I haven’t been able to listen to Elvis all year until this week.
Not even a little.
It wasn’t that he was irrelevant to the unfolding disaster befalling the American Experiment–a disaster which has nothing to do with the outcome of the election, that being just one more mile marker on the road down, though I’ll buy that it’s potentially a sign-worthy milestone at least. It was more that he was too relevant, too near, too obviously nagging the national consciousness, even as the fragile coalition between Appalachia’s version of the Celtic Imagination and the Delta’s version of the African Imagination that formed in his head in the mid-fifties and brought the Promised Land heaving into view off the bow, finally sank beneath the waves without anybody bothering to mention his name over much.
Maybe I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t listen.
Anyway, this week I started again and I started with the Fifties. Figured I’d just get the The Complete 50’s Masters out and let it roll over me, night after night.
Since this was probably the longest stretch I’ve gone without listening to any serious Elvis since the late seventies, re-engaging was an experience….like recovering a lost memory.
Along the lines of, “Oh yeah. That guy.”
I forgot how improbable it all was.
You tend to, if the music isn’t right there in your ear.
Anyway I do, what with all the white noise the world can make crowding in, day after day.
Toward the end of the second disc, just when I thought I couldn’t possibly be gobsmacked any harder, I ran into these three, right in a row:
Elvis the doo-wop singer, who, if that was all he had been, would have been in the conversation with Clyde McPhatter and Dion DiMucci as the greatest of all. (An amazing number of his records would fit the category if they had been recorded by some soundalike and been a career maker, the way “Be Bop A Lula” was for Gene Vincent, or “It’s Only Make Believe” was for Conway Twitty, to take only the most obvious examples.) This, the purest example, might not have become a hit for that imaginary soundalike. But it would have become a collector’s item, which, in doo-wop is maybe more to the point.
Followed by Elvis, the off-hand rockabilly, too smart to compete with Little Richard directly (though he could have, listen again to “Jailhouse Rock” or “Santa Claus is Back in Town” some time), too committed to treat it less than seriously…and a reminder that it was always the off-hand part that made Elvis the first and greatest rockabilly singer…
Followed by Elvis, the white gospel singer, who, if that was all he had been, would have been in the conversation with Jake Hess and James Blackwood as the greatest of all.
It’s been almost a given among the crit-illuminati, ever since his existence increased their value to the Overlords a thousand fold–made them not merely convenient but necessary–that “rock and roll” would have been just as big a deal, just as important, and moved to the center of the culture for three decades just as surely, if Elvis had failed to slip the noose and stayed a truck driver. (I created the “Stupid Stuff People Say About Elvis” category to give just a small taste of their willful ignorance.)
All you ever have to do to make nonsense of that is listen to the actual records and ask yourself, “Who else. then?”
Who else covered that much territory with so much fluidity and ease that it seemed “natural.”
No one else.
The one cold comfort that will be available to the future is the assurance that the boot-lickers, having played their role all too well, will be going down with the rest of us.
The Overlords, too.
As Elvis, the inveterate Bible reader, might have told them:
For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.
Volumes 1–6 can be accessed under the “Elvis In The Fifties” category at the right
Before Elvis’ eightieth birthday recedes, here’s a reminder of just how much the sands of history–and its shady cousin, memory–can slip and slide.
NOTES are mine….quotes are sourced as notated.
I actually assembled this series of quotes about fifteen years ago as part of a larger piece I wrote in response to a friend of mine making the standard claim that Elvis basically “stole everything” (including, of course, “Hound Dog”) from black people and, more generally, to a strain of then prominent “scholarship” (mostly found in left leaning magazines and, to be fair, mostly refuted there, too) which frequently asserted, among other things, that Big Mama Thornton had not only recorded the original version (true) but had written it (false).
So, for a messy, complicated story of one little record…
Speak memory….I leave it to each reader to decide who to believe!
….On August 13, 1952, (Jerry) Leiber and (Mike) Stoller became de facto producers when they supervised, from the studio control booth, Big Mama Thornton’s recording of their song “Hound Dog.”
Johnny Otis, a white drummer and vibraphonist, was the leader of a popular black blues band. He asked Leiber and Stoller to write some material for several of the singers in his band. Little Esther and Big Mama among them. “We went down to a rehearsal,” says Leiber, “and watched Big Mama perform. She must have weighed three hundred pounds and she was the saltiest chick we’d ever seen. We went home to write for her and out came “Hound Dog.”
Otis supervised the recording session first with Leard Bell, who worked with him on the road, playing the drums. The tune had been conceived by Jerry and Mike as a kind of country blues, with the drums playing a loping figure such as one might hear in Louisiana music. Bell had trouble finding a groove, and Jerry and Mike told Otis he had to play drums to save the song. “Who’s gonna’ sit in the booth?” Otis asked. “We will,” answered Jerry and Mike. And with Otis on the drums, his snares turned off so the drum kit got an unusual hollow ring, “Hound Dog” was recorded in two takes. “That was the first time,” Leiber says, “that we actually took over some authority and asked for a little bit more of this, a little bit less of that.” The record was number one on the national rhythm-and-blues charts for three months, eclipsing the success of Leiber and Stoller’s first r&b hit, “Hard Times” by Charles Brown. But since the charts were still segregated, few of Jerry and Mike’s remaining white friends heard either tune.
[From Baby That Was Rock & Roll: The Legendary Leiber and Stoller–Robert Palmer (1978)]
….Mike Stoller: “Johnny Otis called us in August 1952, and asked us to come over to his house. We knew Johnny because we’d written songs for Mel Williams and Little Esther, who worked with his band. He said, “I’ve got this singer, Willie Mae Thornton, who I’m going to produce. I want you to come by and listen to her and write a song for her.’ That’s how we meet her. I’d seen her name on something prior to that, but I didn’t know what she looked like. And to my knowledge I’d never heard her. Just knew the name.
“We went to this house in West L.A.–it was in the West Adams area. Beneath the living quarters of the house was a garage which he’d converted into a kind of rehearsal studio. I remember it was a warm afternoon, so the doors were open and it was sort of a half-inside, house-out rehearsal. And that’s when we first saw Big Mama. We were kind of….she was very imposing. [Laughs.] We ran back to my house and wrote “Hound Dog” in about eight or nine minutes. I started playing the piano with a beat that was kind of angry-sounding, because she seemed to be an imposing and salty kind of woman. She appeared to be close to 300 pounds and strong as an ox–she used to lift the microphone, with its heavy steel base, with one hand and sing into it while the base was up in the air. That’s what came through when I played the piano. And Jerry just started rambling and shouting and all of a sudden came out with, ‘You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.’ And it became a song about a gigolo. We took it back over to the garage that same day, and that was it. We sang it to her and she said, ‘Uh-huh.’ [Laughs.] [Referring to other printed versions of the story:] I don’t think we wrote it on a paper bag; it was probably a piece of lined paper.
“I remember we walked into the studio the next day and Jerry said, ‘Willie Mae, growl that opening line.’ And she said, ‘Don’t tell me how the sing the blues.’ Of course, the idea stuck, though. There was just two takes. When we’d rehearsed it at Johnny’s house, Johnny was sitting in on the drums. He’d had the snares turned off and was playing an old southern-style beat that sounded like something from an Alan Lomax recording–like they’d just come back from the fields. In the studio, his drummer, K.C. Bell, was on the drums. He had a regular, good-sounding set of traps you know, a regular crisp-sounding snare, and it just wasn’t happening. We told Johnny to get on the drums, and he said ‘Who’s going to run this thing?’ We said, ‘We will.’ It was actually the first time we had been fully in charge in the studio. Big Mama gave two incredible performances; the second one was better. It was a killer.”
[From Behind the Hits: Inside Stories of Classic Pop and Rock and Roll–Bob Shannon and John Javna (1986)]
[NOTE: “Hound Dog” became Big Mama Thornton’s only hit of any kind on any national chart, reaching #1 on the R&B charts in April, 1953.]
….Somebody told me they were recording there at Sun and I just went. Everybody had been in there. Sam [Phillips] had a completely black stable then, no white artists in there at all. All black. I had cut a song in Sun in 1953 called “Bear Cat,” that was the first hit for Sun, but I had done some other songs before that. I think two songs. Then Sun leased some of my songs to Chess up in Chicago. All I wanted to do was make a record. I didn’t worry about the money, because at that time you’d only get a penny a record.
“Bear Cat” was a spin-off from Willie Mae Thornton’s “Hound Dog”–same background music and everything, just different words. Sort of an answer to “Hound Dog.” It was a big song. The first hit with a Sun label on it. I made maybe five, six hundred dollars off it. Sam made a bit more than that. But Sam wouldn’t hardly tell anyone I made the first record for him that got a hit until about three years ago. They’d put us on panels together and he never did mention it. But I’d always come back and say, ‘Sam didn’t tell you I made the first record.’
He was an arrogant bastard. He is today. Back then he had a big car, was maybe a foreign car, a Bentley, and he’d boast about the money he made that got him this car. I said, ‘Yeah, but if it hadn’t been for me, he wouldn’t have had that car.’
