Posts Tagged ‘Elvis Presley’

Diego Rivera shown with wife, Frida Kahlo. Frida's mother called them "the Elephant and the Dove."

Elvis Presley at his shiniest

What did Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and rock sensation Elvis Presley have in common?

They both had twin brothers who died.

Diego Rivera and his twin brother Carlos were born on December 8, 1886 in Guanajato, Mexico. Carlos, however, died eighteen months later.

"The Flower Carrier" by Diego Rivera (1886-1957)

On January 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi, Gladys Presley gave birth to identical twin boys. The first one, Jesse Garon Presley, was stillborn. Thirty-five minutes later, Elvis Aaron (Aron) Presley entered this world. Gladys told Elvis that, as the surviving twin, he had been destined for great things.

READERS: For more posts on Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, click here.

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The Presleys, 1937: Gladys, Elvis, and Vernon. It's ironic that Elvis is wearing such a grown-up boy's hat. Soon he would discover that he was a more responsible person than his father. By the time Elvis was in his early twenties, he would be the sole breadwinner for the rest of his life for himself and his parents.

I couldn’t let the day go by without saying at least a few words about Elvis. Today is his 75th birthday and I am watching a TCM marathon of Elvis shows. On the tube, paused so I could blog, is “Viva Las Vegas.” I just watched Elvis perform the title song. It’s obvious that the director asked him to tone down his sexy moves; there’s barely a suggestion of hip action. But wow can he wiggle that torso and strut like the rooster that he was.

Elvis' birthplace on the Old Saltillo Road in Tupelo, Mississippi

I’ve been doing some reading about Elvis again, reminding myself what most of us know about his legendary rise from rags to riches. His parents Vernon and Gladys Presley were dirt poor. Vernon couldn’t keep a job very long. He was a drinker. He was 17, Gladys was 21 when they eloped and moved in with his parents. Eighteen months later, their son Elvis was born on January 8, 1935, in a two-room house in Tupelo, Mississippi, a house Vernon built just for the birthing. The house had no indoor plumbing or electricity.

Elvis had an identical twin brother, Jessie Garon, who was stillborn. Thirty-five minutes later at 4 a.m., Elvis Aron (later Aaron) was born.

This is a photo of the memorial headstone for Jessie Garon Presley in the Meditation Garden at Elvis' Graceland mansion in the city of Memphis, Tennessee. Jessie Garon was the twin brother of Elvis Presley who was born and died on January 8, 1935 in the Presleys' two-room shack in Tupelo, Mississippi. The Presleys could not afford to pay the $10 doctor bill for delivering Elvis and Jessie. Jessie Garon Presley was buried in a shoebox in an unmarked grave in Priceville Cemetery in Tupelo. This memorial headstone was placed in the Meditation Garden at Graceland shortly after Elvis was re-interred there in October 1977.

Elvis was told from the beginning that he was special. God had spared his life while Jessie had died. Gladys became an overly protective parent from the get-go. Elvis remained her only child, though she miscarried another child about ten years later. Both she and Vernon doted on Elvis. Gladys walked Elvis to school every day until he entered high school. She made him carry his own fork and spoon so he wouldn’t pick up any germs from using cutlery once used by others.

Vernon was a terrible breadwinner. He couldn’t keep a job, probably because of his drinking. When Elvis was three, Vernon received payment for a pig from his farmer landlord Orville Bean. Vernon decided that he hadn’t been paid enough for the pig so he altered the amount of payment on the check. He was arrested for forgery and sent to prison for under a year. Interestingly, Orville Bean was instrumental in securing an early release for Vernon.

Elvis Presley at age 4 in 1939. He was a blonde. He later dyed his hair to look like screen actor Tony Curtis.

Meanwhile, with Vernon in prison, Gladys and Elvis had no income. They lost their home and had to move in with relatives. The experience so traumatized little Elvis that he began to sleepwalk.

