THE HISTORY OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL – 1957 ELVIS

Posted: May 18, 2014 in MUSIC, Rock n Roll 1957 Elvis Part 1
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by Robert Seoane

 


 
Within the first three weeks of 1957, Dwight D. Eisenhower gets inaugurated, Humphrey Bogart dies, Beaver Cleaver is born and the Frisbee, introduced by Wham-O, is spotted flying through the air in back yards and parks all over the country. “Bridge Over The River Kwai” turns out to be the Best Picture Of 1957 and “West Side Story”, a new Broadway musical about the very youth that Rock ‘n’ Roll was profoundly influencing, opens in late September.

 

Rock ‘n’ Roll had snowballed into a juggernaut in just a year and a half since “Rock Around The Clock” exploded on white radio, and The Establishment was not happy. The line of generation demarcation had been drawn firmly on the sand by practically every teenager’s parent, it was these very same parents who also worked their respective jobs as Network TV censors, radio station managers, corporate executives, your average Joes, your poor working stiffs, even blue collar works and common laborers, all of them white; just plain old racists who banded together in ignorance and intolerance and didn’t want their children exposed to “nigra music…”, even if they were sung by a white boy.

So The Establishment got to work and began to stamp out this rock ‘n’ roll nonsense. Yes, Elvis was a good boy, and thank God he was also white, they reasoned. The Establishment however, in their military way of thinking, made stubborn by previous decades of world wars, felt that in order to stop a movement, you have to behead their leader.

So they set their sights on Elvis.

Six days into 1957, Elvis appeared for a final time on “The Ed Sullivan Show”. The “benevolent” conspirators from the side of The Establishment during this crucial episode in Elvis’ life and career, as well as a crossroads in the further development of rock ‘n’ roll music, were Ed Sullivan and Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker.

Legend has it that it was Parker who insisted on censoring his boy from the waist down on TV, for publicity’s sake. Regardless of who made the decision, the bone-headed absurdity of being afraid to show swiveling hips on television did nothing to stop the juggernaut that was called Elvis. It enhanced it instead, confirmed by the squeals and screams of millions of teenage girls around the world whenever Elvis snapped his fingers and looked down at his swiveling self. The still new television medium had focused their collective young lenses on a unique individual that millions all over the world related to, admired and desired. Everybody wanted to see his hips swivel, just to see what all the fuss was about.

Elvis sang four songs on “The Ed Sullivan Show” that evening; “Too Much”, “When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again”, “Peace In The Valley” and “Don’t Be Cruel”, his most famous song to date and one that he had sung on all three Sullivan appearances.

“Too Much” was the current single at the time of the broadcast, having been released just two days before.

Despite the consistently tight waist-up shot, the world was still enthralled with Elvis. As usual, he would spontaneously break into a charming smile for no particular reason and chuckled at times, like an inside joke with his audience over the whole scene he saw himself in. Between songs, he thanked everybody for the best Christmas he ever had, noting that he received “282 teddy bears” from his fans. Then, after telling a lame joke, he stops, looks down at the floor for a few seconds and, without introduction, goes into his next song, with screams practically drowning him out after the word “blues”.

“Well-a when-a my blue-hoos turn to gold again….”

After the cacophonous screaming finally subsides at the end of the song, Sullivan politely scolds his audience, like the “youngsters” they were, and asks them to “rest their larynx” because Elvis was coming back. That was when the mechanism of Operation Stamp Out Rock ‘n’ Roll really and very subtly began.

It happened in three stages . The first stage was the choice of the song. It wasn’t a rock ‘n’ roll song at all, although it was music that Elvis and millions of other dearly loved. Singing the gospel standard “Peace In The Valley” set the White Christian Public’s perception of Presley as a nice, God-fearing young man. So at the end of that song when Ed Sullivan comes out to shake Elvis’ hand, the second stage of Operation Taming The Pelvis began.

