THE THREAT….ELVIS CROSSOVER (Part Five)

(NOTE: I want to preface this by saying that the commentary on the “Nashville Establishment” below does not in any way reflect my general feelings about country music, which I love as deeply as rock and roll, or its many great artists, who are in no way responsible for what Adam Smith liked to call “the vile maxims of the masters.”)

In the first four Parts, I laid out some numbers that demonstrated the extraordinary cross-racial appeal of early rock and roll generally, and Elvis Presley in particular. based on chart data before, during and after Elvis’ mid- to late-fifties peak.

This time around, I’ll take a look at what all this meant on the country charts.

First, some quotes:

“When rock and roll cracked open the pop market for Southern white singers, for a couple of years (1956–58) it looked as if the margins between ‘pop’ and ‘country’ were being wiped out. Producers in Nashville organized their sessions with an ear to what had worked for Elvis Presley, and brought in electric guitars, boogie piano, harmonica, saxophone and vocal groups to embellish their arrangements and give their records ‘teen appeal.’ And for a while, country stations played the records as enthusiastically as the pop stations: Elvis, the Everly Brothers, and Gene Vincent, had country hits with their rock ’n’ roll records alongside the dual-market hits made by the Sun rockabillies in Memphis.

“But in 1958, the country music establishment reasserted the segregation between pop and country which had prevailed before rock ’n’ roll and country radio virtually boycotted records which sounded as if they had been made with the pop market in mind. From then on, artists had to decide which way to go, country or pop, knowing that to choose one route would mean sacrificing the other.

“For a Southern white singer, the pop market was always an elusive target, being more accessible to the artists and producers based near the main media centres, and most of the singers who had broken through eventually retreated to the more predictable and reliable country market. But they were not always allowed to make the switch overnight, and many had to endure a two- or three-year period of ‘paying their dues’. criss-crossing the South with tours that took them into every country music club on the circuit, before radio programmers accepted them into the country fold.

“Elvis Presley’s career reflected the change in attitudes. His first 11 hits for RCA were all equally big country hits, to “Hard Headed Woman” in June 1958: suddenly, country radio play dropped right off, and Elvis had no more records in the country top ten until 1971, when his straight country renditions of ‘I Really Don’t Want to Know’ and ‘There Goes My Everything’ were finally, if grudgingly, accepted. The story was similar for the Everly Brothers, who had only one minor country hit after they joined Warner Brothers. Brenda Lee had no country hits at all during the period when she had 19 hits in the top twenty. Conway Twitty had no country hits until 1966, and Roy Orbison never did make the country charts. All of them recorded in Nashville, but that was not enough to qualify as ‘country’.

“From 1958, the world of country music virtually isolated itself from the world of pop, and most of the time it seemed that this was the way the major labels chose to keep it. Each of them appointed a Nashville-based A&R man to oversee their country music roster of artists, and little effort was made to push even the biggest country stars on pop radio.”

(Source: The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll, Charlie Gillett, 1983, Revised Edition)

“‘That’ll Be the Day,’ Buddy Holly’s chart debut, came too late to make it on country radio. If this recording had come out even a few months earlier (Holly had already cut another version of the song for Decca that flopped), Holly likely would have climbed the country charts as swiftly as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent. By the summer of 1957, though, the Nashville Sound had been building momentum for a year already–”Don’t Be Cruel,” “Gone,” “Young Love,” and “Four Walls” had all been major hits. Consequently, rockabilly acts were in the process of being banished from country play lists: even established stars like Elvis and Jerry Lee wouldn’t be on country radio much longer.”

(Source: Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles, David Cantwell and Bill Friskes-Warren, 2003)

“The Grand Ole Opry didn’t take kindly to those Elvis fans booing Hank Snow off that stage in Jacksonville. Only a few days after the incident, the Opry let it be known throughout country music circles that its regular performers would no longer be allowed to appear on any show that included Hayride artists.”

(Source: Louisiana Hayride Years: Making Musical History in Country’s Golden Age, Horace Logan with Bill Sloan, 1998)

Then some history and numbers (the usual caveats about chart data as purely objective evidence discussed in previous parts still apply):

Billboard published its first “country” chart–based solely on juke box play–on January 8, 1944. For the first year, it was not all that different from a mainstream pop chart. The first #1 hit was a duet by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters (which would be the rough equivalent of a duet by Celine Dion and the Backstreet Boys somehow topping the country charts in the nineties–which is to say the world does not always move in a straight line.)

