Elvis Talks about Opera, Rock & Roll, and Payola Fifty Years Ago

In May 1960, while he was in Los Angeles filming G.I. Blues, Elvis consented to an interview with New York Times reporter Murray Schumach.  It had been two months since Elvis returned from the army, and a lot had changed in the two years he was gone.

The two men withdrew to Elvis’ small dressing room on the Paramount lot and discussed acting and singing.  Schumach published a lengthy summary of this interview in the Times on May 22, under the title of “Hollywood Civilian:  Elvis Presley Returns to Movie Maneuvers.”

Would it surprise you to learn that Elvis denied he would sacrifice his singing career for acting?  Of course, we all know that’s just what happened – for almost all of the 60s.  In 1960, Elvis could not have foreseen how the next eight years would pan out under the reign of Col. Parker.  If Elvis had been asked if he expected to continue touring and giving live performances, I’ll bet he would have said “Yes.”  But, it turned out that Elvis gave only two concerts in 1961 and no more after that until the movie career ended.

In the exchange with Schumach about his singing career, Elvis said he liked singing too much to let it go.  He also said he liked all kinds of music.  It’s common knowledge that Elvis liked country, and blues, and gospel.  But who would guess that he also appreciated opera?  Elvis offered this anecdote as an example.

“The other night at the Milton Berle show – you know, his night club show – he put on six opera singers.  I flipped my lid.  They had great voices, great arrangements.”  (Note: The Met Sextette is listed below as an act in the revue).

 

Mr. Schumach asked Elvis if he been to any opera while stationed in Germany.  Elvis said he had not, but he regretted it.

“I was just too tired at night to go anywhere.”

Maybe, but it seems like Elvis got to do lots of stuff while he was off-duty.  Probably stuff that was more fun than going to the opera.

            
           

Concerning his own singing, Elvis admitted he couldn’t read music and explained his personal technique for recording songs.

“I just listen to it get played a few times.  No one can tell me how you should do this song or that one.  I work strictly my own way.  If the day ever comes when I listen to anyone else, I’ll get mechanical and I’m dead.”

Apparently, Schumach asked Elvis if he would make any adjustments to his method to fit the current style of music.

“I don’t see why I should change my singing style, right now.  Seems pretty foolish to me.”

Then, Elvis tilted his head up toward the ceiling and squinted at it, before adding:

“Of course, if things change, I’ll change, too.  You have to.  That’s show business.”     

Next, Shumach asked him about the general state of rock & roll music.  Elvis said,

“Rock & roll music is getting better than ever.  The sound engineers are learning about how to handle the stuff.”

I’m surprised that Elvis didn’t go into more detail with his answer, but it’s interesting to note how his involvement in the recording process included an understanding of sound engineering.

Schumach must have asked Elvis about the recent Payola scandal in rock & roll music.  Perhaps many of you readers are not old enough to remember Payola, so a little history lesson is advisable.

In the late 50s, there was a problem with record companies paying some disc jockeys to play their records.  This would result in higher rankings on the charts, which led to additional record sales.  Payola, the word for the scandal, was coined by the press and came from ‘pay” and “Victrola,” a brand of early record player produced by RCA Victor.

The most famous disc jockey caught up in the Payola scandal was Alan Freed, the man generally given credit for coining the term rock and roll. His career and reputation were harmed so greatly that he had difficulty finding work, and he died of alcoholism in 1965 at age 43.

Dick Clark’s early career was nearly derailed by a Payola scandal, but he avoided trouble by selling his stake in a record company and cooperating with authorities.  Some people thought Payola would result in the downfall of rock & roll.  They were wrong.

In response to the Payola question, Elvis said he did not think rock and roll music was dying.  He insisted it was ridiculous to think that Payola to disc jockeys for plugging certain records could be solely responsible for the success of rock and roll.

“It couldn’t have been made popular by Payola only.  Too many Americans love it.”

And we still do today, fifty years later.

 

©  2010    Philip R Arnold, Original Elvis Blogmeister    All Rights Reserved    www.ElvisBlog.net

Elvis, Elvis Presley, and Graceland are registered trademarks of Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc.

 

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