Archive for the ‘Rock n Roll 1956 Part 1-Elvis’ Category

by Robert Seoane

Fifteen year old John Winston Lennon headed home from school one dreary winter’s day in Liverpool, England, circa 1956, as he did every day of his young life. John didn’t like school, and as a result got thrown out of more than one. He found schoolwork boring and had not yet found the one thing that would inspire him to do anything with his life. That particular day, as he sat to eat the lunch his Aunt Mimi prepared for him, he turned on the radio. What he heard changed his life, gave it meaning and pointed to a direction. Not just for him, but for millions of others around the world. The only difference between us and that fifteen year old boy was that Lennon’s rise to fame with The Beatles would eclipse the King’s own fame.

“Well, since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell, it’s down at the end of Lonely Street at Heartbreak Hotel…”

The voice coming from the radio was unique, a soulful wail that made you feel his pain, singing in a high voice as if he were crying and then smoothly dipping into a low, soulful and sensual baritone that tells you how we’re so desperately lonely, we can die. The instrumentation was spare, filling in the looming silence only occasionally with a few sharp guitar jabs and a laid back bass rhythm accompanying the vocal. Soon, a piano crept in like a tip-toeing cat, and afterwards, a few more vocal proclamations of intense loneliness briefly breaks into a tight, cuttingly sharp guitar solo that accentuates the desperation in the song. The echo added to this amazing new voice, achieved by recording the vocal in the studio hallway, enhanced the misty mood of the song and a young artist gets his first Number One hit. Soon after that, young John Lennon decides to save money to buy his first guitar.

“When I first heard “Heartbreak Hotel,” I could hardly make out what was being said. It was just the experience of hearing it and having my hair stand on end. We’d never heard American voices singing like that. They’d always sung like Sinatra who enunciated well. Suddenly, there’s this hillbilly hiccupping with echo and this bluesy background going on. We didn’t know what the hell Presley was singing about or Little Richard or Chuck Berry. It took a long time to work out what was going on. To us, it just sounded like great noise.” –John Lennon
 

ELVIS PRESLEY

Elvis Aron Presley’s influence on rock ‘n’ roll reverberates today. His star power, attitude, style and sound is still the blueprint of what a male pop star should look like. Over the decades, Elvis has since become an immortal icon, joining the ranks with Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and those other tragic figures, not just because of his untimely death, but also because he epitomized what we as a society consider perfection.

The ripples of Elvis Presley’s overall style overshadowed his music. His voice was distinctively his and to be copied by myriad future artists and imitators. You can hear it occasionally coming out of David’s Bowie’s voice and you can see his enduring impact on fashion on Bruno Mars’ 2013 pompadour. His debut in the public eye once “Heartbreak Hotel” was released, rivaled only that of Frank Sinatra, when the teenage girls went crazy at the sound of his voice and mobbed him at every public appearance. It was 1956, and just two and a half years earlier, he was a part-time truck driver recording a couple of songs for his mother.

It was in the early morning hours after the Fourth of July in 1954 when Elvis, exhausted from recording the entire night at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records with guitarist Scotty Moore and upright bass player Bill Black, managed to extract a last burst of musical energy. He got up on his feet and began singing a song and accompanying himself on guitar. The frustrations of already having recorded several songs and still not having gotten it yet led him to this impromptu jam.

“That’s alright, mama/That’s alright for you/That’s alright mama/Any way you do…”

Bill and Scotty joined Elvis. Sam stuck his head out the control room door. What is that? Start it again, I want to get this down… That was it. That was the sound Sam Phillips was looking for. He remembered what he once said:

“If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.”

Suddenly, in a burst of spontaneous energy from this young fellow from Tupelo, Sam Phillips had found his white man with the Negro sound.

In many ways, Elvis Presley was mainstream music’s Great White Hope. The recording industry was very hesitant to introduce black talent into their family of artists, except for the bold, new up and coming labels like Chess and Atlantic. Elvis grew up in a predominantly white environment, populated with white faces on the streets, in school and in church. Gospel music, songs created by black artists, were sung by white faces in the white only churches Elvis went to. He grew to love the music, but despite his unmixed surroundings, he managed to capture the sound and feel of soul when singing his beloved songs. His skin was white, but Elvis’ soul was black.

Sam Phillips knew what he had, and it was proven to him when he heard “That’s Alright” play on the radio repeatedly three days later and people began calling in to ask who that negro artist was. At one point, Elvis went on the air to prove to the listeners he was white.

Sam Phillips had believed in this kid from the beginning, despite having given him a few songs to sing that didn’t sound as good as he had hoped, he still heard something special in Elvis’ voice to put him together with Scotty Moore and Bill Black. After hours of recording and searching for the right sound, it had finally sprouted; the key to introducing rock and roll to White America and having White America accept rock and roll into their homes for the rest of the century was in the studio just outside Sam’s control room.

