Elvis Aron Presley - Part 4
Following the pattern established by the overlap of these two fields, there was also a c&w blend with the more conventional pop sound. One of the many contemporary examples was RCA Victor's decision to cut Eddy Arnold's version of "Cattle Call" backing him up with the slick orchestra of Hugo Winterhalter. This enabled Victor to capitalize on Arnold fans and a general liking for c&w material 'outside the previously limited market—and the disk hit the best selling charts. There was an unavoidable feedback effect on the staid c&w field, where much before this time DJs would not even play a tune that showed pop characteristics. There still was post-Presley resistance, however, with the ultra-conservative rural mentality. About the Eddy Arnold-Hugo Winterhalter side, one Southern DJ drawled, "Well, it's real up town ... about as far up town as we want to go." But actually it was the pure c&w fare that began to show a dropping off in sales, as the kids became more and more conditioned by national patterns of taste through TV, and softened by the new admixture of styles in the music of artists who came up through the c&w tradition. This was anything but tragic for the field, because as one c&w record company executive remarked, "Dyed-in-the-wool hillbilly fans are dying off, and they were never very good record buyers anyway."
There were dyed-in-the-wool r&b fans too, but without the attendant old-time body of entrenched taste, The archaelogical interest in down home blues for example, did not spread into general popularity until after the attention focused on such sources by Folk music began to have effect in the early 1960s.
Before Elvis Presley, few non-Negro artists penetrated the r&b charts with any success. This crossover achievement was not a one-man triumph for Presley however; Carl Perkins' popularity with "Blue Suede Shoes" has also been documented as a significant example. This process in 1956 is a corollary of the earlier crossover by Negro r&b artists, out of a virtually automatic restriction to that market alone.
As r&b musical elements began to infuse the pop scene, generating expansive r&r activity, the traditional narrow limitations of the pop field broke down (as it were) from the inside, and this inevitably permitted infiltration from the outside. The same thing did not happen in the c&w field because of the much tighter internal structure of the music industry's organization there. It was the rigidity and control of the majors that so basically conditioned the patterns of potential change in the c&w field; in contrast to the looseness and flexibility of the indie-dominated field of r&b. But neither Presley nor Perkins any longer represented the pure c&w tradition—hence their acceptance outside that field, in a sense, follows the pattern set earlier by groups like the Crows, the Chords and the Spaniels. It cannot be argued that the 1953-54 style of these groups retains the pure spirit of the blues. In fact, it is precisely the admixture of pop elements in their music (the relative smoothness of phrasing, slickness of conception, and in "Sh-boom" the turn to non-blues subject matter with lyrics concerning paradise, dreams and fantasy-love) that makes these tunes important for the genesis of r&r.
A similar admixture of elements from the c&w field to r&r two years later led the trade to talk about a "rock-a-billy" movement. But Presley, together with other, artists coming out of a country music background, possessed a musical stature that now transcended explanation by any such easy synthesis. Rather than initiating a new trend (whether "rock-a-billy or "rolling hills" musk), the amalgamation of styles and influences manifested by Elvis Presley by the end of 1956 was so thoroughly integrated as to fully merit r&r being considered a separate field. But this field of r&r music never had a home of its own on the charts. As it drew performers from each of the other three major fields of popular music," so it continued to be an index of their popularity only on the separate lists. That is why the dramatic appeal of Elvis Presley tunes such as "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Love Me Tender" are so historically important—whether their c&w pop characteristics are thought to dominate, their rise also into the top ten on the r&b charts indicates some sort of culmination for the history of r&r's origins and early development. In a way, Elvis Presley helped to complete a process of integrating the r&b field into the total world of popular music—a process which was begun (at least symbolically) when Billboard stopped referring to it as "race music" in 1949. No longer could r&b exist for the trade either as an economically or stylistically self-contained field, following the many practical reflections of its own cultural influence. By 1956, r&b's child, r&r, had finally grown larger than its parents. Thus, even if there was still much pop music that was sweet and slick, some country music that remained defensively unblemished, and a little r&b that retained its racial blues orientation, the rock and roll music that grew out of these traditions, culminating in the music of Elvis Presley, was formed into a new whole.
