You had to be around to witness the insanity. Television was relatively new to most households with NBCs Dave Garroway holding court mornings and Ed Sullivan Sunday nights. There was something simple about life in the 50s although if you step away a lot more complex than remembered.Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn were the dream couple parents often assumed the perfect marriage. A drive to a greasy burger stand would find you waving at the occasional passing vehicle. Everyone went to church – some devout others on business. School was in walking distance and summers long and hot - time enough to grow an inch or two.
Elvis Presley began his career in 1954 under the guidance of famed Memphis record mogul Sam Phillips. Elvis had the sweet sounding tenor you’d hear above all the heavy church baritones that would rumble turn like dying steam locomotives. You couldn’t make out the Christian words because men just didn’t know them – they stood and honked along as women clarified. Elvis was the singing angel.Black and white was polar opposites. Hard news carried the daily sit-ins, civil rights marches, the murders, intruders – drowning; local news – knitting circles and farm reports – the occasional obituary.
Patti Page, Perry Como played endlessly. The Yankees ran a string of World Series triumphs – Mickey Mantle was God number two.Mornings you could smell sun-baked roughage flowing down the Ohio – the stink of Jack Daniels, the odor of baking Wonder Bread, and witness piles of tormented driftwood catch shoreline near the falls.
Then one day life monotony was interrupted – “Heartbreak Hotel” by this young man far south pushed Nat Cole, Page and Como to the sidelines and everyone was talking. Who is this guy Elvis? What kind of name is that? Men laughed, women peeked and teenagers raged. Everyone had an opinion and everyone watched.Good church folks are always the first to condemn. It seems wherever there’s change those in the know have to operate fast and stomp down. Oh my, those fire breathing evangelists were everywhere.”Take those Elvis records to the dump and burn – wait let’s do it in the church parking lot and make an offering to his majesty.” Men just talked and laughed – this was just a silly boy and his fleeting popularity would soon pass like that silly Davy Crockett ‘Alamo’ record.
Girls fainted boys greased up.That sound – that mix of country blues, gospel, and rhythm hit folks in a different way. They never bought in to the rough edged street blues with those suggestive lyrics which didn’t apply to white folks but this new take was easy to absorb. There was a fat beat which rocked and swung at the same time. There where new ways to dance around that beat – you just had to invent or wait to see what Philly was doing.
Elvis was the chief salesman- sweet faced, soft spoken, humble, and thoughtful – a boy a momma would love to nurture and marry off.Small town America loved his radical side but had to get past the sex part. You knew everyone was doing it because babies kept coming like they’d been carted from a sex factory direct to homes yet talk of such things brought morbid guilt. I mean Playboy was around but mostly read in the back of barnyards and factory men’s rooms. There were a few liberal leaning families in a community where the man of the house proudly displayed in his bathroom.
Elvis was big talk in our house. Pops called him a three chord wonder. Dad owned a guitar but could never wrap his head around a seventh chord besides he knew jazz great Jimmy Raney and there was no way this new music would rival his sacred jazz.I had no opinion – just too young and mostly trapped by spirituals. Grandma looked after us during daytime and mostly played upright piano and sang about Jesus. I’d occasionally slip under her fingers and weasel a few bars of Chopsticks.
One day the big announcement arrived – “Love Me Tender,’ Elvis’s film debut was coming to “The Grand” in New Albany. For the life of me I would never expect my stern dismissive parents chose to go. That we did!Dad mostly talked through the movie and glanced around at other men looking for affirmation a laugh and a nod. Mom stayed fixated on dad. She never really watched anything but him. If he said – ‘that was awful – she’d respond – “that was awful.” That was what life was for women in the 50s.
‘Love Me Tender’ caught fire. People went repeatedly to catch the young man seen cut in half on Ed Sullivan Show on big screen – guitar bouncing – legs amputated. Black and white makes every actor look credible – Elvis pulled it off. The song was so rich and gorgeous to hear in theatre young and old talked about for weeks. The local record store couldn’t keep his music in stock. Every young girl papered her bedroom with the guy – boys just looked the part.Rock N’ Roll was here to stay! The soggy sounds of yesterday seem to disappear over-night, Boys toughened up, girls all mouthy. Kids began to punk out in school. James Dean, Brando- rebellion, retaliation, uprising was on the horizon. Meanwhile, the young man who started it all was just a plain old country boy who loved his mama and a good song.