Elvis Aron Presley - Part 5
There was the personal image: like other instant folk heroes, not without strong sexual inplications. He was regarded as physically attractive by many teenagers and by some housewives—his "rebel" trappings of the long hair and sideburns, the hint of a sneer, and the intimations of violence in his performances—probably generated as much sense of motherly protective attachment as dangerous seductive appeal. There was also the voice: Presley offered a style that included deep, gutteral verbalizations, and even non-verbal grunts and groans. Accompanied by the loose, free-wheeling gyrations, "Elvis the Pelvis" manifested an image of thinly veneered sexuality accepted by his fans as an integral part of his spontaneous total style. Others, having become impervious to its message of total involvement, tended to single out the sexual implications for attack. But Presley's expressive dancing was interrelated with both his singing style and his appearance. In part, anyway, it is apparent that the meaning of this total style was concerned with a changing attitude toward sex. This focus interestingly enough does serve to set Presley off from the conventional c&w performer—who was well-advised to maintain the semblance of propriety (even if this was of a rural, homey, Southern sort). In this way he is much more the archetypal r&r star—for it was in this new field of music that the more open and honest enjoyment of sex, as championed by teenage culture, had one of its most immediate symbolic expressions.
It is not surprising that the most violent outcry (supposedly defending public morals) came after Elvis' appearance on TV. By the end of 1954, the first year of TV's wide-scale acceptance by the American public, the volume of protest mail had risen sharply. According to NBC's censor-in-chief (the "continuity acceptance director," who "has the final say on the content of all commercials, script content—both film and live—song lyrics and costuming presented on radio and TV"); despite the new medium's relatively brief life span, more complaint mail had been received from TV viewers than in the last twenty years of radio. Presley's notorious appearance with the "gyrations" was as a featured guest on the Milton Berle show. Ever sensitive to touchy tastes, TV didn't let it happen again—not that this stopped them from capitalizing on Presley's fantastic drawing power. As a guest on the Steve Allen show, Presley helped it pass the Ed Sullivan show (which it was programmed opposite) for the first time (on July 1, 1956). But what they did to Elvis? He was dressed up in a formal tux for the following:
He rolled not—nor did he rock—and his second number —"Hound Dog"—was preempted by a scene-stealing, sad-faced canine ... However, the next day ... a group of teenagers picketed the studio [RCA Victor's in New York, where he was in a recording session] with signs reading—"We want the real Elvis."
There are some amusing extremes to which the bulk of the DJs were driven by demands for Elvis—for they remained, perhaps to the surprise of many, generally quite a conservative bunch. Program director and DJ, Robin Seymour (WKMN, Detroit) refused to play Presley records after the appearance on Milton Berle's show. Five hundred fans wrote letters to the station, threatening a boycott. Seymour swiftly responded with an open letter, published on the front page of a local newspaper, "Teen Life," explaining that now everything was all right since Elvis demonstrated on the Steve Allen show that he was keeping his gyrations under wraps! But some DJs weren't so easily persuaded.
Terry McGuire (WCMC, Wildwood, New jersey) wrote to "Billboard:" "As a Christian I could not morally justify playing the music of Mr. P. I would like to begin an organization (of deejays) to help eliminate certain wreck and ruin artists."
The most fascinating example of -the constant turmoil surrounding Presley—as a new teenage ' generation began to involve itself in depth with him and his image—occurred as a summer replacement DJ staged a "mystery voice" contest. The "secret" singer was Elvis with "Don't Be Cruel," picked as a "cinch," so that every listener could win. The town (Gardner, Massachusetts) was a rock and roll hotspot, and there was a flood of answers—but about forty-five percent were wrong. About fifty people guessed Gene Vincent, forty guessed Pat Boone—and whether or not they thought they were being given a trick. question they were supposed to outguess—some of the other answers were Clyde McPhatter, Tony Martin, Perry Como, Bill Haley and Tennessee Ernie Ford.
It is hard to say exactly what this means without knowing something about what kind of person sent in which answer. But on the surface, it would seem that for a good proportion of the radio audience there was less readily apparent stylistic distinctiveness in the various fields of popular music than might have been assumed. This would accord with the notion of a changing function of broadcast music—with the radio as a "hot" medium, the tunes individually elicit very little depth involvement. The total effect of this music is what was important, rather than any particular tune or artist, or even type of music. To admit that Presley might seriously be confounded with, say, Perry Como or Tony Martin, is to suggest that—at least for a part of the great public ear—all of popular music was lumped pretty much together. A McLuhanesque implication is also unmistakable: on-at least one level of meaning the medium (of popular music) is the message, instead of it being the musical form and expression or the subject matter of the tunes. And as one medium becomes the content of another, this popular music in turn completely changes the programming proportions of radio. Another eloquent indication of essential differences in cultural outlook between teenagers and their elders can be found in the "correct" but misspelled answers in the mystery vocalist contest. Here are just a few examples: Ellbis, Ilvis, Ervis, Pelvis, Elvin, and Prezly, Perslee, Prevel, and Elvin Pelvis. If ever evidence were needed to drive home the shift from a visual, print-oriented culture to a post-literate,. auditory-tactile one, this is it.
