“Before Elvis, there was nothing.”—John Lennon
The year was 1955, and I had just heard Chuck Berry on the radio singing “Maybelline.” I was electrified.
By the time Berry appeared on television, duckwalking across the stage and playing his guitar, there was no turning back. America had its first black rock’n’roll hero, and rock’n’roll had fused with my soul.
Then along came Elvis Presley.
Although Berry had moved me, Elvis became part of me. He combined all the images of rebellion – such as James Dean and others – into one solitary figure and quickly became the poster boy for our generation.
And, at first, his story seemed like the American Dream come true.
Sam Phillips, a Memphis recording artist and African-American music enthusiast, had been looking for “a white boy who could sing like a black boy and catch the beat of black music.” With his early “greaser” style, Elvis fit the bill, and Phillips recorded him on his now-legendary Sun label.
Those 1954-55 soundtracks for Sun Records, including “It’s All Right, Mama” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” were some of Elvis’ best recordings. A synthesis of the white and black cultures, Elvis’ music also had a general gospel flavor that reflected his early singing in church.
By the time he had conquered the South with regional appearances, Elvis had also perfected his act.
Most notably, he added body gyrations reminiscent of the movements of gospel singers. But on Elvis, the movements took on sexual overtones.
The first time Elvis gyrated onstage, the crowd went wild. From then on, wiggling hips became a signature move.
With Elvis’ performances often described as “demon rock as jungle music” by local newspapers, it was little surprise that ministers publicly attacked him. In fact, they threatened to lead a crusade to have him arrested if he set foot in their communities.
But religious and parental disapproval only increased Elvis’ popularity, and his television appearances cemented it.
After Elvis performed his first national hit, “Heartbreak Hotel,” on the Milton Berle Show in April 1956, the song moved to number one on the music charts. An appearance on the Steve Allen Show followed in July 1956.
Although Allen had persuaded Presley to wear a tuxedo and limit his movements, he still only shot Presley from the waist up to avoid those wiggling hips. And for the first time, Allen beat the legendary Ed Sullivan in ratings.
Between his dislike of rockers and his belief that Elvis’ act was too sexually suggestive, Sullivan wanted nothing to do with Elvis. But after Steve Allen’s success, Sullivan surrendered to market economics and signed Elvis for three shows at the unprecedented sum of $50,000.
However, a concern about Elvis’ wiggling hips caused the producers to also shoot Elvis only from the waist up on the first show.
Still, after the third show, Sullivan conceded to the audience that Elvis was a “real decent, fine boy.”
In reality, Sullivan’s decision to sign Elvis augured a profound change in American taste.
While the white elite had appreciated black jazz in the past, they had a visceral, democratic reaction to Elvis. The old order had been challenged and had not held. New forces were at work, driven primarily by technology. The young no longer had to listen to their parents. It was a critical moment for American society.
Soon Elvis was everywhere, even starring in movies (he made more than 30). However, although Elvis could sing, he couldn’t act.
Then, in 1958, Elvis joined the Army.
Suddenly, he was part of the establishment, and that’s when his rebel image was tarnished. Indeed, years later, when John Lennon heard of Elvis’ death, he remarked, “Elvis died the day he went into the Army.”
By the late 1960s, the British rock invasion, led by the Beatles, had dated the music and stance of ’50s rockers like Elvis. But his appearance on the classic 1968 Singer Television Special for NBC proved that the boy from Memphis could still move an audience.
And in the mid-1970s, with a couple of new hits, Elvis made a comeback.
However, his success was short-lived.
After his 1972 divorce brought on violent mood swings, Elvis began to eat voraciously, sometimes consuming a dozen cheeseburgers and a pound of bacon at a time. Literally ballooning to around 250 pounds, the whale-like Elvis was forced to cancel all-important Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe shows.
And after hints of drug dependence circulated, Elvis secluded himself at Graceland or his Palm Springs home.
Then, on August 16, 1977, Elvis died. He was only 42.
After his death, which shocked and saddened his fans worldwide, Elvis became larger than life. In fact, the Elvis cult that began shortly after his death has now become, in essence, a religion. There are still those who believe he is alive.
In Elvis’ life, we see an allegory of the entire American experience during the 1950s, 1960s and beyond. Like many before and after him, a youthful and dynamic beginning ended in premature old age and a bloated, overweight body.
A victim of success, Elvis became a parody of himself and of modern, materialistic America. Like so many of the generation he spawned, Elvis was a lonely soul on that train to nowhere.