Elvis Aron Presley - Part 3

Elvis Aron Presley in a recording studio in 1956.

Elvis Aron Presley in a recording studio in 1956.

Presley made his first of four weekly appearances on the Jackie Gleason Saturday night TV show on January 28, 1956. RCA Victor backed up the release of "Heartbreak Hotel," (and its long-term investment) with the nation-wide promo. It paid off Soon after the release of the record, it was featured as a "Best Buy," and began to demonstrate nation-wide appeal.

"Another record that has demonstrated Presley's major league stature. Sales have snowballed rapidly in the past two weeks, with pop and r&b customers joining Presley's hillbilly fans in demanding this disk. Richmond, Atlanta, Nashville, Durham, New Orleans and Memphis reports were swelled by action on the West Coast and in Middle Western states."

Another big c&w tune at that time that crossed the popularity barriers into other fields was listed as a "Best Buy," side by side with "Heartbreak Hotel." This was "Blue Suede Shoes," by Carl Perkins, who, was still recording with Presley's former company, Sun Records.

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"Difficult as the country field is for a newcomer to "crack" these days, Perkins has come up with some wax here that has hit the national retail chart in almost record time. New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Richmond, Durham and other areas report it a leading seller. Interestingly enough, the disk has a large measure of appeal for both pop and r&b customers."

Both tunes broke onto the national pop charts at the same time, although Perkins' "Shoes" kicked off at number fourteen, while Presley's "Hotel" was lodged initially at number nineteen. On the c&w charts for the same week, the Presley tune was ahead of Perkins' by three to eight, although "Shoes" had been on this list for two weeks longer than "Hotel."  Neither tune had as yet appeared on the r&b charts. But in the following week Perkins again hit before Presley in this field, with "Shoes" listed at number nine, and "Hotel" not even in business.

In its third week on the c&w charts, "Hotel" hit the number one spot, and it consistently maintained a popularity advantage over "Shoes" throughout their run. These are fascinating records to compare, not only because Elvis later did a version of "Blue Suede Shoes" (written and first recorded by Carl Perkins), but also because of their close proximity in time, and their parallel successes in all three markets.

Carl Perkins in 1956.

Carl Perkins in 1956.

Presley and Perkins remained one and two respectively in the r&w markets with their records. Heartbreak Hotel must have carried home special heartbreaking significance for Perkins. It kept his great tune from attaining the number one position as probably it would have done if released at any other time during the year. The one market in which Perkins did retain higher rankings than Presley, curiously, was r&b. The highest "Shoes" reached was the number three position—behind two classic r&b disks: Little Richard's Long Tall Sally/Slippin' and Slidin' and Fats Domino in I'm In Love Again/My Blue Heaven, both of them big double-sided hits. Presley's Heartbreak Hotel only made it to the number five spot—during the same week ending May 19, 1956.

It was several weeks before "Hotel" passed "Shoes" on the national pop best seller charts. Presley continued to climb up to the number one position, which he took on April 21. A news item in April 1956 documented the dimensions of Heartbreak Hotel. It is worth quoting in full because it reflects upon the whole context in which Presley came to be known, the significance of his shift to Victor, and the enormous success of Heartbreak Hotel, which radically transformed the entire picture of the popular music field.

"75G Daily Ain't Hay: Sholes Has Last Laugh As Presley Rings Up Sales

They laughed when Steve Sholes sat down to write out that $40,000 check for Elvis Presley's contract. But this week the phenom from Mississippi was ringing up the cash registers to the tune of more than $75,000 daily in the retail record shops.
          Last November, Sholes, RCA Victor's specialty records chief, against the advice of Nashville's foremost taste arbitrators, paid Sun Records that amount for the youngster's contract and also took over the disks he had cut previously for that Indie label. There was considerable doubt whether, in Victor's more formal studio atmosphere, Sholes could preserve the unique sound Presley had been getting both vocally and instrumentally.
          Now, apparently, Sholes and Victor have the last laugh. Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel," recorded under Sholes' supervision, has passed the million sales mark and this week was far and away the best seller in the country. Presley's album, also cut by Sholes, is one of the fastest selling albums in history, having sold 155,000 in two and a half months.
          In the pop singles field, Presley disks are selling at the rate of 50,000 a day, accounting for about 50 per cent of Victor's total pop business. They include six disks, five of which are reissues of original Sun masters. The LP's and EP's are selling at the rate of 8,000 per day.
          In Canada, Presley is proportionally even more successful. Up there he has the first eight singles out of Victor's top ten. (Canadian Victor issued two singles out of the Presley album).
          Sholes flew to Nashville Friday (April 13) to cut some fresh wax with the lad. But Nashville will never he the same."

