On the anniversary of his death, my vignette on the King of Rock N Roll.
He was more than a singer. He was a capitalist. Besides excellent branding, mainly because his Mama picked an unusual Scandanavian name that means all wise, Elvis taught American business a lesson in handling controversy.
On July 5, 1954, a 19-year-old delivery truck driver walked into the Sun Studio (also known as Memphis Recording Service) at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, and changed American history, mainly for the better. It was his third visit to the studio run by Sam Phillips. Elvis Aaron Presley was polite, Christian, patriotic, and devoted to his mother. He came up from poverty. If anyone deserved success, it was him.
The previous August, Elvis had paid the studio to make an acetate recording of “My Happiness” and “That's When Your Heartaches Begin” for his mother. Asked by the receptionist what kind of music he sang, he said all kinds. Asked whom he sounded like, he said like no one else. He was correct on both counts.
Nothing came of his first recording or a second acetate recording in January 1954 of “I'll Never Stand In Your Way” and “It Wouldn't Be the Same Without You.”
But magic would happen on July 5, 1954, in the studio, whose motto was “We Record Anything, Anytime, Anywhere.” Which was true, for the commode in the men's room served as its echo chamber. The proprietor of Sun Records was Sam Phillips, who grew up picking cotton as a child in Florence, Alabama, in the 1920s. Black, white, it didn't matter. The cotton did. The only difference, he observed, is the black people sang while they worked the cotton rows; the white people did not. But the music he heard in the fields was similar to what he heard at get-togethers and in his white church. Gospel is gospel and knows no color, and whatever you call it -- hillbilly music, bluegrass, or country -- the white music told the same stories as the blues. If the music was not so different, how could the singers be? And if the singers weren't different, how could the people be? Sam Phillips was not merely recording music; he was looking to change America through her music.
“I always said that if I could find a white boy who could sing like a black man I'd make a million dollars,” he said after Elvis had gone to Hollywood, and then on to heaven.
Actually, Phillips made $35,000, not a million but on July 5, 1954, none of that mattered. Sam Phillips had a hunch. He had Elvis record with Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black on string bass. During a recording break, Elvis goofed around and started singing a blues standard, “Well, that's all right, mama/ That's all right for you/ That's all right mama/ Just anyway you do.”
One can only imagine the joy Sam Phillips felt, for he had found his white boy who could sing black. Now the beginnings of rock 'n' roll receive excessive debate by overly academic people whose tedious pedantry amuses those of us who realize it really does not matter if the first song was “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (which were actually Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm band) or Charlie Ryan's “Hot Rod Lincoln” (an answer song to Arkie Shibley's “Hot Rod Race”) or Bill Haley and His Comets's “Rock Around the Clock.” They were just pawns. Elvis was the King. His recording of “That's All Right” crowned him.
Recording Elvis was one thing for Sam Phillips. Selling Elvis was another. Sam Phillips talked Dewey Phillips (no relation) into playing the record on his top-rated radio show on WHBQ/560 in Memphis. He played the song 14 times. Elvis, who was so nervous that he went to the movies to calm down, finally went on the show that night and answered every question, including which high school he went to.
However, that question about his high school was pivotal, not trivial. In the days of segregated schools, it was a polite way around asking flat out what color Elvis was. And his race mattered, because that was the only way to race not matter for anyone else. Sam Phillips had it pegged, integrate the music and you integrate the world. He was not the only person in America in the rising affluence of the 1950s to see it this way. Many others tried. Nat King Cole and Johnny Mathis were black performers who could sing white. And Elvis alone did not erase the color line. Other artists followed. Ray Charles proved Phillips right by releasing “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” in 1962, featuring a cover of Don Gibson's country hit from 1957, “I Can't Stop Loving You.” Berry Gordy Jr.'s creation of Motown Records also helped blur the distinction.
Elvis was not in Sam Phillips's stable of singers for long, just 15 months. Phillips signed B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and others, but despite five legitimate hall of fame singers, Phillips was talent rich, cash poor. To keep his studio going, he offered to sell the contract of Elvis to the highest bidder. Atlantic Records offered $25,000. RCA Victor topped it with $40,000, including $5,000 in royalties Sun owed Elvis. RCA sent him to Nashville to record under Chet Atkins. The first recording on January 10, 1956, was a cover of Ray Charles's “I Got A Woman.” His second recording that day was “Heartbreak Hotel.” In March he released his first album. It sold a million and made a million bucks. Sam Phillips was right.
However, the rise to the top for Elvis almost ended quickly. His manager, Colonel Parker, arranged for a two-week gig at the Venus Room of the New Frontier Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. He lasted a week. The audience was not ready for him. But he did one number in Vegas that brought him fame and controversy. He liked a parody cover of Big Mama Thornton's “Hound Dog,” as performed by another Vegas act, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys.
