Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn were the dream parents and 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. Presley had the sweet-sounding church tenor you’d hear above all the heavy 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 a singing angel.
Black and white news 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.
Most mornings, a few blocks from my bedroom window, you could smell sun-baked roughage flowing down the Ohio – the stench of cooking Jack Daniels, the odor of baking Wonder Bread, and witness piles of tortured driftwood catch shoreline near the falls across the river from Louisville, Kentucky.
Then one day life-monotony was interrupted – “Heartbreak Hotel,” by this young singing sensation far-south pushed Nat Cole, Patti Page and Perry Como to the sidelines and everyone was talking. Who is this guy Elvis? What kind of name is that? Men laughed, women gossiped and teenagers rage-worshiped. Everyone had an opinion and everyone watched.
Good church folks are always the first to condemn. It seems whenever there’s change, those in the “Jesus know” have to operate fast; judge and condemn. Oh my, those fire breathing evangelists were everywhere.”Take those Elvis records to the dump and burn – or we should do it in the church parking lot and make an offering to our Lord, Jesus Christ.” Most men just scratched their skulls, talked and laughed – to them this was just a silly boy whose 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 & blues hit white folks in a different way. They never bought into the rough-edged street blues of black folks with those suggestive lyrics. This new take was easy to absorb. There was a fat-back beat which rocked and swung at the same time. There were new ways to dance around that beat – you just had to invent or wait to see what Philly was doing on the dance floor and adapt.
Elvis was the chief salesman; sweet-faced, soft spoken, humble, and thoughtful – a boy every 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 assembly line produced direct to homes; yet talk of such things attracted morbid guilt. I mean Playboy Magazine was around but mostly read in the fields back of barnyards, men’s washrooms or frat parties. There were a few liberal leaning families in a community where the man of the house proudly displayed in his private man cave.
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 God.
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 my hands 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, Indiana. For the life of me, I would never expect my stern dismissive parents would choose to go. That we did!
As the curtain opened, dad mostly talked. He sounded off 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 most days. 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 sawed in half on Ed Sullivan Show– guitar bouncing – legs screen-amputated.
Black and white makes every aspiring actor look credible –Elvis pulled it off. The song was so rich and gorgeous to hear in the movie 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 that beautiful face – boys imitated. Elvis not only conquered vinyl, he was now on a mission to claim a major roll in the celluloid world of music history.
Love Me Tender was far different from cameo appearances of the great bands of the day – this was the beginning of mysterious brooding young lead man, who lived in the edgy world of rock & roll. Marlon Brando gave us a sample of how magnetic a young man of the time could hold our attention in The Wild One. He oozed sexuality, burned with deep passion and rebelled against the previous decades of social confinement. All Elvis had to do was find a zone between Brando and himself and James Dean and look the part on screen. James Dean struck after Brando in Rebel Without A Cause, then six years later Warren Beatty in Splendor in the Grass; all young attractive men who could sell a young audience on radical change and the discomfort of growing up in the suffocating ‘50s – and a alternative lifestyle.
Rock n’ Roll was here to stay! The soggy sounds of yesterday seem to disappear over-night; boys toughened up, girls got all mouthy. Kids began to punk out in school. James Dean, Brando, rebellion, retaliation, uprising was playing to the same beat. Meanwhile, the young man who started it all was just a plain-old country boy who loved his mama and a good song.