[Rufus Thomas, from Sun Records: An Oral History–John Floyd (1998)]
….Consider American popular culture in the moments just after 8:00 p.m. on January 28, 1956, as represented (quite accurately) by “The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show.” The theme music is a large, bland was of strings and brass without discernible rhythmic accent. The male entertainers are decked out in tuxedos; suits and ties constitute casual wear except in the odd comedy skit. The only women are skimpily clad dancers. Everyone is white; no one speaks with an accent (except, perhaps, in an ethnic comedy sketch). The atmosphere is polished, sophisticated, slick, easy–nothing is difficult or challenging because there’s nothing at stake. Everyone has a role to play, entertainer and audience, assigned at birth and kept for life.
Enter Elvis, the living antithesis of this culture. Not unkempt but unruly, fresh, arrogant, surly, raw and powerful, his lip curling, hips shaking, knees swiveling. The music is streamlined and defined, his small band louder than the Dorseys’ huge orchestra. Elvis snaps into “Heartbreak Hotel.” He owns the song and the crowd immediately; the audience is stunned. This isn’t so much an “act” as an expose of the emptiness not only of most entertainment but of most lives. In the process of watching him, lives are changed.
Yet the reaction wasn’t national convulsion. “Heartbreak Hotel” came out the week Elvis’ first Dorsey show aired and, though the song soon topped national pop and country charts–even got to Number 5 in R&B–TV wasn’t decisive in its success. The Dorsey show wasn’t highly rated. Elvis had been booked because he might boost its ratings. Elvis had been spectacularly successful with his live show in the South and Southwest, radio programmers were becoming more open to rock & roll with each passing week and he now had a record with the promotional clout of RCA behind it from the day of release. All these factors contributed to Elvis’ national breakout.
All this while the band toured ceaselessly, flying into New York to do the TV appearances and to make an occasional record date. Elvis, Scotty [Moore], Bill [Black] and D.J. Fontana were selling out the honky-tonks and the arenas in the South and Southwest, making an occasional foray into the Middle West but basically avoiding the big cities. It was the country circuit they played. But Colonel Parker had bigger ideas.
On April 23, they began what was meant to be a two-week headline engagement at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. It was an undiluted disaster. The crowd came to gawk and glare at the hillbilly freak. It sat on its hands, a middle-aged, middle-class wad that wanted nothing more threatening or challenging than a little diversion from its losses at the tables. After the first few days, Presley’s name dropped to second on the bill, below comedian Shecky Greene. Before the start of the second week, the Frontier agreed to tear up Elvis’ $8,500-per-week contract.
The Vegas dates did have one benefit. While watching a lounge act, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, Elvis and the band heard a trumped-up version of Big Mama Thornton’s 1953 R&B hit, “Hound Dog,” an arrangement so wild and preposterously stagy that they immediately added it to their own stage show, where it became a sensation.
[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1982)]
….The Bellboys, a highly visual act who provided both action and comic relief, had had a minor hit the previous year with a song that had been a huge rhythm and blues success for Duke/Peacock artist Big Mama Thornton in 1953. “Hound Dog” had been written by two white teenagers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who specialized in rhythm and blues, and was a very odd choice for a male performer, since it was written from a female point of view. Nonetheless, it was the showstopper of Bell’s act, even retaining some of the original rhumba-flavored beat, and it sparked a determination on Elvis’ part to incorporate it into his own show. “We stole it straight from them,” said Scotty. “He already knew it, knew the song, but we were just looking on it as comic relief, if you will, just another number to do on stage.”
[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]
….It was Elvis’ performance of “Hound Dog” the second time he appeared on “The Milton Berle Show” that created outrage in papers and pulpits across the land. “Hound Dog” itself, although written as an exercise in black vernacular by a pair of hustling white leftists from Hollywood, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, was greeted as the worst kind of hillbilly barbarism. That is, “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog/Cryin’ all the time” was regarded as culturally retarded by a nation that only months before had found “How much is that doggie in the window/The one with the waggly tail” perfectly acceptable.
[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1982)]
He opened (the Milton Berle Show appearance) with “Hound Dog,” the song with which he had been closing his act ever since Las Vegas. He was wearing a light-color checked jacket, dark pants, a two-tone polo shirt, and white socks, and for the first time, surprisingly, he was not even cradling a guitar. Perhaps to make up for its absence he seemed to have carefully worked out new moves, wrists splayed out almost limply in seeming contrast to the ferocity of his vocal attack, fingers fluttering, arms outspread. With Scotty’s solo he lurches backward in what might be interpreted as an upbeat adaptation of the shrugging, stuttering, existential hopelessness of a James Dean, there is a jittery fiddling with his mouth and nose, and as the song comes to an end he is dragging the microphone down to the floor, staggering almost to his knees. Scotty and D.J. and Bill keep their eyes glued on him, there is only the slightest flicker of surprise as he points at the audience and declared emphatically. You ain’t nothing but a hounddog, then goes into his patented half-time ending, gripping the mike, circling it sensuously, jack knifing his legs out as the audience half-screams, half-laughs, and he laughs, too–it is clearly all in good fun.
[From Last Train in Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]
….The biggest outcry was against the way Elvis moved. “Elvis the Pelvis” became an epithet on the lips of the nation’s adults, moving Elvis to a rare public expression of bitterness (in a TV Guide interview): “It’s one of the most childish expressions I ever heard, comin’ from an adult.” TV critics used Presley’s TV performances to argue their case against the decadence and boorishness of the medium; the ordinarily sober John Crosby of the New York Herald Tribune called Elvis “unspeakably untalented and vulgar,” just short of true obscenity. It was an opinion seconded, often in stronger terms, by preachers, critics and educators across the land.
[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1982)]
…The attacks continued: In Nashville an effigy of him was hung, in St. Louis he was burned in absentia. Writing in the Catholic Sun the Reverend William Shannon complained that “Presley and his voodoo of frustrations and defiance have become symbols in our country.” Cardinal Spellman, in a sermon, quoted one of Jack Gould’s articles on Presley at length. The Reverend Charles Howard Graff of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Greenwich Village, New York, called the singer a “whirling dervish of sex.” The evangelist Billy Graham admitted he hadn’t met Presley and didn’t know much about him, but based on what he’d heard he wasn’t “so sure I’d want my children to see him.”
Reactions to Presley were not limited to the critics. One campaign was the brainchild of two Yale students who had become alarmed when they saw a lot of kids sporting “I Like Elvis” buttons. These two launched a counterattack on behalf of Beethoven and had a thousand “I Like Ludwig” buttons made up. A placard on the counter of a music store in Manhattan read, “Combat the Menace! Get Your Ludwig Button.” They sold them all in a matter of hours and within a few weeks claimed to be a national club with twenty thousand members across the country. Those who were seen with “Ludwig” buttons included such famous musicians as Isaac Stern, Eugene Ormandy, and Pablo Casals.
It seemed that everybody got in on the act, including one used car dealer in Cincinnati, who advertised that he would break fifty Presley records in the presence of anybody who bought one of his cars. He sold five cars in one day. In Toronto, Canada a columnist for the Toronto Telegram started a club for those who disliked Elvis and rock. It was called the Elvis Suppresley Club. On Canada’s west coast, columnist Jack Wasserman of the Vancouver Sun held a contest in which listeners were invited to complete, in fifty words or less, the following sentence: “I hate Elvis Presley because….” The winner got a Frank Sinatra record album. In the town of Aylmer, Quebec jukebox operators took Presley songs out of boxes after the mayor-elect urged the ban on the basis that the songs were too suggestive. At a private school in Ottawa, Canada eight female students were expelled after they disobeyed a school edict to stay away from a Presley concert. The principal of the senior high school in Wichita Falls, Texas, Oren T. Freeman, stated that, “We do not tolerate Elvis Presley records at our dances, or blue jeans or ducktail haircuts.” The editors of the Music Journal blasted Elvis for his “leering, whining, moaning,” and for his “filthy performances.” Two female students from a San Francisco high school won a “Why I Love Elvis” contest and were flown to Hollywood to be kissed. The principal expelled them and explained, “We don’t need that kind of publicity.”
….A jockey known as the Great Scott, in Nashville, burned six hundred Elvis records in a public park.
….When radio station WPST of Minneapolis banned Presley from their airwaves they brought down the ire of some residents. Several DJs reported receiving threatening calls to “play Elvis Presley or else.” A rock was thrown through the outlet’s front window and the attached note read, “I am a teenager–you play Elvis Presley or else we tear up this town.” The ban stood.
….In Leipzig (East Germany) police arrested a gang of youths after they had come under the influence of “NATO ideology.” The name of the gang was the “Elvis Presley Hound Dogs.”
[From Anti-Rock: The Opposition to Rock and Roll–Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave (1988)]
“appalling taste”–The San Francisco Chronicle.
