would remember the gift as one of the most meaningful highlights of her time with Elvis. Many years later she gave it to her daughter, who still has it to this day.
Anita ended up turning down the B-movie role, after some pleading from Elvis. And ultimately she would never make a film in Hollywood.
But while Elvis got consumed with impending army duty, Anita hadn't given it all up yet.
The William Morris Agency booked Wood on various southern and western package tours.
She went off to New York and got a semi-regular role (July to September 1958) on an ABC-TV summer replacement series called "The Andy Williams Chevy Showroom," guested a daytime NBC-TV game show hosted by Bert Parks called "County Fair" (September 21, 1958), and appeared on NBC-TV's "The Tonight Show With Jack Paar" (October 20, 1958).
Tonawanda News, Thursday, August 28, 1958
Anita "Miss Management" Wood on ABC's "The Andy Williams Chevy Showroom"
In a sad note, Anita made her network TV singing debut the day that Gladys Presley passed away. I don't imagine Elvis watched.
ANDY WILLIAMS SHOW -- Mild summer entertainment. Andy sings some oldies like "Bye, Bye Blackbird," "Do-Do-Do," and "Three O'Clock In the Morning." Dick Van Dyke portrays a poor expectant father who has four girls In a row. General all-round helper Anita Wood graduates to songstress with a try at "You Made Me Love You." 9 p.m. Ch. 7.
Asbury Park Press - Thursday, August 14, 1958
While in the Big Apple, Anita also studied acting at the Lane Theater Workshop. One wonders if it ever crossed Elvis' mind to hone his acting chops at a New York acting studio?
Prior to this, Anita had shown her lovely voice in recordings made after Elvis got drafted and sent to Fort Hood.
Anita and Elvis in Waco, Texas - May 17, 1958
This image went over the AP news wires days later, much to Elvis' chagrin.
Anita, Elvis, Eddie and LaNelle Fadal in Waco, Texas - May 17, 1958
Original portrait, intended to be for private use only.
Anita Wood "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)" (May 17, 1958)
Private recording taped at Eddie Fadal's home in Waco, Texas.
Elvis, off duty, provides backing vocals and piano accompaniment.
Williams liked her so much she was the second voice on a hit single in 1959.
Andy Williams "Hawaiian Wedding Song" (Cadence 1358, December 1, 1958)
Billboard "Hot 100" #8 for March 16, 1959.
Elvis would record this in 1961, but use the Williams-Wood arrangement in his 1970s concerts.
And even though Elvis had an extended Memphis break at the beginning of June 1958, Anita fulfilled a recording commitment in New York.
Middlesboro Daily News, Wednesday, June 4, 1958
Note comment regarding Anita near end of article.
Anita Wood at LaGuardia Airport, New York, June 2, 1958
Singer-actress Anita Wood, 20, who describes herself as "one of Elvis Presley's girlfriends," appears to be leaving, but she's actually obliging photographers as she arrives at LaGuardia Airport from Memphis. Anita, in town for recording sessions, said she hopes to get back to Memphis before Presley's two-week furlough from the Army is over.
Anita Wood at LaGuardia Airport, New York, June 2, 1958
ELVIS IS ON HER MIND: Songstress Anita Wood, in New York for a week of recording sessions, says 'I expect to see Elvis' when she returns to Memphis, her hometown, this weekend. The blonde Anita has known Presley for a year, says a mutual interest in rock'n roll brought them together.
Out of the New York sessions for ABC-Paramount, arranged and conducted by Don Costa, came a single that fall, although it wasn't a hit.
Anita Wood "Crying in the Chapel" (ABC-Paramount 9947, October 1958)
Elvis, of course, had a chart-topping hit with this 1953 Artie Glenn song six and a half years later.
Anita Wood "I'm Liking This" (ABC-Paramount 9947, October 1958)
The catchy B-side of Anita's debut single.
