Elvis Presley (3) – Enter Colonel Tom Parker

If you recognize the picture, that’s because it is the exact photo that was used on the cover of Elvis’ debut album. It was taken in July 1955 at a gig in Florida. 

Presley is a definite danger to the security of the United States. … [His] actions and motions were such as to rouse the sexual passions of teenaged youth. … After the show, more than 1,000 teenagers tried to gang into Presley’s room at the auditorium. … Indications of the harm Presley did just in La Crosse were the two high school girls … whose abdomen and thigh had Presley’s autograph.” – A letter from a local Catholic diocese’s newspaper which was sent to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

By early 1955, between touring, local television and radio appearances, Elvis had become somewhat of a regional star. His manager Bob Neal introduced him to Colonel Tom Parker who he considered “the best promoter in the music business.”

Colonel Parker (died 1997) was an interesting character all by himself. (“Colonel” was a courtesy provided to him by singer Jimmie Davis who became Governor of Louisiana.) His real name was Andreas Cornelis van Kujik and, originally a carnival barker, he had arrived in America by jumping ship from the Netherlands. He never acquired a US passport and the conventional wisdom is that this – and possibly some overseas legal entanglements – is why he never allowed Elvis to tour overseas.

Interestingly, even though he was not a US citizen, he somehow managed to enlist in the US Army, taking the name Tom Parker from the officer who interviewed him. Post-service, he gravitated into promoting artists, finding that his huckster skills from the carnival lent themselves well to the entertainment business.

He eventually drifted to Tennessee and wound up becoming country singer Eddy Arnold’s full-time manager. Always on the hustle for a new act, he started to become aware of young Mr. Presley. He gradually took over management of Elvis (apparently with Bob Neal’s blessing) by summer of 1955 becoming a special advisor. On March 26, 1956, after Presley’s management contract with Neal had expired, the singer signed a contract with Parker that made him his exclusive representative.

Parker was working with the new number-one country singer, Hank Snow and booked Presley on Snow’s February tour. When the tour reached Odessa, Texas, a 19-year-old Roy Orbison saw Presley for the first time: “His energy was incredible, his instinct was just amazing. … I just didn’t know what to make of it. There was just no reference point in the culture to compare it.”

Even though Sun had released a number of records, it was still difficult to get radio play as the music was so hard to categorize. Nobody knew exactly what to call this strange hybrid and so it became known as rockabilly. Meanwhile, Drummer D.J. Fontana joined and the band became a quartet.

Neal recalled, “It was almost frightening, the reaction that came to Elvis from the teenage boys. So many of them, through some sort of jealousy, would practically hate him. There were occasions in some towns in Texas when we’d have to be sure to have a police guard because somebody’d always try to take a crack at him. They’d get a gang and try to waylay him or something.”

One of Elvis’ best tunes was actually a B-side. “Mystery Train” was originally written and recorded by a bluesman named Junior Parker in 1953. It lopes along at its own pace and has that nice, bluesy feel. Elvis and crew, of course, jump it up. And that guitar thing Scotty plays is a bitch to get just right.

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Now, as much as Sam Phillips would have liked to hang onto Elvis, he really didn’t have the capital to pay him or support his career in the way it should be done. And so in November 1955, Parker and Phillips made a deal with RCA Victor to acquire Presley’s Sun contract for the unheard-of sum of $40,000. (Almost $400,000 in today’s dollars.)

On January 10, 1956, Presley made his first recordings for RCA in Nashville. RCA enlisted guitarist Chet Atkins and three background singers, including Gordon Stoker of the popular Jordanaires quartet, to fill out the sound. The session produced the unusual, bluesy “Heartbreak Hotel.”

Wikipedia: “Heartbreak Hotel’ was written in 1955, by Mae Boren Axton, (country and folk singer Hoyt Axton’s mother), a high school teacher, and Jacksonville based singer-songwriter Tommy Durden. The lyrics were based on a report supposedly about a man who had destroyed all his identity papers and jumped to his death from a hotel window, leaving a suicide note with the single line, “I walk a lonely street.” Mae said, “Let’s put a Heartbreak Hotel at the end of that lonely street.”

Deemed uncommercial and “too morbid” by several performers, the duo got the attention of Colonel Parker and played the song for Elvis who loved it. Axton loved Elvis’ style and wanted her song to be a big hit so she granted Elvis 30% of the royalties if he’d record it. He did and it was released on January 27, 1956. (Elvis wrote a fair amount of songs he never wrote.)

As I think I’ve mentioned before in this blog, when I read articles or books about early rockers – especially British ones – no song is mentioned more than “Heartbreak Hotel.”

