Before Elvis there WAS a lot of great music in America beginning with Louis Armstrong. There were also great strains of blues and R&B that were highly evolved. There was country music and bluegrass, and various strains of white and black gospel. Rock ‘n’ Roll as we know it, had its formal beginning in 1951 when Sam Phillips recorded Jackie Brenston on “Rocket 88” at the original Sun Studio in Memphis. Elvis would eventually meld all the aforementioned genres into what we call Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Elvis was working as a driver and apprentice at Crown Electric a few buildings away from Sun at the corner of Union Avenue and Marshall Street .
There was also a lot of terrible music in America at that time, which dominated the airwaves of the “white” market. It wouldn’t be fair to trash the work of artists who contributed to our cultural landscape at the time, with one telling exception. One night in 1955, Elvis went head-to-head with Perry Como on different network variety shows in the same time slot. Como had his own variety show and his featured number was the song, “Hot Diggity, Dog Diggity.” At nearly the exact same time, Elvis was singing “Jailhouse Rock” and others on another channel. The remote had not been mass-marketed, but plenty of people got up to change the channels and saw the contrast.
Elvis brought color, rhythm and soul to the white music market, which was dominated at the time by Como , Dean Martin, Tennessee Ernie, Mitch Miller and the Maguire Sisters. There were plenty of crooners and balladeers, and Elvis failed miserably at both in 1954, before Phillips heard him goofing around during a studio break on “That’s All Right Mama,” by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. Phillips said something like, “Damn boy, that’s the best thing I’ve heard today, go with it,” and the rest is history.
Elvis was the vehicle and Sam Phillips was the genius who had the vision and capabilities to meld the various strains of blues, R&B, country, bluegrass and the gospel. No popular music that came after him was untouched by the influences of Elvis and Phillips. Sam was the sorcerer – Elvis was the apprentice. It changed America in many important ways. Once the music was integrated in the studios, it was only a matter of time before the stages and audiences were integrated. Ironically, in Memphis , the ‘rasslin culture was equally important for spurring integration.
A great, theatrical white wrestler names Sputnik Monroe developed a huge following in the black community, in part by socializing on Beale Street after his matches at the old Ellis Auditorium. As more and more black folks came to see Sputnik’s matches at the auditorium, they overflowed the balcony reserved for the “colored” section, and had to be accommodated with the unsold seats on the main floor. But Phillips and Elvis’ advancements in music created the tone and atmosphere for Sputnik’s accomplishments.
August 16, 1977 was a surrealistically sad day by night time. I had just completed my undergrad thesis three months late, and was celebrating the deed with friends over pizza and beer. Suddenly, one of my friends, a woman from New York, said all too casually, “Oh by the way, Elvis Presley died today.” Most of the others at the table also had no local orientation as to what that meant. After catching my breath, I said to the group, “Wait a minute, be quiet. DO YOU REALIZE WHAT THIS MEANS? This is a huge historical marker in our lives, and this town is about to turn upside-down and become a global media focus for weeks.”
Three of us went back to the apartment we were sharing and turned on the TV. That was the first time I remember that all three networks interrupted their programming for a dramatic and timely news tributes to someone who wasn’t a president or civil rights leader. It was Elvis, and he had defined our music, dress code, culture and mindset. He impacted the Beatles and every other musician who came after him. The Beatles impacted everything that came after them. Before Elvis and the Beatles, only Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, had such impact.
Certainly other great musicians determined the direction of our culture and tastes including Frank Sinatra, Little Richard, Buddy Holley, David Bowie, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan and Michael Jackson. Others bear mention, but this is a short list. (Anyone else bear mention here?)
While living in Memphis , I would occasionally join the pilgrims on the evening of the annual candlelight vigil. Though I never had the patience for the long line in the procession, I always enjoyed generating conversation with people from all over the world about what brought them to Memphis for that week. The spectrum of humanity there is always amazing, representing all ages, races, nationalities and many, many languages.
Today Elvis is a cultural franchise, carefully marketed by Elvis Presley Enterprises. But they really don’t have to try so hard. When I traveled to Jerusalem , Cairo and the Middle East in 1980, mentioning my hometown elicited primitive Elvis impersonations from people who spoke no other English than the song they knew. It was a touching tribute and the best answer to, “Why Elvis.”
Scott Prostermanis a music, film and dance historian in Berkeley. He worked as a disc jockey in Pittsburgh and Memphis, where he grew up and where it all began. He was born in the 50s, grew up in the 60s, thrived in the 70s, barely survived the 80s, and re-grouped in the 90s.