Elvis premiered this version of “Hound Dog” on the Milton Berle Show on June 5, 1956, on NBC. His wild gyrations as he danced brought cries of juvenile delinquency from many of the 40 million Americans who watched the show, or nearly one-third of the nation's population. Steve Allen quickly booked Elvis for his NBC show on July 1, 1956. But Allen made fun of Elvis, making him wear a tuxedo to sing “Hound Dog” to a basset hound, who wore a top hat.
But Elvis took the indignity with dignity. Instead of throwing a fit, he threw himself into the studio the next day to record it. Elvis made sure he got it right, singing through 31 takes. RCA released the song along with its B side, “Don't Be Cruel,” and all hell broke out. Both sides were great. The two songs alternated as the nation's top song, keeping the record No. 1 for 11 weeks.
No single record ever charted No. 1 longer.
In turn, the writers of “Hound Dog,” Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, were not pleased with his spoof of their masterpiece. But the songwriters got over their displeasure when the royalty checks came in. They went on to write songs for him.
Television personality Ed Sullivan very publicly banned Elvis from his show over the controversy -- that is until he realized what a ratings grab Elvis represented. On September 9, 1956, Elvis appeared on Sullivan's show on CBS. Actor Charles Laughton hosted the show after Sullivan conveniently had a car accident. This appearance by Elvis attracted 60 million viewers, nearly half the nation. After singing “Ready Teddy,” Elvis turned to the studio audience and said, “Friends, as a great philosopher once said…” and began singing, “You ain't nothing but a hound dog.”
Everyone else was taking the controversy seriously, except the man in the middle. With this song, Elvis had proved that he could sing anything, and sing the song like no other one. With the controversy, Elvis proved that for all his innocent charm, he could take just about anything as well.
Blowhard Democratic congressman Emanuel Celler, chairman of the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee said, “The bad taste that is exemplified by Elvis Presley's 'Hound Dog' music, with his animal gyrations, which are certainly most distasteful to me, are violative of all that I know to be in good taste.” Music critics denounced it. Everyone with good taste denounced it. Even Frank Sinatra, whose own singing to the bobby sox crowd a generation earlier stirred tongue clucks from his elders, denounced it.
Race had much to do with this. Elvis was bringing black music to white teenagers. This was a change too quick for some people.
Elvis shrugged the controversy off, released his next record, “Love Me Tender,” which was the title of his first movie. The film was a hit. His star was rising. If anything, the controversy exposed his music to more people, and they loved it.
But Elvis was more than The Pelvis or the First White Man To Sing Black. He became an excellent musician, record producer and actor. He also became a soldier. The local selective service board drafted him and on March 24, 1958, Elvis was inducted into the Army. This was a cultural event so huge that it inspired a Broadway musical and later film, “Bye Bye, Birdie,” starring newcomer Ann-Margaret.
By all accounts, Elvis was an excellent soldier, who rose to sergeant in Company A, 1st Medium Tank Battalion, 32nd Armor Regiment, 3rd Armored Division. The two-year hiatus from music included a tour of Germany, where he met his future wife, Priscilla, who was 14 at the time. Many states and all of Canada had 14 as an age of consent then.
Honorably discharged on March 5, 1960, Elvis hit the recording studio and the movie sound stage. His first movie, “G.I. Blues,” spun off a No. 1 album, “G.I. Blues.” Throughout the 1960s, he made movies and albums off those movies. Most memorable was “Viva Las Vegas” -- with Ann-Margaret. Hello, Birdie.
Musical tastes changed. Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles to America in 1964. The Elvis movies became dated. But his true fans stood by him, for he connected with a certain class of people who grew up poor, like him. They lived vicariously through him.
Musically he left a wide range of recordings. Elvis is the only singer to be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1986), the Country Music Hall of Fame (1998), the Gospel Music Hall of Fame (2001), the Rockabilly Hall of Fame (2007), and the R and B Hall of Fame (2015). Some may say he was the right man at the right place at the right time, and that may be so. Society was overcoming nearly a century of apartheid and needed such a singer; television certainly helped further his career.
As a businessman, the King was a pauper, leaving “only” a million dollars in cash and a little shack in Memphis called Graceland. However, his handling of “Hound Dog” is a lesson in management. Instead of backing down from a controversy, he owned it.
But the greatness of Elvis was his belief in God and in his fans, and that they would stand by him. Many people have talent. Not many talented people can weather a storm of controversy. Consider Elvis contemporary Jerry Lee Lewis, brought down by marrying a young cousin even though it was legal.
In the 1950s, Elvis not only weathered a typhoon, he surfed it.
My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.