And so it went. For the first twenty-one years of his life, Elvis lived a hand-to-mouth existence. Elvis, Gladys, and Vernon moved from place to place living sometimes with relatives, or living on public assistance in substandard dwellings, cheek-to-jowl. When Elvis was a teenager, Vernon moved them into such a crummy apartment complex that they had to share the bathroom with the other tenants. The bathroom was disgusting. Elvis refused to bathe there and ended up getting cleaned up at the high school or not at all.

There was never enough to eat. It’s possible an usher at a movie theatre where Elvis worked got fired for giving Elvis food.

The family moved to keep just one step ahead of their creditors or the police. Vernon ran moonshine while picking up an odd job here or there.  He never made enough money to take care of his family because he didn’t stay with the job. Vernon was frequently absent from home. Elvis and Gladys grew closer at those times and Elvis was definitely the man of the house. Gladys could count on him.  Early on, Elvis began to refer to his parents as “his babies.”

Elvis keenly felt the responsibility of taking care of his mother. They were very close. They spoke to one another in baby talk. Elvis called his mother “Sat’n.” Gladys was as impulsive as Vernon was reckless. Gladys was everything to Elvis and he to her.

Elvis’ musical talent was cultivated in the rich gospel tradition of the Southern Christian Church. The Presleys might have been poor but they could still go to church. They faithfully attended the Assembly of God church in Tupelo where Pentecostal worship was practiced. Dance was not allowed by the church, but those Pentecostals sure loved to sing. The experience formed his musical foundation. Elvis recalled watching the preacher belting out a tune and wildly jumping up on the piano. The preacher’s passion for music was electric – and Elvis was paying attention.

Vernon, Elvis, and Gladys Presley, 1945. Elvis was 10. In a year, he'd receive his first guitar - though he wanted a bicycle.

Elvis’ musical talent was first recognized by his fifth-grade teacher, Oleta Grimes, who, coincidentally, was the daughter of Orville Bean. She heard the moving way Elvis sang the sad ballad “Old Shep” and brought him to the attention of the school principal, who entered Elvis into a talent contest at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show. Wearing a cowboy suit and standing on a chair, Elvis, without accompaniment, sang a sad song about a boy’s love for his dog. He won second place and received a free pass to ride all the rides at the fair.

Watch a youtube recording of Elvis singing “Old Shep,” 1956 below:

Shortly after that, Elvis asked his parents to give him a bicycle. Gladys was afraid for his safety so she bought him a bicycle instead. A preacher from the Assembly of God church where they were faithful members, family members, and friends pitched in to give Elvis informal guitar lessons. He soon learned to play the piano. By 7th grade, Elvis took his guitar along with him to school.

Elvis as a teenager

One night during Elvis’ high school years, Vernon upped and moved the family from Tupelo to Memphis, Tennessee, where Elvis’ subsequent visits to Beale Street exposed him to jazz and blues and more rockabilly. Elvis began to work on his image. He didn’t wear jeans like the other boys in school; jeans were what poor people wore (and overalls), and Elvis definitely did not want to be poor. He always had a job in high school and saw that he dressed well. He wore dress pants, often in his favorite colors, pink and black. He sometimes sported a black bolero jacket.  He bought his flashy clothes at Lansky Brothers on Beale Street. He wore his collar up, his hair longer than the others. He dyed it black, slicking it back with thick gunk. He let his sideburns grow long. In the eleventh grade, the coach kicked Elvis off the football team for refusing to cut his hair (1952).

Elvis Presley's senior photo

Elvis worked as an usher at the Suzore #2 Movie Theatre which let him watch a lot of shoes. In his 1953 Hume High School senior picture, you can see that Elvis has put a permanent wave in his hair. He was copying Tony Curtis, who was the biggest star of his day. He had just completed the mega-hit, “Houdini.”

Elvis Presley in 1954, the year his career takes off
Music was Elvis’ passion. He was determined to express himself, his individuality, through his wild clothes and hair and, eventually, his music. He hung out at record shops. He visited Sun Records which had its home in Memphis. In his senior year, Elvis began to pick up local gigs with established local bands. He entered local music contests. Elvis wanted to make something of himself. Then, in 1956,  he made it – big. The hot new talent went to New York to do a recording session.

