Elvis: Before and After

By Uncle Bill - Bill0666@aol.com - November 27, 2004
           The recent discussion regarding Elvis Presley's transition from truck driver to rock icon is one that will be discussed for many years to come. Did he or didn't he sellout? What was better, the 56-58 Elvis, 58-60, 60 and so on...
           This is a complex issue, because basically everyone is right, depending on several things..
           A. How old were you when the Elvis phenomena began?
           B. What was your social status?
           C. Were you a player, or a watcher?
           I can only speak for myself. But based on what I read, there are many of you in the same boat. To begin, we need to examine what was going on in the early 50's.
           Prior to 1955 American teenagers had no cultural identification of their own. We were still identifying with our parents music and ways. Perry Como, Eddie Fisher, Vic Dimone, and yes an occasional rebel like Johnny Ray would surface. But if you looked at the charts, it was post World War II music, extended and modernized.
           We all looked the same. In the summer our parents would shave our hair off and we'd all walk around on kebs, jeans and white tee shirts. Girls dreamed of growing up, getting married and having kids. Guys, "if you were upper middle class" looked forward to college, family and career. The rest of us had the draft to contend with. After that, a menial job.  It was a very structured class society. But as kids do, they look for a reason. A reason to say no, a reason to party, a reason to have fun and a reason to rebel.
           I was one of the "less than middle class kids." Broken home, had to work, hated school, beat up old car, not a jock. as things were, the deck was stacked against me. One thing however was a love of music. Especially the R&B south from the South. Blues from Chicago and the stuff being played on "Colored" radio stations. "Race music." It was different, and exciting. Something that we "the others" could latch on to, identify with.
           I remember once in Junior high school we had a talent contest. This particular school was about 50/50, Black & white. The whites were mostly transplanted southerners from West Virginia and Kentucky. I got up and sang, "All around the world" by Little Willie John. Suggestive first lyric and all. The black kids were astonished and on the floor laughing. The white kids hadn't a clue about what I was doing. But I wasn't alone. Another white kid sang a song by the Clovers, and yet another played boogie woogie piano.
           In 1955 the beginnings of rock & roll began to stir the souls of we "restless youth." Then something happened that changed the direction of rock & roll forever. On a Wednesday afternoon my buddy Ricky and I cut school to go see Blackboard Jungle at the RKO Grand on Broad Street in downtown Columbus. We had heard a lot about it, and we wanted to see what was going on. It was a truant officers best dream. The place was filled with kids, all cutting school to see the movie.
           After the previews the screen goes black and the now familiar "One two three o'clock, four o'clock rock" is heard. Then the Comets exploded over the sound system. Every kid jumped up and was dancing and yelling in the isles. And the damned movie hadn't even started yet.
           That movie with it's punk kids basically running the school and flaunting the establishment was what we were waiting to see. Daddy-O and "Teach" were instant additions to our second language. The molding of a true rock and roll generation had began ... But there was no leader! There was no single element to identify with. Sure we now had a music of our own, but it was being fought on all sides. And the white establishment was attempting to water it down with white acts who were "acceptable" to the general white buying public.
           Bill Haley couldn't do it. He was chubby, funny spit curl. I didn't want to be like him. Hard to identify with Little Richard or even Chuck Berry for obvious reasons. Then along came Elvis ... Through out late 55 and into 56 we had heard rumblings of the hillbilly cat who was shaking up the South with a blend of rock that was a little bit country, and a little bit R&B. The outraged parents, blacklisting, clergy rebukes, his legend was growing by the day. I was privileged to see him on his first solo tour in 1956, for me it was a life changing experience. As we walked across the Broad Street bridge from Vets memorial in Columbus after the concert, I remember telling Ricky that that's what I'm going to do. Soon after I borrowed $100 from my girlfriend and bought my first real guitar.
           What Presley had done was to infuse an identity in to Rock & Roll. Everything he brought to the table changed the face and look of rock & roll. The sound, the swagger, the sexuality, the beat, the stage act, everything he touched was to make history.
           Heartbreak Hotel was a hit, but the Sun records were filtering around and we all knew what he could do, then in March 56 the first Album was released.
           It was by any account the very first rock & roll album ever produced. Elvis Presley on RCA had a fantastic cover.  Elvis raring back, mouth open, eyes closed, pounding on that Martin with the famous hand tooled leather cover. The letters Elvis were in pink no less. Inside the roughest of rough. Money Honey, I got a woman, Trying to get you. Even the ballads like Blue Moon and I love you because had a particular edge to them. It was the perfect album to launch not only a career, but the "new" raunch & roll.
           This now separated the actors from the pretenders. We, who were sucking up anything rock & roll had a new code. New dress code, DA's GA's, pegged pants to 14, silver thin belts with the buckle on the side. New words, new attitudes, new everything. We were the new rock army and our weapon of choice was the electric guitar.
           1956 was the birth year for rock & roll. If you lived it, you know it. It was chaos and everything was changing. Presley was the champion. I basically patterned my life after his. Dressed like him, had my walls covered with his pictures. Learned how to play most if not all his songs. But as quick as things change, things began to change. In October 1956 RCA released a second album simply called "Elvis." It had a clean cover with Elvis standing side ways with a finky clean shirt. His hair was shorter and I don't think he even had his real Martin. I remembered feeling disappointed as I looked at, and later listened to the album. Oh ya, it had rockers in it. "Long Tall Sally, Ready Teddy and Rip it Up" but a dozen others had also covered those. It was a Little Richard tribute album.
           Oddly enough, "When My Blue moon turns to Gold" was my favorite song. "Paralyzed" was my second choice.
           I think it was about this time that most of us "Hard Core" greasers or hoods. Those of us who were playing in our first bands and believed in everything rock & roll began to pull away from the complete hero worship of the King. After all, there were many others playing exciting rock & roll. Carl Perkins, Billy Lee Riley, that entire Sun crew.
           Janis Martin and Sid King who had great bands. Dale Hawkins with a record recorded in a radio station completely shook up the way we thought a rock band ought to sound like. There were a lot of choices ...
           By the time the Loving you Album came out, that was it for us. Yes, we still loved and respected the King of Rock & Roll, but he no longer set the pace. He was drifting away from us. Becoming more acceptable by our parents. Making music and movies that anyone could watch. We didn't want that.
           Years ago I felt betrayed by Elvis. That he had let me and all the rest of us down. But I've grown to understand why he did what he did. You see, no one thought that rock & roll would last. That it could not survive on it's own. The creativity would run out fast, no one could survive on such little talent. Since there was no past, then there was no future. However there was a future in the mainstream music business. Up there with the Dean Martins and Mr. Sinartra. Established, and well financed. Col. Parker knew this from his days with Eddy Arnold. He took Arnold from a "Yodeling cowboy" to a pop icon. Parker know that if Elvis were to survive for the long haul, that's where he had to be. And he was right. Presley made new fans all along his journey.
           So for us who found life in rock & roll, who discovered that playing a guitar would get you chic's, whose lives were molded in such a way by those circumstances that we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, The early Elvis Years from 1955 to the end of 1956 were the best for us, and most certainly the best for Rock & Roll. If you can identify with this, then you are as old as I am ...

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