THE TERM “ELVIS FAN” is generally bantered about as if it describes one large group that has been more or less the same for sixty years. There are many generations of fans, from those who fell in love with Elvis the Pelvis in the ’50s, to those who grew up with “the King” through the Jumpsuit Years of the ’70s. Of course, there weren’t fifty generations of Elvis fans—that’s just an allusion! 1
As this article is not an attempt at sociology, it simply identifies five basic generations. These generations are not based on age, but when fans discovered Elvis and became fans.
The point of this article’s recognizing different generations is to acknowledge that the experience of each generation is different, and actually colors their view of the man.
For example, many first and second-generation fans grew up with the birth of rock & roll in the ’50s. They have a different understanding of what the term “rock & roll” means than those from later generations. It is more relaxed: the Crew Cuts and Pat Boone are welcomed, artists that later generations would dismiss as pretenders.
Because of this, they were more tolerant of the stylistic changes that Elvis underwent in the early ’60s in becoming a general pop artist instead of country and blues-based artist.
Despite the groundbreaking, trend-setting, style-making records that came before, and the extraordinary music that came after, if I had to boil Elvis Presley down to one record, it would be RCA Victor 20/47-6604, Hound Dog / Don’t Be Cruel. Released in July 1956, Hound Dog was one of the first rock & roll records to be an international smash, topping charts around the world and selling millions of records!
Fifty generations can’t be wrong
Later generations are often more aware of rock & roll as an artistic expression, and therefore see Presley’s recordings in a different, more critical light. While this makes many of them somewhat condescending towards that same early ’60s fluff, it also makes them appreciative of the best ’50s and ’60s music in a manner that often escapes older fans.
While Pfc. Presley was in Germany, many first and second-generation fans entered college or the military or the job force or marriage. They left rock & roll behind.
How many fans did Elvis have? How long did these fans stick around? Will there be new Elvis fans in the future?
They didn’t pay attention to Elvis as much of his music quickly degenerated from the energetic rock & roll of I Beg Of You (1957) and A Big Hunk O’ Love (1958) to the ersatz rock & roll of I Slipped, I Stumbled, I Fell (1960) and Steppin’ Out Of Line (1961)—and this latter song could be argued to be Presley’s theme song from 1961 on.
On the other hand, the third generation of fans such as myself grew up hearing those songs along with That’s All Right and All Shook Up and It’s Now Or Never as part of a whole—the whole that was Elvis Presley in the mid-’60s.
The divisions below are based on chronology and events; as I said, there is no attempt at sociology. I’m just stating what appears to me to be obvious.
In the US, it was the B-side that was the bigger hit: Don’t Be Cruel spent eleven weeks at #1 on Billboard’s Top 100, with Hound Dog peaking only reaching #2. But on the Cash Box chart, Hound Dog was #1 for four weeks, immediately followed by Don’t Be Cruel at #1 for six weeks. Note that while most modern collectors prefer the 45, the 78 rpm single of this number is far rarer, especially in NM condition. 2
What is a fan anyway?
That’s a tough one! Does someone have to buy the records of a recording artist to be a fan of that artist? Does someone have to pay to see the movies of a movie star to be a fan of that star? Does someone have to purchase tickets to a baseball game to be a fan of a baseball player? The answer to each question is “No,” but these folks would be a very different kind of fan than one who buys records and movie and game tickets!
“How many fans were there?” I ask this question of each generation. Since it’s impossible to know how many fans Elvis actually had at any time, I used known record sales in the US as a barometer of sorts. This barometer is by no means definitive: many, many more people who didn’t buy records considered themselves fans.
“Did they stick around?” I ask this question of each generation. my answers are just guesses based on observation and interaction with Elvis fans and record collectors over the past fifty years.
The first generation
First-generation fans discovered Elvis in 1954-1955 when he was a regional phenomenon on Sun Records He was known almost exclusively in the South and Southwest, where people heard his records on country radio stations, heard live broadcasts on the Louisiana Hayride, and saw him at small events, often opening for established country stars.