These broader implications of r&r music did not prevent Elvis Presley from evolving his own unique style. Because of his background and his early association with Sun Records, the orientation of Presley's music was country from the beginning. His guitar style was learned from Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup—and it has a distinctive twangy quality that through the rest of the 1950s characterizes not only Presley, but also the music of the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly, revealing their country origins as well. The heavy, emphatic, rocking beat of Presley's early "hard" numbers, such as "Heartbreak Hotel," "Hound Dog," or "I've Got a Woman" and "Tutti Frutti" (from his EP and his first RCA Victor album) is close in spirit to r&b. Over the base and drums, however, the strings hold down the beat—especially the rhythm guitar (which Presley himself handled) rather than r&b's saxes.
After these basic similarities with the other so-called rock-a-billy artists, the Presley sound was, for all its apparent raggedness and undeniable vigor, a subtle combination of instrumentation, playing style, studio acoustics and recording techniques. Awareness of these factors first occasioned doubts in Memphis as to whether Victor could retain these Elvis qualities in their Nashville establishment. Above all there were Presley's vocals with their husky sound, catchy rhythmic figures, and sensuous intonations. The versatility of style manifested on this personal level enabled Presley to develop, a range of material with extraordinary confidence. He could combine fast rocking songs with slower romantic ballads, producing hits with them both. His delivery was more spontaneous than that of the standard pop entertainer, and it had more incessant, driving rhythm than the usual country singer could whip up. Presley's great sense of showmanship, combining playing pyrotechnics with his infamous hip-swinging gyrations, contributed to the emergence of a total style that had a great range of appeal. He effectively conveyed an impression that he could feel his material—in a way that for so long had been associated only with blues artists.
It was probably Presley's versatility, rather than the impact of any particular combination of stylistic traits, that helps to explain his extended popularity. He established a large audience; and it was one of many proportions—in age, in social and economic status, in taste and musical background, and even in nationality. These fans remained exceptionally faithful to him through the years, ever since his first appearances in 1954, and his rise to stardom in 1955. The true test came when Presley was inducted into the Army for a period of two years. Although stationed in Europe, a full publicity program kept his public touch; and Victor periodically released tunes it had in-the-can. These disks continued to hit, despite the gradual shifts in r&r musical taste generally. By 1960 there was a marked softening of the rock sound—many disks appeared featuring chordal backgrounds and lush strings scored into complex arrangements. The full sound and intricate "classical" elements, combined with highly sophisticated dubbing techniques, such as in some of the great productions of Phil Spector, made Presley's earlier tunes like "Hound Dog" or "Don't be Cruel" sound primitive and raw by contrast.
The big question then was posed by press and public alike: could Presley's popularity sustain itself over a period of two years' absence from the music scene? Such a period is usually the total lifetime for performers to enjoy active hit status—and Elvis was gone for that long! When he was due to be released from the Army in March 1960, a flood of articles wondered, "Can Elvis Sing Sweet? But this more basic question had already been answered in Presley's double-sided releases for Sun, with softer" ballads backing up the beat—and the continuing versatility demonstrated by early Victor disks such as "Love Me Tender"—which, it turned out, his fans still did.
The influx of c&w elements into the mainstream of popular music did not generate the same reticence or even hostility associated with the r&b crossovers. This is partly explained by the absence of racial issues. There was plenty in the image of country and western music to offend the culturally pretentious—but this was not an attitude generally shared by the people. Ever-wary of potentially sinister and corrupting forces in the realm of the public arts, however, the self-appointed defenders of our "morality" could not let Elvis get off too easily. Two aspects of Presley's enormous success quickly became part of his official mythology: how rich he was, and how fast he made it. The watchdogs of the righteous may have thought vindictively that he ought to be punished for his success (no one should be able to make it that easy), or that anyone making it thus must surely be in league with the Devil (or perhaps even...). In any case Presley presented an obvious, almost necessary, target.
Kurt von Meier
To the left is the August 1, 1968 edition of the New York Free Press. This edition contained the fourth 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.