There is Elvis Presley, The Myth. There is Elvis Presley, The Artist. Everyone on the planet is intimate with Elvis Presley, The Myth. Comparatively few are even aware of Elvis Presley, The Artist.
# 8 – Elvis Presley – Sun recordings. In 2002, Elvis Presley’s Sun recordings were inducted into the US Congress’s National Recording Registry. At last check, the CD “Elvis At Sun” was available on-line
for less than eight dollars plus shipping. There is no need to spend more on a box set.
The image is one thing and the human being is another. It’s very hard to live up to an image. Elvis Presley
An opaque and vaguely unsavory carnival man, Colonel Tom Parker, whirled The Myth into creation in 1956. Today, a perhaps equally unsavory cast of carneys, the hangers-on at Graceland, and RCA Records, perpetuate The Myth as a carnival caricature barking for dollars.
At every Presley anniversary, The Myth takes center stage with endless and obligatory screenings of poorly conceived B movies, the latest tell-all Elvis book, and the tacky promotions of Elvis merchandise, imitator shows, and look-alike contests. The Myth detracts from real and monumental achievements made by Elvis Presley, The Artist.
Elvis Presley, The Artist, is the unlikely story of a good kid from the poor side of Memphis, Tennessee. A reserved and sensitive sort, Presley was drawn, nurtured and transformed by the seemingly disparate strains of Appalachian hillbilly, Grand ‘ol Opry country, and the blues and gospel music from the poor African American neighborhoods and churches of his youth. Presley, like his Rock of Ages predecessors– Jimmy Rodgers, Bill Monroe and Bob Wills– had the uncanny ability to merge these influences into his own personal and powerful style of music.
Elvis Presley, The Artist, possessed phenomenal performance talent. This off-the-charts talent as a stage performer was built on a solid foundation of superb vocal versatility, dexterity and range. Presley’s drop dead movie star looks, humble manner and dedicated work ethic would all serve him extremely well. Sadly, The Myth, and the cold commercial interests behind it, would eventually divide, conquer and, ultimately, claim the life of The Artist.
It is difficult to imagine the culture of American music without Elvis. Commercial music consisted mainly of pop, classical, country, and rhythm and blues on the hot August day in 1953 when Elvis first walked into Sam Phillips’ Memphis recording studio. Three years later on November 21, 1955, when Presley’s contract was sold to RCA Records, for a cool $40,000, Elvis moved rapidly from a southern regional curiosity, into mainstream American stardom.
Elvis is the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century. He introduced the beat to everything, music, language, clothes; it’s a whole new social revolution… Leonard Bernstein
The phenomenon of Elvis Presley says at least as much or more about America in the ‘50s as it does about Presley.
The ‘50s brought a perfect storm to the music industry. The increasing population of American teenagers, buoyed by a flood tide of rising per capita wealth, went crazy for the new inexpensive, portable record players that played the recently introduced 45-rpm singles. The songs released as singles were first broadcast over the local radio, which led popular artists to national exposure on programs like The Milton Berle Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. In May of 1954, Bill Haley and the Comets scored big with the hit; “Rock Around the Clock”. This song had a second resurgence, pushing it to number one, after its inclusion in the opening credits of the film “The Blackboard Jungle”, proving that radio, TV and the movies made record sales soar. The emerging art and economic power of rock and roll was here to stay.
All these conditions converged to set the stage for a major star to fill a large and growing void: If Elvis Presley did not exist, he would have been invented. But he was there, at the right place at the right time.
One of his first opportunities to reach a mass audience was on the Milton Berle Show on June 5, 1956. Mainstream middle class viewers were largely unfamiliar with Elvis Presley, blues music, or the animated style of worship from the Deep South that Elvis merged into his performances; a style still accepted in the Pentecostal Church. The blues that shaped Elvis in his youth was from the Mississippi Delta; raw, unfiltered, direct. The same blues music would ride north to Chicago, on the Illinois Central rail, with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Wells, and others, become urbanized, electrified and re-named rhythm & blues.
The result of this June 5, 1956 appearance on the Milton Berle Show was a culture clash of monumental consequence for American music, American popular culture and Elvis Presley himself.
Primetime viewers were caught completely off-guard by his performance, perceiving it to be overtly sexual in nature. This show incited a firestorm of protest from parents and clergy. Surprised and unprepared, television executives struggled to contain the controversy. The result was that, for years, live television cameras would show Presley only from the waist up, a simple solution that avoided the provocative hip gyrations and leg movements at the eye of the storm.
A twenty one year old Presley was personally hurt and sincerely bewildered at the audience reaction. As he understood it, he did nothing morally wrong, but apologized nonetheless to fans and their parents for what was clearly a genuine misunderstanding.
His fans were more than forgiving, they were rewarding. The song Elvis performed, ‘Hound Dog”, immediately hit number one on the pop charts. The music was fresh, the performance style electrifying, and young people suddenly had a star that belonged to them. Sales were so brisk that RCA had production problems keeping up with demand and were forced to add additional shifts to its pressing plants.
The new and cool medium of television and Presley’s performance style would become a vortex that changed American popular culture. Pandora’s Box was accidentally opened. The Hillbilly Cat was out of the bag.
Who is Elvis Presley?
People ask me where I got my singing style. I didn’t copy my style from anybody. Country music was always an influence on my kind of music. Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley’s classification as a country artist and his inclusion in the Country Music Hall of Fame seems to some observers, misplaced. Other commentators simply see yet another veiled attempt by the country music industry to capitalize on Presley’s monumental status in American music and culture. Both views miss the mark.
These days it is not the music, but the market segment that buys the music that largely defines country music. For example, country music fans are between 14 and 40 years of age, Caucasian, have a high school education, and are more likely to live in small to mid-size towns and cities in the south. The demographic has become the music. Country artists now seem eager to adopt a
predetermined prototype that reflects the desires of this demographic. Music industry executives have invented this bass-ackward definition after applying marketing methods that look at music in the same way that Proctor and Gamble looks at soap.
In spite of how it is defined, marketed, and perceived by the public today, country music remains an extension of nineteenth and early twentieth century American folk music. The folk music of the nineteenth century was highly diverse, and reflected the regional dialects, folklore and ethnicity of its origins. In spite of the industry’s attempts to seize and tame it, country music remains the music of all America. In 1954, Bill Haley and the Comets was a country band. In 1955, Carl Perkins, the King of Rockabilly and a figure of major influence in his own right, was a country singer. Johnny Cash was a folk and country artist throughout his entire life and career.
Rock ‘n roll, after all, is merely a label concocted by Cleveland deejay Allan Freed in 1952 to generate excitement among a young middle class audience. Although rock ‘n roll was actually rhythm and blues music, the term rock ‘n roll was a nod to the sensibilities of middle class teens and their parents, whose wallets controlled the future of the music industry. Freed’s phrase, “rock n’ roll”, marks an identifiable moment in time for the start of commercial music’s insistence on manufacturing labels for narrow and self-serving purposes.
And what about Elvis Presley, The Artist? In spite of all earthy efforts from a full range of antagonists to exploit, censor and otherwise tarnish the work, his music remains immortal, regardless of what it is called.
Elvis Presley: A Rock for all Ages.