For the past few weeks we here at WMMCM have been wandering through the wilderness of the early days of rock n’ roll, when nobody was quite sure where this new form of music was heading. Was it country? Was it a more aggressive form of rhythm and blues? Was it simple a younger version of popular music? (“Pop” hadn’t really come into regular usage quite yet.) Or was it just a bunch of crazy young people with dubious musical tastes and talents?
The beauty of rock n’ roll from it’s earliest days to now is that the answer to all those questions and more is – yes.
A bit of country, a bit of western swing, some blues and gospel and an adventurous spirit that would take the new music to places never imagined much less planned. Shortly after the beginning of this wild ride another phenomenon would appear. That of the Rock Star.
Much like rock n’ roll itself, the Rock Star wasn’t planned and by the time someone thought about it, it had already happened. The first true Rock Star was already there doing what Rock Stars of the future would all do. Being bigger, more popular and more innovative than anyone else.
Out of all the great Rock Stars from the past – nearly sixty years – of rock n’ roll, there is one that was always different from the rest. He’s been gone for just short of thirty-five years and is still as big a star as he was when he passed on so early in life.
That can only be…
When Sam Phillips and the 21 year old Elvis Presley recorded “Heartbreak Hotel,” there wasn’t anything quite like it. As we here at WMMCM have been going on about for the past few weeks, no one person really invented or started rock n’ roll. The strange and unexpected collisions of different musical styles and singers just kind of happened.
Once the ball got rollin,’ it was Elvis who had the looks. The voice. The personal charm and a presence onstage that had never been experienced before, it now seems only natural that Elvis would be the first real Rock Star.
At the time it never would have occurred to anyone.
When Elvis released his first single “That’s All Right” in 1954 it went nowhere. Over the next two years Elvis and Sun Studio guru Sam Phillips would release another 9 singles – several of which were “re-released” – until the magic formula was found with “Heartbreak Hotel.” Along the way Elvis did enjoy his first number one hit, a country hit no less with Stan Kesler and Charlie Feathers’ “I Forgot to Remember to Forget.”
At this point it looked like if Elvis was going to be a star, he would be a country one. The country music establishment however had a different idea. After a polite but cool reception at Nashville’s Grand Old Opry, Presley’s then manager/producer Sam Phillips was informed that Elvis had a good voice but was not suitable for the venue.
Upon the release of “Heartbreak Hotel,” that all changed. Not because the Opry changed their minds but, because “Heartbreak Hotel” went number one on the Billboard Hot 100, R&B and the country charts. A feat only Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” had managed to accomplish to that time.
But Elvis was different of course. He would spend the next four years having unprecedented success crossing over all three genre’s charts until, in 1960 as he started to fade away as a country act – rarely charting at all and if he did, at a modest position – until he dropped off of country music’s radar entirely until another moderate entry in 1967.
While country had all but forgotten Elvis in the 1960′s, he still had a monumental string of top Hot 100 hits and crossed over further into the supposedly “older” adult contemporary category, having more that a few number one hits over the years. Now the 1960′s is when Elvis was in his “movie star” period, and as such he wasn’t really being given any music that would be terribly appealing to the country music folks so it is a bit understandable that he would fade away from their memory. But all those years in Hollywood also started a slow decline in Presley’s expected pop and rock music sales.
By 1967 after the disastrous movie, Clambake, Elvis was done with being a movie star.
When Elvis stepped back into the Rock Star shoes he had done so much to create, he did it in style. A huge television special on NBC where he was showed he was still young and energetic looked the part of the young rock n’ roll rebel.
It also gave Elvis the momentum to start another long chain of high charting singles and continued his then unprecedented continuous pattern of gold and platinum selling albums. It also gave him his last Hot 100 number one hit.
After the 68′ “Comeback Special” on NBC, another interesting thing would happen to Elvis Presley, the “King of Rock and Roll.” He once again would become a regular voice heard on country music radios, as well as continuing his powerhouse chart topping on the adult contemporary charts.
For the next nine years Elvis would remain one of the highest selling and most popular artists in the world. But who “owns” him?
Elvis is in the unique position of being the biggest and most successful solo rock n’ roll artist of all time. He’s also the biggest and most successful solo country artist of all time. Along the way Elvis recorded his first musical love any chance he could, southern gospel, and I’m pretty sure if you could figure out all the gospel music that “The King” recorded and sold, he would be highly represented in that noble genre as well.
There has never been another artist who filled the musical want’s and needs of so many listeners from such a diverse selection of musical styles while still – always – remaining himself.
Elvis Presley “The King.”