During the two years leading up to the release of “Heartbreak Hotel”, Elvis would record various songs for Sun Records and tour live, appearing on the radio and sometimes on television, honing his own onstage style. He was well aware that the mere shake of his hips or wiggle of his leg could elicit screams and wails from teenage girls, and the more he toured, the more he learned and perfected his moves. Fellow peers like Roy Orbison and Bill Haley crossed paths with Elvis before the beginning and were impressed. Haley even suggested to Elvis that he sing fewer ballads and more rock and roll.

Ironically, Elvis’ slide into ultimate mediocrity began even before his career jump started when then manager Don Neal introduced the young star to Colonel Tom Parker. Parker was otherwise known as “The Colonel” since 1948, when he attained the rank of colonel in the Louisiana State Militia from the Mayor of Louisiana for his work on the Mayor’s election campaign.

Colonel Tom Parker had found his golden, egg-laying goose, and he used his paternal manner to influence Elvis; little by little toning him down. Parker managed to “clean” Elvis up within two years of his worldwide success. In 1958, at the behest of the Colonel’s suggestion, Elvis was inducted into the Army.

“Up until Elvis joined the army, I thought it was beautiful music and Elvis was for me and my generation what the Beatles were to the ’60s. But after he went into the army, I think they cut “les bollocks” off. They not only shaved his hair off but I think they shaved between his legs, too. He played some good stuff after the army, but it was never quite the same, It was like something happened to him psychologically. Elvis really died the day he joined the army. That’s when they killed him, and the rest was a living death.” –John Lennon

Upon his return from his Army stint, Parker concocted a cockamie return show on TV with none other than everyone’s parents’ favorite music star, Frank Sinatra. Without a single rock and roll artist anywhere in sight, Parker dressed Elvis in a tuxedo and trotted him out to sing a duet with Frank, trading each other’s hits. It was his baptism into mainstream America. Soon, he would record some increasingly mediocre songs over the years and star in silly movies. In the meantime, the 1960s exploded with the most talented artists and musicians of the day, and Elvis was sitting the decade out musically, never playing or associating with any of them, except for one famous visit with The Beatles at his own home in 1965. Colonel Parker made sure that Elvis would remain the King by being aloof, unreachable and as a result, a caricature of his own self.

Parker’s influence lasted until the day Elvis died. One of the last opportunities to see Elvis with a fellow superstar was in 1976, a year before his death. Barbra Streisand and her boyfriend, Producer Jon Peters, approached Elvis to play in a remake of “A Star Is Born” with Streisand. Back then, Streisand was at the top of her game and one of the biggest box office draws of the decade. Teaming up with Elvis in a pass-the-torch remake as a rock musical was considered a very modern and envelope pushing film idea. Elvis was also interested, primarily because he wanted to prove to the world he could actually act. Parker however, saw no profit in being co-star to Streisand and could not spin an Elvis album out of it, so he suggested to his sole client not to do it.

So, by constantly protecting Elvis’ reputation as the King by keeping him aloof and away, as well as keeping his eye always on the bottom line, Parker relegated the King of Rock and Roll, the man who would point the musical direction of the Western world for decades to come, to a Las Vegas act.

But in 1956, it was just beginning. Sam Phillips sold Elvis’ record contract to RCA for $35,000 the year before. Elvis’ initial difficulty to break into the charts was simply because he could not be categorized. He wasn’t black, so he didn’t belong in the Rhythm & Blues genre, but he sounded too “negro” to be placede in the country and western genre. His music was labeled “rockabilly”, and it was Elvis’ popularity that showed the so-called experts that his music encompassed both genres. On January 27, 1956, the first month of the first true year of rock and roll, “Heartbreak Hotel” was released as a single. Soon, it jumped up to the Number One position on the Pop charts for seven weeks, was also Number One on the country and western charts, and climbed to number five in the rhythm and blues charts, a triple-threat feat rarely accomplished by anyone else.

Soon, “Heartbreak Hotel” would be followed in rapid succession by up to forty singles and five LPs over the next two years. Ten of those singles each reached Number One in the US Pop charts. Six of those ten singles also topped the Country charts and five of them topped the R&B charts. Elvis would typically place on three charts whenever he recorded a song specifically to be released as a single. The others were usually just cuts from his albums, which is usually how it was done during the days before I-Tunes. In the 50s and much of the 60s, there used to be a clear distinction between singles and albums, and neither the twain shall meet when they were released, until the record industry realized how much money they were losing by not including hit singles in the albums. But in the 1950s, singles were released because they sold fast, and albums were usually filled with only a few good songs and surrounded by filler material, mediocre songs that would never be released as a single.

After Sam Phillips got “That’s Alright, Mama” down on tape, he recorded another song for the 45 rpm vinyl single’s B-side. In contrast to the aforementioned R&B tinged rockabilly tune, ”Blue Moon Of Kentucky” was a country-inflected song, and this pair of songs would come to symbolize the Elvis juggernaut, a mixture of rock n roll, R&B and rhythm & blues. RCA Records had no idea how to market him until the listening public showed them.

“Heartbreak Hotel” was followed up the singles chart with its own B-Side “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You”, a torchy ballad that displayed Elvis’ talent for slow songs, an ability Sam Phillips noticed early on but wisely resisted, opting instead to recording rockabilly tunes that showcased his incredibly original voice.

