Monday, August 22, 2016

60 Years Ago: Elvis Crowned King of Rock & Roll

Sixty years ago this week, Elvis Presley began a historical string of 16 weeks at Number One, staying at the top of the US music charts longer than anyone ever had before. He had his third, fourth, and fifth Number One singles, all in a row.

By doing this he was unequivocally crowned The King of Rock And Roll.

Elvis exploded onto the national music scene in early 1956 with his debut RCA hit, "Heartbreak Hotel." He had made a local impact in the South with several songs recorded on Sun Records, and had a Country & Western Number One with the song, "I Forgot To Remember to Forget" in late 1955. However, with "Heartbreak Hotel," released in January 1956, he was on his way. It stayed on the top of the Billboard chart for 8 weeks, eventually becoming the Number One Song of 1956.

His follow-up hit was a (relatively) minor song called "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You." It was released in May, 1956 and reached Number One for one week in July. However, it was clearly over-shadowed by the other song he introduced at the same time, "Hound Dog."
People forget how controversial Elvis Presley was at the beginning of his career. He gyrated around during his performances, which adults found disgusting. Ed Sullivan famously said that he would never have Elvis on his show. However, TV rivals Milton Berle and Steve Allen had no qualms with Elvis, and gladly booked him on *their* variety shows. It was on Berle's TV show on June 5, 1956 that Elvis first performed "Hound Dog." He followed that performance with an encore on Allen's show on July 1. (This is where he serenaded to an actual basset hound, a photo of which was later used on the sleeve of the single.) The reaction to the song was ecstatic. Elvis was rushed into the NYC RCA studio to record "Hound Dog" and  "Don't Be Cruel" the next day for immediate release.
Due to the way that Billboard Magazine ranked music at the time (via airplay, jukebox plays, and actual sales) "Hound Dog" and its B side, "Don't Be Cruel," both charted, and ended up sharing the Number One position. They were at the top for a record-making 11 weeks. Until 1992 no other song matched it for longevity at the top.
As "Hound Dog/Don't Be Cruel" was still at the top, Elvis' next single, "Love Me Tender," entered the chart. And on November 3, 1956 it followed the double-sided hit into the Number One spot. "Love Me Tender" then stayed at the top for five more weeks of its own, keeping Elvis at the top of the charts for a record-making 16 weeks.

From the beginning of August until the beginning of December, Elvis Presley was the most popular singer in the United States.
This was the first time any artist had followed him or herself into the Number One spot, and has only happened twice since: The Beatles did it in 1964 and Boys II Men did it in 1994. Michael Jackson came close to doing it in 1983, when "Billie Jean" and "Beat It" had only a one week gap between them.
Unlikely as it may seem today, before Elvis hit his triple hit, there was some concern that he was just another "flash in the pan." Many artists manage to have huge hits that do not pan out into having long careers. Just as an example, the artist who eventually took the Number One spot after Elvis' run was Guy Mitchell, who stayed there for 9-weeks. Can you name the song? Do you even have any idea who Guy Mitchell is? I'm guessing NO. With this particular run of hits, Elvis was cementing his place in musical history. America, especially "adult" America, was realizing that Elvis was here to stay.

It's telling that during these sixteen weeks, Ed Sullivan changed his mind about booking him on his variety show. On September 9, Elvis made the first of his three initial appearances, famously not being filmed below the waist.
 Note that Elvis is given a writing credit,
although he had nothing to do with the song
It is difficult for people nowadays to understand just how important Elvis Presley was during his heyday. My 25-year old daughter, who loves old music, finds Elvis dull. However, if you were to try to re-create the musical atmosphere of 1956, you might get a good feeling of how great Elvis was. He was no doubt in the right place at the right time for an entire generation of Americans. Go ahead and go to youtube or borrow a CD of popular music from 1955 and 1956. Listen to Mitch Miller, the Four Aces, Roger Williams, Kay Star, Dean Martin, the Four Lads, Nelson Riddle, Perry Como, Les Baxter...THEN listen to "Heartbreak Hotel" or "Don't Be Cruel." I'm guessing you'll see just how exciting Elvis was, comparatively speaking!

Ironically, The King died 39 years ago this month. He passed away on August 16, 1977, 21 years exactly after he had his crowning musical achievement.

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