The effects of this new culture soon began to stretch to a world-wide extent. It began to acquire a total pattern and to evolve toward a sense of instantaneous effects. Presley's popularity in England also had a certain reciprocal effect on the American scene, through the inevitable feedback reportage of events either genuinely newsworthy or with publicity value. And another aspect of the "instantaneous" character of r&r underscored by Presley was in the increased speed with which his releases hit the market. For example, "Hound Dog" earned him a gold record for over a million copies sold in the same month it was released.
In terms of his own ambitions, Elvis Presley shifted media: from popular music to movies—which were of far greater importance to him than his TV appearances. Some of the motivation probably could be attributed to the romantic image of the movie star. As yet the newer medium of TV had not yet created an effective popular ideal for teenage culture, as it did in the 1960s.
Elvis signed his first movie contract with Paramount in April. The first movie, "Love Me Tender," announced in September was actually done at 20th Century Fox and produced by the late David Weisbart. This started what was virtually a separate career for Presley, who proceeded to build up another whole battery of fans with his films. Still, it was TV that most directly and instantaneously affected his music. The title tune from that forthcoming film was premiered on the Ed Sullivan show (September 9, 1956), which led to a clamor for its release, as dealers were swamped with orders the very next day. It was because of another naive failure to grasp the effects of one medium upon another that Victor was caught totally unprepared. But when they rushed out a pressing, it shot to the number two spot on the national best selling pop music chart—the highest any disk ever broke onto the listings. Victor of course had not even begun to learn its lesson from the effects of breaking "Hound Dog" first on TV—even though at the same time they were awarding Presley his second gold record for it (this time for the flip side, "Don't Be Cruel") as sales passed the two million mark.
To sum up the influence of Elvis Presley on the total environment of teenage culture, there is the performance record of a vast merchandising campaign riding the success (and controversy) of his image as a musician and entertainer.
Organized by H.G. Saperstein and Col. Tom ,Parker, some thirty different products were being manufactured under eighteeen licenses. Sales were expected to top $20,000,000 by the end Of the year, thus making seem pale by comparison such industries as had centered around Mickey Mouse, Hopalong Cassidy or Davy Crockett. This was the first time that such a range of commodities had been offered in connection with a popular singer. Some of them, like the guitar, the stuffed "Hound Dog" or the glow-in-the-dark picture of Elvis (with an image that lasts two hours after the lights have been turned off, which is time enough time for any teenager to get to sleep), could have been predicted. But in addition, there were such items, all bearing an image or the name of Elvis Presley, as: hats, T-shirts, blue jeans, kerchiefs, gloves, mittens, sweaters, bobby-sox, sneakers, skirts, blouses, wallets, charm bracelets, necklaces and magazines (the start of something really big later on, in another overlapping of media). With the wardrobe thus accounted for, there were also Elvis Presley bookends, stationery, greeting cards, stuffed dancing — dolls, a statue, a new soft drink, cologne and lipstick. The latter item provided an intriguing mode by which female fans could identify with their idol. Marketed as "Teenagers Lipstick," it was available in three shades: "heartbreak pink," "hound dog orange," and "tutti frutti red."
As to whether or not this rather transparent commercial venture had any effects upon the psyches of the young, perhaps the real truth is to be discovered in that most direct and unwittingly eloquent medium of communication --advertising. The Atlantic Record Company's subsidiary Atco announced the release of a new record by one Little "Lambsie" Penn, entitled "I Wanna Spend Xmas with Elvis." Ads for the disk were scattered over the pages of trade publications. The copy in the ad just sort of topped it all off: it billed "Lambsie" as "asking for what every little girl is dreaming of this year." The only difference is that "Lambsie" didn't make the charts as the Elvis-she-wanted-for-Xmas always did.
In the list of best-selling records for the entire year 1956, Elvis topped both the pop and the c&w lists easily. In the rhythm and blues field, Bill Doggett took the top honors (on the basis of "Slow Walk," together with the tremendous best seller, "Honky Tonk"). Nevertheless, Elvis was a solid second in that list, rating above Fats Domino, The Platters, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles and all the rest.
1956 was the year in which Elvis Presley helped to transform completely and radically the entire popular music and entertainment industry by solidifying the new field of r&r. It was an easy matter then, in the following year, for a group like Danny and the Juniors to sing "Rock and Roll is Here to Stay."
Kurt von Meier
To the left is the August 8, 1968 edition of the New York Free Press. This edition contained the last 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.