This week marks the 30th “Elvis Week”, the traditional gathering in Memphis — at Graceland — to observe the death of the King of Rock & Roll, Elvis Presley. We lived in Memphis for six years and I was always amazed at the number of people who came from all over the world to pay homage to Elvis each year and how fervent they were in their dedication.
On Thursday, it will be 30 years since Elvis passed away at Graceland at the age of 42.
42. My mind has a tough time wrapping around that. I am 42 (at least for a short while longer) and I can’t fathom that Elvis’ mercurial life was so short. I couldn’t believe it in 1977 either, when I was enjoying my last week of summer. Like some folks remember where they were when Kennedy was shot, I remember hearing the news that Elvis was dead like it was yesterday.
I was 12 and getting ready to enter the eighth grade. My Dad had just left to go back to work after coming home from lunch and my Mom and I were watching “The Guiding Light” on CBS. CBS News broke in with a news flash that Elvis had collapsed and had been taken to the hospital but was believed to be dead. I remember hoping so hard that it was a mistake and that they would soon clarify that Elvis was indeed alive and hospitalized. But it was not to be…he was gone. It was the first time that I was profoundly affected by the death of a stranger. Perhaps it was his wonderful voice or rebel spirit….maybe it was that fame had caused him such isolation….maybe that it was the fact that life could be gone so quick….but, whatever the driving reason, music was forever changed for me.
So, this week, I’ll explore the many facets of Elvis and his extraordinary contribution to the last 50 years of music.
BIRTH OF A LEGEND
Now, many may not understand Elvis’ particular attraction in the South. For Southerners, Elvis was their son, their brother, their nephew. He was an “everyman” who understood hard work and being poor. He became a mascot for down trodden and weary Southerners, showing the North that the South could provide talent that could be accepted on a national scale. He was polite, extremely good-looking and oozed sex appeal. He could charm three generations of ladies with his smile and down home demeanor. Women adored him and men wanted to be him. People gravitated to him like moths to a flame….but it didn’t exactly start that way.
In 1953, Elvis Presley was driving a truck but had a love for music. Nights and weekends were spent down on Beale Street, hanging around Blues legends, B.B. King, Rufus Thomas and Furry Lewis. In the summer of ’53, Elvis went down to Sun Studios and recorded an acetate recording of My Happiness with a “B side” of That’s When Your Heartaches Begin to give to his mother for a birthday present. Shortly after, he auditioned for the gospel quartet named The Songfellows, as well as another professional band and was turned down by both. Sam Phillips’ secretary remembered Elvis and his sound and thought that he might fill the bill for a project Sam Phillips was working on. Phillips brought him in and teamed him up with Scotty Moore and Bill Black and put them in the studio. They sang every song they knew, but nothing “clicked”. Then, during a break, Elvis started acting silly by over-emphasizing on the blues tune, That’s Alright, Mama. Scotty and Bill joined in the tomfoolery and Sam Phillips suddenly found the sound he was looking for.
That’s Alright, Mama
They laid down a funky Blue Moon of Kentucky, as well, and Phillips started shopping the record to local DJs. The legendary WHBQ in Memphis started playing it and it took off like wildfire. They played the Overton Park Shell in Memphis as well as many other local clubs and events over the next few months until they got the real break they had been waiting for — The Grand Ole Opry. Elvis appeared only once on The Grand Ole Opry — on October 2nd, 1954. Insulted by his lukewarm reception and the consensus among the regulars that he “go back to driving a truck”, Elvis vowed never to return to the Opry that he had held so dear in his youth.
Instead, he found a home on the Louisiana Hayride, a smaller version of Opry-style entertainment that highlighted new artists and were receptive to the emerging new musical trend of “Rock & Roll”. Elvis’ “rockabilly” style took the circuit by storm, combining hillbilly music with rhythm & blues. Shortly, he landed on the radar of one, Colonel Tom Parker. Parker immediately saw the potential in the uniqueness and popularity of Elvis and jumped at the chance to “represent” him. Of course, he would forever own a piece of Elvis and a major influence in how Elvis’ career would progress — both good and bad.
The Colonel seemed to have a spell over Elvis and he controlled every aspect of his image, music, and life. He persuaded him to dye his light brown locks, jet black to create contrast with his blue eyes and create a more dramatic portrait. However, Parker understood that he had lightning in a bottle and quickly worked to get Elvis signed to RCA Records and on the new medium of television, to spread the gospel as quickly as possible.
After a string of very successful appearances on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show (including the clip above of Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti), Parker scored a major victory by getting Elvis onto the immensely popular Milton Berle Show. Milton Berle took an immediate liking to Elvis and his gentle, southern demeanor. Although generationally different, Berle “got” Elvis’ huge talent and sincere manner. Their camaraderie is evident in this classic clip:
However, a subsequent Uncle Miltie appearance by Elvis would provide much more drama:
The firestorm from this performance of Hound Dog was unprecedented. Parents around the country were outraged by Elvis’ “nasty” performance and lobbied to have him banned from television. Colonel Parker convinced Elvis to embrace his “rebel” reputation generated from the backlash of his unorthodox movements and “gyrations”, and to press on. He also began to pursue other venues for the new “King” of Rock & Roll.
Steve Allen, who had one of the most popular TV shows of the times, received a petition of 18,000+ signatures to honor his booking of Elvis. While Allen despised Elvis and his “lack of moral fiber”, he knew that his ratings may suffer if he refused the viewing public. So, he honored the invitation, but made sure that Elvis was acutely aware of his contrition by having him shot above the waste only and in a tux and tails singing to an actual Bassett Hound. Elvis often said that it was his most embarrassing moment as a performer. Elvis’ difference in demeanor from a few short weeks earlier on the Berle show is painfully evident…however he did get in a little dig with the blue suede shoes. This performance includes I Want You, I Need You and is followed by the infamous, humiliating Hound Dog —before either were actually recorded.
Elvis’ comments on the subject:
“Rock and roll music, if you like it, and you feel it, you can’t help but move to it. That’s what happens to me. I have to move around. I can’t stand still. I’ve tried it, and I can’t do it”.
Colonel Parker quickly capitalized on Elvis’ white hot controversy and popularity by signing a deal with The Ed Sullivan Show, the reigning king of television, at the time. Elvis responded with a BRILLIANT move by choosing to sing Peace in the Valley.
Ed Sullivan famously endorsed Elvis by announcing that Elvis was a “real, decent, fine boy”. Sullivan was not one for expounding on personalities, so this was a significant vote of confidence for Elvis.
The times, they were a-changing. Parents who were the teenagers of Depression and pre-WWII came from a much more conservative atmosphere and had significant problems in understanding the suspected immorality by mixing gospel, R&B, and hard bass lines with heavy drum backup. Elvis pushed the envelope in his initial ascent to the throne as the King of Rock & Roll, and it wouldn’t be the last time.
Colonel Parker moved on to the movies, where Elvis could really cash in on his huge popularity. His first feature film was Love Me Tender, whose title song would also become a #1 hit.