"The Kiss," 1956, shows Elvis Presley, 21 years old, baby-faced, and barely legal, kissing an unknown woman, as photographed by fledgling freelance photographer Alfred Wertheimer. RCA had hired Wertheimer to shoot publicity for their hot new young talent coming to New York for a recording session and a television appearance with steve Allen. Elvis doesn't seem to mind the intrusive camera.

Elvis loved to read and was especially wild for Marvel Comics. He admired Captain Marvel. In his Las Vegas live performances, he often wore jumpsuits with lightning bolts as his trademark – like Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel and his lightning bolt exuded power and success.

Elvis Presley "That's All Right"/"Blue Moon of Kentucky" 78 (Sun 209, 1954). This was Elvis' first record. It was produced in 78 r.p.m.

From the most humble beginnings to the dizzying heights of fame and fortune rose Elvis Aaron Presley. He continues to fascinate – and to sell records. He remains the best-selling solo artist in the history of popular music. Gifted at vocals, guitar, and piano, he was known as the King of Rock and Roll, or simply The King. Elvis didn’t like to be called The King. He felt it was sacreligious. Elvis had talent, good looks, charm, sensuality, and a genuinely good sense of humor. He was the star of 44 films – not very good films, I grant you, but very popular ones – countless  live concerts and TV performances, and has sold over 1 billion records. He was nominated for 14 Grammy Awards, winning 3, and inducted into 4 Halls of Fame.

Now that I’ve done my part in paying tribute to the Great Elvis, who left us so much joy with his unmatchable voice and moves, I can return to watching “Viva Las Vegas!” But not without saying, “Viva Elvis!”

Continue with Part 2 of my tribute to Elvis: Elvis Sings Gospel

Readers, I’ve written many posts on Elvis. Look down the right sidebar to Categories/People/Elvis. Enjoy!

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Elvis Presley (1935-1977) in August 1969, the beginning of his Las Vegas concert years

Elvis Presley (1935-1977) in August 1969, the beginning of his Las Vegas concert years

From 1969 to 1977 were Elvis’ concert years. When performing in  Las Vegas, he stayed at the International (now Hilton) Hotel, occupying the penthouse suite, room 3000. The suite was located on the 30th floor and stretched across the entire top floor.

Elvis was not alone in this sprawling suite. From the beginning of his stardom, Elvis had been accompanied by a core group of hangers-on that came to be known as the “Memphis Mafia.” By the seventies, Elvis was spending day and night with his party animal buddies, cousins from Memphis and Army buddies whose common bond was service to “the King” and who hung around him for the money, clothes, cars, and leftover girls. What began in the fifties as a group of a few guys following in Elvis’ wake had swelled into a greedy crowd.

As Elvis’ fame spread and his addiction to prescription drugs deepened, Elvis became ever more sealed off from the real world and exceedingly dependent upon the Memphis Mafia. According to Patrick Humphries, these men “acted as Elvis’ bodyguards, babysitters, drug procurers, girl-getters, mates and carbuyers.” Elvis was emotionally unstable and dangerous to himself and others, especially when there were guns lying around.

Elvis after a Las Vegas Concert, with Linda Thompson, March 21, 1976. His last concert would be the following December. He would then die of an overdose eight months after that, in August, 1977.

Elvis after a Las Vegas Concert, with Linda Thompson, March 21, 1976. He would then die of an apparent drug overdose in August, 1977.