Sullivan puts his hand on Elvis’ shoulder, looks straight at the camera and proclaims… “that this is a real decent, fine boy…” As he continues to say “…and wherever you go…” he’s drowned out by pubescent cheering, which is a good thing because he had no follow up to it, causing Sullivan to speed it up and talk in his own idiom, that they’ve “…never had a pleasanter experience on our show with a big name than we’ve had with you…”, then further anointing him by declaring that Elvis was “thoroughly all right” and suddenly looking at the camera dramatically to say “So now, let’s have a tremendous hand for a very nice person.”
Ed Sullivan was an American institution during all the years he was on the air. For him to proclaim someone as a “decent, fine boy” was like giving him White America’s blessing. Despite the fact that Sullivan had declared Presley “unfit for public consumption” just a year before, he had finally told White America he was OK to like. Then, two days after his performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the third stage of his conversion begins its slow walk to inevitability.

Only two days after the Sullivan appearance, Elvis receives a letter from the Army, giving him a 1-A rating based on the physical exam he had taken just four days earlier, indicating that he was fit for the Army and should expect a draft notice in the following eight months.

In retrospect, it seems clear now that this entire Army stint was thought up by Col. Parker to “clean Elvis up” to America’s parents. Parker could have easily arranged any type of agreement with the military to avoid Elvis getting drafted, with USO tours or a practically limitless variety of other support his popular image could lend to the United States Army that could be vastly influential to millions of impressionable teenagers. Instead, he convinced Elvis that being a buck private and paying his dues for two years would legitimize him with every American family and they will then accept him into their home with a new respect that he’s done his civic duty. Of course, this hawkish, old-fashioned notion of Col. Parker’s has been since proven wrong for years to come, since the very symbol of a rock star will further develop into a rebellious, anti-establishment draft dodger, and soon a war would begin that millions of young men and women around the country will protest, down to burning their draft card and refusing to enlist, and backed by a rock music soundtrack from the radio compelling them to do just that.

But I get ahead of myself.

Showing Elvis singing a gospel song and receiving Ed Sullivan’s blessing on national TV was nothing more than a show being put on for the world to see so that Elvis would become more palatable to mainstream society. Col. Parker assured a pissed off Elvis that going to the Army for two years will make him come out a bigger star than he’s ever been. The Army was offering Elvis cushy assignments, a private room and the opportunity to serve in a platoon filled with all his friends. I don’t know how many stayed his friends if it meant a stint in the Army back then, but Col. Parker convinced Elvis to refuse all special circumstances and enter the Army as a regular Private.

The Establishment figured this would be a valuable lesson to its children. They could now be able to show their sons and daughters that Even Elvis had to toe the line and do what he’s told. They saw a rebellious storm within this rock ‘n’ roll music and this was their first real intention to quash it. This, along with fateful circumstances that would soon happen to other rock stars and those associated with Rock ‘n’ Roll, like Alan Freed for example, did indeed cause rock ‘n’ roll to lay practically moribund by the early sixties, with barely a whimper of the genre being heard, drowned out by the sugary sweetened pop songs to come, with only faint echoes of rock n roll power struggling to survive but being smothered by the Powers That Be.

“Too Much”, a remake of an obscure song recorded in 1954, would be the first of four Number One singles Elvis would have in 1957. His second number one, “All Shook Up” was released towards the beginning of early Spring. Written by his frequent songwriter, Otis Blackwell, it was the final song Elvis would receive co-credit on, and Elvis claimed to having not written the song at all, only having come up with the name when he mentioned to Blackwell that he had woken up from a bad dream that morning all shook up.

At around the same time in March, Elvis purchases the now legendary Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee. He would live there for twenty years, the rest of his life. He lived there, played there and died there. As a result, Graceland has since become the sole architectural structure that is today a symbol of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s opulence, comedy and tragedy.

During the Springtime and between small tours, Elvis filmed his third movie “Jailhouse Rock”.

