country music fans were always divided on elvis

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IN A RECENT ARTICLE, I broke Elvis fandom down into several distinct groups, or generations. In response, Nondisposablejohnny (the enigmatic overseer of The Round Place In The Middle website) posted a pair of observations in the Comment Section. I started to answer his points in that section, but realized that I had a bit to say on the subjects. Always divided between immediacy and exposition, I opted for the latter and here we are.

Country music fans were divided on Elvis before he left Sun and remained so when he got to RCA.

Aside from addressing Nondisposablejohnny’s (NDJ) points, I get to ramble on about related and even peripheral issues. In “Fifty Generations Of Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong,” I noted that the term “Elvis fan” has been bantered about as if it describes one large group that has been more or less the same for sixty years.

There are, of course, several generations of Elvis fans, from those who fell knew the Hillbilly Cat of his pre-fame days, to those who fell in love with Elvis the Pelvis in the ’50s, to those who grew up with The King in the ’70s.

For the sake of simplicity, I divided those fans into five basic generations in an attempt to point out that the experiences of each generation are different, and those experiences actually color their view of Elvis Presley.

In his comment, Nondisposablejohnny (NDJ) deemed my observations a strong analysis, but wanted to push back on two points. Below find John’s three arguments (in italicized type), followed by my rejoinders.


Always Divided: photo of Elvis in Midland, Texas, in 1955.

The young Elvis was a country & western singer and because he was making rock & roll music, he was a divisive figure in the Southern country scene. Here he is at a stop in Midland, Texas, on October 12, 1955, by which time he could afford to tour in a Cadillac. Texas was pivotal in Elvis’ early success: in 1954-1955, he played 56 gigs there.

Texas was pivotal to Elvis' early success: in 1954-1955, he played 56 gigs there! Click To Tweet

Country fans always divided

NDJ:By such anecdotal evidence as we have, country music fans were divided on Elvis before he left Sun and remained so when he got to RCA. He still topped the country charts regularly until Nashville dropped the lid on all pop artists in the late ’50s and early ’60s—a de facto ban that’s never truly been lifted.”

NU: Both of Johnny’s points are true, especially about the ban on rock & roll artists: in 1956-1958, fourteen Elvis singles made the Top 10 hit on Billboard’s country survey. Hard Headed Woman was the last in 1958. His next top-tenner was There Goes My Everything / I Really Don’t Want To Know in 1971. But that’s not really a part of my original article.


Always Divided: front cover of the ELVIS AND JIMMY magazine from 1956.

From 1954 through the end of the ’60s, Elvis was given the cover of very few magazines that were not fan or exploitational publications, such as Elvis And Jimmy from 1956. There were dozens of such titles in the ’50s and early ’60s, few of which provided any important information about the man o his career.

About those ’50s fans

NDJ:I don’t think Elvis lost too many fans between Mystery Train and Heartbreak Hotel. Starting in 1958, they might have had to listen to him on different radio stations.”

NU: We can never know for certain as there are no numbers, polls, etc., but we can speculate and assume. When Presley moved from Sun to RCA Victor in 1955, it was only newsworthy in the country music field, and even then received very little attention outside of the industry trade journals.

RCA signed a country singer with pop potential—they were not welcoming their first rock & roll artist, as rock & roll was almost non-existent in 1955. The clarion call of Rock Around The Clock was only a few months old at the time Mr Presley signed his new contract. 1


The rock press of the late ’60s never devoted much attention to rock & roll music recorded before the British Invasion anyway.


The music that Elvis made in his first sessions with RCA sounded almost nothing like the music familiar to the fans he made in 1954-1955. I assume that he lost some fans with the transition from That’s All Right and Baby Let’s Play House to Heartbreak Hotel and I Want You, I Need You, I Love You. 2

There was an alternative universe of difference between the Hillbilly Cat of 1955 and Elvis the Pelvis of 1956! How many fans turned away will never be known, and as he gained so many new fans in the wake of those hits, it hardly matters except as grist for conversation to guys like NDJ and me. 3


Always Divided: poster from June 1956 naming Elvis the Nation's Only Atomic Powered Singer.

On June 5, 1956, Elvis appeared on Milton Berle’s television variety show. It remains one of the high points of his career: he performed an animated version of Hound Dog that may have been the inspiration for the catchy nickname that followed him for years, Elvis the Pelvis. This poster was prepared in advance of the show’s broadcast and deems Elvis the “Nation’s Only Atomic Powered Singer.”

There was no rock press for years

I grew up in the ’60s, when there was little in the way of intelligent conversation about rock & roll music, aside from what we ‘serious’ rock fans carried on among ourselves and in a handful of fanzines. There was no ‘rock press’ in the US for the first 10-12 years of rock & roll’s existence.

There were a few ‘zines but on the newsstand all we had were several teenybopper publications aimed at 12-year-old girls. Interviews in Tiger Beat, 16, and even Hit Parader tended to focus on cute singers and who they preferred to date.

