Elvis NDJ 1500 colorized

country music fans were always divided on elvis

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.

 

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

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

 

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

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.

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

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 …

 

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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!

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

My nephew and daughter had little time for Elvis in the ’90s and I told them that when they were 30 or so they would dis­cover his music and ap­pre­ciate why I was a life­long fan.

Sure enough, they are now both in their 30s and while not fans as such they do like a lot of his music, ranging from the ’50s to the ’70s.

Per­son­ally, I never un­der­stood why many did not like his ’60s and ’70s output (per­haps other than most of the sound­tracks) as there are hun­dreds of great tracks.

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