< Part One: 1954-1955 (In the Beginning…)

2017 marks the fortieth anniversary of the sudden death of Elvis Presley. The singer, movie star and globally-known entertainer had been a mainstay in popular culture since he burst onto the scene over twenty years prior. Known for his southern charm, his manic on-stage gyrations, his many cookie cutter film roles (with accompanying soundtracks) and countless hit records, Elvis is considered by many the greatest entertainer ever to live. Numerous outlets hailed him as the Greatest Artist of the 20th Century, despite only operating for a fifth of the century and only living for less than half of it. The acclaim is deserved, not only for the work he did between 1954-1977, but also for the impact he continues to have on the world today. “Elvis” today is no longer just the name of a singer/actor. “Elvis” is an icon. “Elvis” is an institution.

Elvis is the king, transcendent above other singers, actors or otherwise entertainers.

As legendary musician B.B. King quipped “Elvis is worth more dead than he was when he was alive.” Today, in the fortieth year since his death, his life and legacy remain a source of great interest to longtime fans as well as neophytes. A look back on his history as a musician, an actor, and just as a man pulled in every direction by the rapid winds of fame, is proper on this anniversary year (you can find part one in the series here)…


Elvis arrived at RCA’s recording studio in Nashville on January 10th, 1957, seven weeks after inking the deal with the New York-based company.  His contract brought him more money than had ever been given to a first-time signee. Others like Bing Crosby and of course, Frank Sinatra (the biggest music star in the country at the time) were making more money, but only thanks to multiple contract renegotiations based on continued success in the record stores. The popular music in the early part of the decade was mostly holdovers from the World War II era of big band sounds and nightclub crooners. An underground—youth—movement had been brewing in cities around the country, starting in the early 1950’s, but as of yet, the new sound had not consolidated into one body.

The first hint that something new was on the horizon came in early 1954, when “Rock Around the Clock” was released as a B-side to the single “Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town).”

The song’s label, Decca, failed to see the appeal in the tune and, since it was “just a B-side” never bothered to promote it. For a year it remained a mostly undiscovered gem to Disc Jockeys, but kids were playing it and finding in it what would become the sound of their generation. It released a full month before Elvis even recorded “That’s All Right” for Sam Phillips’ regional record label, and were it not for a social commentary movie called Blackboard Jungle, it likely would have disappeared entirely from the public consciousness.

But Blackboard Jungle featured the song during its opening credits, rocketing the tune to the top of the Pop charts. Teenagers flocked to see the movie as it represented one of the very first instances of their underground culture moving into the forefront of traditional entertainment. Some theater chains refused to play the beginning of the movie, remarking that the music in question was a bad influence on youth. In response, said youth vandalized the theaters, angrily demanding that the music be restored to the film. On the one hand this was the country’s youth demonstrating everything bad their elders were saying about them (reinforcing the notion that “rock and roll” was devil music). On the other hand, this was one of the first times the younger generation asserted itself in public rebellion to the decision-making of its parents’ generation.

The “silent generation” found something to make noise about.

But, as important as “Rock Around the Clock” is in the history of Rock and Roll, its singer Bill Haley was not the man to lead the new music revolution. He was already 30 years old when his signature tune made it big, with a receding hairline that made him look even older. Rock and Roll, and America’s 1950’s youth, needed a more daring face to lead their movement. It is in that climate that Elvis became a regional success and then, upon signing with RCA, an almost-instant national celebrity.

Before his first RCA single was even recorded, Elvis was already climbing the charts, as the label had acquired with his contract the rights to his previously-released SUN studios material. RCA promoted the material vigorously around the Christmas 1955 season and by the time he recorded “Heartbreak Hotel” on January 11th, Elvis already had a top-ten country hit on the Billboard charts, thanks to “I Forgot to Remember to Forget” (recorded at SUN in July of 1955). By February the song reached #1 on the same chart.

But the SUN records were always intended to be filler while the studio honed Presley’s talent. The bluesy “Heartbreak Hotel” and its almost-uptempo ballad B-side, “I Was the One” was intended to be RCA’s big debut for the new talent.