The first rock magazine with a wide circulation was Crawdaddy, and it didn’t reach newsstands until late 1966. Rolling Stone followed almost a year later, but it didn’t become a big deal until it branched out of rock music and the counterculture and headed towards the mainstream in the early ’70s. And neither Crawdaddy nor Rolling Stone nor the magazines that followed ever devoted much attention to music recorded before the British Invasion anyway. 4


Always Divided: front cover of the Juy 12, 1969, issue of ROLLING STONE magazine with photo of Elvis from the 1968 NBC-TV special.

Mainstream regulars like Life, Look, and The Saturday Evening Post did not grace their covers with his photo, and Time and Newsweek were more concerned with serious; news. Which is why the July 12, 1969, issue of Rolling Stone is rather important: it was the first magazine with Elvis on the cover that wasn’t intended just for the girls.

Hope I die before I get old

I recall older writers (in Rolling Stone and in the books that were published beginning in the late ’60s) remarking about the sanctity and purity of Sun recordings and the perceived decline and corruption that followed at RCA Victor. There was a strain of fan then that believed that had Elvis died after his last session with Sam Phillips (November 1955) and prior to his first session with Steve Sholes (January 1956), the Sun sides would be held in the same level of near-religious accord that is reserved for Robert Johnson’s recordings of 1936-1937.


“When Elvis died, pretty much every white girl in my high school cried, but I don’t remember a single guy caring.”


That’s an interesting perspective and one that actually made sense during the mid ’60s, when Elvis was making movies like Harum Scarum and Clambake releasing singles like Do The Clam and Spinout. The level of contempt in which Presley was held by the younger fans of the ‘new rock’ music is mostly forgotten, wiped away by his resurrection of 1968-1969. 5

To give you an idea of the type of thinking that was prevalent among older writers then, Ed Ward (a good writer) reviewed 50 WORLDWIDE GOLD AWARD HITS VOLUME 1 in Rolling Stone and said something along the lines of feeling sorry for anyone who heard In The Ghetto before having heard Blue Suede Shoes.

Even Peter Guralnick, author of the must-read Elvis biographies Last Train To Memphis and Careless Love, started out a Sun-only guy who came around to the rest of ’50s material years later. But he didn’t become a fan of the ’60s studio stuff until researching his aforementioned biographies—in the 1990s! 6


Always Divided: photo of Elvis from the 1968 movie CHARRO.

By the time that Elvis started catching up with the mood and look of the ’60s, few people—male or female—under the age of 30 cared. In 1968’s Charro, he ended up with a lackluster ‘spaghetti western’ imitation where he looked and acted like—or tried to act like—a Clint Eastwood wannabe. When he returned to live performing in ’69, his audience preceded the Pepsi Generation. (While it was known that many women over 25 found The Man With No Name rather sexy, I have never seen a poll showing his status among women under 20 years of age.)

About those ’60s girls

NDJ: And I’m not sure how this fits the overall narrative, but I think some perspectives are bound to be skewed by region and gender. When Elvis died in 1977, pretty much every white girl in my Southern high school cried [but] I don’t remember a single guy caring. So I’m wondering if, in the ’60s, in your Northern high school, you were asking the girls what they thought about Elvis?”

NU: My answer would have to be a qualified ‘No.’ Qualified because it never dawned on me to ask any of them. Honest to Wholly Grommett, I did not know a single girl in the ’60s who had any real interest in rock & roll. They bought the hits on 45 and probably accounted for 90% of the readership of 16 and TIGER BEAT.


Always Divided: candid photo of Elvis from 1956.

FEATURED IMAGE: In 1956, Elvis Presley was the King of the Whole Wide World! During that year, he sold more than 12,000,000 singles, more than 3,000,000 EP albums, and more than 1,000,000 LP albums. This and the take from the hugely successful Love Me Tender movie provided the bulk of his $280,000 income for the year—a princely sum for the time.


Elvis_ATOG_image

Postscriptually, if there were any 16 or 17-year-old girls in the last few years of the ’60s who preferred Elvis to Paul or Herman or Davey, I certainly never met one! 7



FOOTNOTES:

1   On November 20, 1955, the day that Elvis signed a 3-year contract with RCA Victor, there were a grand total of four records that could be considered genuine rock & roll in the Cash Box Top 50! Bill Haley and his Comets had three of them: Burn That Candle was #22, Rock-A-Beatin‘ Boogie was #26, and Rock Around The Clock was at #49 after spending 31 weeks on that survey.

Pat Boone was part of the other two hits: his version of At My Front Door shared the #9 spot with the El Dorados, while his cover of Ain’t That A Shame was #34 along with Fats Domino’s original version. That was pretty much it for rock & roll in late 1955.

2   Again, outside of notices in Billboard and Cash Box and Southern newspapers, there was almost no mention of Elvis Presley in the mainstream media as it existed in the early ’50s. But due to the proliferation of pop music weeklies in England, we know that the Beatles lost fans for dumping Pete Best in 1962.

We know that the Fab Four lost fans due to Beatlejohn’s statements about their popularity versus that of Jesus Christ in 1966. We know that they lost fans with their move from “simple” rock & roll music to a more complicated, studio-based music in 1966-1967.

