Elvis Presley – Fanfare for the Common Man
The kid couldn’t be stopped. After Sam Phillips sold Presley’s contract to RCA’s country division for not much less than the price of a ’97 Caddy, Elvis topped the country charts again in the spring of ’56 — this time for 17 weeks! — with the lurching “Heartbreak Hotel”, a bluesy stomp that was no more like ol’ Hank than farming was like assembly-line work. By the end of the summer, Presley had three more C&W chart-toppers: “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You”, “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel”. What was worse, to the minds of the Nashville music establishment anyway, was that he wasn’t the only one scoring with this racket anymore. The first two-thirds of 1956 saw the emergence of a whole slew of rockin’ white trash boys, exactly the kind of kids who just a few months earlier would’ve been trying to sing like Webb and Lefty. That year, Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Boppin’ The Blues”, Gene Vincent’s “Be Bop A Lula”, and Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk The Line” (a two-sider with “Get Rhythm”) all bumrushed airtime away from eventual country classics such as Kitty Wells’ “Searching”, the Louvin Brothers’ “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby”, Faron Young’s “Sweet Dreams” and Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms”.
It wasn’t as if this new rockabilly was doing away with traditional country, though. After all, “Crazy Arms” had still managed to park itself at #1 for five months. No, this new music came off so threatening as much for how different it was — well, more like how scary — as for how popular it had become on the radio. Partly this was because it sounded so different. Presley’s brand of country was city music, and it sounded like it. The fiddles and steel guitar of hits such as “Crazy Arms” were ditched in Presley’s recordings, as were the pinched and nasal vocals. What was left, by comparison to the legends of C&W, just sounded like it was too damn free, like it didn’t give one whit about any old thing. Hank Snow’s boy Jimmie would soon tell his congregation that this rebellion was mainly in “the beat, the beat, the beat,” and he ought to have known: After he’d failed as a country singer and before he took up with the Lord, Jimmie Rodgers Snow had taken a stab at rockabilly too. He wasn’t alone. No less a mainstream country figure than Faron Young recorded “I’m Gonna Live Some Before I Die”, a great (if unsuccessful) rockabilly number. Even hot young country talent George Jones, who worked with Elvis a few times on the Louisiana Hayride, had felt the need to nickname himself Thumper and record a couple of rockabilly sides.
But pointing at differences in the sound doesn’t really explain all the commotion. In fact, to the ears of modern listeners — to whom, admittedly, the shock of the new is long gone — the difference between most of the rockabilly records that charted at the time and many of the traditional country performances that they shared playlists with can often be tough to discern. Granted, “That’s All Right” and “My Baby Left Me” (another of Presley’s summer of ’56 country hits), as well as any of the country singles from Perkins and Cash, were wilder and bluesier than contemporaneous Top-10 country hits such as Johnny Horton’s “One Woman Man”, Carl Smith’s “You Are The One”, and Marty Robbins’ versions of “That’s All Right” (which added fiddle but retained Presley’s phrasing) and “Maybeline”. But they’re not that much wilder. Listening to the guitar solos on Presley’s Sun recordings today, for example, we don’t need to wonder whether Scotty Moore (who’d previously recorded for Sun in a C&W outfit called the Starlite Wranglers) was an admirer of country pickers Chet Atkins and Merle Travis. And Presley’s voice, on early recordings of “Blue Moon Of Kentucky”, “Just Because”, “I’ll Never Let You Go”, “I Love You Because”, “Milk Cow Blues Boogie”, “I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine” and so many others, always overflows with the yearning and straight-up sincerity he’d admired in Southern gospel and country & western.
Truth be told, the twangy rockabilly sound that broached the country charts in 1956 was fairly easily and quickly assimilated. Within a few years of Presley’s first country chart-toppers, Bakersfield acts such as Wynn Stewart and Buck Owens (who had played rhythm guitar with Gene Vincent for a time) were already making music that was clearly influenced by rock ‘n’ roll, and Nashville was regularly producing rockabilly-inflected hits such as Jones’ “White Lightning” and Horton’s “I’m Coming Home”. Just that quick, no one even batted an eye. Ironically, these rock-‘n’-roll-inspired country hits, and many, many more just like them, are revered today as part of a movement back to traditional, hard-core country music.
PART III: Highway to Hayride
At the time, then, the revolution wasn’t taking place on country radio; it was out on the road where you could see and hear and feel the way this sound was creating a whole new world, where you could eyeball firsthand the reactions that different segments of the country audience were having to this country boy now being hailed as the King Of Western Bop. Very early on, Elvis was being packaged on short swings through the South with country stars Slim Whitman and Billy Walker, and both men would return to Nashville on Monday morning, full of amazed stories about the polite kid with the funny name who was driving the girls nuts and becoming tougher to follow each night.
This buzz, combined with the regional success of his earliest Sun singles, fairly quickly landed Elvis a spot on the Grand Ole Opry in the early fall of 1954, but the appearance didn’t go well. Though he wasn’t booed, the response from the largely adult Opry crowd had been little more than polite, a disappointing reaction that would repeat itself during Presley’s first Louisiana Hayride appearance a couple weeks later, on Oct. 16. (“What in the world did I do wrong?” a worried Elvis asked backstage.) By the time Elvis returned for the evening’s second show, however, the word must have spread through Shreveport that something special was up. Before he was done, the show had been stolen and the hall was filled with the pop, pop, pop of flash photography. “I had never seen them rush the stage like that”, Hayride regular Merle Kilgore remembered in the Clayton/Heard Elvis Up Close book. “Not even for Hank Williams.”
Bedlam quickly became the rule on the road, with every city playing its part in the growing Presley drama. In Lubbock, Texas, Billy Walker remembered a female audience member who exposed herself to the country boy. In Orlando, Florida, Faron Young recalled passionate cries of “Get off the fucking stage! Bring Elvis back on!” directed at headliner Hank Snow after he attempted to follow Elvis; when the announcer tried to calm things down by explaining that those who really wanted to see Elvis could find him signing autographs out back, half the audience just left. “That was like ringing a fucking fire bell,” Young recalled in Elvis Up Close. “I don’t mean they left one at a time; I mean they left by goddamn droves.”
These wild reactions to Presley’s music were probably even more troubling to the Nashville country music establishment than the music itself. They were shocked by the crazed reactions, and by the pinch those reactions soon began dealing to their wallets. Before long, Presley’s teenage fans, who would show up early to buy up all the Louisiana Hayride tickets, were keeping the older fans from attending the show at all. Out on the tour circuit, traditional country artists couldn’t follow the many Presley-inspired rockabilly fireballs much more easily than they could follow the kid himself, which made it all that much tougher for them to even find bookings in the first place.