“no discernible singing ability…an undistinguished whine…for the ear he is an utter bore”–The New York Times (Jack Gould)
“Elvis Presley wriggled and wiggled with such abdominal gyrations that burlesque bombshell Georgia Southern really deserves equal time to reply in gyrating kind…He can’t sing a lick, makes up for vocal shortcomings with the weirdest and plainly suggestive animation short of an aborigine’s mating dance….The sight of young (21) Mr. Presley’s caterwauling his unintelligible lyrics in an inadequate voice, during a display of primitive physical movement difficult to describe in terms suitable to a family newspaper, has caused the most heated reaction since the stone-age days of TV when Dagmar and Faysie’s necklines were plunging to oblivion.”–New York Journal-American (Jack O’Brien)
“[Popular music] has reached its lowest depths in the ‘grunt and groin’ antics of one Elvis Presley. The TV audience had a noxious sampling of it on the Milton Berle Show the other evening. Elvis, who rotates his pelvis, was appalling musically. Also he gave an exhibition that was suggestive and vulgar, tinged with the kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos.”–New York Daily News (Ben Gross)
“…if his entertainment could be confined to records, it might not be too bad an influence on the young, but unfortunately Presley makes personal appearances.
“He recently appeared in two shows in the Municipal Auditorium of La Crosse, Wisconsin. According to the La Crosse paper, his movements and motions during the performance, described as a ‘strip-tease with clothes on,’ were not only suggestive but downright obscene. The youngsters at the shows–4,000 at one, about 1,200 at the second–literally ‘went wild,’ some of them actually rolling in the aisles…
“Yet the National Broadcasting Company wasn’t loath to bring Presley into the living-rooms of the nation on the evening of June 5. Appearing on the Milton Berle show, Presley fortunately didn’t go so far as he did in La Crosse, but his routine was ‘in appalling taste’ (said the San Francisco Chronicle) and ‘his one specialty is an accented movement of the body that hitherto has been primarily identified with the repertoire of the blond bombshells of the burlesque runway.’ (New York Times)
“If agencies (TV and other) would stop handling such nauseating stuff, all the Presleys of our land would soon be swallowed up in the oblivion they deserve.”–Catholic weekly America.
[Select quotes (a very small sampling) gathered from Anti-Rock and Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley]
….Juvenile delinquency, a widespread breakdown of morality and cultural values, race mixing, riots and irreligion all were being blamed on Elvis Presley and rock ‘n’ roll by a national press that was seemingly just awakening to the threat, the popularity of the new music among the young, and, of course, the circulation gains that could always be anticipated from a great hue and cry.
….When in Charleston he nibbled a reporter’s fingers just to get her attention, it made national headlines–“Girl Reporter Bitten by Elvis”–and his mother was upset that now he was being accused of some new form of moral degeneracy until he reassured her there was nothing to it.
….“I’m going to get a wiggle meter to time the wiggles,” said the Colonel with imperturbable calm. “When Elvis stops singing, we’ll put him on the stage and just let him wiggle!”
….The Milton Berle Show topped Phil Silver’s Sergeant Bilko in the ratings for the first time all season.
[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]
….All this caught they eye of Steve Allen, then hosting a Sunday night variety show. If he outlives Norman Cousins, Allen may yet come to be regarded as this century’s preeminent embodiment of the patronizing middlebrow. Allen was a pianist and sometime lyricist, and he hated the emergent rock & roll; he would later be reduced to reading aloud the lyrics to “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” Allen seized the opportunity to present Elvis as a chance to hype his own ratings while putting the young hillbilly in his place.
Elvis appeared on July 1, 1956. The program began with Allen walking on stage dressed in a tux, short hair slicked back, horn-rimmed glasses set firmly on his smirking image, wringing his hands in gleeful anticipation. “Well, you know, a couple of weeks ago on ‘The Milton Berle Show,’ our next guest, Elvis Presley, received a great deal of attention–which some people seemed to interpret one way and some viewers interpreted another.” Allen said, his silly smirk growing larger. “Naturally, it’s our intention to do nothing but a good show. [A bark from offstage, Allen laughs nervously.] We want to do a show the whole family can watch and enjoy and we always do. And tonight we are presenting Elvis Presley in his [snicker], what you might call his first comeback. And so it gives me great pleasure to introduce the new Elvis Presley.”
Elvis stood there, decked out in a tux (and blue suede shoes, no less). Elvis beat Allen in the first round, singing a knockout version of “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” his new single and a fairly conventional ballad that was entirely credible in this getup. Allen then opened a curtain, revealing Elvis’ band–and a basset hound perched on a stool, wearing a top hat and a bow tie, to which Elvis was supposed to sing “Hound Dog.” He did, and he prevailed yet again, proving himself not only a good sport but an exceptionally intense and witty performer. Only those who gazed long into Presley’s eyes could have seen how angry and humiliated he felt.
[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1986)]
….“He sang without passion,” Al Wertheimer noted (of the ‘Steve Allen Show’ rehearsal). “He didn’t move, he didn’t touch the microphone, he stood square, both feet spread and stuck to the ground. After he had finished….Steve patted him on the back and told him it was great. Elvis smiled and in a slow, modest voice, he said ‘Thank you, Mr. Allen.’”
Then he met the dog, a female basset hound dressed in a collar, bow tie, and top hat. In further keeping with the theme of the show he was going to sing “Hound Dog” to–who else? During the first run-through the dog ignored him. Allen “suggested that they get to know each other.” Elvis petted, sang to her, and in the end prevailed, to the applause of the assembled stagehands and professionals.
….If Allen was experiencing extreme pleasure, it was clear that Elvis was experiencing the opposite.
….With his opening number (during the show itself), “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” for the first time he appeared, if not comfortable, at least involved, even in tails. He sang the song with sincerity and feeling, hunching his shoulders, loosening his tie, but for the moment lost in the private reverie which his music provided. The Jordanaires doo-wahed behind him, out of the picture, as were the musicians, save in silhouette. Even as the last notes were still ringing, Steve Allen bustled out on stage again, this time wheeling the basset, and announced that Elvis was not going to sing “Hound Dog,” his next big hit, which he would record the next day. The dog started to look away, Elvis cupped its chin, and there was sympathetic laughter as Elvis glanced balefully, as if sharing a joke with a friend, at the audience. The camera was on the dog as Elvis pointed at her and declared the obvious with a playful snarl. When the dog started to tremble, he held her affectionately and in the course of the song even kissed her once or twice. Apart from nervous titters, there was little response from the audience, but Elvis was a good sport about it all (“He always did the best he could with whatever situation he was given,” said Jordanaire Gordon Stoker of the appearance, “and he never, ever insulted anybody”), walking the mike around into the basset’s line of vision whenever its attention wandered, sharing his discomfiture openly and amiable. There was a sense of almost palpable relief on the part of all concerned when the song ended and he could finally march offstage after a long, lonely moment in the spotlight.
[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]
….It got worse, in a comedy skit that featured Allen, Imogene Coca and Andy Griffith as what was supposed to be taken as a “typical” hillbilly entertainment troupe devoted to hayseed jokes and the hustling of marketable products to the rubes. The jokes were not even up to Allen’s usual pallidly “urbane” standards. Each of them was lame, flat but vicious, a pitiless exhibition of Allens’ commitment to proving a point: that Elvis and the hillbilly culture he symbolized had no place in American life. Twenty-five years later, this skit is virtually incomprehensible except as a sort of basic attack on what Elvis was taken to represent, which was not only the South but lack of “sophistication.”
Nor was Allen’s intention missed–not by everyone. In Newsweek, John Lardner devoted an entire column to Elvis’ appearance on the program. Though it was written with Lardner’s familial sarcasm, the column (“Devitalizing Elvis”) amounts to a defense of Presley. “Steve Allen…made a public attempt to neutralize, calm or de-twitch Elvis Presley, the lively singer,” Lardner wrote. “Allen did this, one assumes, in what he personally considers the best interests of civilization. For him, it was logical. Civilization today is sharply divided into two schools which cannot stand the sight of each other. One school, Allen’s, is torpid and dormant in style; it believes in underplaying, or underbidding, or waiting ’em out. The other, Presley’s, is committed to the strategy of open defiance, of confusing ’em, of yelling ’em down. The hips and the Adam’s apple, this school believes, must be quicker than the eye.
“Allen’s ethics were questionable from the start,” Lardner concluded. “He fouled Presley, a fair-minded judge would say, by dressing him like a corpse, in white tie and tails.” The corpse, in the long run, would be bourgeois emptiness Allen epitomized. But for now the humiliation was Elvis’.
[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1982)]
….Back at his room at the Warwick (after the “Steve Allen Show” appearance), Elvis was still not done with his official duties. It had been arranged for him to do an interview on Herald-Tribune columnist Hy Gardner’s program, “Hy Gardner Calling!,” which broadcast locally on WRCA-TV, channel 4.
[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]
….The next day he seemed hardly the worse for wear. He arrived at the RCA building to find fans carrying picket signs that declared “We Want the Real Elvis” and “We Want the Gyratin’ Elvis”…Then he entered the studio, shortly before 2:00, and settled down to work.