That first year, there was also a degree of racial integration which would not come close to being replicated for more than half a century. Louis Jordan had two number one hits and the King Cole Trio had another. No black artist would top the country charts again until Charley Pride in 1969 (see here for the numbers on Pride’s highly anomalous career).

Beginning in 1945, the country chart truly became an entity more or less unto itself.

Here’s the subsequent breakdown of Country/Pop crossover in the relevant periods:

Records that topped both the Country and Pop Charts:

1945–1955: (5)

1956–1959: (13, including 6 by Elvis, 3 by the Everly Brothers, 1 each by  4 others)

1960–1972: (3, one each by Jimmy Dean, Bobby Goldsboro and Jeannie C. Riley)

1973–1975: (8, including 2 by John Denver, one each by six others)

1976–1978: (1)

As with the R&B charts, the numbers tell a significant story of the challenge rock and roll presented to the existing order (and also indicate a resurgence of that challenge in the much-despised mid-seventies).

Beginning in early 1956, Elvis had six Country/Pop #1s in about eighteen months. That was one more than all acts combined had in the previous eleven years.

Again, as with R&B crossover, the second most impressive act throughout the late fifties was the Everly Brothers, like Elvis, southern whites who recorded principally in Nashville.

We saw, in the previous posts, what happened with R&B crossover through time: There was a wavering back and forth, but, after the Elvis earthquake, a constant pressure was maintained that led to occasional full integration of the R&B and Pop charts and, finally, increasing crossover (which led ultimately to a modern “hip-hop” era when black artists often dominate the Pop charts as thoroughly as whites did in the pre-rock years).

As we can see above, the Country/Pop relationship had a very different history.

In the fifties, Elvis represented the same sort of cataclysmic challenge to the existing Country/Pop dynamic that he represented to Pop/R&B.

But country music was different from both Pop and R&B in one particularly crucial respect: It was–and is–centrally controlled.

As far as I know, there’s never been a thorough dissection of the exact ways and means by which Nashville chokes off competition (though Logan’s memoir provides a good, rough outline by detailing the Grand Ole Opry’s systematic demolition of the Louisiana Hayride–already by far the most serious threat ever posed to Nashville’s hegemony even before it became the launching pad for Presley’s first national success).

But the language in the quotes above probably tells us most of what we need to know: “boycotted,” “virtually isolated,” “banished,” “no longer be allowed.” Those are phrases normally associated with a police state and, however it was accomplished, the Nashville “ban” certainly had a KGB-like effectiveness.

The degree to which the country establishment’s jihad against Elvis was personal can only be guessed–but the best guess is that it was extensive.

The story of Elvis being given the cold shoulder at the Opry in the months before he broke out on the Hayride was well known from the beginning. The bitter taste it left in his mouth–not so much that the audience didn’t respond (his relationship to Vegas proves he could get past that) as that he was treated with contempt by the powers-that-be in the auditorium itself (and, of course, famously told to go back to driving a truck, a sneer that has never entirely lost its currency)–has become clearer in recent years as more and more biographical information has been assembled.

At any rate, within a year or two, he had his revenge on country radio–and had it with records principally recorded in Nashville using the same studios and session-men every other country star used.

Then–coincidentally?–he was drafted.

Whether Nashville’s tactics (which almost certainly included refusing to deliver traditional country records to country stations that played Elvis or any other rock ’n’ roll star) would have worked as well if Elvis had been around to represent an ongoing challenge remains an intriguing “what-if.” What is obvious is that it wasn’t a fight he had any chance of winning from an army base in Germany.

The final purge that resulted was breath-takingly thorough, as Charlie Gillett’s research cited above indicates.

By 1960, country music had resurrected a wall around itself which was not even remotely threatened until the mid-seventies–when it was beaten back just as quickly and decisively (the signature symbolic event in that case was presenter Charlie Rich taking out his cigarette lighter and burning the card he had just read that announced John Denver was the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year–an ugly incident the basic absurdity of which was compounded not so much by Rich’s admitted state of inebriation as by the fact that he himself was a successful crossover artist who was no closer to being “pure” country than Denver).

Just how high and effective the wall was in the beginning, though, can best be demonstrated by delving into Gillett’s point just a little deeper.

To wit:

When Tex Williams took “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)” to #1 on both the pop and country charts in 1947, he spent 16 weeks at #1 Country and 6 weeks #1 Pop.

When Tennessee Ernie Ford took “Sixteen Tons” to the top in 1955, it was 10 weeks #1 Country, 8 weeks #1 Pop.