Elvis kept his "#1 girlfriend" in his sights throughout his days overseas in Germany, with lots of fervent letters and phone calls. Anita claims she was all set to visit him in 1959, but his manager shut her down. Nice.
Excerpt from a 4-page letter to Anita, mailed Friday, November 14, 1958
Meanwhile, Anita kept in the news as an up-and-coming starlet through the end of the decade.
Florence Times, Daily Section - Sunday, June 21, 1959
After Elvis returned to America in March 1960, they remained more or less together until the summer of 1962, when it was clear to Anita that a true commitment would never happen.
Elvis and Anita at the Fairgrounds, Memphis - Monday, July 11, 1960
Notice Anita temporarily dyed her hair black, to please her boyfriend.
When Anita finally said good-bye, the Memphis Press-Scimitar reported it as "Elvis' Long-Time Girlfriend Anita Wood--Says It's All Over" on August 6, 1962. In it, Anita said she wished to just pick up the pieces of her career, and that her next single was to be titled, "Love's Not Worth It."
Anita would continue to perform -- from 1962 to 1964 she sang weekly on another Memphis TV show -- and release records, for Memphis-based labels like Sun and Santo, but as good as they were, they never caught fire nationally.
Billboard - June 5, 1961
The 1961 Sun single gets an excellent review!
Anita Wood "I Can't Show How I Feel" (Sun 361, June 1961)
Great mid-tempo pop single from Anita, with a superb, assured vocal. Really good!
Anita Wood "I'll Wait Forever" (Sun 361, June 1961)
Lovely, ironic B-side of Sun 361.
Anita Wood "Still" / "Memories Of You" (Santo 9008, May 1963)
Anita Wood "Two Young Fools In Love" / "Memories Of You" (Santo 9008, May 1963)
Apparently, "Still" was dumped as the A-side of Santo 9008 before release.
A cover of Barbara Pittman's "Two Young Fools In Love" took its place.
Wood's 1963 A-side is not online, but the 1957 original produced by Jack Clement is available.
It's a sweet song.
Barbara Pittman "Two Young Fools In Love" (Phillips International 3518, November 4, 1957)
Anita's B-side is online, though. Again, she delivers a beautiful, mid-tempo ballad.
Anita Wood "Memories Of You" (Santo 9008, May 1963)
This appears to be Anita's last known pop single:
Anita Wood "Dream Baby" / "This Has Happened Before" (Santo 9054, May 1964)
The B-side, "This Has Happened Before," sounds terrific:
Anita Wood "This Has Happened Before" (Santo 9054, May 1964)
In June 1964 Anita married NFL champion Cleveland Browns football player #83, Johnny Brewer, and together they raised a daughter and two sons.
Johnny Brewer, Cleveland Browns, circa 1964
They remained together for over 46 years, until Johnny's death just a month ago, on May 27, 2011.
Anita had contact with Elvis a few times after the 1962 parting, such as at the Hilton in Las Vegas, circa 1970.
I went to Las Vegas with a girlfriend once and I ran into Joe Esposito, George Klein and Lamar who said, "Elvis is performing tonight. If you'll come I'll save you a seat up front." So I talked to Johnny about it, who had been the night before, and he had no problem with me seeing the show.
So, I had a seat right there next to the stage, and when Elvis walked on he looked wonderful. He saw me there and a lot of the songs he sung straight to me. When the show was over, Charlie Hodge came over and told me that Elvis would like to see me backstage.
I went and saw him and we hugged for a long time before he said, "'Little,' I wonder if we made a mistake," and I said, "No Elvis, we didn't, you wouldn't have Lisa and I wouldn't have my children and my husband."
This was the last time I saw him, but I talked to him sometime later when my father died, like I told you before. I wanted to tell him that I knew what he felt when his mother died, but his voice sounded so slow and deep at that time.
Anita Wood Interviewed by Al Hearn
Anita is 73 now, and still as lovely as ever.
Many fans rightly believe Elvis would have had a much different life if she'd not been ... the one who got away.