He had already completed his second film “Loving You” and was currently in post-production. Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller once again stepped in to write a song for the soundtrack. Their rising star status as one of Elvis’ stable of songwriters and the amount of cash they were raking in however, made them lazy, so Music Publisher Jean Aberbach, responsible for Elvis’ new songs, had to block them from leaving their New York City hotel room by placing a sofa against their door and forcing them to stay in their room and write. L&S had been procrastinating for weeks and when they were brought to New York to deliver their songs, they had none. Aberbach had no choice but to barricade them in their room, because instead of getting to work adfter arriving in the Big Apple, they spent their days seeing the sights instead. As a result of their involuntary hotel imprisonment, they wrote six songs. One of them was “Jailhouse Rock”.

As the summer of 1957 loomed, the Elvis PR machine was, as usual, in high gear. They released his third single “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear” on June 11. It was a song that would be featured in Elvis’ second film, which would soon also spawn and his third album, both titled “Loving You”.

(LET ME BE YOUR) TEDDY BEAR

“Teddy Bear”, with a melody reminiscent of a traditional blues song called “Boll Weevil” by Leadbelly, but sped up, is the epitome of Elvis’ unique voice and phrasing. Uttering the words in his uniquely sensual baritone drawl as if he was whispering an obscene suggestion in your ear, the phrasing throughout the song is only as Elvis could do it, with subtle undulating vocal hills and valleys in each line that leads you into a smooth, infectious rhythm.

“I don’t wanna be a tiger, ‘cuz tigers play too rough, I don’t wanna be a lion, ‘cuz lions ain’t the kind you… love enough… Yes. I wanna be…”

His delivery of the song, the way he sings it, makes it distinctively his own. Nobody before ever sang like that. Add his looks, his charm and personality and his ability to move his hips, and you got yourself one sex symbol and permanent rock n roll icon.

“Teddy Bear” became part of the typical teenager’s soundtrack for that summer in 1957, staying at Number One in the Billboard Hot 100 Chart for seven weeks, as well as hitting Number One nationally in the Rhythm & Blues as well as the Country charts, a feat that Elvis was making look easy.

The song was also featured in Elvis’ first film in which he had a leading role, “Loving You” released July 30 when “Teddy Bear” was still riding high in the charts. In his prior film, “Love Me Tender”, Elvis had played a supporting role, but soon Hollywood knew to place him in starring vehicles and make his subsequent film characters more like his own personality. For the next three films released before he was to go into the Army, Elvis played the same character, a rising young star who gets the ladies, gets in trouble and wins out in the end.

Unlike the phenomenal juggernaut that was to follow in the next decade with The Beatles, Elvis movies always featured him playing another character resembling his real self, whereas The Beatles always played The Beatles in all their movies.

 

 

LOVING YOU – THE FILM

Although the film “Loving You” made a respectable profit in the box office for those days, critics widely agree that there is really nothing memorable about it except for his performance of “Teddy Bear” and having a young, vibrant Elvis forever preserved on Technicolor celluloid. Elvis’ acting performance was convincing and acceptable and, when looking at his upcoming output of film, “Loving You” comes up very near the top of the list as one of Elvis Presley’s better films.

Today, the main reason to see this film is to catch a glimpse at the King of Rock and Roll at the height of his career and youth. He was twenty-two years old when he made the film and he had the moves. The movie allowed for a little of his gyrations throughout songs like in “Mean Woman Blues” but his dancing style was only displayed in short bursts, I suppose because teenage girls would go insane in the movie theaters if Elvis moved his leg a fraction of a second longer. Hollywood, then very much part of The Establishment, also wanted to profit from Rock ‘n’ Roll but sought to tamp it down a little by taming Elvis and turning him into, not a serious actor, but a profitable “tough, hip guy” personality.

“Loving You” is also notable in the fact that Elvis dyed his hair from his regular chestnut brown color to jet black for the Technicolor film, feeling that “serious” actors like Tony Curtis and the like all had black hair. As a result of this initial decision, Elvis would dye his hair black for the rest of his life.