Even when Elvis took “Heartbreak Hotel” to the mutual top in 1956, it was 17 weeks #1 Country, 7 weeks #1 Pop.

In other words, under the old order, a country-charting record that managed to get to the top of the Pop chart was almost certain to spend longer–often much longer–at the top of the Country chart. And even in the volatile 1956–59 period, there was at least a rough parity.

In the last ten months of 1960, however, Nashville based artists spent 21 weeks at #1 on the Pop charts with six different records. (3 by Elvis, 2 by Brenda Lee, 1 by the Everlys).

Every one of those records got to at least the top ten on the R&B chart.

On the Country charts, four of them did not chart at all and the remaining two, (“Stuck on You,” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight,”) got to #27 and #22 respectively.

“Boycotts” don’t get much more effective than that.

Of course, country music fans did not “suddenly” stop listening to Elvis and the Everlys–and suddenly reject Brenda Lee (like the Everlys, almost literally a child of Nashville and, like both they and Elvis, eventually a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame) and Roy Orbison in 1960, anymore than they had “suddenly” rejected Louis Jordan and Nat Cole in 1945.

But, as is usually the case with hidebound establishments, order was even more important than profit. And in the specific case of the Nashville establishment, it’s not hard to believe that the maintenance of racial order was most important of all.

Which leads us into the not-so-intricate explanation of the “why” of it all.

Nashville’s relationship to the mainstream has always revolved around a tricky but very simply defined dilemma: How to access the profit margins available only in the pop market while preventing interlopers from breaching the wall in the other direction–in other words, how to reach out from a protected space and grab the maximum amount of free-floating cash without letting any similarly grubby hands come reaching in from the other side.

As a business model one can at least present an argument–weak and facile, but not completely nonsensical–that this has been effective.

As a model for anything other than business it strikes me as pretty repulsive.

Much as those high-handed gents backstage at the Opry hated Elvis, there were things they hated even worse. At the back of the challenge early rock ’n’ roll represented, the history of the country was always lurking. The guardians at the Nashville gate knew quite well that if Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers were riding over the hill, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry wouldn’t be far behind.

They also knew that if they could shoot down Elvis, the rest of the riders would scatter hither and yon–that the assault would die with him.

They were right and the implications of the Nashville “ban” have been damaging the culture ever since, not least because they’ve played a major role in ultimately re-segregating American music, not only by race, but by class and generation as well (a state of affairs now accepted–even championed–by “realists,” of every imaginable political stripe, even as the popular audience keeps finding ways to express the common-sense desire to be done with this nonsense).

To the extent that the ban/boycott/no-longer-be-allowed phenomenon has ever been explained, it’s always been explained with some variation of the same theme: It was just business.

Of course.

And that’s the eternal problem with “it’s just business.”

No matter how ugly and false the sentiment is on its face–it’s always a mask for something worse. (For an extreme example, read any basic “Lost Cause” treatise on the “economic necessity” of slavery, a style of argument now also routinely adopted by African-American scholars bent on defending African slavery–the great minds among us really do think alike.)

By breaching the barriers between the carefully segregated Pop, Country and R&B charts to a degree which had not come close to happening before (and which, genius being the funny thing it is, could not have been achieved to anything like the same extent by anyone else), Elvis forced the honchos in every corner of the music industry to make hard choices. In Nashville, at least, the weight of those decisions leaned heavily and rapidly toward a greatly clarified end–to take whatever steps were necessary to make sure it never happened again.

Since at least the mid-sixties, it has been fashionable among the mostly liberal crit-illuminati to mock–or at very least seriously question–the idea of Elvis as either artistic or cultural Revolutionary and, not coincidentally, to treat with scorn any revival of the unique coalition he built against immeasurable odds in rock’s early dawn (which is how the early sixties and mid-seventies  came to be counted as rock’s famous descents into Hell, halted by the British Invasion and Punk respectively).

So it turns out the lefties on the sixties’ ramparts and the Klan-lovin’ Nashville suits had something in common after all.

To paraphrase the late, great Lester Bangs: They’ll never agree on anything as they agreed on Elvis.

(In Part Six, I’ll take a look at the unprecedented cultural assault on Elvis (which can, of course, also be traced by reading the “Stupid Things” posts) in the fifties and beyond. I’m also working on a post dedicated to “In the Ghetto” for a “How Much Can One Record Mean” segment….Til then!)

 

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