The song was brought to the recording session by Elvis, ready to record and needing minimal input from producer Steve Sholes. In those days it was customary for the producer to pick out the material, develop the arrangement and simply cue the talent to record take after take until he–the producer–was satisfied. Elvis intended to take control of the recording session from minute one, and to his credit, Sholes let him. Despite thinking “Heartbreak Hotel” was too old school and not “rock and roll” enough to work, he trusted Elvis’ confidence and recorded take after take until he–the singer–was satisfied.

“Heartbreak Hotel” went straight to #1 and remained at the top of the Bilboard charts for seven weeks. It stayed at #1 on Cashbox’s pop charts for six weeks, and was #1 on the Country charts for seventeen weeks. Elvis’s first nationally-released single was also his first million-seller and the second-best selling song of 1956 (the number-one best selling song was Elvis’ later-released “Don’t Be Cruel”).

A few weeks later he made his national television debut on CBS’ Stage Show, being introduced by the legendary disc jockey Bill Randle. He opened with “Shake, Rattle & Roll” (the other emergent-rock and roll song made famous by Bill Haley). After that he tore into Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman” adding his already-signature gyrations, and vocal inflections that would remain for the rest of the life. Listen to the song as recorded in early 1956 and compare it to the seasoned-entertainer who recorded it live on stage in 1970 Las Vegas…

The production is bigger and bolder in 1970 but strip that all away and consider the performance and how remarkably similar it is to the show put on by the fresh-faced newcomer to the spotlight. It was obvious immediately that Elvis was almost an entertainment savant.

While in New York City, Elvis finished recording his first LP, featuring seven songs recorded in New York, plus five left-over from his SUN recordings. The standout of the album was a cover of Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes.” Perkins had only recorded and released the song (through Sam Phillips’ SUN label) a month before Elvis took a crack at it but it was immediately apparent that Elvis had a better feel for what made the song work. His version bested the original in production, energy, and vocal performance, and propelled the “Elvis Presley” LP to #1 on the Billboard charts (a first for a rock and roll album), where it remained for almost three months.

Even the album art is now iconic, featuring Elvis with mouth agape, mid-shout, his guitar draped over his body and the words “ELVIS PRESLEY” in bright green and pink, starkly contrasting the black and white photo. Rolling Stone called it one of Rock’s most defining album covers. The album and its accompanying single helped Elvis break out of the underground to become the music star of 1956.

And that was just in January.

By April he was doing the Milton Berle show, from a special episode recorded on the deck of the USS Hancock.

The performance was his first chance to show his natural stage presence, playing off the comedian TV show host like they were Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Shortly thereafter he inked a seven picture deal with movie producer Hal Wallis and Paramount Pictures (one movie guaranteed, with the option for six more at the studio’s behest). Despite his talent and obvious love of music, “performing” was Elvis’ true passion and the young singer always admired movie stars and desired to be one, even while being the biggest music star of his day.

Milton Berle invited Elvis back to his show and in June he made a return appearance, performing a song he made very popular in live shows, “Hound Dog.” Before taking the stage, Berle encouraged Elvis to leave the guitar behind, saying “let em see you, son.” Truth be told Elvis never was any more than average with the guitar and rarely ever bothered hitting the right chords while dancing around on stage anyway. Free from its shackles, Elvis turned to the microphone stand for support, which gave rise to its own sexual innuendos and parental consternations.

Pay attention to what he does at the 1:30 mark in the video. He calls for the song to stop and then breaks into a slowed down, bluesy and–thanks to those hips of his–highly sexually charged performance. The fifty year old Milton Berle heartily embraced Elvis but many of Berle’s contemporaries were appalled at Presley’s performance. Ed Sullivan declared him “unfit for family viewing” and Steve Allen initially refused to have him on his show.

Until the ratings came in.

Berle blew away the competition and Allen relented on his Presley ban, allowing the young singer to appear but only on the condition that he dress and act “appropriately.”

Forced to wear a tux and sing to a dog, the humiliated Elvis gave a stiff and tame performance to a silent audience, after which he swore never to be so creatively (not to mention culturally) restricted again (a promise he would recall a decade later as having failed to keep).

The next day Elvis returned to RCA’s New York City studio and recorded a proper version of “Hound Dog” as well as two more songs that would become Presley classics. “Don’t Be Cruel” (which would be paired with “Hound Dog” as a double-A-side single) would go on to be Elvis’ biggest single, selling an unprecedented one million copies a year, every year, for six years straight.

