Released in the USA October 19, 1956
The 1950s are remembered as benign times. For some they were. There was full employment in the UK, and the expanding economy of the USA had conquered the world. Of course there are always the less fortunate. The rich stay rich, and the poor stay poor. Neither were the Egyptians and the Hungarians pleased about their countries being invaded by neighbouring empires. For most, though, 1956 meant available work. For rock musicians early success also means work and it usually means too much. The excess and indulgence come later. On the 23rd of February and before the Suez crisis and the Hungarian uprising had occurred Elvis Presley was admitted to hospital. He was a month into his 21st year. A healthy young man had collapsed with exhaustion. Elvis worked every day of that February although the 28th involved a different kind of work. That final day he spent travelling as he returned home to Memphis.
In 1956 there were seventeen Elvis singles on the Billboard top 100 charts. Although there had been an album and EP collections everything Elvis had ever recorded so far was also released on double-sided singles. Three of those singles reached number one. Elvis appeared on television eleven times. His tours of personal appearances reached 79 cities, and Elvis and his small band performed 143 stage shows. The tone deaf crook Colonel Parker had struck gold. Before the end of the year the record company RCA proclaimed it had sold ten million Elvis singles. Because nothing interested Colonel Parker as much as money, he widened his nostrils and began a merchandising campaign. Parker was not interested in owning a company that manufactured and sold items bearing the name of Elvis Presley. Parker agreed instead to a deal that allowed collaborator Hank Saperstein to form a licencing company called Merchandise Special Products. This would sell licences to those who wanted to endorse their products with the name Elvis Presley. Parker and Elvis shared $35,000 as the upfront payment from Saperstein and received a promise that they would receive 45% of the profits Saperstein made from the sale of licences. Elvis Presley was now a brand. How much money was made and how many items were made and sold is not certain. Reviewing the contract, Billboard magazine estimated that the sales of licenses would amount to $20m. This appears to be an overestimate. There is evidence, though, of 21 licensees paying $75,663 for their licences. One company manufactured 350,000 bracelets.
I remember advertisements for Elvis mementoes appearing in British comics, magazines and newspapers. But on British radio the music of Elvis remained scarce. Pop music on BBC was restricted to the Light Programme, the name of which said it all. The BBC also had to acknowledge the demands of The Musicians Union in Britain. The Union had negotiated that a majority of music broadcast by the BBC had to be performed live. British teenagers sought rock ‘n’ roll refuge on Radio Luxembourg. In the North West of England where I lived the signal transmitted from regulation free Luxembourg acquired a stable strength after nine in the evening. I was eight years old in 1956 and in bed by the time the music from Radio Luxembourg became audible. Rock ‘n’ roll music did appear in very small doses on the TV. I heard Hound Dog by Elvis on the Jack Jackson Show where the modern music was presented as comic novelty. Somehow, though, I was aware of rock ‘n’ roll and what were thought to be changing times. My mother bought three rock ‘n’ roll records. These were Tutti Frutti by Little Richard, I’m In Love Again by Fats Domino and The Great Pretender by The Platters. Records moved around homes because they were borrowed, shared, swapped and sometimes abandoned. But no Elvis singles or records came into my home in 1956. Like other people, though, my family talked about him.
If rock ‘n’ roll music in 1956 was rationed for the British, few complained much. The rationing of rock ‘n’ roll suited the sense of entitlement back then. The young generation that arrived in the 1960s had its own list of demands. In 1964 Radio Caroline anchored off the coast of Suffolk to broadcast non-stop popular music. The BBC responded by cancelling the agreement with the Musicians Union, adding Radio One to its channels and renaming the Light Programme as Radio Two.