Actress, songwriter, and former Miss Tennessee USA Linda Thompson dated Elvis during those days. In an interview with Andrew Hearn, she recounts a frightening incident when Elvis got a little trigger happy:

I’d just happened to have come out of the shower at the Las Vegas Hilton, the presidential suite, and he [Elvis] was lying on the sofa. In those days, they had these huge bull’s eye advertisements. Vegas came alive when Elvis was there and they had these billboards, posters, and placards. So he had one of these enormous bull’s eye things in the suite and he decided that he would just shoot for the target. It was a kind of cardboard cut-out of his name with this bull’s eye…like hit the mark, come see Elvis…whatever. So, Elvis pulled out his gun and shot at the bull’s eye and the bullet went through the wall, which was adjacent to my bathroom. It went through the wall, then through the toilet paper holder, which was metal, out through a mirrored door and shattererd it. I was standing at the sink and I heard ting, ting, and the sound of glass breaking. I felt the air behind my leg. When I looked down, there was a bullet hole in the door behind me. I opened that door and there was another shattered glass door and a bullet lying there.

I knew exactly what was happening. James Caughley came in and said, “Linda, are you okay?” and I said, Yeah, what the ____ was that?” and he said that it was just Elvis having a little target practice.” (1)

These shootings were common occurrences. Elvis had a stockpile of weapons and liked to shoot things. He once shot his car when it wouldn’t start. He shot up small appliances, and, on occasion, large ones. He shot at chandeliers and light switches. But what he became well-known for was shooting at the TV every time the singer Robert Goulet came on a program, as some claim.

Why did Elvis shoot out the TV set when Goulet appeared?  Did he hate Goulet as a person or a singer, or both?

407164camelot-postersIt is believed that Elvis hated Robert Goulet, best known for his portrayal of the dashing Prince Lancelot in the Broadway musical production of “Camelot” in 1960. Some say Elvis despised Robert Goulet because he didn’t sing with feeling. Others blame the bad blood on a letter Elvis received when he was in the Army in Germany (1958-1960). His hometown girlfriend, Anita Wood (see previous post, “The Elvis Sandwich“) had written him a letter, telling her how she was doing. She was, at the time, performing with Buddy Hackett and Robert Goulet. She stupidly allowed Robert Goulet to write a postscript at the bottom of her letter to Elvis in which Goulet told Elvis not to worry about Anita as he was looking after her. Elvis became green with jealousy and was incensed with Goulet. (2)

Or was Elvis resentful of Goulet because Goulet was his rival on the music scene when Elvis returned home from Germany? After all, after Goulet’s triumph in “Camelot,” he was called the next great matinee idol. In 1961, the New York Daily News Magazine called Goulet “just the man to help stamp out rock ‘n’ roll.” Judy Garland described the suave Goulet as a living 8-by-10 glossy. He had blue bedroom eyes, and female fans would toss him their room keys during his concerts.

Robert Goulet as Lancelot and Julie Andrews as Queen Guenevere in the 1960 Broadway production of "Camelot"

Yet even another possibility exists for Elvis’ dislike of Goulet. On May 25, 1965, Goulet mangled the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Muhammed Ali-Sonny Liston heavyweight championship fight. He replaced the lyrics “dawn’s early light” with “dawn’s early night” and “gave proof through the night” with “gave proof through the fight.” Although Goulet had been born in Massachusetts, his parentage was French-Canadian, and people were outraged that he didn’t know the words of the United States National Anthem. His gaffe was widely reported and he never lived the incident down.

Robert Goulet (1933-2007) had heard about Elvis shooting out TVs whenever he saw him singing on a television program. Goulet insisted, though, that Elvis bore him no ill will and was actually his friend. He dismissed the assertion that Elvis shot out the TV only when he came on it to sing. He claimed that Elvis shot the TV when other singers like Mel Torme and Frank Sinatra came on. Goulet did not think he was the select target.

On August 14, 2004, right in the middle of Elvis week, Goulet was in Memphis, Tennessee, Elvis’ hometown and the site of Graceland, Elvis’ home, and sat down for an interview with Christopher Blank of the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper:

“The 70-year-old entertainer Robert Goulet is in Memphis to play King Arthur in “Camelot” at the Orpheum Theater through Sunday. Since it’s Elvis Week, we asked Goulet about his part in a well-known anecdote about Elvis: The king of rock and roll was known to aim a gun at his television when he saw something there that displeased him.

THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL: And now I’ve got to ask you what my colleagues say is going to be the hardest question.

GOULET: I’m not Jewish. I’m not gay.

CA: No, those are easy.

GOULET: (Laughs.)

CA: You know Memphis is an Elvis town and you factor into a local legend.

andy-warhol-elvis-poster-c10136679GOULET: When he shot the television set? He also shot 50 other people. They told me that he had about a hundred sets in the basement. And he’d shoot the ___ thing out – you know he was on pills and he didn’t know quite what he was doing and he’d BANG! and they’d look at each other and say, “Get another set!” They mention me all the time. I don’t know why. I remember once we sat together backstage for two hours. And he was a charming, delightful, delightful man. And at one point I said, “That’s a beautiful ring you have there.” He said “You like it?” I said, “It’s beautiful!”

He took it off his hand and put it on mine. He gave me his ring. And years later all the jewelry I had in my house – I trust everybody. I was brought up to believe that you cannot steal, cheat or lie and I’ve been stolen from, cheated or lied to all of my life. And so jewelry – who needs it? But this one was something special to me and it’s gone.

CA: Somebody took it?

GOULET: I hired a guy to take care of my house when I was gone. I’m so naive it’s ridiculous. ‘Cause, you know, when we hire people today we do a background check. I didn’t do that. . . . I was in Dallas doing something and I got a call from LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department). “We have a Stutz Blackhawk, silver, with gold trim with RGG license plate?” I said “You have it? How do you have it?” “Well, we saw this guy going through Watts driving this car with the window open throwing out hundred dollar bills.” He had taken all my jewelry and everything else I had of import and taken my car and driven it down to L.A. But all my good stuff is just gone, finished. It’s all part of dying.

CA: So tell me a little more about the Elvis connection. We write so much about Elvis here. What was your reaction when you heard he’d shot the TV?

GOULET: The point is I knew he was not himself so therefore it wasn’t anything to do with me. He shot out Mel Torme. He shot out Frank. But I get all the credit.”

(2) West, Sonny. Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business. Chicago: Triumph Books, 2007.


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Private Presley with his first public girlfriend, Anita Wood from Memphis

Private Presley with his first public girlfriend, Anita Wood from Memphis

Anita Wood and Elvis got to know each other in Memphis, Elvis’ hometown, and were close friends from 1957-1962. She wrote to him in Germany where he was stationed with the U.S. Army. Years later she was interviewed about her relationship with Elvis, and recalled:

“He called me Little because I was very small at the time, tiny. ‘Little girl, go fix me a sandwich, peanut butter and jelly sandwich.’ Now, you know, back when I fixed a sandwich for him, we mixed up the peanut butter and banana together. We didn’t put it [the sandwich] in butter and put it in a skillet. We just put [the mixture] on white bread. But…the other day, this man was fixing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that Elvis liked and they sliced the bananas in thick slices and put it in this butter and cooked it…so he [Elvis] may have started liking that later. But when I was dating him [1957-1962], he liked just a plain old-fashioned mashed banana [sandwich].”

The Elvis Sandwich (sometimes simply “The Elvis”) is a fried sandwich consisting of peanut butter, bananas, and sometimes bacon. It was supposedly one of Elvis Presley’s favorite foods.

The Elvis Sandwich appears open-faced before it is closed and fried.

The Elvis Sandwich appears open-faced before it is closed and fried.

The Elvis Sandwich is simple to make. This recipe comes from his cook:

Toast two slices of soft white bread in a toaster. Spread peanut butter on one slice, slice banana on top of the peanut butter, and cover with the other piece of toast. Fry the sandwich in a hot skillet with melted butter.

Elvis Presley joined the U.S. Army in March 25, 1958, completing his basic training at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, and serving in Germany.

Elvis Presley joined the U.S. Army in March 25, 1958, completing his basic training at Fort Hood, Texas, and serving in Germany.