The likelihood that people above the Mason-Dixon line would have been aware of Presley until late 1955 is slim: rock & roll music was played sparingly on the radio and Presley didn’t tour much outside the South. Of course, anyone in the world who could tune in the Louisiana Hayride broadcasts could have become aware of Elvis and become a fan.
Each generation of fans had different experiences being an Elvis fan depending on what music he was recording and what movies he was making.
These were the fans who experienced the raw, “natural” Elvis of That’s All Right and Good Rocking Tonight. They were unprepared for the changes—rather dramatic changes—when he went from Sun Records to RCA Victor. It’s difficult to imagine any person who bought the first five Elvis Sun singles being prepared for Heartbreak Hotel and I Was The One as his first Victor sides!
Chronologically, most first generation fans would have been born before 1945, meaning they were at least 9-10 years old in 1955. While I assume that most people don’t become fans of anything until they are several years older, 10 is the age I am using here for the sake of the precocious among us. 3
How many fans were there?
Since there are no reliable estimates for the sales of the five Sun singles, it’s impossible to say. Elvis could have made thousands of fans in these two years.
Did they stick around?
Country music fans have a long tradition of picking out faves and sticking with them through thick and thin—provided they remain country music artists. Elvis did not. As Elvis’s music got farther from its country roots and he became a pop star, many would have felt abandoned by him and subsequently abandoned him in time.
The second generation
These were the people who initially became fans due to hearing Heartbreak Hotel and Blue Suede Shoes and Hound Dog and Don’t Be Cruel on the radio, then putting nickels in the jukebox to hear them at soda shops, then scrounging up the 89¢ to actually buy the records. They bought the EPs and stuck the jackets on their bedroom walls and played the records on their plastic record-players.
These were the people who watched Presley on television shows hosted by the Dorsey Brothers, Milton Berle, Steve Allen Show, and Ed Sullivan. Then they stood in line to see Love Me Tender. They were mostly American fans.
Second-generation Elvis fans didn’t have to grow up doin’ the clam or gettin’ into double trouble while spinning out with a kissin’ cousin.
Due to such obstacles as broadcasting restrictions (Europe and Asia were recovering from World War II) and cultural restrictions (white folk in the States weren’t the only people that saw rock & roll as degenerative “jungle-bunny” music), Elvis and rock & roll music weren’t played in many countries.
Consequently, Elvis did not pick up a lot of fans outside the US and Canada, except for the UK. (Elvis didn’t have a number one record in England until All Shook Up topped the weekly surveys in the middle of 1957.)
How many fans were there?
In 1956-1957, a new Elvis single sold 2,500,000 copies in the US. By 1958-1959, it was 1,500,000. So it is safe to say that there were approximately 1,500,000 to 2,000,000 steadfast Elvis fans in the US in the ’50s.
Did they stick around?
I assume it is safe to assume that this was his biggest group of fans. It is safe to assume that some of them stayed with him through it all—which could mean hundreds of thousands of loyal fans.
The third generation
During the 1960s, many factors played into the growth of American pop and rock & roll music in general and Elvis Presley in particular. These included but were not limited to:
• Countries that had been hit hard by World War II were beginning to flex their economic muscles again.
• The spurt in births that historically follow all wars (the “baby boom”) produced millions of new, young consumers.
• America was at the height of its popularity abroad and American culture was welcomed around the world.
• Rock & roll made inroads into countries that had not played it on their radio stations in the ’50s.
Third-generation Elvis fans like me saw the ’50s movies at Saturday matinees and bought the old 45s and LPs at second-hand shops.
• The music that Elvis made included a greater pop element, giving it broader appeal. His new-found vocal prowess and his fascination with European melodies produced a number of records (It’s Now Or Never and Surrender are the most obvious examples) that greatly expanded his fan-base on the Continent. 4
• Presley made three ‘family oriented’ movies a year, and while their relative merits as film may be questioned, their effect in spreading his appeal should not be underestimated—at least for the first few years of the decade. 5
How many fans were there?
