Elvis Fans header 1500 crop

fifty generations of elvis fans can’t be wrong

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.

 

Fifty Generations Of Elvis Fans: photo of 78 rpm single of HOUND DOG.

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.

 

Fifty Generations Of Elvis Fans: photo of 78 rpm single of DON'T BE CRUEL.

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.

 

Fifty Generations Of Elvis Fans: photo of Elvis in 1955.

1954-1955

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.

 

Fifty Generations Of Elvis Fans: photo of Elvis from LOVING YOU movie in 1957.

1956-1959

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.

 

Fifty Generations Of Elvis Fans: photo of Elvis from TICKLE ME movie in 1965.

1960-1968

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

 

Fifty Generations Of Elvis Fans: photo of Elvis on stage in Las Vegas in 1969.

1969-1977

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.

 

Fifty Generations Of Elvis Fans: photo of Elvis on stage in the 1970s.

1977-2017

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

There are gen­er­a­tions of fans who loved Elvis the Pelvis in the ’50s and the King in the ’70s. Click To Tweet

 Elvis Fans header 1000

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.

 


FOOTNOTES:

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.

 

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Great post and info on ‘The King’! TYVM The very last pic shown…of Elvis with fans, also have plac­ards be­hind him that read ‘Elvis For Pres­i­dent’! Just have to men­tion that in last year’s US Pres­i­den­tial Elec­tion, I wore a button that read ‘Elvis For President’…can at­test to the fact that there were many kind com­ments and smiles ga­lore! TCB! Elvis! Clemen­tine

A strong analysis as usual. I’d only push back on two points:

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 (in­cluding Elvis, Brenda Lee, The Everlys and Roy Or­bison, all huge stars who were ac­tu­ally recording Nashville) in the late fifties/early sixties--a de facto ban that’s never truly been lifted. 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.

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. I don’t re­member a single guy caring. So I’m won­dering if, in the six­ties, in your northern high school, you were asking the girls what they thought about Elvis?

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