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Elvis was an expert at Kenpo Karate. His Karate name was Tiger.

Elvis was an expert at Kenpo Karate. His Karate name was Tiger.

On a flight from L.A. to Washington, D.C., on Dec. 21, 1970, Elvis wrote this letter to President Richard M. Nixon:

Mr. President:

First I would like to introduce myself. I am Elvis Presley and admire you and Have Great Respect for your office. I talked to Vice President Agnew in Palm Springs a week ago and expressed my concern for our country. The Drug Culture, The Hippie Elements, the SDS, Black Panthers, etc do not consider me as their enemy or as they call it The Establishment. I call it America and I Love it. Sir I can and will be of any Service that I can to help the country out. I have no concerns or motives other than helping the country out. So I wish not to be given a title or an appointed position, I can and will do more good if I were made a Federal Agent at Large, and I will help out by doing it my way through my communications with people of all ages.

December 21, 1970 letter from Elvis to President Nixon

December 21, 1970 letter from Elvis to President Nixon

First and Foremost I am an entertainer but all I need is the Federal credentials. I am on the Plane with Sen. George Murphy and We have been discussing the problems that our country is faced with. Sir I am Staying at the Washington hotel [sic] Room 505-506-507. I have 2 men who work with me by the name of Jerry Schilling and Sonny West. I am registered under the name of Jon Burrows. I will be here for as long as it takes to get the credentials of a Federal Agent. I have done in depth study of Drug Abuse and Communist Brainwashing Techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing, where I can and will do the most good. I am Glad to help just so long as it is kept very Private. You can have your staff or whomever call me anytime today tonight or Tomorrow. I was nominated the coming year one of America’s Ten Most outstanding young men. That will be in January 18 in my Home Town of Memphis Tenn. I am sending you the short autobiography about myself so you can better understand this approach. I would love to meet you just to say hello if you’re not too busy.Respectfully,
Elvis Presley

When he landed in Washington, Elvis checked into the Hotel Washington across the street from the White House. He then delivered the letter to the White House. A 12:30 meeting was hurriedly scheduled for Elvis to meet President Nixon in the Oval Office.

President Richard Nixon received Elvis Presley in the Oval Office, Dec. 21, 1970

President Richard Nixon received Elvis Presley in the Oval Office, Dec. 21, 1970

At the meeting, Elvis made his pitch to the president to help him in his “drug drive” and to restore respect for the American flag. But what Elvis really wanted was a badge. Elvis had an abiding respect for law enforcement officials and had an extensive badge collection from his travels across the U.S. Elvis had become inflamed with the desire to be deputized by the federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD). This obsession was the whole purpose for his spur-of-the-moment, cross-country flight to Washington, D.C.

Badge presented to Elvis Presley deputizing him as a special agent of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs

Badge presented to Elvis Presley deputizing him as a special agent of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs

After lunch in the White House mess and a tour of the White House, Elvis was presented with the BNDD badge by BNDD deputy director John Finlator at White House aide Bud Krogh’s office. Finlator promised to send along additional credentials.

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Elvis performing "Hound Dog" ("The Milton Berle Show," June 5, 1956)

Elvis performing "Hound Dog" ("The Milton Berle Show," June 5, 1956)

In my last post, “Elvis the Pelvis,” I wrote about Elvis’ sensational and controversial performance on “The Milton Berle Show” (NBC) on June 5, 1956, when he sang “Hound Dog.” His playful yet sensual rendition of the blues number – his hips gyrated provocatively  – rocketed Elvis to fame while also unleashing a floodgate of criticism. Elvis was too sexy for prime time TV, some said.

Ed Sullivan, host of “The Ed Sullivan Show,” CBS’ long-running (1948-1971), top-rated Sunday night variety show. Ed is shown with the little lovable Italian mouse puppet, Topo Gigio, that made more than fifty Sullivan appearances. On the show, Topo Gigio greeted Ed with a sugary "Hello Eddie!" and ended his weekly visits by crooning to the host, "Eddie, Keesa me goo'night!"