Whereas his singles sold millions in 1960-1961, they were only selling a few hundred thousand by 1967, and diminishing quickly.
Did they stick around?
I would assume that many of the American fans that were buying the 200,000-300,000 singles and albums in 1967-1968 were a combination of first and second-generation fans and those from the early part of the third generation.
The ’60s was a strange time to be an Elvis fan: he changed several times and, because there was no such thing as a celebrity press and not even a rock press until 1967, keeping up with anything about him that wasn’t authorized publicity was almost impossible.
I would assume that Elvis kept some of his first and second-generation fans and made lots of new fans in the early ’60s. As his music and movies became less exciting as the years went by, he was abandoned by members of all three generations. Personally, I don’t remember any other diehard Elvis fans in my high school during the last years of the ’60s. 6
The fourth generation
It is difficult to understate how important the 24-month period of June 1968 through June 1970 was to Presley’s career. The show that was taped in june was broadcast on NBC-TV as Elvis in December 1968 and was a huge boost to his career: the show received a large audience share with favorable reviews, while the single and album from the show were million-sellers.
The January and February ’69 session in American Sound Studio in Memphis gave Elvis a contemporary sound and much-needed hits in In The Ghetto and Suspicious Minds. The album FROM ELVIS IN MEMPHIS made him an artist to be taken seriously again, which the rock press (Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy magazines) did.
Fourth-generation fans followed Elvis from the glory of Suspicious Minds to the mediocrity of Rags To Riches in two short years.
His appearance at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in July and August ’69 and February ’70 were seen by tens of thousands, turning many casual attendees into immediate fans—including countless previously jaded critics who were wowed by his show.
In June ’70 he returned to Studio B in Nashville 1969-1970 and recorded the material that made up two more superb albums, THAT’S THE WAY IT IS and ELVIS COUNTRY.
Then it was more or less over: he would never again have such a burst of ambition, enthusiasm, humor, and creativity again. From 1971, he spent as much time disappointing his old fans as he did making new ones.
How many fans were there?
In 1969, the average sales of new singles in the US were about 1,500,000 each. By 1970, it was 750,000, and by ’71, it was 400,000. It was hit or miss from then on.
Did they stick around?
I would assume that most of the new fans that Elvis made during this time knew the ups and downs of Presley’s career. So anyone coming aboard at this time probably stuck around.
After those two years of a re-energized and re-committed artist, things slipped rapidly and steadily. The documentary films That’s The Way It Is (1970) and Elvis On Stage (1972) probably made a few fans among the few who saw them in theaters. The televised concert Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite (1973) also picked up some newbies among the millions of viewers around the world.
But after that, it was mostly downhill: hit records were sporadic while the new albums seemed like an endless variation on the “something for everybody” theme. His live shows took the place that the movies of the ’60s had occupied: regular, predictable, and often lifeless.
There was only One Big Thing left for the man to do to make new fans.
The fifth generation
The birth of the fifth and final generation of fans was kickstarted on August 16, 1977, when Elvis Presley did that One Big Thing: he died unexpectedly at the young age of 42. Absolutely no one was prepared for the outpouring of shock and grief that followed in almost every country in the world. This was especially true of his ever cynical manager and his ever unappreciative and un-understanding handlers at RCA.
Not only did the loss of Elvis make new fans, but many older fans—including first and second-generation fans who hadn’t paid attention to him in years—discovered that he had mattered. A lot.
How many fans were there?
For several years following Elvis’s death, he was arguably the most “popular” person on the planet. Then came the Dark Period, to some degree provoked by Albert Goldman’s weird (in what it told us about Goldman), perverse (in what it told us about Goldman), and often offensive (in what it told us about Goldman) biography published in 1981.
The Dark Period lasted through the ’80s but was effectively ended with two big and unexpected bumps:
1. In 1992, the release of the KING OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL boxed set of the complete studio masters of the ’50s focused attention on his many extraordinary achievements between 1954 and 1958.
