From: 24th Anniversary Issue, August, 2001
by Phil Arnold
In the 24 years since his passing, Elvis has been immortalized by almost every element of the media. His continuing popularity is lauded, and his substantial lifetime achievements are extolled by almost all writers and pundits of the entertainment world . . . with the exception of those associated with cable network VH1, it would seem.
VH1 has cleverly devised a way to fill many hours of air time. They have panels of so-called experts create lists of the 100 best this-or-that. Then they take a week to reveal each complete list, filling 15 hours of TV time in the process. Hosts like Kevin Bacon and Jeff Bridges offer commentary, and the program shows short film clips covering each entry.
Typically, they countdown from #100 to 81 on a Monday from 10 to 11PM. On Tuesday they repeat these at 9PM, and at 10PM they show #80 to 61. By Friday, the countdown starts at 6PM with #100 and finishes up at 11PM with # 1. Of course, they repeat the whole process many more times over the ensuing weeks and months and years.
Here are the most notable top 100 lists VH1 has already unveiled: “Greatest Artists of Rock ‘N Roll,” “Greatest Albums of Rock ‘N Roll,” “Greatest Songs of Rock ‘N Roll,” and “Greatest Rock ‘N Roll Moments on TV”. Serious fans and students of Elvis have reason to beef about how VH1 treated The King on all four lists. Let’s take a closer look.
The most recent of the lists was “The 100 Greatest Albums of Rock ’N Roll.” How many Elvis albums made it? One! Just one, from the artist who merely had nine #1 albums in his career. By comparison, the Beatles had five on the list, and they were all in the top eleven. The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan had four each. These are great talents, and probably deserve such recognition. But only one Elvis album? Come on VH1. Get real.
Let’s give them credit for the one selection they did make. It is The Sun Sessions, an absolute must for the music collection of any serious Elvis fan. Although he recorded the songs in 1954 and 1955, RCA did not release them on an LP until 1976. On January 8, 1999, the CD version was released, featuring a different cover and some of those now nearly requisite out-takes.
The Sun Sessions contains all ten songs released on Elvis’ original Sun singles, plus the other six songs recorded at the same sessions. Those six went over to RCA when they bought Elvis’ contract, and five of them appeared on his first RCA album. If any album could be called a time-capsule, The Sun Sessions is it, and we should commend VH1 for placing it number 21 on the list.
However, there can be no excuse for their omitting Elvis’ first album, simply titled Elvis Presley. RCA released it in 1956, and it rode the crest of Elvis hysteria to become the company’s first million-dollar selling album. It contained raw and gritty songs like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Blue Suede shoes,” and “I Got A Woman.” Elvis Presley quickly shot up the charts and became RCA’s first rock ‘n roll album to reach number one, a position it held with a strangle-hold for ten weeks.
But there is much more to justify the greatness of this album than just impressive statistics. It also had a profound effect on the record buying habits of America’s young people. Before Elvis Presley, teenagers bought 45’s, not long-play albums. Elvis changed this and opened the way for countless rockers to reap millions of album sales to teens. Elvis himself enjoyed three more number one albums in the next two years
Arguments for inclusion in the top 100 list can be made for other worthy Elvis albums, most notably Blue Hawaii. This soundtrack from his most successful movie stayed on the national album charts for over a full year, including an extraordinary twenty weeks at number one. There should have been a place on the VH1 list for Blue Hawaii.
It’s noteworthy VH1 not only ignored the ground-breaking Elvis Presley LP, but also every other album released in the late 50’s, the widely praised ‘golden age of rock ‘n roll.’ One can only guess at their panel members’ prejudices for skipping such classics as Here’s Little Richard and The Buddy Holly Story.