Ed Sullivan, host of “The Ed Sullivan Show,” CBS’ long-running (1948-1971), top-rated Sunday night variety show. Ed is shown with the little lovable Italian mouse puppet, Topo Gigio, that made more than fifty Sullivan appearances. On the show, Topo Gigio greeted Ed with a sugary "Hello Eddie!" and ended his weekly visits by crooning to the host, "Eddie, Keesa me goo'night!"

At the time, TV variety and comedy shows were the rage and “The Ed Sullivan Show” (CBS) was  the #1 show on TV. The host of the top-rated Sunday night show was Ed Sullivan, nicknamed “Old Stone Face” for his deadpan delivery. But Ed Sullivan made up for what he lacked in personality in instinct. He had a knack for spotting talent and promoting it. Many entertainers who began on his program became household names. But Ed was a family-minded man. Elvis Presley may have been the flavor of the day, the month, or even the year, but Ed let it be known that he didn’t consider Elvis family entertainment and that he would never allow Elvis to appear on his show.

But TV ratings are hard to ignore for TV hosts. This was 1956, the infancy of TV programming. While only 0.5% of U.S. households had a television set in 1946, 55.7% had one in 1954. ABC existed but only began to air programs like “Leave it to Beaver” in the mid-1950s. The only two TV networks were NBC and CBS.  In 1956, NBC offered Steve Allen a new, prime time Sunday night aimed at dethroning CBS’ top-rated “Ed Sullivan Show.” It was NBC’s aim for Steve Allen to defeat Ed Sullivan in the ratings.

Comedian Steve Allen’s personal distaste for rock and roll didn’t cloud his business sense. He needed a ratings boost and Elvis was hot stuff. Steve had seen Elvis on another TV show, didn’t catch his name, but was enchanted by his gangly, country-boy charm. He sent a memo to his staff to find out who the entertainer was and book him for “The Steve Allen Show.” They booked Elvis for a July 1, 1956, performance on “The Steve Allen Show,” three weeks after Elvis’ performance on “The Milton Berle Show.” From the time of the memo to the date Elvis performed on “The Steve Allen Show,” Steve’s show outperformed Ed Sullivan’s in the ratings game.

Writing in Hi, Ho, Steverino!, Steve Allen recalls:

Elvis singing "Hound Dog" ("The Steve Allen Show," July 1, 1956)

Elvis singing "Hound Dog" ("The Steve Allen Show," July 1, 1956)

When I booked Elvis, I naturally had no interest in just presenting him vaudeville-style and letting him do his spot as he might in concert. Instead we worked him into the comedy fabric of our program. I asked him to sing “Hound Dog” (which he had recorded just the day before) dressed in a classy Fred Astaire wardrobe–white tie and tails–and surrounded him with graceful Greek columns and hanging draperies that would have been suitable for Sir Laurence Olivier reciting Shakespeare.
For added laughs, I had him sing the number to a sad-faced basset hound that sat on a low column and also wore a little top hat. We certainly didn’t inhibit Elvis’ then-notorious pelvic gyrations, but I think the fact that he had on formal evening attire made him, purely on his own, slightly alter his presentation.

Elvis Presley with his manager, the notorious "Colonel Parker"

Elvis Presley with his manager, the notorious "Colonel Parker"

“Inasmuch as Elvis later made appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, I’ve often been asked why I didn’t make the same arrangements with him myself. Here’s the reason: Before we even left the studio the night Elvis appeared on our show, Ed telephoned Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, backstage at our own theatre. So desperate was he to make the booking, in fact, that he broke what had until that moment been a $7,500 price ceiling on star-guests, offering the Colonel $10,000 per shot. Parker told Sullivan he’d get back to him, walked over to us, shared the news of Sullivan’s offer, and said, ‘I feel a sense a loyalty to you fellows because you booked Elvis first, when we needed the booking; so if you’ll meet Sullivan’s terms we’ll be happy to continue to work on your program.’