2. This was followed in 1993 by FROM NASHVILLE TO MEMPHIS, which placed Presley’s studio work on the ’60s in a respectable light for the first time. Both boxes and other notable compilations were assembled by Ernst Jørgensen.
3. In 2002, the ‘new’ version of A Little Less Conversation—remixed for modern dancers by JXL (Tom Holkenborg)—was a huge hit in Europe when used in a television advertisement for Nike shoes. Subsequently released as a single, it topped the charts in fourteen countries—although it failed to even make the Top 40 in the US.
4. It was followed in 2002 by the compilation album 30 #1 HITS, which sold millions all over the world!
The overall picture has been generally positive since then.
The restoration of Elvis was due to the efforts of Ernst Jørgensen and Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL and JXL).
Did they stick around?
It’s almost impossible to use sales of posthumous Elvis albums as any kind of barometer of popularity. The numbers vary considerably from title to title: reasonably well-conceived compilations sold in the tens of thousands while the redundant live disc AN AFTERNOON IN THE GARDEN is approaching Gold Record status.
Finally, books have been written about the various phenomena of the posthumous popularity of Elvis—including one detailing him visiting reasonably normal people after his death and not written as a joke! Another book can be written about the ups and downs of the posthumous fan phenomenon. 7
FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page is also the photo at the top of the page of the official Elvis Presley website devoted to the fans. It is accompanied by a caption quoting the very young Presley about the sometimes aggressive behavior of those fans: “The fans want my shirt? They can have my shirt—they put it on my back!”
POSTSCRIPTUALLY, the reputation of Elvis Presley has survived so many incredibly stupid decisions of his own, his manager, and his record company that even remembering his tell-all bodyguards, the crass biographers, and those weekly tabloids that we see at every checkout stand in the country seems petty and pointless.
The reputation of Elvis Presley has even survived the knowledge of Presley’s slow self-destruction of his own youth, beauty, vitality, and talent through drug abuse.
Apparently, the reputation of Elvis Presley will survive the passage of time, but with fewer and fewer fans to appreciate it along the way.
Short of an actual resurrection from the dead, performing a few miracles, and then the first body and soul assumption into Heaven in 2,000 years, there’s little that can happen to unexpectedly boost his appeal in any meaningful manner to a new generation of fans.
Just as fewer people read James Fenimore Cooper and Mark Twain and James Clavell with each new generation, so do fewer people listen to Igor Stravinsky and Duke Ellington and Elvis Presley.
1 It’s an allusion to the 1959 album ELVIS’ GOLD RECORDS, VOLUME 2, which was famously sub-titled “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.” But you already knew that, didn’t you?
2 In 1957, RCA Victor announced that of the millions of singles that Presley sold in 1956, approximately 10% were 78 rpm records. This would mean for every copy of 20-6604, there were about ten copies of 47-6604. And, as 78s wear out faster, a NM copy of 20-6604 is nigh on impossible to find sixty years later. Finally, by 1958, most major American record companies were phasing 78s out of their catalog of new releases.
3 A person born in 1945 could have discovered a love for Elvis following his death in 1977, or while viewing a movie such as Finding Graceland on Netflix last week!
4 There were other instances: the German folk song basis for Wooden Heart made it a huge European hit in 1961. The faux Italian-isms of No More made it a big hit in Italy in 1961. Supposedly, several tracks were pulled from the FUN IN ACAPULCO album in 1963 and issued as singles in South America, where they were hits that we have never heard of!
5 In the early to mid-1960s, Presley’s movies were also very popular when shown on television, as part of the matinees that kept kids out of their parents’ hair for a few hours every Saturday, and as part of drive-in double-features.
6 I remember Bill Kerstetter being a fan for a while. (Hey, Bill! Long time, no see.)
7 The book is Elvis After Life: Unusual Psychic Experiences Surrounding The Death Of A Superstar by Raymond Moody. Dr. Moody is the leading authority on the near-death experience—a term he coined in the 1970s. He is best known for his ground-breaking work on the near-death experience and what happens when we die. The New York Times called Moody the Father of the Near-Death Experience.