VH1 should be praised, however, for treating the 45 singles of the late fifties with much more respect in the “100 Greatest Songs Of Rock ‘n Roll.” Oviously a different set of experts make these selections. In addition to Elvis, the fifties were represented by Jerry Lee Lewis (“Great Balls of Fire,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On”), Richie Valens (“La Bamba”), Carl Perkins (“Blue Suede Shoes”), Eddie Cochran (“Summertime Blues”), Little Richard (“Good Golly, Miss Molly”), Buddy Holly and The Crickets (“That’ll Be The Day”), Bill Haley (“Rock Around The Clock”), Chuck Berry (“Johnny B. Goode”), and Ray Charles (“What’d I Say”). Great selections all, except one might quibble that “Long Tall Sally” or “Tutti-Fruitti” were even better Little Richard selections.
Elvis placed four songs in the top 100: “Jailhouse Rock” (#18), “Hound Dog” (#31), “All Shook Up” (#68), and “Heartbreak Hotel” (#71). Arguments could be made ad finitum that any or all of these songs deserved a higher rank, but more important is the snub to those songs that missed the list entirely. What about “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”, number one for six weeks, or “Teddy Bear” that held the top position for seven weeks?
Some non-fans of Elvis might counter that there just wasn’t room for every deserving song, but how could VH1 possibly omit “Don’t Be Cruel”? There was simply no bigger rock ‘n roll record in the fifties. It hit number one in August, 1956, and stayed there for an incredible eleven weeks. It even came back years later as hits for Bill Black’s Combo and Cheap Trick. “Don’t Be Cruel” was an absolutely monster hit and deserves a spot in the all-time top twenty, not just the top 100.
Without question, Elvis got his worst treatment in the VH1 polls when they presented their “100 Greatest Artists of Rock ‘N Roll.” This seems like such a no-brainer – Elvis was number one, right? No, according to VH1 he was number eight. Think about it. NUMBER EIGHT! You can only shake your head and wonder how they could do this to someone universally regarded as “The King of Rock ‘N Roll.”
Here’s who they thought was better than Elvis. Number seven was David Bowie, most noted for his gender-bending stage personas in the early 70’s. Yes, he’s had some good hits and notable albums, and he does have the staying power to still be a factor in contemporary music. But it is a joke to consider him in the same breath with Elvis.
Number six was James Brown. James also made unique music for over thirty years, and his stage shows were knockouts. However, his music appealed primarily to a niche audience and did not reach the majority of the rock fans. James Brown is great, but his impact was far less then Elvis’.
Number five was Bob Dylan. Certainly he has few equals as a writer of music and lyrics, and he has been around forever. There has always been a core group of loyal fans for whom Dylan is the best, and some of them must have been VH1 panelists. He would rank highest in the “Greatest Artists Of Folk Music” category, but he just can’t touch Elvis for overall rock & roll greatness.
The number four on the list goes to another act that got its start in the late sixties – Led Zeppelin. It’s an amazing tribute to their greatness that they broke up over 20 years ago, and their music is still hugely poplar today. They were the Rosetta Stone of heavy metal and the inspiration for scores of bands to follow. They fully deserve the number one position they received in VH1’s list of the “Greatest Artist of Hard Rock.” Elvis can’t compete in that category, but he still tops them in the wide world of all rock & roll.
Jimi Hendrix placed number three on the list, and it’s entirely possible he could have given Elvis a run for the title “King of Rock ‘N Roll” if his career had lasted more than four years. He wrote songs that will last forever, and his skill as a guitar player has no equal. He was a trailblazer with his unique musical style, much as Elvis was with his. Sorry, Jimi, your body of work is just too small to rival Elvis.
If you think about it, you can probably guess the artists who occupy the top two spots on the VH1 list: The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. It’s hard to argue against either group because their accomplishments are so great. The Stones came in number two and have certainly the most intriguing story in rock ‘n roll. Considering the life style they led for so long, it’s amazing any of them are still alive, but they’re still rocking after 35 years in the limelight. They easily deserve top awards for the their total volume of quality work and their longevity, but they never had the impact on America’s youth the way Elvis did. While they still generate passive respect for their long career, Elvis generates enthusiastic fan support 23 years after his death. Total it all up, and Elvis ranks higher than the Rolling Stones.