“When I first heard ‘Heartbreak Hotel’… me whole life changed from then on, I was just completely shaken by it,” Lennon said. (I always found it sad and ironic that Lennon died just three years after his hero, both young, both casualties of their own fame.)

The single topped Billboards Top 100 chart for seven weeks, Cashboxs pop singles chart for six weeks, was No. 1 on the Country and Western chart for seventeen weeks and reached No. 3 on the R&B chart, becoming Presley’s first million-seller, and one of the best-selling singles of 1956. The song gained strong popularity after his appearance on CBS-TV’s Stage Show (hosted by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey) in March 1956.

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Elvis’ eponymous debut album was a mix of new recordings and a few Sun sessions which came along with Elvis’ contract. The Sun songs were more country-oriented so they filled the album out with R&B and rockabilly tunes, which by now were Elvis’ forte.

He also did his own versions of Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman,” and – kicking off the album – Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes.” Writer Deke Leonard says the song is “remarkable for a host of reasons, not the least of them Scotty’s solos. Listen to them sometime. They’re an education.”

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Elvis Presley was the first RCA Victor pop album to earn more than $1,000,000, and in 1956 it had sold over one million units. And the iconic cover picture established the guitar as the instrument in rock and roll for at least the next 40 years. 

Elvis made appearances on comedian Milton Berle’s TV program and – contrary to the idea that his Vegas residencies came later -signed on for a two-week stint there. Alas for him, in the mid-’50s, Vegas was a Rat Pack playground with audiences that weren’t quite ready to appreciate Elvis’ leg shakin’. Around this time he also signed a deal to appear in seven motion pictures, most of which, frankly, would suck.

Elvis’ second Berle appearance was so controversial (“Elvis, who rotates his pelvis … gave an exhibition that was suggestive and vulgar, tinged with the kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos”) that naturally, it led to condemnation. And since we all love a circus sideshow, it led to even more TV shows including comedian (and musician) Steve Allen.

Allen had Elvis on his show but as a trained piano player himself, had little respect for Presley’s sound and style. Presley sang “Hound Dog” for less than a minute to a basset hound wearing a top hat and bow tie. As described by television historian Jake Austen, “Allen thought Presley was talentless and absurd … [he] set things up so that Presley would show his contrition.”

“Hound Dog” had been written by Lieber and Stoller and first recorded by blues singer Big Mama Thornton in 1953. Reportedly, Elvis had a copy of this song in his collection. But when he was in Vegas, Elvis heard a rocked-up version by a band called Freddie Bell and the Bellboys which inspired his version. That one has a nice honkin’ sax solo; Elvis’ has got Scotty and that’s not a bad thing:

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Variety show host Ed Sullivan had been one of those who decried Elvis. But when he realized how popular Presley was becoming and how it would help his ratings, he quickly abandoned anything resembling principles and booked Elvis on his weekly show.

Sullivan booked Presley for three appearances for an unprecedented $50,000 (approximately $500,000 in 2019 dollars. Tough break for him because Col. Parker’s first offer was for $5,000.) The first show on September 9, 1956, was viewed by approximately 60 million viewers—a record 82.6 percent of the television audience.

The long-standing Elvis myth has it that Elvis was shot from the waist up because as Sullivan supposedly said, “when he moves his legs back and forth you can see the outline of his cock. … I think it’s a Coke bottle. … We just can’t have this on a Sunday night. This is a family show!”

In fact, Presley was shown head-to-toe in the first and second shows, with close-ups reserved for when he danced.  The result was that the girls in the audience screamed (nine years before the Beatles’ appearance) and his performance of “Love Me Tender” generated a “record-shattering million advance orders.”

It was this event, more than any other, that crystallized the ascendancy of the vast audience of teenagers who were starting to love rock ‘n roll. Sam Phillips’ white guy who could sing black was making someone a lot of money. Just not Phillips. And it’s fair to note here that Chuck Berry had a hit back in 1955 with ‘Maybellene’ but not only was he not on Sullivan then, in fact -surprisingly – he never was.

From this point on, the Presley legend and name only grew and grew – crowds became more frenzied, his records sold like crazy. And his first movie – Love Me Tender – was released.

Elvis made a triumphant return to old friend Sam Phillip’s Sun Studios later that year and sang and played with Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash. Phillips, of course, rolled tape and captured it all on what would be released later as the Million Dollar Quartet.

“The year ended with a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal reporting that Presley merchandise had brought in $22 million on top of his record sales and Billboards declaration that he had placed more songs in the top 100 than any other artist since records were first charted. In his first full year at RCA, one of the music industry’s largest companies, Presley had accounted for over 50 percent of the label’s singles sale. (Italics mine.)

