From: Winter 1999 Issue
by Phil Arnold
(They Didn’t Need To Wait 44 Years To Name Elvis Artist Of The Century. I Knew it back in 1956)
Elvis is getting well-deserved acclaim as the Artist of The Century. Many words will be written in the media about this crown bestowed on ‘The King’, and most articles will recite the long list of Elvis’ accomplishments. You know the ones: over a hundred top 40 hits, 33 movies, record-breaking Las Vegas gigs and tour performances, and about a gazillion records sold.
This documentation is valuable if there are any folks out there who seriously doubt Elvis is indeed the Artist of The Century. But I don’t need it. I’ve known Elvis deserved the title since June 5, 1956. All it took for me to know was a black-and-white TV with rabbit-ears on top and a tiny 12-inch screen.
I’ve always remembered that my personal Elvis epiphany took place sometime during his first year in the national spotlight, but the details were fuzzy. One clear image was seeing Elvis do “Hound Dog” on television, but I didn’t know what show or when it was on. I also thought I remembered never hearing the song on the radio prior to that night, but I wasn’t sure.
Fortunately, I have lots of reference books and a few videos, so I decided to do some research into my discovery of Elvis. I wanted to see if I could narrow it down to the exact day. Here’s what I found.
My initial contact with Elvis’ music was in late February 1956 when I heard his first RCA recording, “Heartbreak Hotel,” beaming from the radio in my room. I was 13 years old and in the 7th grade, and I listened to music while doing homework. My favorite disc jockey was Joe Niagara on WIBG, 99 AM in Philadelphia. Rock & roll was in its infancy, and I was there right from the start. I loved this exciting new music.
Joe Niagara had never played any of Elvis’ earlier Sun releases, but he played the heck out of “Heartbreak Hotel.” I liked it, but it didn’t become a huge personal favorite. Maybe it was the heavy blues beat. I preferred fast, jump songs like “Tutt-Frutti” by Little Richard. I was just learning to jitterbug, and it was the fast songs that moved me. “Heartbreak Hotel” was not what you would call a ‘good dance song’.
At that time, I had no idea Elvis had already performed on TV. He made a total of six guest appearances on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s half-hour variety series “Stage Show” in early 1956. My mom and dad did not watch this program, so I missed all of them. The reporters must have seen the performances, however, because Elvis was starting to get a lot of press.
I can only assume I had a conflict on April 3, 1956, because I also missed Elvis’ first appearance on “The Milton Berle Show.” This was performed on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier, USS Hancock, and I had no previous recollection of seeing Elvis singing on a ship when I viewed the video of the show years later. As a brand new rock ’n roll fan in mid-1956, I would certainly have wanted to tune in and see this phenomenon in action, but I missed it.
Shortly after this show, Elvis’ second release, “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” started getting radio airplay. I liked it OK but didn’t get excited about it. After all, it was just a ballad, not a rocker.
Elvis’ second appearance with Milton Berle was scheduled for June 5. By this time, Elvis was getting massive coverage in the press, and the hype leading up to the show was unprecedented. As things turned out, it was well-deserved.
A new look at the video of that old Milton Berle broadcast showed me why. Elvis was incredible. He wiggled and swayed and gyrated all over the stage. He had legs of rubber that went nuts when Scotty Moore jammed on the instrumental guitar parts. The whole band was hot, and Elvis was like molten lava pouring from that tiny TV screen.
That had to be it. This was when Elvis got me. His performance of “Hound Dog” on the second Berle show was the defining moment in 1956 I was looking for. Although Elvis sang the song four more times on television that year that year, this was unquestionably his most outstanding performance of it.
My hunch about never previously hearing the song on the radio proved to be right. A check in the research books confirmed Elvis did not record “Hound Dog” until nearly one month later. Apparently, Elvis heard another group perform the song in Las Vegas, and he started doing it on tour, eventually using it as his closing number.
The recording session for “Hound Dog” was scheduled for July 2, one day after Elvis’ only appearance on “The Steve Allen Show.” This was the infamous program where they had Elvis wear a tux and sing “Hound Dog” to a bored-looking basset hound on a stool. That must have been a tough pill for Elvis to swallow, but he performed like a trooper.
When “Hound Dog” was released, it was backed with “Don’t Be Cruel,” another killer song. This became a giant two-sided hit record, with one song or the other occupying the #1 position on the charts for 12 straight weeks. Elvis was now doing the kind of music that pushed my ON button.
About this time, I got my own record-player. It was one of those squatty little things that played 45’s only. It provided sound quality that would be considered lame by today’s standards — mono through a single, small, built-in speaker – but it seemed wonderful at the time. I bought “Hound Dog / Don’t Be Cruel” and played it to death. It quickly became my favorite record.
Thus, I was quite excited to learn Ed Sullivan had signed Elvis to appear on three shows, starting in early September. It is interesting to note that Ed Sullivan had earlier said he would never have Elvis Presley on his TV show, but that changed after Elvis caused a huge rating jump on his Steve Allen appearance, when the show captured 55% of the evening’s viewing audience.
Elvis’ first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” was on Sunday, September 9, 1956. I was really psyched about seeing this show, and I obviously wasn’t alone. Ed Sullivan’s ratings went from 15% of the viewing public on the night Elvis was with Steve Allen in the same time-slot to 82% when Ed had Elvis himself.
Another strange thing happened during Elvis’ appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Ed Sullivan missed it. He was involved in a automobile accident that put him in the hospital for several weeks. His choice for a substitute host certainly had nothing to do with the show’s high-powered guest. It was an old, serious actor, Charles Laughton, who couldn’t have been farther in looks or demeanor from Elvis.
Elvis performed four songs that night. “Love Me Tender” was a natural. He had a movie of the same name coming out soon. “Ready Teddy” was great, a real rocker, and I already had the original Little Richard release in my collection of 45’s. A fresh look at the video shows Elvis twice doing weird things with his eyes. It’s like he was teasing us, looking like he was about to go over the edge, and then coming back. I love watching it now, just as I did back in 1956; but features like pause, rewind, and slo-mo on the VCR sure add a lot to today’s enjoyment.
The other two songs on the first Sullivan show were my two favorites, “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” Elvis showed us all his classic moves and did that cool lip-thing several times while singing. I remember sitting there, transfixed on the TV screen, knowing that a new, powerful force had taken over the universe. Elvis was in orbit, in perfect harmony with the planets and stars.
From then on, nothing was the same for millions of teenagers, including me. Elvis influenced everything: music, clothes, haircuts, attitude. I was now 14 and in the 8th grade. I was changing from a boy to a man, a journey accompanied by Elvis’ music the whole way. Elvis was the most. The best. The ‘King.’
Media writers of that time poured out lines like this one in a New York Times review: “Elvis Presley is currently the entertainment world’s most astonishing figure.” Paul Lichter later wrote: “In the entire history of show business, no entertainer has had such a meteoric rise and such sudden, frantic, widespread adulation . . . as Elvis.”
For those of us who experienced this phenomenon, Elvis was already our Artist of The Century. Everything that happened in the next 44 years just confirmed it.
© 1999 Philip R Arnold