"Well, since my baby left me,
Well, I found a new place to dwell.
Well, it's down at the end of Lonely Street
At Heartbreak Hotel."
-- Elvis Presley, "Heartbreak Hotel"
Sometime in 1955, I was jolted by a song I heard on the radio, "Maybelline" by Chuck Berry, America's first black rock'n'roll hero. So when I saw Berry on television duck walking across the stage, playing his guitar, there was no turning back for me. Rock'n'roll had become the music of my soul.
Then Elvis Presley came along, and everything changed. As John Lennon would say years later, "Before Elvis there was nothing." Elvis (who, had he lived, would have turned 76 on January 8) combined all the images of rebellion--James Dean and Marlon Brando, among others--into one solitary figure.
To my 10-year-old self, he was exactly what I wanted to be like when I grew up. I totally identified with him. I even dressed up in tight pants and drew mascara sideburns. Grabbing my toy guitar (with no strings), I stood in my front yard serenading little girls who would stare listlessly at me. Two favorite songs, "Hound Dog" and "All Shook Up," sometimes seemed to stir my young audience, though. One little girl, I remember, said I even looked a bit like the King except I was shorter and not as good-looking.
At first, Presley's story seemed liked the American Dream come true. As Sam Phillips, the legendary Memphis recording artist and African-American music enthusiast remarked, he had been looking for "a white boy who could sing like a black boy and catch the beat of black music." With his early "greaser" style, Elvis fit the bill, and Phillips recorded him on his now-iconic Sun label.
Those 1954-55 soundtracks for Sun Records, including "It's All Right, Mama" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky," were some of Elvis' best recordings. A synthesis of the white and black cultures, Elvis' music also had a general gospel flavor that reflected his early singing in church.
By the time he had conquered the South with regional appearances, Elvis had also perfected his act. Most notably, he added body gyrations reminiscent of the movements of gospel singers. But on Elvis, the movements took on sexual overtones. The first time Elvis gyrated onstage, the crowd went wild. Since then, his signature moves--a gyrating pelvis and wiggling hips--have been imitated by countless other rock'n'roll artists.
Elvis wasn't popular with all segments of society, however. Some local newspapers denounced his performances as "demon rock as jungle music," while ministers publicly attacked him, even threatening to lead a crusade to have him arrested if he set foot in their communities. But religious and parental disapproval only increased Elvis' popularity among the young, and his television appearances cemented it.
After Elvis performed his first national hit, "Heartbreak Hotel," on the Milton Berle Show in April 1956, the song moved to number one on the music charts. An appearance on the Steve Allen Show followed in July 1956. Although Allen had persuaded Presley to wear a tuxedo and limit his movements, he still only shot Presley from the waist up to avoid those wiggling hips. And for the first time, Allen beat the legendary Ed Sullivan in ratings.
Sullivan, who disliked rockers and believed that Elvis' act was too sexually suggestive, wanted nothing to do with Elvis. But after Steve Allen's success, Sullivan surrendered to market economics and signed Elvis for three shows at the unprecedented sum of $50,000. However, a concern about Elvis' wiggling hips caused the producers to also shoot Elvis only from the waist up on the first show. Still, after the third show, Sullivan conceded to the audience that Elvis was a "real decent, fine boy."
In reality, Sullivan's decision to sign Elvis augured a profound change in American taste. While the white elite had appreciated black jazz in the past, they had a visceral, democratic reaction to Elvis. The old order had been challenged and had not held. New forces were at work, driven primarily by new technology and television. The young no longer had to listen to their parents. It was a critical moment for American society.
Soon Elvis was everywhere, even starring in movies (he made more than 30). However, although Elvis could sing, he couldn't act. Then, in 1958, Elvis joined the Army. Suddenly, he was part of the establishment, and that's when his rebel image was tarnished. Indeed, years later, when John Lennon heard of Elvis' death, he remarked, "Elvis died the day he went into the army."
By the late 1960s, the British rock invasion, led by the Beatles, had dated the music and stance of '50s rockers like Elvis. In fact, the dramatically different responses to the television appearances of Elvis Presley in 1956 and the Beatles in 1964 demonstrated vividly how much American society had changed in a mere eight years. Elvis' blatant sexuality provoked a rash of outraged sermons. Politicians and newspaper editors rallied against him. Adults found him ridiculous or dangerous, while the kids screamed and swooned. There was virtually no crossover.
By 1964, however, respectable adults and even intellectuals were listening to the Beatles. At first, the older generation even seemed to like John, Paul, George and Ringo, although that would change later. But initially, the "boys from Liverpool" did indeed seem enviably like boys rather than men with their English schoolboy haircuts. Exuberant, fun-loving and generous, they seemed to suggest a world that was a fun place to be. Beatlemania was born and Elvis' generation of hip-swinging artists seemed passé.
But Elvis didn't go down easy. His appearance on the classic 1968 Singer Television Special for NBC proved that the boy from Memphis could still move an audience. And in the mid-1970s, with a couple of new hits, Elvis made a comeback.
Unfortunately, his success was short-lived. After his 1972 divorce brought on violent mood swings, Elvis began to eat voraciously, sometimes consuming a dozen cheeseburgers and a pound of bacon at a time. Ballooning to around 250 pounds, the whale-like Elvis was forced to cancel all-important Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe shows. And after hints of drug dependence circulated, Elvis secluded himself at Graceland or his Palm Springs home. Then, on August 16, 1977, to the shock and sadness of fans worldwide, Elvis died at the age of 42.
After his death, Elvis became larger than life, with a cult following that approached a religious fervor. Then there are those who still believe he is alive.
Yet in Elvis' life and death, we see an allegory of the entire American experience during the 1950s, 1960s and beyond. Like many before and after him, a youthful and dynamic beginning ended in premature old age and a bloated, overweight body. A victim of success, Elvis became a parody of himself and of modern, materialistic America. And in the end, like so many of the generation he spawned, Elvis was a solitary soul trapped on that lonely street that leads to the Heartbreak Hotel.
Follow John W. Whitehead on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rutherford_inst