Between the end of 1956 and throughout 1957, Elvis sold tons of records, had his final performance on Ed Sullivan, toured (and inspired riots including one in Vancouver where fans destroyed the stage), and made two more movies. His third film, Jailhouse Rock, inspired one of his best songs. Although that said, I always wondered what exactly was going on here:

Number 47 said to number 3
“You’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see
I sure would be delighted with your company
Come on and do the Jailhouse Rock with me

Jailhouse Rock earned mixed reviews from critics. It was looked upon as scandalous once it was released because it portrayed Presley’s character as anti-heroic, presented a convict as a hero, used the word “hell” as a profanity, and included a scene showing Presley in bed with co-star Judy Tyler. (How did they put up with this.. this filth one wonders? – ME). 

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In a further sign that the times they were a’ changin’, hired guns Scotty Moore and Bill Black resigned, Elvis bought an 18-room mansion eight miles (13 km) south of downtown Memphis for himself and his parents called Graceland Farms. ($102,000, almost a million in today’s dollars.)

And On March 24, 1958, Presley was drafted into the U.S. Army as a private at Fort Chaffee, near Fort Smith, Arkansas. This event, together with Chuck Berry’s stint in jail, the scandal of Jerry Lee Lewis marrying his 13-year old cousin and the fatal plane crash that killed the Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly effectively put the brakes on rock and roll – at least the raw, visceral kind –  until four lads from Liverpool shook the world in 1964.

Next (and last) post – I squeeze as much as is humanly possible about Elvis into one page.

$1.75!!! What am I – Rockefeller?

 

 

 

 

14 thoughts on “Elvis Presley (3) – Enter Colonel Tom Parker

    1. I hadn’t realized it either. Took me a little bit of digging to figure that out. Great tune. I can play Scotty’s chords about half-speed. Not hard per se but if you want to get it right, needs to be studied. It wasn’t until I heard Springsteen casually start playing it in a radio interview that I thought, Yeah, I should learn that.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Even though things already started to spin out of control, I think the period covered by this installment captures Elvis’ most exciting years musically speaking.

    “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Jailhouse Rock” and “Mystery Train” are killer tunes.

    I’m also glad you repeatedly called out Scotty Moore. His guitar work and sound was terrific.

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    1. Scotty was a great player. I really have been working on playing “Mystery Train” for a while. It’s pretty straightforward but you gotta get that alternate picking and speed going, plus fingerpicking. I’ll lock myself in a room one day and just get it. My friend Bill sings remarkably like Elvis so we can have some fun with that one.

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  2. Brilliant. You can’t help but feel excited about this chap when you read that, eh? Even knowing a chunk of this from reading about him, I still felt that sense of awe.

    I should disclose now, though, that as much as I never really dug his Sun recordings. Sure he had some swagger, but his voice just wasn’t at all special until he got to RCA. I think that came from confidence.

    Anyhoo, I said I wasn’t gonna comment on all of these didn’t I? Sorry about that…

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    1. You’re doubtless right about the voice. But there a crackling punk-like energy in those early Sun tunes that can’t be beat. It’s the sound of discovery. And hey, I’m glad you wound up commenting on them all. Part 4 (final) in a couple of days. Then I’ll give the blog a rest to let others catch up.

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  3. Of coarse I know the Parker connection but not the history you gave on his background. I love those old dicey characters as long as they stay out of my life. The whole sound Elvis got with those 3 is classic. I’m not a musician but I love Moore’s sound. All those tunes should be put in a vault for future generations.

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    1. They ARE sort of in a vault. It’s called the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum. As to Parker, what I didn’t mention is that, per Wikipedia, “there were questions about a murder in Breda (Netherlands) in which Parker may have been a suspect or at least a person of interest.”That might have been kind of far-fetched. He seemed more like the low-rent grifter than the murdering type.
      Then I got to thinking – how about a movie about this dude? I didn’t find that exactly but this tidbit Mr CB, the film buff, might find interesting:

      https://www.thevintagenews.com/2019/04/02/tom-hanks-elvis/

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      1. Just having them in the public domain is cool. The hall of fame scares me. It’s like the old am radio. Some good tunes and some …… well you know what I mean.
        Interesting on the film. I would see it as more of an indie with a little more grease and shit on it. The Hanks version would make millions, CB’s idea would get lost.

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        1. CB would, I think, be pleasantly surprised at how well the Hall deals with rock and roll and its roots. Don’t confuse the shitshow of the voting with the museum. As to the movie, I’m pretty sure I’d vastly prefer the CB version. With CB playing the Colonel.

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