LOVING YOU – THE ALBUM

The album of songs from the movie of the same name was released about two weeks after “Teddy Bear” and a month before the film’s debut. Besides the “TB” song, which Producer Hal Wallis insisted be in his film, it also included the title track and each of those single’s B-sides. The album cover revealed a taming of the Elvis image. No longer screaming at the top of his lungs or even holding a guitar like his debut album. Just an unsmiling, uninspiring picture of his baby blues staring at you, his hair slicked back and neat like a good boy.

The song “Loving You” written by the dynamic songwriting duo Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, is a slow, very fifties style ballad that is a little less boring than watching butter melt.

“Mean Woman Blues”, a respectable rock ‘n’ roll ditty worthy of the King and an instantly classic R&R song, opens up the album. The song was written by Claude Demetrius, who was composing tunes with Louis Armstrong in his twenties. Twenty years later, he finds himself working for Gladys Music, Elvis Presley’s publishing company, and writes this song specifically for the movie. It was to be re-done several times by different artists including Jerry Lee Lewis, who records his version to be the B-side of his 1957 single release, “Great Balls Of Fire”.

The fourth track of Side One, after “MWB”, “TB” and “LY” is “Got A Lot Of Livin’ To Do”, a catchy rock ‘n’ roll unforgotten gem. Elvis seems to be borrowing from Jerry Lee Lewis in the way he sings “C’mon baby…” in the song. The vocalization is typical Elvis however in the delivery of the last line of the chorus. It sounds like musical gibberish as only Elvis could sing it and totally unintelligible unless you knew what the lyrics were.

Oh yes, I’ve got a lot o’ living to do, A whole lot o’ loving to do, And there’s no one who I’d rather do it with-a than you

Elvis puts his heart into the next track, “Lonesome Cowboy”, a song that was originally going to be the title of the movie. His unique vocal phrasing is the song’s emotional center. In the end, “Lonesome Cowboy” sounds like it was written specifically for a fifties movie western.

“Hot Dog”, track six, is a throw-away song that lasts only one minute and seventeen seconds. You can dance to it. ‘nuff said.

The closing track of Side One, “Party”, by Jesse Mae Robinson, is a song that sounds like a slowed down “Hot Dog” mixed with a slowed down “Hard Headed Woman”. This is pure speculation on this writer’s part, but the fact remains that Claude Demetrius didn’t write “Hard Headed Woman” until 1958, leading one to believe that either he took his main melody from “Party”, or the melody itself lives in many blues records that have come before.

Side Two of the “Loving You” album begins with Elvis’ rendition of the 1940 tune “Blueberry Hill”, already made a rock ‘n’ roll standard by Fats Domino the year before. It’s worth noting that Elvis doesn’t add anything new to the vocalization, instead delivering very much like Fats’ delivery. It doesn’t even sound like Elvis, but someone channeling Fats instead. Recording “BH” was the King tipping his hat to Domino’s rendition of a song Elvis really had nothing to add to.

Cut Two is Cole Porter’s “True Love”, written for the film “High Society” the year before. The resulting recording is a slow, uninspired version that is sung well but ultimately adds nothing new. Elvis covered many songs in that respect and many times his voice carried it through.

The following track “Don’t Leave Me Now” is a return to familiar territory as Elvis croons in his most fifties style and singing once again with the passionate delivery he patented. Besides that, it’s an unmemorable song. So are the following tracks, “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You”, which is as corny and forgettable as its title.


Elvis ends his third album with “I Need You So”, a fifties ballad. In the end, the album leaves you wanting more of Rockabilly Elvis. The album is sadly lacking in the good rock ‘n’ roll songs Elvis does best.

Each subsequent album release and each subsequent movie over the next baker’s dozen years, would be less and less imaginative, filled with music filler and formulaic film plots. Elvis was still packing powerful punches with some well sung, well written hits to come in 1957, but his looming entry into military service was also having him work full time, recording songs to be released during his two year tenure so he won’t be forgotten, and grinding out two more movies like link sausages.