….They started with “Hound Dog,” but perhaps not surprisingly it proved more difficult to capture on record than anyone had anticipated from its easy on stage success. Engineer Ernie Ulrich, as cynical about rock and roll as anyone else in the building, got a good sound mix early on, but then there were seventeen takes without a satisfactory master. The drums, always the driving force in the live show, weren’t working right. Scotty was groping toward his guitar solo, the Jordanaires were having some difficulty finding their place, and Shorty Long, the boogie-woogie piano player who had filled in on the last New York session, was just looking for his cues. (Nominal producer) Steve Sholes was getting visibly discouraged–he was desperate to get material for the second album, and here they were wasting all their time on a single song–but Elvis, who exhibited few points of stillness in any other aspect of his life, maintained absolute concentration. “In his own reserved manner,” wrote Wertheimer, “he kept control, he made himself responsible. When somebody else made a mistake, he sang off-key. The offender picked up the cue. He never criticized anyone, never got mad at anybody but himself. He’d just say, ‘Okay, fellas, I goofed.’”
[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]
….What they needed to figure out was how to turn the live performance into a record that would have the same effect. Elvis had performed the song live with a half-time, bump-and-grind ending a la “I Got a Woman,” but now that was quickly dropped in favor of a full-speed-ahead version that had more to do with energy and overall impact than anything else. Scotty’s guitar sounded loud and propulsive against a churning rhythm from Bill and D.J., while the Jordanaires delivered a backdrop of clapping hands and flowing “ahhhhs.” The end result was like a musical machine gun, and take after take rang through the room, growing tougher and sharper each time.
[From Elvis Presley: A Life In Music (The Complete Recording Sessions)–Ernst Jorgensen (1998)]
….On the eighteenth take they finally got something. By now the beat had changed considerably from the way they did it in live performance, and the phrasing of the lyrics had changed even more. It had veered still further from Big Mama Thornton’s original Latin-flavored “rhumba-boogie” feel (preserved mainly in the repetition of the final words, HOUND DOG at the end of the opening lines) and become a hard-driving number powered by D.J.’s tommy-gun attack and a solo that Scotty later labeled “ancient psychedelia.” With the twenty-sixth take, Sholes thought they had it….
[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley– Peter Guralnick (1994)]
….This was the session where Elvis’ perfectionist streak first became apparent. From Sholes’ point of view several of the earlier takes would have been just fine, and he tried to get the singer to listen to the playbacks, but it was obvious that the singer was marching to his own beat; he wouldn’t rest until he had recorded the song to his own–not anyone else’s–satisfaction.
[From Elvis Presley: A Life in Music (The Complete Recording Sessions)–Ernst Jorgensen (1998)]
….After the thirty-first take Sholes announced over the PA, “Okay, Elvis, I think we got it.”
….Elvis left his chair and crouched on the floor, as if listening in a different position was like looking at subject from a different angle. Again he went into deep concentration, absorbed and motionless. At the end of the song he slowly rose from his crouch and turned to us with a wide grin, and said, “This is the one.”
[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]
….Finally, with thirty-one, Elvis declared himself satisfied, and the room breathed a sigh of relief.
[From Elvis Presley: A Life in Music (The Complete Recording Sessions)–Ernst Jorgensen (1998) ]
NOTE: Immediately after recording “Hound Dog,” Elvis chose Otis Blackwell’s “Don’t Be Cruel” from a stack of demos and recorded it in twenty-eight additional takes. Although it was July, the air-conditioning was turned off in the studio for the entire session. “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog” were released as the A and B sides of RCA single 47-6604 (Elvis’ third for RCA) the week of August 4, 1956. It sold a million copies in the week before it was eligible to debut on the Billboard Hot 100. It spent a combined 11 weeks at number one and became the biggest selling single of the 1950s. Elvis had never before–and would never again–devote as many as thirty-one takes to a single side.
Mike Stoller: “In July, 1956, I was sitting in a lifeboat with sixty or seventy other people somewhere in the Atlantic. I was relieved to be away from the sinking Andrea Doria, the beautiful Italian liner I had been on for the past eight days, which now had a large gaping hole in its side and was going down fast. The lifeboat had a broken rudder and could not be steered. I wondered what would happen to me next. Fifteen hours later I stepped on to the dock in New York and was greeted by Jerry Leiber with, among other things, the news that Elvis Presley had just recorded “Hound Dog.”
[From Elvis Presley Sings Leiber and Stoller (Liner Notes)–RCA International INTS 5031 (1980)]
….Elvis Presley, who had signed an exclusive contract with RCA Victor late in 1955 and was turning the country upside down with his versions of rhythm-and-blues oldies and juked up country tunes, heard their “Hound Dog” in a Las Vegas lounge in 1956 and decided to record it. Being unfamiliar with Big Mama Thornton’s original recording*, he used the lounge combo’s garbled version of the lyrics. “You ain’t never caught a rabbit” was no in Leiber and Stoller’s original arsenal of invective, but they were not heard to complain.
During the spring of 1956, Stoller and his wife took a European vacation. They booked passage back to New York on the Andrea Doria and, the night before they were to land, the ship was rammed by the Stockholm in a thick fog bank. Mike was carrying a drink into the ballroom when it happened. “The Stockholm hit us and went two-thirds of the way through the Andrea Doria, bounced off, and came back in again. The ballroom was enclosed in glass and, after the initial shock, I looked out. It looked like someone had taken a giant letter opener and opened up the side of the boat. The Andrea Doria started listing further and further over on its side, and finally we made it down a jacob’s ladder into a lifeboat, which somebody had hacked loose because the winches were broken. Eventually we got into the Cape An and it took us to New York.”
When Leiber heard that the Andrea Doria had been rammed, he spent a frantic night and day trying to find out if Mike had survived. When he learned that the Stollers were among the lucky ones he raced down to the docks to meet them, bringing a silk suit for Mike in case he had been caught without his threads and bubbling with the news that Presley had recorded their song. The news didn’t mean much more than the silk suit at first–“I was just happy to see anybody,” Mike says–but soon the record was a number-one hit.
[From Baby That Was Rock and Roll: The Legendary Leiber and Stoller–Robert Palmer (1978)]
NOTE–*This is Palmer’s contention–disputed by Scotty Moore in an earlier quote here, and highly unlikely given “Hound Dog”’s huge R&B success and Elvis’ nearly encyclopedic knowledge (later confirmed by Leiber and Stoller themselves upon meeting him) of contemporary music.
….By now (the morning after Elvis’ “Hound Dog” recording session) the Steve Allen Show seemed like a million years ago, and the verdict was long since in. Allen had trounced Ed Sullivan in the ratings, the reviews were no more kind toward the stationary Elvis than they had been toward the gyrating one (“A cowed kid,” declared the Journal-American, “it was plain he couldn’t sing or act a lick.”) and Sullivan had publicly reiterated that he would not have the singer on his show at any price (“He is not my cup of tea.”) while privately he had already been in touch with the Colonel.
[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]
NOTE: Elvis returned home to Memphis by train. On July 4, he performed on “Elvis Presley Day” at the town’s minor league baseball stadium. Just before beginning the concert he quieted the crowd for the following announcement: “You know, those people in New York are not gonna’ change me none. I’m gonna’ show you what the real Elvis is like tonight.”
….Ed Sullivan announced on July 12 that he had changed his mind and was booking Elvis at an unprecedented fifty thousand dollars for three appearances in the fall and winter.
[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]
….By the time the first (Ed Sullivan) show appeared, on Sept. 9, Elvis had become such a cause celebre that Sullivan earned an 82.6 percent share of the viewing audience, an estimated 54 million people. (Steve Allen was off the air that night, replaced by a British movie, the network version of a flag of truce.)
[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1982)]
….For his third Sullivan show, Elvis was filmed only from the waist up in an attempt to do more subtly what Steve Allen had tried so awkwardly the previous summer: to make Elvis Presley respectable.
[From Elvis Presley: A Life In Music (The Complete Recording Sessions)–Ernst Jorgensen (1998)]
….MARLO LEWIS (director, the Ed Sullivan Show): Ed said to us just before Elvis was to do the show. “We’re in trouble. Elvis is doing something in these concerts that can no way be shown on television. He’s hangin’ some kind of device in the crotch of his pants so that when he moves his knee back and forth, it looks like his personal organ.” Ed used a little better language than that. “It’s waving back and forth just above the knee. We can’t have that on Sunday night. That’s a church night.”
So when we shot the show, I took camera two and I said, “Dolly into a chest shot and stay there.” And for that entire six minutes we only saw Elvis from his chest to his head. We never revealed the rest of him, nor did anyone ever see this “implement” between his legs. And I’ll tell you a secret: it wasn’t there.
[From Elvis Up Close–Rose Clayton and Dick Heard (eds.) (1994)]
NOTE: Waist up?…More like solar plexus up!
….Sullivan himself had been almost as derisive of Elvis’ ability as Allen. Sullivan wasn’t the host on the first Presley-led program–he was ill, so Charles Laughton filled in. But Ed was there when Elvis came back on October 28 and again the following January. By then, everyone but Sullivan and Elvis had forgotten Ed’s original snub.
