Earlier this year the Discovery Channel cable network presented their list of the 100 Greatest Americans as determined by their viewers’ votes. To the surprise of many, Ronald Reagan came in first, just ahead of two other rather significant presidents, George Washington and Abe Lincoln. Perhaps some folks might have been equally surprised to see Elvis ranked Number 8, but not us fans.
Inspired by the Discovery Channel list, I dug through some boxes in storage and found the 1994 issue of Life magazine containing their choices for the “100 Most Important Americans of The 20th Century”. Without any 18th or 19th century notables, the list looked much different, but there were no specific rankings. Of course, Elvis was included. In the eyes of the Life editors, Elvis was right up there with such notables as Albert Einstein, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walt Disney, Martin Luther King Jr., and Douglas MacArthur. That’s some pretty select company.
Each person honored had a page devoted to him/her, containing a picture, a 200-word review of their accomplishments, and a short subtitle at the top of the page. Many of these capsule subtitles bordered on corny. Elvis’ was pretty good: “The King Of Rock And Roll Led A Teenage Rebellion.” But other entertainers on the list didn’t fare so well: Bing Crosby (The Crooner Who Begat Easy Listening), Bob Dylan (Electric Minstrel Of Times That Were A-Changing), and Louis Armstrong (With Mr. Jazz The First Truly American Music Came Marching In).
Unfortunately, reading about these 100 most important Americans made me feel a little stupid. There were 28 people I had never heard of, but maybe I’m not alone. Do you know these names? Robert de Graff (invented paperback books for Pocket Books, Inc), James D. Watson (DNA Code), Frank MacNamara (father of the credit card), John Von Neumann (early computer innovator).
All of the men and women selected were pioneers in their fields and brought significant changes to American life, but so did one other man I would like to suggest — Sam Phillips – and my subtitle would be “The Man Who Discovered Elvis And Changed American Popular Music Forever.”
© 2005 Philip R Arnold