As summer ended, the Elvis promotional machine continued in high gear with fall and winter releases, as well as a stash of songs to be released in 1958 and 1959 while Elvis was in the Army.

JAILHOUSE ROCK – THE SINGLE

One of Elvis’ most rocking tunes he ever recorded, “Jailhouse Rock” was released on September 24, 1957 and held on to the Hot 100 Number One position for seven weeks as well as Number Two in the R&B charts.

Lieber & Stoller could boast The Coasters, a rock ‘n’ Roll novelty comedy group, as part of the portfolio of artists they wrote for. As a result, the lyrics to “Jailhouse Rock” suggests two things: their penchant for writing comedic lyrics as they did for the Coasters, and homosexual sex in prison. Even the term “jailhouse rock” implied sex.

“Number 47 said to Number 3, you’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see, I sure would be delighted with your company, come on and do the Jailhouse Rock with me…”

Elvis sang the song with no sexual suggestion whatsoever, and it is indeed a miracle that it not only escaped the unhip Establishment and their censors, but has never even been pointed out as a gay lyric even today. The lyrics however, speak for themselves.

The B-Side, “Treat Me Nice”, also featured in the movie, is a typical Elvis jaunty tune, with all his vocal inflections intact, including waiting a beat before growling the title of the song. Recorded on April 30, Lieber & Stoller were present and met Presley there for the first time. Stoller helped Elvis with the song and impressed Presley with his musical abilities.

JAILHOUSE ROCK – THE FILM

Elvis’ third movie, released in November, a mere three months after “Loving You”, followed the same formula as the prior movie; a young boy gets in trouble, gets out of trouble, becomes a star and gets the girl. Shot in black and white this time unlike the Technicolor “LY”, the title went through three changes , from “The Hard Way” to “Jailhouse Kid” before they settled on “Jailhouse Rock”, obviously to ride the coattails of the song’s success.

The most memorable scene in the film is the title number. It’s widely regarded to be the first music video ever made, but several rock ‘n’ roll scenes in “The Girl Can’t Help It” released two years earlier may dispute that. It was said that Elvis discarded the choreography suggested to him in favor of his own. Rehearsing and adapting it to his style. The “Jailhouse Rock” scene is indeed the best showcasing by far of Elvis Presley’s amazing, original, ground-breaking style. It would be the last and finest moment of young Pre-Army Elvis.

The film, not very good despite the fact that it was selected as part of the collection of the National Film Archives, was demonized in its day for its use of the word “hell” and the seeming idolatry of an anti-hero who’s actually seen in bed with the leading lady. On the positive side, it was the biggest money maker and slickest rock ‘n’ roll film made since rock ‘n’ roll burst on the scene just three years earlier. Hollywood had quickly grown to respect the power of this young, new genre and, as Elvis loomed as 1957’s fourth biggest box office star, rock ‘n’ roll music started to smack of legitimacy.

In the fall of 1957, Lieber and Stoller were again commissioned to write a song for Elvis’ fourth album.

ELVIS’ CHRISTMAS ALBUM

“Elvis’ Christmas Album” was his fourth album released and also became his fourth Number one hit. To date, as of the writing of this in 2014, it’s the best-selling Christmas album of all time (based on sales within the U.S.), with over 13 million copies sold and the first Elvis album to make Diamond certification.

The album was released in October of 1957 as a “deluxe” limited edition, and only a certain amount of LPs were pressed as a booklet-like album cover with photos of his most recent movie, “Jailhouse Rock” inside. The album’s cover, title and its songlist have changed over the decades as RCA and other labels re-packaged, re-titled, juggled, added and took away some of the songs that were originally listed. For the sake of the integrity of the original release, I’ll only refer to the original version’s song list.