As a result, that final appearance was complicated. As penance for attacking Elvis, the Colonel insisted that Sullivan publicly apologize–which Sullivan did, saying, “I wanted to say to Elvis Presley and the country that this is a real decent, fine boy.” But Sullivan and the CBS censors contradicted themselves, declaring that for this night, Elvis’ “suggestive movements” made it imperative that he be shown only from the waist up. Elvis made a mockery of this censorship, swiveling wildly, bumping and grinding with everything from his elbows to his eyebrows, using his shoulders as a metaphoric pelvis, and grinning wildly at the undiminished screams.
[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1982)]
Z Magazine: What happened with the royalty agreement you had with Leiber and Stoller around the rights to “Hound Dog”?
Johnny Otis: There were two young guys, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who came to me in the early 1950s and said we’re trying to write songs and we think we’ve got good songs and good ideas. Could we hook up with you and you could help us when the song needs some help and maybe you could record some of our songs. In fact, they did have great ideas. Some songs I would put my two cents in and other songs didn’t need it. But on the songs I did put my two cents in, we had a hand shake agreement that I would be a partner. One such song was “Hound Dog.” I was supposed to have half the publishing credit and one-third of the writer’s royalties. There was no problem when we had a R&B hit with Big Mama Thornton’s record of it in 1953, but when Elvis Presley’s version hit big, they couldn’t hold on to their integrity. They found out that the law specified if you’re under 21 you’re a minor. They used that and won a victory in court to get out of our agreement. Recently, when I was inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame, here they appeared on the screen, like the great white fathers of rhythm and blues music, congratulating me and giving a little bit of our history together. I resented that so much.
[From “Slippin’ & Slidin’: An Interview With Johnny Otis” in Z Magazine–Sandy Carter (April, 1995)]
NOTE: You might not guess it reading this quote, but, as earlier noted, Johnny Otis was himself white.
….The best account of Elvis facing his real audience is Gordon Bowker’s “Rock!” (Seattle magazine, February, 1970), which places several teenagers at Elvis’ 1957 Seattle concert, and then catches up with them twelve years later. Bowker’s concluding words cannot be topped, and they sum up the moment:
“The rosy glow had gone from the cap of Mount Ranier, and the infield was bright with the best night-baseball lights in the minor leagues. The noise from the 15,000 people was immense. Finally the crown grew quiet.
“‘I alluz like to begin mah concerts with the national anthem,’ the King said, into the mike. ‘Will ya’ll please rise?’ Boyd Grafmyre and Willie Leopold and Ted Shreffler and Dennis Lunder and Merrilee Gunst [who, as Merrilee Rush, would score a top ten hit in 1968 with the shining “Angel of the Morning”] and Tom Hullet and Pat O’Day who had driven over from Yakima with his wife to celebrate his second wedding anniversary and the other 15,000 people all stood up. Also on his feet was Jimi Hendrix, then a Seattle schoolboy.
“Elvis picked up his guitar, twitched once more, took a breath, and groaned: ‘You ain’t nothing but a hound dog….’
“The crowd was stunned. Then it erupted into a frenzy that dwarfed the one a few minutes earlier. The grandstands seethed back and forth like a huge sea anemone. Not even Elvis could be heard above the roar.”
[From Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music–Greil Marcus (1975)]
…Or, “Yes, There Was a Reason They Drafted Him…However Coincidentally”
A few weeks turned out to be a few months, but I’m finally getting around to continuing the discussion of Elvis Presley’s unprecedented impact in the fifties. Parts 1 through 5 can be accessed in the “Concerning Elvis” category on the right (you’ll have to scroll down a bit–I’ve been busier than I thought). I indicated at the end of Part 5 that I would use this as a sort of philosophical summation, but I realized in the intervening gap that I had left out one important statistical component of my basic argument–and that it was perhaps the most important one!–so I’m inserting it here. It’s a little shorter than previous posts but I think it covers some necessary ground.
(NOTE: Up until November 10, 1958, Billboard’s Pop Chart was divided into multiple lists–for a time, as many as four per week. For historical purposes, any record that made it to the top of any of these charts is generally considered a #1 hit. Thus, there may be significantly more than fifty-two weeks’ worth of “#1″ records in any given year from 1954 to 1958.)
(SECOND NOTE: Within the definition of “rock and roll” below, I stretched to include the rather dubious likes of Charlie Gracie and Paul Anka–that is to say I even included artists who might well have enjoyed very similar levels of success with very similar sounding records had rock and roll never happened but who nonetheless can at least tangentially be called “rock and roll” acts. I also included those ballads, like Tommy Edwards’ “It’s All In The Game,” which at least get played on rock and roll oldies stations. I did, however, exclude “novelty” records, which tend to thrive in defiance of purely musical trends.)
So to begin, let’s consider the rise of Rock and Roll in three not entirely arbitrary stages:
Stage 1: July 19, 1954–April 21, 1956 (Elvis’ first official release on Sun to the week when his first major label release, “Heartbreak Hotel,” reached the top of the national pop charts)
Stage 2: April 21, 1956–March 24, 1958 (Elvis’ first national chart #1 to his induction in the Army)
Stage 3: March 24, 1958–April 25, 1960 (Army induction to his first post-Army release, “Stuck On You,” reaching the top of the national charts)
Now some statistics:
STAGE ONE (7/54–4/56):
Total weeks at #1–all artists: 125
Total weeks at #1–Rock and Roll artists only: 10 (8% of total)
Total weeks at #1–Elvis only: 0 (0% of Rock total)
STAGE TWO (4/56–3/58):
Total weeks at #1–all artists: 152
Total weeks at #1–Rock and Roll artists only: 83 (55% of total)
Total weeks at #1–Elvis only: 56 (67% of Rock total)
STAGE THREE (3/58–4/60):
Total weeks at #1–all artists: 119
Total weeks at #1–Rock and Roll artists: 71 (60% of total)
Total weeks at #1–Elvis only: 4 (6% of Rock total)
Followed by some quick thoughts:
Studying these numbers, a few things become obvious.
Rock and roll took off into the stratosphere and moved to the very center of American culture in the two years before Elvis went into the Army, (in the time frame which I’ve called “Stage 2”).
It took off into the stratosphere and moved to the very center of American culture (as opposed to becoming a real hot fad in the music business) because of–and only because of–Elvis Presley’s extraordinary success.
Elvis spent more than twice as many weeks at #1 in Stage 2 as all other rock and roll acts combined–even if “rock and roll” is stretched to its furthest possible definition. (Meaning, incidentally, the definition Elvis’ success gave it.)
As one method of considering rock and roll’s impact without Elvis: Pat Boone alone spent 18 weeks at #1 in Stage 2….all rock and roll acts not named Elvis Presley spent a total of 27 weeks at #1.
As another more straightforward method of consideration: Without Elvis, rock and roll only takes up about 28% of the total weeks at #1 in this all important and likely decisive stage.
That’s a long way from nothing. It’s a pretty big deal, moving from 10% to 28%. But, without Elvis, it’s not even close to being a Revolution. (Never mind that, absent Elvis, even the 28% would certainly be lower–he brought a lot of his competition with him.)
When we look at Stage 3, we find that Rock and Roll, broadly defined, really had become the dominant music (in the very era when rock historians have typically written it off), which it would remain until the rise of Hip Hop in the nineties. But that’s mostly because literally every record company in America had made a point of getting in on the act in the wake of Elvis’s extraordinary success, which was of a measure that no savvy businessman could afford to ignore.
Hence, what we find in Stage 3 is a string of #1 hits by Elvis surrogates: Bobby Darin, Conway Twitty, Ricky Nelson, Frankie Avalon, Paul Anka…even Johnny Preston and Mark Dinning (not to mention Nashville acts like the Everly Brothers and Johnny Horton and Marty Robbins who were still benefiting from the phenomena I discussed at length in Part 5, though that was about to end). These young men who might not have had recording contracts without Elvis re-directing the music business–and who certainly would have been singing a different kind of music–held the line until the main force returned (whence he immediately spent sixteen of the next thirty-seven weeks at #1 himself and spearheaded a “velvet revolution” in ballad singing that would flip the script so thoroughly that following developments–be it the Beatles or Dylan or Hendrix or Aretha or Johnny Rotten–became predictable in their broad outlines, however unforeseeable they were in their specifics. About that, more later, as we move into Elvis’ post-Army career.)
I wanted to present these numbers in simple, stark form, because I think they make the case more clearly than any amount of anecdotal evidence could, that, without Elvis Presley, the cultural narrative of the post-war era would be remarkably different. I’ll go into that more deeply in Part 7 before I move on to his return from the army.
(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:
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)
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.
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.
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!)
In Parts One, Two and Three, I looked at Elvis’ impact on white-to-black crossover in the fifties relative to other eras in American music. In Part Four, I’ll examine the reverse effect: black-to-white crossover.
First an excerpt from a Salon.com interview with African-American intellectual John McWhorter conducted by Suzy Hansen, Jan. 14, 2003:
Q: Do they feel that way about hip-hop? It’s mostly black controlled.
