Oh, there was once a time, children
Nothing all that notable about 1956, aside from the Hungarian revolt and also the fact that a 21-year-old sallow faced truck driver from Memphis, late of Tupelo, Miss., the only son of a sharecropper/moonshiner and an overprotective mother came under public scrutiny for the first time and, quite simply, changed the mores of society – forever.
Elvis Presley made his first national television appearance early that year on the Dorsey Brothers TV show. Nobody knew what the hell to make of this kid back in the days of Perry Como. The crying plaints of Johnny Ray had been hard enough to deal with, but who was this weirdly dressed white kid with the greasy ducktail, sideburns, who was singing raucous versions of what, in that day, was known as ‘race’ music.
Around that same time his recently acquired manager/mentor, one old carny conman named Col. Tom Parker, bought out Elvis’s contract with Memphis-based Sun Records for a paltry 40 grand and signed the kid with RCA. It was the big time, and Elvis’s slow segue into a premature death had already begun.
I only mention this because our nearby PBS affiliate in Seattle ran an offering Saturday night which was a documentary of Presley’s 1956 performances at various venues including the Louisiana Hayride program, the Dorseys, Steve Allen and ultimately Ed Sullivan, which was the true diamond show amongst the zircons. Once you made the Sullivan Show you had made ‘it.’
I loved the PBS offering and it took me back to the degree that I almost got misty at moments. I was just a young kid at the time, but I remember my father decrying this aberration and him suggesting he was an addled drug addict because of the shadows under his eyes. Little did he know that this was actually the dawning of the age of Aquarius, not all that hippie crap that came later.
Presley, meanwhile, saw himself as a kind of natural successor to the recently deceased truly cool cat of the era, James Dean. James Dean with a Tony Curtis hairstyle.
Of course, it is really the 1956 version of Presley that always had allure for me. He was unspoiled, relatively innocent – didn’t smoke, drink or cuss, and always called his male elders ‘Sir.’ And the music of the Sun Collection is proto-Presley, with such gems as Blue Moon of Kentucky, That’s All Right Mama, Milk Cow Blues Boogie, My Happiness (his Mama’s favorite), and a few others. Pure gems are they in their mixture of rhythm, blues, rock and boogie. And, in those days, while the guitar was his primary axe, he also pounded out a mean piano. He was no Jerry Lee or Little Richard in that regard, but he wasn’t bad. Especially when the musically astute Jordanaires were still backing him up. Presley was always a quartet in those days, never the solo act he later became.
And never the bloated, and uninspiring Vegas lounge act he ultimately became, sporting his black-dyed Wayne Newton hair (he was actually blonde in those early days), and sweating profusely into those silk scarves, which he pitched to orgasmic matrons who should have been ashamed of their histrionics. As a kind of ironic aside, his first Vegas show in 1956 was an utter bomb.
What he became was a sad reminder of pathetic mismanagement and advantage taking by city slickers, and his demise was kind of a tragedy.
But, by golly, there was a time.