In fact, a portion of the immediate and massive success of the Monkees in late ’66 was attributed to their filling a void when the lovable, approachable Mop Tops morphed into those brainy, sequestered types on REVOLVER.

3   A universe no doubt filled with alternative facts, some of which have been uncovered by contemporary American “conservatives.”

4   The first six issues of Crawdaddy were published as a fanzine from Paul Williams’s apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. With #7, it became a newsstand publication, although with very limited distribution—meaning it was very difficult to find outside of the East Coast. The issue was cover dated January 1967, so it was probably in circulation in November ’66.

5   Said resurrection occurred on the NBC-TV special, at Chips Moman’s American Sound Studio, and at the International Hotel in las Vegas.

6   At least that is what he told me in a conversation we had at the Elliot Bay Book Store in Seattle when he was promoting Careless Love. It was while researching his books that he finally “discovered” how fine many ’60s sides were and was still grappling. In 1999, he was still trying to come to terms with the ’70s material.

7   I always think of the punk movement of the late ’70s and early ’80s with an ounce of kindness because it got girls not only into music and bands, but into records and record collecting . . .


Always Divided: front cover of the November 30-December 6, 1968, issue of TV GUIDE with Ann-Margret.

At the time of the Elvis NBC-TV special, TV Guide devoted that week’s issue (November 30-December 6) to Ann-Margret! Her first-ever television special was scheduled for December 11, a week after the Elvis event. Why, you might ask, didn’t TV Guide give Elvis the cover? Because Elvis was more or less a has-been and his show really wasn’t expected to be that big of a hit in 1968 . . .

For the week of Elvis' historic TV show in 1968, TV Guide gave the cover to Ann-Margret! Click To Tweet




4 thoughts on “country music fans were always divided on elvis

  1. First of all I’m really glad you were able to read my comment…I thought it had gone into oblivion after I posted it and I didn’t have the oomph to reconstruct it!

    Second of all, being called enigmatic brings a smile and a memory of a lovely young lady I knew in college (circa 1980) who looked me squarely in the eyes and said “I can never tell when you’re serious and when you’re joking.” I guess I should have known then that I would never be married!

    To the main point: Good further analysis, especially of the development of rock criticism and I probably should have just said in my original post that the “divide” between Sun Elvis and early RCA Elvis was a critics’ reconstruction from a later time. Even Greil Marcus has admitted he never heard the Sun Records in their own time and I imagine Peter Guralnick could say the same.

    I’d only add that:

    On your point about not knowing “a single girl in the ’60s who had any real interest in rock & roll,” except for buying the “hits” (i.e. doing the main thing that, in addition to calling radio shows–another thing girls do a lot–made them hits) and reading the only available magazines.

    I’d say that excluding those activities represents a pretty narrow definition of “real” interest.

    For the record, the only sixteen-year-old girl I know well enough these days to have any clue about her interest in such things (well, I know her mother that well anyway) is a HUGE Elvis fan. Who knows how usual or unusual that is. Maybe by the time she’s thirty, we’ll have a sixth category of Elvis fans!

    1. NDJ

      I am certainly not saying nor implying that there weren’t any girls in my high school who weren’t interested in rock & roll—just that if there were, they certainly didn’t broadcast it to others.

      There were only a few guys I knew who were ‘serious’ about their rock music—the obsession with music hadn’t really hit in general. Oh, there were the greasers who still dug the oldies, but most kids just bought the hits and forgot about them a year later.

      In 1969, I bought the GOD SAVE THE KINKS ‘loss leader’ box from Warner/Reprise and proudly wore my “God Save The Kinks” button on my jacket. I met a few fellow Kinks fans (of which there were very, very few in the late ’60s) and record collector types in general that way. But I never saw anyone else with a button like that.

      Excepting the “We Love You Beatles” buttons from 1964, the button phenomenon hadn’t happened yet.

      Nor had the tee-shirt-with-writing-on-it thing happened.

      Yada yoda blah blah.

      EDN

      PS: Until the ’80s, it was VERY unusual to see a chick at a record collectors swap/convention actually scrounging for records. The ones that were there were usually dragged along by their boyfriends.

      1. My experience conflates with yours pretty closely. I noticed the same uptick in female participation in record collecting the eighties and nineties (I didn’t have your experience with the sixties and seventies but I’d heard stories!). Circa 1998 or so, one guy at an I-95 flea market who had a nice selection of vinyl even told me he was sure vinyl would never die because “the college girls are in here every weekend!” Of course, once girls of every age and education level stopped buying current hits, reading fan mags, and calling radio stations, the music industry died on the vine and is now just another branch of tech-world. There’s a price to pay when the little girls no longer understand and the men still don’t know (to paraphrase one of the Major Prophets, Blues Division).

        I got a story that relates pretty directly to your Kinks button experience too, but I think I’m gonna save that for a late night dedication on my own site. Probably this very night. Stay tuned!

        NJ

        1. NDJ

          Years ago, I started writing a book about record collecting—like a Dummies guide before the Dummies books—and I had a chapter titled “How to Meet Girls at a Record Convention.” That chapter had one page with two words: “You don’t.”

          EDN

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