A: Hip-hop is interesting. It’s almost as if people are waiting for it to be co-opted. But the thing is that there is no hip-hop Elvis and there’s not going to be one. There is Eminem, but nobody would claim that he is taking the lion’s share. There is nobody who thinks of Eminem as the quintessence of hip-hop.
Q: But people have compared him to Elvis. Well, he compares himself to Elvis, anyway.
A: In that way that he is a white hip-hopper. But he is not taking over the field. He is not making more money than any other number of hip-hoppers. He is just one of many. And he’s doing fine. But he’s not taking over in the way that Elvis did. Elvis made it and all of a sudden he’s making more money than Chubby Checker and Sam Cooke and all the others combined. Eminem’s not doing that, he’s not going to, nor will any white hip-hopper do it. Things have changed. The white kids in the suburbs are not listening only to Eminem. There’s no sense that they like Eminem better than the black ones. (Italics mine)
This snippet neatly sums up an attitude about Elvis’ relationship to black music in the fifties which has now prevailed so thoroughly it generally goes unquestioned in the sort of polite company where straw-man logic is pretty much the only acceptable variety. That company certainly includes both McWhorter and his interviewer.
The underlying assumption is that Elvis prevented other artists–specifically black artists–from making as much money, having as much success, getting as much credit as they deserved, etc.
So let’s take that “idea” for a spin around the block.
Here’s the history of records that topped both the R&B and Pop Charts in four distinct eras:
(Warning: It gets even wonkier than usual here because I want to cover this in a single post before I move on so bear with me….)
For starters, more raw numbers, regarding records that topped both the Pop and R&B charts (as always the charts are Billboard):
Pre-Rock Era, 1942–1955: 6 crossover #1’s in 14 years (0.43 per year. Peak year, 1943: 2)
The Age of Elvis, 1956–1963: 45 crossover #1’s in 8 years (5.6 per year. Peak year, 1958: 10)
The Age of the Beatles: 1964–1970: 30 crossover #1’s in 7 years (4.2 per year. Peak year, 1970: 7)
The Seventies, 1971–1979: (51 in 9 years or 5.7 per year. Peak year, 1975: 10)
Simple conclusions: “The Age of Elvis” offered far more opportunity for crossover in both directions (pop-to-r&b and r&b-to-pop) than the previous era by a factor of about thirteen to one. How much of this had to do with Elvis himself and how much with other factors is, of course, debatable.
However–given that the circumstance McWhorter and many others have always insisted amounted to some kind of repression (Elvis making more money than “all the others combined” being the sort of ridiculous assertion that rolls easily off the tongue and becomes readily accepted as fact once real facts are deemed sufficiently inconvenient) was actually an improvement of THIRTEEN HUNDRED PERCENT on the pre-existing circumstances–it certainly seems fair to conclude that Elvis at very least did not impede black artists from reaching the mainstream.
And, of course, the peak year of crossover in the Elvis era (10 in 1958) was not matched again until 1975 (the dawn of disco–which then naturally became the epitome of everything “rock and roll” had to be rescued from).
On top of that–when Elvis stopped being the center of the culture and was replaced by the Beatles–crossover actually receded by a full twenty-five percent (though, as we’ll see, black artists continued to reach the top of the pop charts in about the same numbers–the drop-off came from white artists falling from the top of the R&B charts).
Even the disco era only revived crossover to the levels it had reached in Elvis’ peak years (though again the totals for black artists topping the pop charts increased as seen below).
Yet intellectuals still feel the need to assure us that Eminem–recording in an age when black artists have come to dominate the pop charts almost as thoroughly as white artists did prior to rock and roll–will not be “taking over” hip-hop. One can’t help but suspect that Elvis’ popularity is consistently seen through the lense of paranoia not in spite of–but because of–his cross-racial appeal. I mean, there’s a reason why I called this series “the Threat.”
Just so no one can accuse me of cherry picking (I’ve detailed the usual caveats about charts-as-objective-evidence at length in previous posts so I won’t repeat them here), here’s a more direct look at black access to the top of the pop charts in the relevant time periods.
Pre-Rock Era, 1942–1955:
Total records to reach #1 on the pop charts: 200
Total #1 pop hits by black artists: 13 (.065 percent of total)
The Age of Elvis, 1956–1963:
Total records to reach #1 on the pop charts: 168
Total #1 pop hits by black artists: 35 (20.8 percent of total)
The Age of the Beatles, 1964–1970:
Total records to reach #1 on the pop charts: 145
Total #1 pop hits by black artists: 31 (21.4 percent of total)
The Seventies, 1971–1979:
Total records to reach #1 on the pop charts: 232
Total #1 pop hits by black artists: 74 (31.8 percent of total)
Again, the huge jump occurred in the very period when Elvis was at the height of his popularity, remained steady for the following era, then took a healthy but not monumental leap in the seventies.
And again, all the objective evidence we have suggests that Elvis’ popularity did nothing whatsoever to restrict the access black artists had to the mainstream–rather the opposite in fact.
Seen from every conceivable angle except agenda-induced fantasy, then, Presley helped usher in an era of integration which was staggering in its implications. Implications, which, despite monumental efforts directed against both him personally and rock and roll in general, have more or less been fully realized over the past half-century plus.
I never much cared for the term “King of Rock and Roll” and neither did Elvis (who by all accounts detested the phrase).
But if you wanted to call him the revolution’s essential man, I’m not sure I could mount much of an argument without turning into say, John McWhorter.
Thus ends the wonky phase of “The Threat.”
Next up, I’ll try to round up what sketchy evidence there is for Nashville’s quasi-official war on Elvis.
Then on to the mainstream press, the draft board and sundry other agents of the pushback.
In Parts One and Two, I laid out some numbers that proved beyond any reasonable doubt Elvis Presley is by far the most successful white artist in the history of the black music charts–and that this hard fact has largely been marginalized, ignored or denied.
This time around, I’ll take a look at these numbers within the context of all the white acts who topped Billboard’s principal black music chart between 1942 (when the chart was instituted as the “Harlem Hit Parade”) and 1995 (which is the last year for which I have full stats in my home library).
For the sake of both simplicity and relevance, I’m applying the previously discussed “Johnny Otis Principle” and excluding multi-racial acts. I think it’s fair to assume, for instance, that Paul Whiteman’s orchestra had no more chance of topping the black music chart in 1942 without Billie Holiday in front than Herb Alpert had of topping the chart in 1987 without Janet Jackson in front. And that Paul McCartney had no more chance of reaching #1 in 1983 without sharing a billing with Michael Jackson than Herbert Wayne Casey (the Johnny Otis of his day) had of racking up a remarkable four chart-toppers in the seventies without leading the primarily black Sunshine Band.
(Even with multi-racial records included, the numbers would not be huge, but I think excluding them gives a clearer and more accurate picture of precisely how much success–or lack thereof–white vocalists have enjoyed on black charts.)
First, it should be acknowledged that there was a brief period of integration on the charts when they began. From the first chart on October 24, 1942 through March 11, 1944–a period of a little over 16 months–a total of six records featuring white bands and white vocalists topped the “Harlem Hit Parade.” For some matrix of reasons that I can only speculate about at this point, after a Benny Goodman instrumental (featuring black guitarist Charlie Christian) replaced Johnny Mercer’s “G.I. Jive” on March 11,1944, a wall fell down and the chart became effectively segregated.
Here’s how the next fifty years played out, era by era.
(First column is the dates inclusive. Second column is the number of records by white vocalists not supported by a black band and/or black vocalist that topped the black charts between those dates.)
3/11/44–9/8/56: 1 (Johnny Ray, 1952)
9/15/56–9/22/58: 17 (6 by Elvis; 2 by the Everly Brothers; 1 each by nine others)
9/29/58–9/29/62: 1 (Everly Brothers, 1960)
10/6/62–11/23/63: 6 (2 by the Four Seasons; 1 each by four others)
11/30/63–11/28/64: 1 (Shangri-Las, 1964)***
12/5/64–4/2/88: 2 (Wild Cherry, 1976; Hall and Oates, 1982)
4/9/88–12/31/95: 4 (2 by Lisa Stansfield; 1 each Teena Marie and George Michael)
From March of 1944 to December of 1995, white acts topped the black charts 32 times in just under 52 years.
Making it safe to say that a white record topping the black charts has always been an event.
32 events then. In 52 years.
SEVENTEEN of those 32 “events” occurred in a twenty-four month period from September of 1956 to September of 1958.
That is, between the very moment Elvis Presley blew a crater-sized hole in the center of the culture and the very moment his absence in the army began to be a genuine drag on his chart performance.
After the cataclysm, there was a four-year stretch when only one white act topped the R&B charts. (though it’s worth noting it was in this very period that Cashbox, the number two trade magazine, experimented with eliminating the R&B chart altogether for most of 1960 because they felt the crossover was sufficient both ways to justify combining the Pop and R&B charts permanently….See the footnote below for Billboard’s later, more extensive experiment along the same lines.)
Then, from the fall of 1962 through the end of 1964, there was a revival of crossover, with a solid seven records reaching the top (the last counted while Billboard was on the hiatus noted below).
