Thursday, August 11, 2011

Elvis Week 2011--Part Two: "The Rise to Superstardom"

A year after graduation, Elvis had been signed to Sun Records in Memphis, where Sam Phillips recognized the huge talent and promise.  A year later, his contract was sold to RCA Victor in a deal arranged by Colonel Tom Parker, who would manage Elvis for over the next 20 years.  Two years after graduating, he was a musical sensation the world over.  Elvis' first single on RCA (released in January of 1955) was "Heartbreak Hotel", still one of The Top 10 Songs of the Rock Era* over 55 years since it was released.  

Elvis on stage in Vancouver in 1957

Through promotional appearances on television, Elvis popularized not only his own style and charm but the new style of music.  He was energetic and full of life, controversial to be sure, but an innovator for the ages.    Rock and roll had already started by the time most people had heard of him, but Elvis was the vehicle that took it from its infancy to eventually become the dominant form of music.  It is difficult to think of the Beatles, the Stones, the Supremes, or any of the diverse forms that the octopus called rock & roll has sprouted into without thinking of Elvis.  He was the King, the one who championed the new music, the one who gave it its face, and, while there are countless others who brought it along, chief among them was Elvis.

Buoyed by his first #1 song, Presley began a two-week stay at the New Frontier in Las Vegas, Nevada in April, 1956.  However, most of the people who frequented the Strip were conservative and middle-aged and the shows did not go over well.  While in Vegas, Presley signed a seven-year contract with Paramount Pictures. And, he saw a performance in Vegas that included a cover version of an old hit called "Hound Dog".  Elvis began using the song to close his performances.  In May, Elvis celebrated another #1 song--"I Want You, I Need You, I Love You" and toured the Midwest with 15 concerts.  

Elvis on the Milton Berle Show

Elvis appeared on The Milton Berle Show again on June 5.  Berle persuaded Elvis to leave his guitar backstage, saying "Let 'em see you, son."  During the show, Presley all of a sudden halted an uptempo version of "Hound Dog" and began a slow, grinding version that was accompanied by wild, exaggerated body movements.  The gyrations caused a wave of controversy.  Jack Gould of The New York Times wrote, "Mr. Presley has no discernible singing ability.  His one specialty is an accented movement of the body, primarily identified with the repertoire of the blond bombshells of the burlesque runway."  Ed Sullivan, who had his own popular variety show, said Elvis was "unfit for family viewing".  And so he acquired another nickname--"Elvis the Pelvis".

Elvis was booked for an appearance on the Steve Allen Show on NBC July 1.  But Allen, no fan of rock & roll, made Elvis appear in a white bow tie and black tails and sing "Hound Dog" for less than a minute to a basset hound who wore a top hat and bow tie.  Elvis would later say it was the most ridiculous performance he had ever given.  

From his early career until today, Elvis Presley continues to fascinate generations of fans.

The next day, Presley and the Jordanaires recorded "Any Way You Want Me", "Don't Be Cruel" and "Hound Dog".  In August, he released what remains the top double-sided record of the Rock Era.  Here is what Billboard had to say:

“From first-week reports, it has become clear already that this will be one of this year’s big grossers. Sales in pop, c.&w. and r.&b. markets have exceeded the impressive starting figures of previous Presley hits—and that is going some. There are some indications that the flip, ‘Don’t Be Cruel,’ may also develop after the initial excitement on ‘Hound Dog’ dies down a bit.”

It's still hard to believe they are on the same 45, for they are both classics and solid members of The Top 50 Songs of the Rock Era*..  "Don't Be Cruel" and "Hound Dog" was the 45, and together the two songs combined for 11 weeks at #1.  That chart record would remain for 36 years.  

Work began on Presley's second album that would also include "Love Me".  And, despite his criticism of Elvis earlier in the year, Sullivan invited Presley back for three appearances in which he paid an unprecedented $50,000.  The first, on September 9, was viewed by an estimated 60 million viewers, a record share of 82.6% of the television audience.  Elvis appeared on television not just showing from his waist up (as the myth goes), but in full view.  

Presley's performance that night of his new single "Love Me Tender", led to a record million advance orders of the 45.   The performance made Presley a superstar the likes of which the world had never seen.  Historian Marty Jezer wrote, "Presley brought rock'n'roll into the mainstream of popular culture."  "As Presley set the artistic pace, other artists followed. ... Presley, more than anyone else, gave the young a belief in themselves as a distinct and somehow unified generation—the first in America ever to feel the power of an integrated youth culture." 

Here is what Billboard had to say about the single:  

“A hit before it was ever released, this disk since issued has chalked up an all-time record for first week volume. Acceptance in the pop, country and rhythm & blues fields is complete, and, as on his last record, should soon be dominating the charts of all three categories. ‘Love Me Tender’ has gotten the lion’s share of attention so far, but there are some indications that the flip may also come in for a share of the spotlight a little later.” 

Elvis Presley on stage 1956

Increasingly, Presley's live performances drew wild reactions.  Guitarist Scotty Moore said, "He'd start out--'You ain't nothin' but a Hound Dog,' and the audience would go to pieces.  There'd be a riot every time."  When Elvis performed at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show in September, 50 members of the National Guard were brought in for crowd control.  Elvis, his second album, was released the following month and reached #1.  Insightful rock critic Dave Marsh wrote at the time (still his debut year):  "These records, more than any others contain the seeds of what rock & roll was, has been and most likely what it may foreseeably become."

Presley performed on The Ed Sullivan Show again on October 28.  Elvis' first movie, named after his fifth #1 song "Love Me Tender", was released November 21.  Elvis did not receive top billing but following the popuarity of "Love Me Tender", he was given four more songs to perform in the movie.  The film was blasted by the critics but did well at the box office, and Presley would receive top credit in every film after that.

Million Dollar Quartet Elvis Presley Jerry Lee Lewis Johnny Cash Carl Perkins

"Love Me" was a strong #2 song as well on his second album.  Presley dropped by Sun Records on December 4 as Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis were recording and a jam session began.  Although Phillips no longer had rights to Presley's songs, he recorded the session, which became known as the "Million Dollar Quartet" recordings.

Elvis at home in 1956

When his debut year was over, Presley had accumulated 17 hits, six Top 10 songs and the five #1's.  The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article reporting that Presley merchandise had brought in $22 million in addition to his record sales.  Billboard announced that Elvis had placed more songs in the Top 100 than any other artist since records were first charted.  At RCA, one of the giants of the music industry, Presley had accounted for over half of the label's singles sales.  

It was a meteoric rise to fame and fortune.  But Elvis was very young, and outside forces would begin to affect him and his career.  Join Inside the Rock Era tomorrow as I present Part Three in the Elvis Week Special--"Life and Career-Changing Events".  

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