IN A RECENT ARTICLE, I broke Elvis fandom down into several distinct groups, or generations. In response, John Ross (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.
Aside from addressing John’s 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 knew the Hillbilly Cat during 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.
Country music fans were divided about Elvis before he left Sun and remained so when he got to RCA.
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, John deemed my observations a strong analysis but wanted to push back on two points. Below find his three arguments (in italicized type), followed by my rejoinders.
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.
Country fans always divided
JR: “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.
JR: “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 JR and me. 3
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
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
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
JR: “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.
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.
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
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 . . .