The monotony of life in Middle-America would be unalterably interrupted when folks first heard “Heartbreak Hotel.” That young singing sensation, Elvis Presley, pushed recording stars Nat Cole, Patti Page and Perry Como to the sidelines and everyone was talking about him in church. Who is this guy Elvis? What kind of name is that?
Men laughed, women gossiped and teenagers rage-worshipped. Everyone had an opinion, and everyone watched, and the ‘good’ church folks are always the first to condemn. It seems, whenever there’s change on the horizon, those in the “Jesus know” must operate fast - judge and condemn. Oh my, those fire-breathing evangelists were everywhere. Even our community.
“Take those Elvis records to the dump and burn ‘em – or let’s do it in the church parking lot and make an offering to our Lord and Saviour at the same time," they would insist. Most men scratched their skulls, tapped shoulders and laughed. To them, Elvis was just a silly country boy whose popularity would soon pass, much like that corny Davy Crockett “Alamo” record. Girls fainted while boys greased up.
That sound: a mix of country blues, gospel, and rhythm & blues that poked white folks in different places. Most never bought into the ‘rough-edged’ street blues of black folks with those suggestive lyrics. A white makeover was more comfortable to absorb. It was that fat-back beat that simultaneously rocked and swung, which inspired innovative ways to dance around the beat. You just had to sculpt a sexy move up and down that beat and join in.
Elvis Presley was the chief salesman, sweet-faced, soft-spoken, humble, and thoughtful – a boy every momma would love to nurture and marry off. Some folks couldn’t get past the sex part. You knew everyone was doing it because ‘assembly-line’ babies kept popping out at a rapid pace yet talk of such things attracted morbid guilt. Playboy magazine had been around since 1953 and mostly read by curious men in boardrooms, neighbourhood bars, back of barnyards, men’s washrooms and at frat parties. It seemed everything was falling apart. Morality? There were a few liberal-leaning families in our community where the man of the house proudly displayed the ‘girly’ pages in his man-cave.
Elvis was big talk in our house. Dad couldn’t wrap his head around a seventh-chord but was confident he’d out-flanked Elvis. He knew jazz guitar great Jimmy Raney personally, and there was no way this new music would rival his sacred jazz God. I had no opinion. I was too young and mostly trapped and conditioned by grandma’s spirituals.
Then one day the big announcement, Love Me Tender, Elvis’ film debut was coming to The Grand Theater in New Albany, Indiana. I would never assume stern and dismissive parents would add this to their calendar of ‘must do’ events, but they did. As the curtain drew for the first showing of the film, dad mostly talked nonsense to anyone without earshot. He’d sound off and glance around and make eye contact with other working-class men, in search of affirmation - a laugh or approving nod.
Mom fixated on dad and rarely watched anything other than dad. If dad said – ‘that was awful – she’d respond – “that was awful.” This was the controlled life of women in the ‘50s. Love Me Tender caught fire. Most locals made repeat visits to catch the young man.
September 9, 1956, we witnessed along with millions a television camera amputating Presley at the waist as he ‘jigged and jagged’ on the Ed Sullivan Television Show – guitar bouncing at his side to “Don’t Be Cruel,” as young girls screamed in wonderment.
Black and white film makes every entertainer look credible, and Elvis pulled it off. The title song was so rich and textured, and Elvis himself so sensual. The young and old talked about him for weeks. Record stores couldn’t keep vinyl in stock. Most every teenage girl papered her bedroom with Elvis’s beautiful face while white boys imitated his slick hairstyle, short-legged pants and underwent cosmetic change.
Elvis not only conquered vinyl culture, but he was also now on a mission to claim a significant role in shaping fashion and style. Rock 'n Roll was here to stay! The soggy sounds of yesterday seemed distant over-night. Boys toughened up; girls got all mouthy. Kids began to punk-out in school. James Dean, Brando, rebellion, retaliation, and the next uprising were playing to the same beat.
Meanwhile, the young man who started it all was just a plain old country boy who loved mama and a good song.