Divided between secular Christmas songs on Side One and more traditional songs on Side Two, “ECA” kicks off in a very promising way, with Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller’s “Santa Claus is Back In Town”. Elvis specifically wanted a rockin’ Xmas tune and chose it to be the first track on the album. It’s vintage Elvis and a great Christmas song if you love the blues, timeless and fun.

You would think that the second track on his album, “White Christmas”, would be sung in the traditional way, as he displayed before with gospel music. But Elvis thankfully spares us this and sings it reminiscent of The Drifters’ recording of it back in 1954, with the legendary Clyde McPhatter singing vocals. It’s bluesy and filled with vocal Elvis-isms to satisfy rockers and Elvis-philes everywhere. Irving Berlin however, the writer of “White Christmas”, was not at all a fan of rock ‘n’ roll and even less of Elvis Presley. When he heard Elvis’ interpretation of his beloved Christmas song, he was irate. Berlin, calling it a “profane parody” of his composition, ordered his staff to call every radio station in the United States and asked them not to play Elvis’ version of the song or any other song from the album . Evidently, he didn’t care if The Drifters’ beat Elvis to it in re-interpreting the song just a few years before, probably because good ol’ Irving didn’t listen to black radio where the Drifters’ version exclusively played.

Few radio stations listened to the Irving Brigade, except for some DJs in Canada and one poor slob of a DJ in the US who dared play a track from the album and got summarily fired by a corporation that evidently took Irving Berlin seriously.

Listening to these renditions of “White Christmas” after the passing of decades, Bing Crosby’s version remains the definitive one, but The Drifters’ version has gained stature as an updated, accepted interpretation. Elvis’ version, being so similar to the Drifters, is not as well remembered as the other two, but it should merit a listen or two come this December. Just don’t let the estate of Irving Berlin know you played it.

The third track “Here Comes Santa Claus” follows Elvis’ rockabilly style, already delivering what every Elvis fan wants to hear in just the first three tracks. A happy, memorable song written by Gene Autry, “Here Comes Santa Claus” gallops along with playful cheer as the album truly immerses the listener into a very Elvis Christmas.

Track Four, “Blue Christmas”, doesn’t let you down. Having become a classic Christmas song in its own right over the decades, “BC” is Elvis crooning a very fifties style carol that has aged like a familiar favorite vintage, and is pretty much the song everyone remembers Elvis singing every holiday season.

The final track on Side One, “Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me”, also does not let the listener down, ending the side with an up-tempo happy tune that leaves you wanting to hear more.

Unfortunately, when you flip to Side Two, you don’t get more. Side Two becomes a serious, religious, boring set of songs that DO NOT belong on a rock ‘n’ roll album. The first two tracks, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night” are such classic Xmas songs that you can forgive Elvis for recording and including them in this album. But the last four tracks, all slow, maudlin Gospel songs, were not only not recorded specifically for the album (it was recorded at the beginning of the year and released as an EP, including “Peace In The Valley” which he sang on The Ed Sullivan Show), they were dropped numerous times from subsequent releases and re-packagings of the album and replaced with more Christmas related music.

It was the last month of the year and everything Elvis touched since his career began had turned to gold. His albums, singles and movies were making tons of money, and he was riding on the highest crest of his career when, on December 20, he received his draft notice.

Elvis was not pleased that he had to go into the Army and had only reluctantly said yes quite simply because he allowed his manager Col. Parker to convince him. He was in the middle of filming his fourth movie “Kid Creole” when he received the letter, and he was being asked to report before the film was to be completed. Presley asked for a deferment from the military to finish the film, explaining that $350,000 had already been invested in production and halting it at this point would also mean numerous job losses. The military granted him an extension.

He didn’t know it then, but the moment he entered the Army, his career would never be the same again. The young, raw Elvis was going to be molded into a respectable young adult by The Establishment so, by the time he was spit back out into mainstream society in 1960, he would be given a slew of silly movies to make, light hearted pop tunes to sing, and turned into a harmless pop star.

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