In addition, he recorded the haunting ballad “Anyway you Want Me” reminding his listeners that his talent went beyond simple on-stage gyrations.

A month later, Elvis flew to California to film a Civil War movie originally entitled The Reno Brothers. Presley initially insisted that he would not sing or play a singer in this or in any of his movies, intending to be taken seriously as an actor. He wanted to star in dramatic roles like his idol James Dean, not be bogged down by lightweight “musicals.” His manager “Colonel” Tom Parker had other ideas, however. He envisioned a cross-promoted Presley, who starred in hit movies and recorded hit music simultaneously, and used one to sell the other. That kind of a career necessitated, in Parker’s mind, that Elvis “perform” in his movies.

Elvis yielded to the counsel of his manager and recorded one song for the movie, a ballad entitled “Love Me Tender.” That one song then blossomed to four, and after the “Love Me Tender” single reached advanced sales of one million copies (the first time a single had ever become a gold record before even being released), the movie’s title was changed to Love Me Tender and the studio switched to marketing it officially as a “musical.”

Despite his personal disappointment in how his first movie-making experience turned out, the final result was a box office and billboard success. The movie debuted at #2 (behind James Dean’s final movie, Giant) and despite being released in November, was the 23rd highest grossing movie of the year.

Midway through filming the movie, Parker negotiated with Ed Sullivan to bring Elvis onto his show. Sullivan had been the the last major variety show that Elvis had not done, due to the fifty-five year old’s dislike and distrust of rock and roll. Sullivan was also the highest rated show on the air in those days making it a big get for Parker. The appearance featured an infamous compromise: Elvis refused to do the show if the condition was that he be stifled like he’d been on Steve Allen. Sullivan refused to play host to the young singer’s hip-swinging style. In the end, Elvis performed his songs (including “Hound Dog” and “Love Me Tender”) in his own way, but was only filmed from the waist up, “protecting virgin eyes from his demonic hips.”

The ratings were record-breaking, leading to two additional appearances. As the third show drew to a close, Sullivan shook Presley’s hand and informed the audience that he considered Elvis to be a “fine” and “decent” young man. His initial-negative opinion had been based on presumption, and reversed once he actually met him. Sullivan’s sudden about-face was not as “feel good” as it is often portrayed, however: The fact that the TV host reversed his judgment so suddenly based on one conversation with the polite and charming southerner, implied that he assumed that because Elvis was a rock and roll-playing youth, that he must naturally be rude and disrespectful to adults. It highlights how wide the divide was between the two generations and how little older folks understood Elvis’ appeal.

Presley returned to the studio after finishing Love Me Tender, and released his second LP, entitled “Elvis.” Among the eleven songs he recorded for the album was a standout that would go on to be a personal favorite and regular feature in his concerts, a balled entitled “Love Me.”

By the end of 1956 Elvis would become the first man in history to have nine singles in the Hot 100, and more were coming every time he stepped into a studio.

1957 brought more movies, more singles, more LPs and more fame. In January he made the aforementioned third appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, singing among other things, a spiritual number, “Peace in the Valley,” that he had just recorded and which would release around Easter of that year.

Two days after the show broke ratings-records, the Presleys received word that Elvis had been classified as “1-A” and would probably be drafted within the next year. Parker and Elvis’ parents started discussing ways to keep Elvis out of serving but Elvis insisted that if he was drafted he would not dodge. He would not receive a draft notice until December, meaning a cloud hanged over all of 1957, a year which brought Elvis greater heights than any musician before him.

Some of his biggest hits and most famous movie roles were brought to life in this year, starting with “All Shook Up.” The Otis Blackwell pop number raced to #1 on both the Hot 100 and the R&B charts, and even though there wasn’t an ounce of country in it, Nashville loved the performer so much they helped propel his song to #3 on the Country charts. Songs for his next motion picture, Loving You, were also recorded in January, including the song that would transcend the film to become a signature tune, “Teddy Bear.” It too went to #1, as did the song “Too Much,” giving Elvis three chart-toppers within the first few months of the year.