After which, at the very height of the Civil Rights era, the curtain fell down again and the resulting blackout–or, if you prefer, whiteout–has more or less held ever since (the only significant departure was the flurry of multi-racial action in the disco era–the backlash to which is a subject I touched on here and here and will definitely be revisiting on a semi-regular basis.)
Now let me restate the usual caveats: Yes, chart methodologies change over time. Yes, there were other factors besides the phenomenal popularity of Elvis Presley at play even in his white-hot period from 1956–58. No, #1 records are not the only measure of crossover (while I suspect the percentages don’t change much if you amplify to include the whole chart, I don’t have the resources to completely verify this.)
And, no, “charts” are not purely objective.
Still, they are what we have. And they tell a continually remarkable story. The story they keep telling is that Elvis Presley was a unique phenomenon–not just for his time but for any time.
Remember that music charts were (and are) constructed to represent a sort of collusion between audiences and the music industry. Remember also, that audiences and individuals were (and are) as guilty of perpetuating reactionary tribalism as the captains of commerce–sometimes more so.
The one moment in America’s cultural history when that spirit of segregationist collusion was most at risk was the moment when Elvis Presley threatened to blow it up.
Because of Elvis’ inevitable human failings, it’s been very easy over the decades to either euthanize him with overweening praise (it’s natural for us to want our heroes to also be saints–or at very least not to stand idly by while small minds pick their bones), or demonize him with even more ridiculous assertions of villainy (now codified by the empty phrase “culture theft”).
As we’ve already seen in the previous posts, that process began very early.
I think these numbers begin to tell us why this was inevitable. Oddly enough, they also give us the best ammunition for fighting back. I’m writing these posts because I think it’s ammunition that has been insufficiently utilized.
I’m going to do one more post on the history of white-to-black crossover before I move on to the precise methods that various entrenched interests used to push back against their import (including the way the country music establishment responded to all this).
Little of that will be news to Elvis fans (can’t wait for those Hy Gardner quotes yet again!), but strung together I hope they’ll acquire a new level of cogency and force.
Next up: The history of black artists crossing over to the top of the white pop charts–and whether Elvis’ success impeded or assisted the process.
***NOTE: The Billboard R&B chart was suspended during this period so listings for this period are quasi-official, based on Joel Whitburn’s best estimate of what would have happened had the chart been sustained.)
Along with the numbers argument I’m pursuing in the main posts in this little series, I thought it might be a good idea to throw in some vignettes that give at least some idea of the complexity of Elvis’ interaction with–and relationship to–Black America in the segregationist fifties (and since).
So, for starters, here’s an interesting slice of history from December of 1956:
Three nights later Elvis was among some other fellows with much the same interests, but under entirely different, if no less newsworthy, circumstances. WDIA, which had been broadcasting sine 1949 with programming aimed exclusively at Memphis’ black population, but with white management, news announcers, and engineers, had established a Goodwill Fund almost from its inception with the goal of helping “needy Negro children.” Each year the station put on a revue on the first Friday of December, which for the last several years had taken place at Ellis Auditorium. In 1956 the headliners were Ray Charles, former WDIA disc jockey B.B. King, the Magnificents, and the Moonglows, along with a gospel segment that featured the Spirit of Memphis Quartet and the Happyland Blind Boys. Each year’s show featured a them acted out by the current DJ staff, and this year’s had to do with a contingent of “hep Choctaws,” led by Chief Rockin’ Horse (Rufus Thomas) and his bride, Princess Premium Stuff (Martha Jean the Queen), who are determined to introduce rock ’n’ roll to a recalcitrant, and hopelessly square, rival tribe.
One of the engineers at the station, Louis Cantor, who doubled as a part-time gospel and r&b announcer under the names of Deacon and Cannonball Cantor, had graduated from Humes a year ahead of Elvis and George Klein and was a fellow student with Klein at Memphis State, as well as a fellow congregant at Temple Beth El Emeth. Wouldn’t it be something, the powers that be at WDIA speculated, if they could get Elvis Presley to make a guest appearance on the show? Cantor approached Klein, who spoke to Elvis about it. He would be thrilled, he said, to put in an appearance, but he couldn’t, of course, perform–that was something the Colonel had drilled into him since the very beginning of their association.
He and George showed up on the night of the show and stood quietly in the wings as some of his biggest heroes appeared on stage: Ray Charles sand “I Got A Woman” to Princess Premium Stuff; Phineas Newborn, Sr., led an all-star pit band dressed in Indian costumes of its own; and the ubiquitous Professor Nat D. Williams, master of ceremonies both here and at the amateur talent shows at the Palace Theater as well as a popular columnist in the Negro press, crowned the station’s “Miss 1070,” as he did every year. “I was fourteen,” said Carla Thomas, Rufus’ daughter, a member of the highly disciplined Teen Town Singers, who sang backup for many of the singers on the show and had a performing spot of their own, “and I told my girlfriend, ‘That’s Elvis Presley back there in the wings.’ She said, ‘That’s not Elvis Presley, he’s not on the show.’ I said, ‘I know.’ He was just watching from the wings. They didn’t announce him until the very end, because they didn’t want everybody to get carried away, and when they did and he came out and did his little ‘How you doing?’ everybody said, ‘More! Do a little something for us.’ So he did a lttle shake, and he tore everybody up.”
“I told them, if you put Elvis into the front of the show, the show is over,” said Carla’s father, Chief Rockin’ Horse for this evening, “so they took me at my word and put Elvis on near the end. I took Elvis on stage by the hand, I had this great big headdress with all the feathers, and when I took Elvis out there and he did that little wiggle that they wouldn’t let him do on television, the crown just went crazy. They stormed all backstage, beating on the doors and everything!”
After the show was over he stood backstage talking quietly and having his picture taken with B.B. and Miss Claudia Marie Ivy, the newly crowned WDIA queen. “To all who were in earshot,” reported the Tri-State Defender to its black constituency proudly, “Presley was heard telling King, ‘Thanks, man, for the early lessons you gave me.’ Arthur Godfrey would surely call that ‘humility.’”
“He stayed around a long time after the show,” said Carla. “My sister Vaneese and I had our pictures taken with him, and there was an old piano backstage and he played some little runs on it. The audience was gone, and there were just the people getting dressed, and finally the stage manager said, “All right now, ya’ll got to go.’ He stayed that long, and we were just having a lot of fun. I remember that Elvis.”
The accounts in the Negro press in succeeding weeks and months were just as positive, with one exception. Various reports pointed out that Elvis freely acknowledged not only his debt to B.B. but, implicitly, to black music in general, and the Memphis World cited an account of six months earlier that had Elvis “crack[ing] Memphis segregation laws [on June 19] by attending the Fairgrounds Memphis amusement park on East Parkway, during what is designated as ‘colored night.’” For the most part there was little question that he was a hero in the black community. Nat D. Williams alone demurred. In his column in the December 22 issue of the Pittsburgh Courier, he wrote:
“Maybe it’s the Indigo Avenue’s blase blues sophistication, native ignorance of the important, or just pur-dee meanness, but ordinarily nobody generally excites Beale Streeters enough to cause them to cue up to buy tickets or crash lines for autographs…But Elvis Presley has ’em talking. And they ain’t talking about his “art.” You see, something happened the other night that the average Beale Streeter doesn’t altogether dig or appreciate.”
What the average Beale Streeter didn’t dig or appreciate, Nat D. went on, appeared to be a variation on the same thing that so disturbed the white middle-class (and middle-aged) mainstream.
“A thousand black, brown and beige teen-age girls in the audience blended their alto and soprano voices in one wild crescendo of sound that rent the rafters…and took off like scalded cats in the direction of Elvis. It took some time and several white cops to quell the melee and protect Elvis. The teen-age charge left Beale Streeters wondering: “How come cullud girls would take on so over a Memphis white boy…when they hardly let out a squeak over B.B. King, a Memphis cullud boy?”…But further, Beale Streeters are wondering if these teen-age girls’ demonstration over Presley doesn’t reflect a basic integration in attitude and aspiration which has been festering in the minds of most of your folks’ women folk all along. Huhhh?”
From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (Peter Guralnick, 1994)
You could say, incidentally, that the history of rock criticism–or at least Elvis criticism ever since–has been the history of smart people trying to answer that last question. As yet, no one has succeeded, though an awful lot of the people who create anti-history think they have.
In Part One, I listed the white acts (Elvis Presley and Johnny Otis) who placed among the top 25 acts on the R&B charts of any given decade from the forties through the nineties. I also explained why counting Johnny Otis as a “white” act is dubious, even though Otis himself was white.
Today, I’ll take the other artist–who placed a mind-boggling second in the 1950s–and begin with a list of where he would have placed in each of the other decades, based on the same number of chart points, along with the artists he would have been sandwiched between in the rankings. (For continuity’s sake, I’m including the fifties–the decade when the points were actually compiled. I’ve excluded the nineties, however, because I don’t have a listing for the complete decade.)
