Elvis Aron Presley - Part 2
The rise to prominence of Elvis Presley in the world of pop music was not an overnight happening. Although during the year 1956 his recordings swept across the nation in each of the various categories of popular music, this conquest of the national market was preceded by almost two years of activity centered in the c&w field—particularly in and around the Memphis area. Presley's initial recording on the Sun label was "That's All Right," coupled with "Blue Moon of Kentucky," which appeared August 7, 1954. This first release achieved a limited success only, and made no impact on the best selling charts outside of Memphis. Locally it reached the number three position in the list of best sellers in the c&w field for, a period of two weeks. The style and appeal of this first commercial effort anticipates Presley's later development, although its immediate significance was slight, even within the c&w market. In a review of the disk, Billboard already notes its potential appeal for both c&w and r&b audiences:
"Presley is a potent new chanter who can sock over a tune for either the country or the r&b markets. On this new disk he comes through with a solid performance on an r&b-type tune and then on the flip side does another fine job with a country ditty. A. strong new talent."
This observation has prophetic overtones, for with his later RCA Victor releases it is precisely this appeal to a more widespread market—one outside the national "c&w audience"—that distinguishes Presley's key position in the history of r&r. The Billboard reviewers, however, did not foresee the appeal he would build up in the pop market. The disk merited attention primarily because of Presley as a new talent on the c&w scene, and not necessarily because any high commercial prospects were indicated for the tunes. Following the "Spotlight," when the official release of the disk was listed the following week, there was no numerical rating given it—which means that it was not expected to become a hit, although its appearance was duly noted. The combination of a rock-type with a country ballad went deeper than the coupling of the two tunes. It suggested the same blend that came through in Presley's own singing style; it also underscored his versatility as a performer. This capacity for handling both the hard, driving r&r beat and the gentler ballad-type tunes, as manifested in his initial effort, in addition points toward Presley's later achievements with double-sided hits. Although there may be a switch in favor from the "A" to the "B" side of a record after its release (as with "Sh-Boom," which started off as the "B" side to "Cross Over the Bridge") seldom would both sides of pre-Presley disks score in the hit category. This kind of achievement is almost entirely limited to the superstars in the history of r&r—and Elvis is the first of these to establish double-banded hits as a pattern.
Presley's ability to produce a disk with two-sided appeal is documented by his subsequent releases for Sun Records. The next issue was the tune Wynonie Harris recorded in 1949, "Good Rockin' Tonight," backed with "I Don't Care if the Sun Don't Shine." It received the Billboard "Spotlight" review, this time because of the promise of the record itself.
"Elvis Presley, a Billboard talent "Spotlight" a few months ago, proves again that he is a sock new singer with his performances on these two oldies. His style is both country and r&b and he can appeal to pop. A solid record here that could easily break loose."
A side point refers to the methodology of our repeated reference to Billboard, justified by their consistent intuitive accuracy as evidenced here. They make their share of mistakes—over-rating as well as under-rating—but with perceptive objectivity the staff seems to have had Presley's talent and its potential direction pretty well tabbed from the start. This trade magazine was backed up in its estimate of Presley by the opinions of c&w DJs, who voted him number eight among the list of most promising new c&w singers—essentially on the strength of these two singles. In addition to the recording sessions Presley had been touring the country circuit in the Fall of 1954 as "The Hillbilly Cat," and had been invited to appear at the annual c&w DJs convention in Nashville. As his reputation in the c&w field began to be established, Presley joined the company of "Louisiana Hayride." He soon became one of the featured stars of this travelling country show, together with names like Slim Whitman, Red Sovine and Jim Reeves. Early in 1955 Sun Records released another disk, "Milkcow Blues Boogie," backed with "You're a Heartbreaker." The review again tabs Presley as a big potential hit maker.
"Presley continues to impress with each release as one of the slickest talents to come up in the country field in a long, long time. Item here is based on some of the best folk blues. The guy sells all the way ... Here Presley tackles the rhythmic material for a slick country-style reading."
Through most of 1955 Presley made the c&w circuit on tour, punctuating the year by releases under the direction of Sam Phillips, president of Sun Records. Not that these tunes were without incident. With the proceeds from new success, Presley bought a pink Cadillac, which served as transportation for him and some sidemen on the road. This capital investment was involved in one of the few setbacks of his career.