Most interestingly, was a song made famous by blues singer Smiley Lewis in 1956, called “One Night of Sin.” The lyrics were explicit for the mid-50’s but no one noticed because the “black/blues” scene was not mainstream enough for it to matter. Elvis however, studied the black/blues scene like preachers study the Bible. He recorded a (slightly) more up-tempo version and intended it to be his next single.

The studio executives almost had a stroke when they heard it:

The song was shelved and would go unreleased until 1983. Persistent, Elvis tweaked the lyrics to make them slightly more palatable for mainstream listeners and eventually saw the altered version released as a B-side in 1959. In concerts, however, Elvis would almost always sing the original version to sometimes-bewildered audience members.

Elvis spent the rest of January recording tracks for the “Loving You” soundtrack (which went unreleased until July, to tie-in with the film’s release). In the mid-50’s, LPs were not as common as they would be by the start of the next decade, and most rock and roll artists favored 45s because they were cheaper (a plus for the usually cash-strapped teenagers looking to buy them). Elvis was the first rock and roll superstar to embrace the long-play format. Tom Parker saw the potential in turning Elvis’ rabid fanbase into loyal LP buyers, despite the price hike compared to 45s. For the first decade of Elvis’ career the gamble paid off and it made RCA a lot of money (which in turn made Elvis a lot of money when the time came to renegotiate his contract).

Though “Loving You” only featured a half-dozen songs, the rest of the album was filled out with studio cuts. As with Love Me Tender, the movie propelled the album to even greater success than his previous studio-only LP, “Elvis,” had achieved. It featured a heavy influence by the song-writing duo Leiber and Stoller, who would be retained to write the songs for Elvis’ next picture, “Jailhouse Rock.”

That movie featured Elvis playing a hotheaded kid convicted of accidental manslaughter. It wasn’t the serious dramatic roles the singer always coveted but it was better than anything he’d read thus far. He sunk his teeth into the role, memorizing not only his lines but the lines of everyone else in the movie. His drive spilled over into the music, giving the film perhaps the strongest soundtrack in Elvis’ library. The choreography and charisma on display in the climactic dance number ranks as one of rock and roll’s most perfectly realized moments. Years later the movie, which was originally hated by critics, was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress’ National Films Registry, on the grounds that it was “highly culturally significant.”

As the whirlwind of 1957 drew to a close, Elvis did one more thing that had never been done before. He released the first rock and roll-themed Christmas album. Technically the LP only contained eight holiday songs (which were simultaneously released as two, four-track extended-play 45s); the album was rounded out with the inclusion of four Gospel songs that Elvis released that Spring. As with everything else Elvis did in 1957, the Christmas record (simply titled “Elvis’ Christmas Album”) faced controversy. Bing Crosby went on a crusade against Elvis’ rendition of “White Christmas,” demanding that DJs not give the song any airtime. He hated the pop-spin that Presley put to the 1942 song that he and Irving Berlin had turned into the best-selling single of all time (to this day).

Bing showed his ignorance here, as he was apparently unaware that the black group, The Drifters, had already released a pop-version of the song two years previously. They even took the song to #2 on the R&B charts, two years in a row. Elvis’ version is clearly based on it, and not on Bing’s version.

Crosby was successful at keeping Elvis’ White Christmas off the radio in 1957, but Presley had the last laugh. While Bing’s “White Christmas” single is still #1 with over 100 million copies sold, Elvis’ Christmas LP is the best selling holiday album of all time and today its tracks, particularly “Blue Christmas” and “White Christmas,” regularly receive air time every holiday season.

The album went gold (selling a million copies) almost immediately. It sold several million copies, both in its original form, and then in a reworked budget release later in the 70’s. The sucess of the 1957 version meant Elvis’ first four LPs (two in each of his first two years with RCA) all went to #1 (a record at the time). The studio which had gambled that the “fad” of rock and roll would produce big for them, at least in the short term, paid off handsomely.

Elvis had little time to celebrate his achievements, however, as he closed out the year preparing to shoot his next movie, King Creole. That’s when the cloud that had been lingering over his head all year long finally started to rain.

On December 20th Elvis received his notice that he was being drafted into the U.S. Army.

The life of fun and fame that he experienced in his first two years as a nationally-renowned superstar were about to change dramatically for the final two years of the decade.

Part Three:  Out of Sight


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