1940s (2nd–Between: Louis Jordan and Nat “King” Cole)
1950s (2nd–Between Fats Domino and Ruth Brown)
1960s (8th–Between Bobby Bland and Jackie Wilson)
1970s (6th–Between the Isley Brothers and Al Green)
1980s (3rd–Between Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson)
This is to emphasize the previous post’s point–that no other white artist has ever had anything remotely approaching this level of success crossing over to the black music chart–and also to demonstrate that Presley’s popularity on those charts was historic and impressive no matter the decade. It did not, therefore, reflect some kind of dynamic that was specific to the times–but rather something that was specific to Elvis.
I don’t, for instance, think anything could demonstrate the staggering level of Presley’s crossover appeal more than pointing out that he accumulated more Billboard R&B chart points in the 1950s than Michael Jackson did in the 1980s.
Anecdotal it may be…But let’s repeat that.
Elvis Presley was–by the closest thing we have to an objective measure–slightly more popular on the black music charts of the fifties, than Michael Jackson was on the same charts in the eighties.
Of course there are some caveats.
Chart tabulation methodology, frequency of single releases, promotion of B-sides (or lack thereof) and possibly some other, more marginal, factors tend to favor fifties’ numbers over eighties’ numbers.
On the other hand, Presley only began releasing records to the R&B market (or more accurately, the R&B market only began picking up on him) with the release of “Heartbreak Hotel” in the spring of 1956, while Jackson released records throughout the entire eighties.
Also on the other hand, Presley’s output was, of course, severely curtailed by his induction into the army in the spring of 1958.
Back on the first hand….Presley may have benefitted from white teenagers calling black stations to request his songs or cruising black neighborhoods to buy his records (though, coming from the other direction, it should be said that Jackson hardly lacked for white fans as well). However, by that logic, those same white teenagers should have been boosting the numbers for a lot of other white acts.
In a word, they didn’t. Not really.
While the white-to-black crossover certainly increased in this period–a trend that generally increased and hung on through the early sixties and which I’ll be discussing as part of this series–we’ve already seen that no other white act generated anywhere near the crossover appeal that Elvis did. Not in the fifties and not in any other era.
So, all in all, I’d call the caveats a wash.
(Especially when you factor in the widespread distribution of the vicious, unsourced rumor I quoted at the beginning of Part One.)
I don’t mean to imply, incidentally, that I believe Elvis was as truly popular with black audiences as Michael Jackson. There are a lot of ways besides record charts–both objective and subjective–to measure “popularity”.
What should be clear, however, even after the first two parts of this series, is that Presley did represent a unique threat to the standing order in not only the traditional music industry but, by extension, the society at large.
And what should also be clear, by the quotes I put at the top of Part One and the on-line discussion I linked to, is that an awful lot of people who should know better are in very deep states of denial and/or willful ignorance about this.
At the beginning of 1956, Presley was virtually unheard of outside the American south (and hardly a household name even there).
By the end of 1956, he had become the most famous man in Western Civilization, in large part because he smashed through existing racial barriers of his time and place–barriers which had been carefully constructed and even more carefully maintained throughout the history of the music industry–in the most disturbing ways possible and to a degree that had not been approximated before and has not been repeated since.
Now, in 2012, there’s a false narrative in place that basically refuses to admit any of this ever happened. As I think the link I provided shows, this false narrative is now the default position–the starting point for everyone and the ending point for most. Anyone who wishes to suggest some other reality had best be prepared to make complex arguments and defend them.
So, when I forge on to Part Three, I’ll continue building my argument by looking at more hard numbers–namely the entire history of white vocalists topping the black charts, from the early forties to the mid-nineties.
“Some Negroes are unable to forget that Elvis was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, hometown of the foremost Dixie race baiter, former Congressman Jim Rankin. Others believe a rumored crack by Elvis during a Boston appearance in which he is alleged to have said: ‘The only thing Negroes can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my records’.”
“I prayed about it, because I knew Elvis was a racist.”
Mary J. Blige (2002, after being criticized for singing “Blue Suede Shoes” on a VH1 special)
Back in 2010, Ta-Nehisi Coates hosted an interesting discussion about white musicians who have been “accepted” by black audiences. The occasion was the death of Teena Marie and some other names came up, most particularly Johnny Otis. (The whole thing is here and highly recommended.)
Coates runs a civil site so the discussion is serious-minded, in-depth and nuanced.
But the elephant in the room occupies roughly the same place he does in dozens of other less elegant chats one can find across the net–backgrounded, neutralized, referred to in passing, not to be taken too seriously (though, for once, the quotes above are not referenced).
There’s actually an objective measure of this particular “white-artist-black-audience” phenomenon, one which I have to assume is very infrequently referenced.
I say “infrequently” because “never” is hard to prove, though I can say I’ve failed to happen across it even once in conjunction with the subject at hand. And researching that subject–looking for takes everywhere from the highest academia to the lowest gutter chat-rooms–has been a perpetual hobby of mine for about twenty-five years.
In the last six decades of the twentieth century, this “objective” measure appeared in Billboard magazine under the following names:
“Harlem Hit Parade” (10/24/42–2/10/45)
“Race Records” (2/17/45–6/18/49)
“Rhythm & Blues Records” (6/25/49–10/13/58)
“Hot R&B Sides” (10/20/58–11/23/63)
NO CHART (11/30/63–1/23/65)
“Hot Rhythm and Blues Singles” (1/30/65–8/16/69)
“Best Selling Soul Singles” (8/23/69–7/7/73)
“Hot Soul Singles” (7/14/73–6/19/82)
“Hot Black Singles” (6/26/82–10/20/90)
“Hot R&B Singles” (10/27/90–12/4/99)
“Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles and Tracks (12/11/99–12/31/99)
There’s a lot to parse there, especially regarding the need to change the name of the principal black music chart so constantly. (For the other two major charts, Billboard settled on “Hot Country Singles” in 1962 and didn’t feel the need to change it until 1990 when digital technology forced them to come up with “Hot Country Singles and Tracks.” The principal pop music chart became the “Hot 100” on August 4, 1958 and remained so for the rest of the century.)
And why, for one rather significant stretch there was no chart at all.
I’ll save all that for another day and stick to the elephant in the room.
First a point of clarity:
I’m well aware that music charts–black and otherwise–are not entirely objective. But they are the one semi-objective measure we have for this sort of thing and it might be worth asking why they have been so routinely ignored at every level of this particular discussion when they are so often cited as purely objective evidence elsewhere. (If one wished, for instance, to “prove” that the Beatles were the most popular and influential band in rock and roll history, mentioning their record twenty #1 hits on Billboard’s “Hot 100” would almost certainly–and justifiably–be used as hard evidence.)
The answer to this little conundrum is actually pretty simple.
The only objective evidence available in this case has been ignored for the same reason objective evidence is ignored in any other human endeavor.
Because it leads to the wrong conclusion.
At the back of his industry-standard Billboard chart booksJoel Whitburn conveniently lists the “Top 25 Artists of Each Decade.” For the latest volume of Top R&B Singles I have, which runs through 1995, there are six decades represented.
That’s six decades times 25 artists per decade.
And how many of those spots are occupied by white artists?
Here are their listings, under “Fifties,” with their accumulated chart points:
12. Johnny Otis………..1,465
2. Elvis Presley………2,193
Let me just repeat for emphasis:
For the decades covered, from the forties through the nineties, this is the entire “objective” evidence for white artists so thoroughly accepted by black audiences that they appeared on the black music charts–the charts that were designed, however imperfectly, to track air play on black radio, sales in black record stores and juke box play in black neighborhoods–in sufficient strength to rate in the top 25 R&B acts of any given decade!
Now let’s take a moment to say that referring to Johnny Otis as a “white act” is a little dubious.
Otis himself was indeed white, the son of Greek immigrants. He was also a wonderful bandleader. Those bands were black. When singers were hired to front those bands–as was common practice in those days–the singers were black. Otis did take a few lead vocals himself, most notably on his one big rock and roll hit “Willie and the Hand Jive.”
Safe to say, his own vocal and instrumental contributions to the records released under his name would not have put him anywhere near the top 25 R&B acts of the fifties.
So while he was certainly a race pioneer, a wonderful musician and, by all accounts, an interesting guy, it’s fair to say Johnny Otis won his allegiance from a black audience in a very different manner from Elvis Presley.
In the case of Johnny Otis, he came to black people–by hiring actual black people to do most of the singing and playing on his records.
Admirable that. (More admirable if he paid his musicians and singers what they were worth, on which subject I have no information one way or the other, though Otis’ reputation as a hustler’s hustler does not exactly inspire confidence.)
But it does leave him to one side and lead us back to the elephant in the room–to the one instance in the history of the black music charts, where a white artist who did his own singing–backed by mostly white musicians, singing songs written mostly by white songwriters–had the black audience come all the way to him.
To the one white artist who stands alone in terms of his measurable popularity with a black audience.
That artist was Elvis Presley in the nineteen-fifties.
I’ll throw more numbers at you over the next week or so.
After the numbers are in, I’ll speculate–very subjectively–on how we got from there (Elvis as the number two R&B act of the entire nineteen-fifties) to here (where the quotes above represent a wide swath of opinion and are regularly taken as gospel by a great many people who should know better.)