"Elvis Presley saw red early last week when flames devoured his pretty pink Cadillac on the road between Hope and Texarkana, Ark. A brake lining caught fire and before the flame could be doused, the vehicle went up in smoke. Presley and his boys escaped injury and all instruments were saved."
Two of Presley's records cut during this period are worthy of mention. "Baby Let's Play House" backed with "I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone" (Sun 217), was released May 14, 1955. "Baby" was listed as a Billboard "Best Buy" a couple of issues later, with these comments:
"In the past few weeks, various Southern territories have been seeing nice action with this disk. After a strong kick-off in the Memphis area, it has begun to sell well in Houston, Dallas, New Orleans, and Nashville and is moving out now in Richmond, St. Louis and the Carolinas."
Another Presley disk, again with a typical c&w title, was "I Forgot to Remember to Forget" backed with "Mystery Train" (Sun 223), which began to draw strong reviews as a "splendid coupling, with the guitar (on the flip) outstanding." These records are important because they show Presley breaking onto the national c&w charts. "Baby" became the number ten best selling c&w single for the week of August 6, 1955, although it didn't manage to climb any higher. Both "I Forgot" and "Mystery Train" hit the charts too—another indication of the two-sided hit pattern that Presley would establish later.
With these moderate successes at breaking into the tough c&w field, Elvis headlined on the tour circuit. In the Fall of 1955 he even had his own jamboree, which played through Texas featuring other c&w stars such as Jean Shepard and Johnny Cash. Later Presley hit some of the big cities in the North with the Roy Acuff show. All of this activity inevitably brought him to the attention of the major record producers. RCA Victor bought up the Sun contract together with five unreleased masters and rights to Sun's earlier pressings for a total of $40,000. At the time Presley's most recent disk on Sun, "I Forgot to Remember to Forget" was riding the c&w best seller list at number four together with "Mystery Train." Sun retained the right to press additional copies of this "current" record until the end of 1955—then it was to be released by Victor together with the other material. At the same time, the nineteen year old Presley signed a long-term writing pact with Hill and Range. The same outfit also set up a separate publishing firm with him under the name of Elvis Presley Music, Inc.—all of whichwas in addition to the performing artist, writer and publishing contracts' with Victor. This concluded several months of top bidding for Presley by the major record companies. Steve Sholes closed the deal (with the help of RCA Victor singles division manager Bill Bullock) in Nashville, during the annual c&w DJ festival.
"Presley walked off with top honors as the most promising new c&w artist in practically every poll that week. Although Sun has sold Presley primarily as a c&w artist, Victor plans to push his platters in all three fields—pop, r&b and c&w. However, RCA Victor's specialty singles chief, Steve Sholes (who will record Presley), plans to cut the warbler with the same backing—electric guitar, bass fiddle, drums and Presley himself on rhythm guitar—featured on his previous Sun waxings."
These negotiations were handled for Presley by a Memphis DJ, Bob Neal, who had been serving as his personal manager, and by Col. Tom Parker, Eddy Arnold's ex-manager. Col. Parker had signed with Presley as his general manager on the strength of his first release, and handled his product like uranium.
Thus the ground-plan was clear from the start. Victor was marshaling forces for a big push on all commercial fronts; and their first step was to gain control as completely as possible over Presley's artistic resources. For Elvis to have had such an impact it was necessary to combine his great musical and performing talents with the power of a major company—especially for distribution, promotion and publicity. Either the talent or the facilities by themselves would have meant little—certainly they would not have created the revolution that began early in 1956 with Elvis Presley's first Victor release, "Heartbreak Hotel." The disk was spotlighted on February 11, 1956 with the following review:
"Presley's first Victor disk might easily break in both markets. "Heartbreak Hotel" is a strong blues item wrapped up in his usual powerful style and a great beat. "I Was The One" is about as close to r&b as you can get without horns,and has more pop appeal. Presley is riding high right now with network TV appearances, and this disk should benefit from all the special plugging."
To the left is a photo of the cover of The New York Free Press edition of July 18, 1968 containing the second part of Kurt's five-part series on Elvis Presley.
The paper was one of a group of alternative newspapers which published during the 1960s. At $.15 a copy, it provided coverage of politics, entertainment, media and counter-culture happenings.