Before all that happened Elvis Presley met the songwriters Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller on the 30th of April in 1957. In later interviews they commented on how luxurious it felt to have so much time available to work on recordings. Leiber and Stoller worked with Elvis on the Jailhouse Rock soundtrack. The songwriters were right about the generous time available but the period of two and a half days allotted to recording the six songs of the movie was not typical. At the beginning of September in 1956 the same period was allotted to Elvis to record thirteen tracks. Either side of those two and a half days Elvis had to focus on what were the real priorities of Colonel Parker. These were Hollywood and the first Elvis movie Love Me Tender. The album sessions, at least, had a capable recording engineer in Thorne Nagar. But he was only there because the album had to be recorded at the close to Hollywood RCA Recording Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. Steve Sholes, the supportive RCA figure that had organised the first Elvis RCA sessions was again present. Sholes had pushed Parker to allow Elvis to record a second album. One track from the earlier RCA sessions that year was included on the Elvis album and two of the thirteen tracks saved for future release. This time no cuts from the Sun sessions in Memphis were used.
Possibly notice of the dates available for recording was given to Sholes at the last moment. Perhaps in a hectic year the pressure on everyone had been intense. Whatever the reasons the sessions encountered problems. A pianist had been present at all the previous RCA sessions with Elvis but this time no one at RCA had thought about hiring a piano player. Gordon Stoker and Elvis played piano at the sessions. Elvis played on those songs which he knew and remembered. Gordon Stoker hit the keys for the rest. Elvis had to remember a few songs because he rejected many of those submitted by Steve Sholes. There were also songs that were attempted but had to be abandoned. One of them I Need You So was recorded in fabulous style by Elvis six months later. But there was nothing wrong with the confidence of Elvis. Days before he had added a flat vocal to the ballad Love Me Tender. As one of the Jordainaires said, ‘it is the bad notes that make it art.’ The same confidence that allowed a 21 year old to insist on flat notes also allowed Elvis to make songs half-remembered from his childhood into impressive tracks for the Elvis album.
I purchased the album at the end of the sixties. In Britain the album was called Rock ‘N’ Roll No 2. The late sixties version of the album had been reprocessed into stereo and sounded like it had been recorded in a bathroom. Some engineer at RCA eventually saw sense, and the stereo version was, like my own, dumped. Well before that, though, a mate had lent me an old copy of the HMV print of the album. HMV copies, because they were less common, always felt more authentic and mysterious. Both the RCA and HMV album covers had detailed and complimentary liner notes written by Chick Crumpacker. Like Sholes, he worked for RCA. Elvis was described by Crumpacker as a commercial folk artist. The oxymoronic sentence summed up a possible oxymoron yet the confusion felt like sincere flattery. Many years later Crumpacker revealed that the impressive versatility of Elvis and fusion of styles had worried rather than impressed the executives at RCA.
The Elvis album is great. Instead of using rhythm and blues covers to complement the rest, Elvis remembered a few country tunes from his childhood. The country songs are lifted by a gospel bounce, and the ballads have passion and apart from Old Shep a subtle blues architecture. The pure rock ‘n’ roll was restricted to three Little Richard covers, two of which were added when the sessions had run out of songs and time. No one could match Little Richard for wild rock ‘n’ roll but the tracks confirmed Elvis as the best of all the rockabilly singers. The older songs formed a bridge from rock ‘n’ roll to its roots. Rock ‘n’ roll was not as removed from the Swing phenomenon of the 1940s as American adults had imagined. And in the South the influence of Swing had the most impact in Texas. Although different the final track of the Elvis album connects to the Western Swing of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. There were other links in the album such as the Billy Eckstine jazz style on Anyplace Is Paradise and the raw blues of the Arthur Crudup song So Glad You’re Mine. The triumphant and defiant roar on this blues tune shaped my taste and needs as much as anything I heard in my teenage years. After that my thoughts tilted west and across the Atlantic. The Beatles and their fellow conspirators were for others.
Outside the studio the singles cranked up profits for Colonel Parker and inspired him to have secret plans about Hollywood and to think about using Elvis as a successor to Bing Crosby. Just as worrying was what Elvis Presley said in an interview that September . ‘I love ballads,’ said Elvis. ‘I used to sing nothing but ballads before I went professional.’ There were four ballads on Elvis which was two more than on the previous Elvis Presley album. They qualified as rock ‘n’ roll or doo wop or at least complemented those genres. Anyone listening to the admission from Elvis would have been confused. The words for rock ‘n’ roll fans were ominous. How ominous they were we would find out later.
Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest travel book Go Break Bad is now available here.