And finally, The Beatles. For seven years before their break-up in 1970, they were the absolute biggest thing in rock & roll. They had fan adoration the equal of Elvis’. They wrote their own songs and played their own instruments. Their music grew and bridged the gap between what is now called “Oldies Rock” and “Classic Rock.” Their records still sell well to this day. Without question, The Beatles were the greatest rock band in history.
Say it again: greatest band. It is that one word, band, which settles the dispute of who is the greatest artist. The Beatles were four artists, and each one had a successful solo career after the band broke up. John Lennon and Paul McCartney both gained admission to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for their post-Beatles accomplishments. These four men comprised the greatest band in rock ‘n roll history, but Elvis was the greatest artist.
VH1 treated Elvis fairly well on their list of the “100 Greatest Rock & Roll Moments” on TV: five entries, including two in the top ten. However, it is fair to argue the Elvis Aloha From Hawaii TV special should have placed much higher than number 92. After all, NBC beamed it by satellite to over one billion people in forty countries. This technological feat occurred in 1973, and it was a quantum leap in the history of television broadcasting. In the United States, 92 percent of all people watching TV that night tuned to Elvis Aloha From Hawaii. This special was big, historically significant, and hugely successful. It deserves to be in the top 20 on the list.
VH1 gave number 75 to another TV special. It was Welcome Home Elvis, which appeared in 1960 after Elvis returned home from the Army. Despite the title, this was really the fourth in a series of specials hosted by Frank Sinatra, and most of the airtime was filled with Frank, his friends Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, and his daughter Nancy. Elvis had barely six minutes of air time. VH1 was probably generous to place Welcome Home Elvis number 75.
Elvis’ most famous television special ranked number two on the list of Greatest Rock ‘n Roll Moments on TV. It appeared on December 3, 1968, and was simply titled Elvis, but it is now generally known as the ’68 Comeback Special. Certainly, no other TV moment on the list had a more positive effect on the career of the headliner than this one. The special put Elvis back on the map as an exciting, vital singer after seven years of making movies, but not one appearance in front of a live audience. When the TV viewers saw Elvis belting out songs, dripping sweat in that black leather outfit, and driving the girls in the audience to delirium, it was obvious Elvis was back.
It should be noted the number one TV moment went to the Beatles first performance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. This was a very big event, watched by 73 million viewers. Since we argued Elvis deserved the greatest artist title over The Beatles, it seems fair to not quibble about them getting the number one TV moment title.
Elvis’ other two TV appearances that made the VH1 list were both from 1956. For some reason, they gave a tie for number 50 to Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis for their unrelated appearances on the Steve Allen Show. Jerry Lee’s lyrics on “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” caused much controversy in those simpler, purer times, as did Elvis’ wild gyrations. This is why Steve Allen chose to make Elvis wear a tuxedo and sing “Hound Dog” to an actual hound dog.
Elvis’ moves were something Ed Sullivan also wanted to de-emphasize when Elvis appeared on his show, so he had him shot from the waist up. VH1’s panel considered this significant enough to place it number nine on the list. As pleasing as that ranking is, it shows they really don’t have a clue. VH1 totally missed Elvis’ most significant 1956 TV appearance, the one that created such an incredible public uproar, the one that caused both Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen to take measures to clean up Elvis’ act on their shows.
It was the June 5, 1956, Milton Berle Show, the night Elvis introduced “Hound Dog” to America, complete with some of his best hip and leg moves. The resulting uproar was loud and fierce. Preachers denounced Elvis for contributing to juvenile delinquency, and some disc jockeys made grandiose public announcements declaring they would no longer play Elvis songs. Newspaper editorials depicted him as the downfall of the nation’s teenagers. And Elvis’ popularity soared. Without question, his appearance on the Milton Berle Show was a far greater TV moment than the two shows that followed. In fact, it probably should rank as the number one on the list.
Sorry, Beatles, it looks like we dropped you to number two, again. Maybe we should also drop something on VH1 to protest their shabby treatment of the King. Better yet, let’s use the 24th anniversary week as motivation to drop a few thousand e-mail complaints to VH1. Their e-mail address is email@example.com.
Phil Arnold is a free-lance writer and big Elvis fan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2001 Philip R Arnold