Elvis with Steve Sholes, RCA Victor's specialty record chief.

Elvis with Steve Sholes, RCA Victor's specialty record chief.

Even this, of course, wasn't the last the industry would hear about Heartbreak Hotel. A couple of weeks later sales were reported up to 1,350,000, although they had "tapered off to a mere 70,000-a-week rate." And at the end of the month of May, there was this item:

"Elvis Presley, the phenom from Mississippi, is still setting precedents. This week, for the second time, the RCA Victor artist hit the number one spot on six charts with his version of "Heartbreak Hotel."
          This makes E.P. the first "double-Triple Crown" winner in the history of The Billboard's record charts. He topped the retail, jockey and juke box lists in both the pop and country and western categories. In addition, Presley's LP held its position as the No. 1 album on The Billboard's Best Selling Album chart."

On this completely unprecedented scale of popular triumph, comparisons with Carl Perkins' record rapidly pale. Whether or not Perkins could have followed up Blue Suede Shoes with another hit, as did Presley, is problematical—instead, he suffered serious injury in an automobile accident of March 21. Perkins, with two brothers, his manager, and three members of his band, were on their way to New York for a guest appearance on the Perry Como TV show when the car in which they were riding overturned after colliding with a pickup truck near Dover, Delaware. The singer suffered a spinal injury and serious cuts, all of which kept him out of action for some time. Six weeks after the accident Perkins inserted a large ad in Billboard's music pages with thanks for letters, cards, and DJ dedications. Eventually he returned to performing; but there was never again a record in him like Blue Suede Shoes.

The following record for Elvis Presley—and if there were still doubts in anyone's mind about his revolutionary significance, this swiftly put an end to them—was I Want You, I Need You, I Love You. This disk was in the news before it was released. There were already over 300,000 orders in Victor's office by May 3, although it wasn't even scheduled for shipment until the following day. At the same time, his was the first LP for Victor to sell over a quarter of a million copies (actually over 300,000). A few weeks later, a full page ad cites these figures:

"213,000 in the first two days
389,000 in the first six days
653,219 as this issue goes to press."

The reviews are of interest as they again emphasize the new musical integration of Presley's style, and its corresponding multi-market appeal: "a real blues with that r&b infusion so well calculated to hit the all-market pay-off," describing the flip, "My Baby Left Me." Presley's versatility is evident with the coupling, "a different, more gentle Presley, but he still vibrates with that husky, coin-pulling charm." Perhaps even more important than these stylistic observations is the fact that this "Spotlight" review' appears in the pop section [in Billboard], instead of under the c&w heading. Thus Heartbreak Hotel was the agency by which Presley broke out of a more restricted classification as an artist—and which also established r&r music firmly in all categories simultaneously.

Under Presley's jolting influence the recording trade itself empirically recognized the breakdown of barriers between fields that was being effected; but this also followed two years of developing a gradually broad range for r&r music. Presley was seen as a key figure in this process, as he emerged—together with his music—from the strictly country categorization. indicative of this burgeoning was the tremendous buildup via performances on national TV shows, together with other non-traditional c&w promo means, such as breaking into gossip column reportage.

Of paramount interest is the overlap between the c&w and the r&b fields. Rather than r&b artists moving onto the c&w charts, however, this development takes the form of c&w artists who adopt an r&b styling, and then make it, both at home and in the pop field. Examples of what came rapidly to be known as the "Presley sound," in addition to Carl Perkins, were Marty Robbins on Columbia, Charlie Gore on King and Johnny Cash, also on Sun with Perkins. Paul Cohen, c&w exec at Decca, began a scouting program for talent to develop in this direction, noting the historical proximity of the blues and country traditions, as far back as in the songs of Jimmie Rodgers. Or, as Paul Ackerman expanded on this point, "Often the difference between a country side and an r&b side is merely the use of strings as against the use of horns. The Presley sound—it is pointed out, might be called r&b without horns, but with strings."

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To the left is the July 25, 1968 edition of the New York Free Press. This edition contained the third 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.