The first three months of 1956 was a blurry of activity that helped prepare the 19 year old Elvis’ for superstardom. After “Heartbreak Hotel” was recorded for his new label, RCA, Colonel Tom Parker booked him on CBS’ “Stage Show” for six appearances over two months, bringing him to national television’s viewership attention. He toured extensively and recorded songs for his upcoming debut album. By March, Colonel Parker had signed off as Elvis Presley’s exclusive manager.

ELVIS PRESLEY – DEBUT ALBUM

It was the first rock ‘n’ roll million seller and the first rock ‘n’ roll album to hit Number One on the Billboard Top Albums chart, staying there for ten straight weeks. It was Spring 1956 when his debut album titled “Elvis Presley” debuted as a monaural recording. There he was, gracing his debut album with a picture taken at a concert in Tampa, Florida In the summer of 1955, the once and future king; in one of the few pictures where he’s actually playing a guitar and singing so raucously you can clearly see down his throat; his name emblazoned down the side and across the bottom in neon pink and green. Various artists such as Big Audio Dynamite, Tom Waits, k.d. lang and Chumbawamba have paid homage to the cover but the most notable is The Clash’s “London Calling” album, that mimicked the neon pink and green font and symbolically taking Elvis’ guitar and smashing it on the floor.

The album tracks were comprised of the country and western inflected recordings from the Sun sessions Sam Phillips produced in late 1955 and sold to RCA along with Presley for $35,000. Some were filler ballads and not very good. Yes, his voice was deep, rich with vocal inflections unique to only him, but the melodies were slow. “I Love You Because”, “Just Because” and especially “Blue Moon”, a pretty melody inexplicably recorded with a spacey, empty production and including strange sounding falsetto emanating from The King, would never have elevated Elvis to the position of superstardom without his rockabilly side. That was the side people went wild for. The ballads were only there to catch your breath.

The album opens with a classic rock ‘’n’ roll standard, Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes”. Where Perkins’ take on his song was laid back and easy, Elvis’ version is frenetic.

“Well, it’s one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, now go cat go…”

Carl Perkins was one of the most important talents at Sun Records and Sam Phillips did not want Elvis to release that song as a single for fear of eclipsing Perkins’ career, hence its opening position on Elvis’ album instead. The countdown at the top of the song makes it a natural beginning to what promises to be a rockin’ and rollin’ time with Elvis. His voice owns the song, even showing Perkins how it should be sung, with an energy and excitement that was palpable in the recordings. Elvis sounded as if his very sinews were made of rock ‘n’ roll, and each harmony and musical note affected his body, delivering spasms of dance and hip swaying that felled every teenage girl within a one mile distance ratio. In the meantime, Scotty Moore’s guitar breaks out in two solos that remains a blueprint for how an electric guitar should dance around a tune.

Elvis then took on Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman”. Once again, his soulful baritone wraps itself around each syllable and breathes them out with a rhythm that belied the energy coursing through his body, so you could actually see him shake, rattle and roll as he sang. Then he changes Charles’ ending from the regular slow fade out to an abrupt stop, returning with a slow, rolling reprise that repeats the main line with the mournful wail of a young man having a wet dream.

Two ballads followed after the bouncy “One Sided Love Affair”, sung in a vibrant, playful vocal. Once side one of the album ends, the needle of the phonograph would either just spin around against the center of the vinyl album or automatically lift and place itself back in its cradle, a modern technical wonder that would soon become standard in most record players.

But you still had to stand up to turn the record around and play the other side. Every unsuspecting first time listener was electrified at the outburst that was Elvis’ version of Little Richard’s “Tutti-Frutti”. Although not quite able to surpass Little Richard’s downright lewd interpretation of his own song, Elvis tinkered with it by ending the famous nonsense lyric with “bam boom” instead of Little Richard’s “bam bam”.

The next track is “Trying To Get To You”, a Sun Records recording of a mid-tempo ballad with a catchy melody that becomes even more fun to listen with Elvis’ phrasing, as if he were bouncing each word off his foot like a basketball.

“I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry Over You” continues the jaunty feel of the album, but it soon grinds to a halt with two slow, unimaginative songs that almost ends the album in a depressing note. The final track on the album however, Jesse Stone’s “Money Honey”, returns Elvis to his beloved rockabilly style with a mid-tempo basic rocker that allowed him to showcase his falsetto hiccup between syllables that were guaranteed to run chills down the spines of every pre-pubescent girl who heard it.


Elvis truly hit the ground running after the release of his first album and single, especially when HH hit Number One. Soon, national TV discovered that, despite threatening Establishment with his young, savage, rebellious gyrations and suggestive movements, he pulled in ratings. Milton Berle, who was one of TV’s first comedians to have his own weekly comedy show consistently at the top ranks of the TV networks’ holy ratings, was the first man to realize that this boy was a phenomenon with a following, as so obviously indicated by his record sales and primarily, the reactions of the teenage girls (and I’m sure, some boys) at his concerts.

The apex of the Rock n Roll summit was at Elvis’ reach. He was destined to reach the top, despite the looming shadow of helplessness suddenly showing its pale white face.

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