“I thanked him for his frankness but told him I thought he should accept Ed’s offer. The reason, primarily, was that I didn’t think it reasonable to continue to have to construct sketches and comic gimmicks in which Presley, a noncomic, could appear. Ed’s program, having a vaudeville-variety format, was a more appropriate showcase for Elvis’ type of performance.

“For his own part, Elvis had a terrific time with us and lent himself willingly to our brand of craziness. He was an easy-going, likeable, and accommodating performer. He quickly become the biggest star in the country; but when I ran into him from time-to-time over the years it was clear that he had never let his enormous success go to his head.”

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Elvis Presley (1935-1977) The King of Rock 'n' Roll

Elvis Presley (1935-1977) The King of Rock 'n' Roll

With the release of his first record album in April, 1956, Elvis Presley began to receive lucrative offers for TV, Las Vegas, and movie appearances. On April 1, he made a screen test for Paramount Pictures and would go on to make the picture, “Love Me Tender.” On April 3, he sang “Heartbreak Hotel” on NBC-TV’s “The Milton Berle Show,” and received rave reviews, causing Berle’s TV rival, Ed Sullivan, to sit up and take notice.

On April 23, he went to Las Vegas, where he was scheduled to perform until May 6, but his show was such a flop with the middle-aged audiences that his manager, Colonel Parker, cut the run from four weeks to two. While there, though, Elvis stopped by the Sands Hotel and saw Freddie Bell and the Bellboys live. It was a game-changing moment. He heard them sing Leiber and Stoller’s blues song “Hound Dog” and loved their version of it. With Freddie’s blessing, Elvis added “Hound Dog” to his live performances.

Then, on June 5, Elvis made Rock-n-Roll History and catapulted to superstardom. It was his second appearance on “The Milton Berle Show.” Backed up by the Jordanaires, he performed “Hound Dog” before a studio and TV audience. His sensual rendition of the bluesy song both electrified and stunned the nation. At the beginning of the number, Elvis gave it a standard, upbeat tempo. Then, halfway through the number, he slowed down the beat to a crawl, swiveling his hips in time to the music, and driving the studio audience wild with his raw sex appeal. Some critics likened Elvis’ performance to a striptease. The next day, he was referred to as “Elvis the Pelvis” and an international campaign began to keep him off the airwaves.

Watch the clip below. June 5, 1956. “The Milton Berle Show.” Elvis Presley sings “Hound Dog.”

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Confederate General Robert E. Lee, seated, with 2 of his officers, photographed by Mathew Brady in April, 1865, following Lee's surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House in Richmond, Virginia.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee, seated, with 2 of his officers, photographed by Mathew Brady in April, 1865, following Lee's surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House in Richmond, Virginia.

At daylight on April 10, 1865, the firing of 500 cannons spread the news throughout Washington, D.C.,  that the War Between the States was over and the Union preserved. The cannons were so loud that they broke windows on Lafayette Square, the neighborhood around the White House. (1) “Guns are firing, bells ringing, flags flying, bands playing, men laughing, children cheering – all, all jubilant,” wrote Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells. (2)

Expecting the president to make a speech, several thousand people gathered outside the White House. President Lincoln was not sure what to say as he was planning on giving a formal address the following evening.Just then, his twelve-year-old son Tad appeared at a second-floor window, waving a captured Confederate flag. It gave the president an idea. He asked the Marine Band to play a favorite tune of his, “Dixie,” the unofficial Confederate anthem.

“I have always thought ‘Dixie” one of the best tunes I ever heard,” he told the surprised crowd. “It is good to show the rebels that with us they will be free to hear it again.”

True to the promise he made in his second inaugural address, Lincoln was already trying to bind up the nation’s wounds.
Now let’s hear Elvis Presley sing “Dixie.”

(1) White, Ronald C. A. Lincoln. (New York: Random House, 2009)

(2) Fleming, Candace. The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary. (New York: Schwartz & Wade, 2008)

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