The Musical Legacy of Elvis Presley: To 1956
9 top Elvis Presley songs from 1954-1956: That’s All Right, I Forgot to Remember to Forget, Blue Moon of Kentucky, Heartbreak Hotel, Blue Suede Shoes, I Want You, I Need You, I Love You, Hound Dog, Don’t Be Cruel, Love Me Tender
Elvis Aaron Presley was born on January 8, 1936 in Tupelo, Mississippi to Gladys and Veron Presley; his twin brother Jesse Garon Presley was stillborn in the hour before Elvis was safely delivered.
During his childhood in Tupelo, Elvis was close to his family and inspired by the gospel music at their Assembly of God church. Presley’s first musical performance was at a fair singing contest in 1945 when he was ten years old; he placed fifth. Friends and family taught Elvis how to play the guitar he was given as his 11th birthday gift in 1946, and he began bringing it to school to play and sing “hillbilly” music during lunch time.
The Presleys moved to Memphis, Tennessee in 1948, where his eighth grade music teacher told him he had no aptitude for singing. A shy boy, Presley had few friends. In high school Elvis grew his sideburns out, slicked his hair back, and headed down to Memphis’s music scene on Beale Street (where B.B. King was a contemporary before they both became famous) to listen to mostly black African/Americans sing the blues.
Elvis Presley’s musical idols were country singers like Hank Snow, Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Tubb, and Roy Acuff, and gospel singers Jake Hess and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. He worked as an usher in a movie theater and studied his actor idols James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Tony Curtis.
In April 1953, just before he graduated from L.C. Humes High School, Elvis overcame his shyness and performed ‘Til I Waltz Again With You in the school’s annual “Minstrel” show, and said his popularity in school zoomed. He took 14-year-old Regis Wilson to the L.C. Humes Hugh School senior prom in 1953.
After high school, Elvis Presley recorded a couple of single records at the Sun Records Company in Memphis, Tennessee in August 1953, and again in January 1954. Sun Records secretary Marion Keisker thought he had potential, but owner Sam Phillips didn’t bite.
Presley worked as a truck driver and tried out as a singer for various local Memphis groups, but was rejected and told he couldn’t sing.
In January 1954, 18-year-old Elvis noticed 14-year-old Dixie Locke at his Assembly of God church; they began dating (although not exclusively) within a few weeks, a relationship that last for a couple of years; he escorted Dixie to her junior and senior proms in 1954 and 1955 before they drifted apart.
Finally in July 1954, Sam Phillips (founder of Sun Records in Memphis) asked 18-year-old Elvis Presley to sing some songs and was impressed enough to set up a recording session for Elvis with local guitarist Scotty (Winfield) Moore and bass player Bill Black. At the end of a long and frustrating session, Presley picked up his guitar and began singing That’s All Right, written by blues singer-songwriter Arthur Crudup. Phillips had found the singer he’d been looking for: “A white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel.” When That’s All Right single was played on local Memphis radio, the station was bombarded with calls requesting the song and the name of the singer; many assumed he was black. Below, Elvis Presley singing That’s All Right in 1954.
Elvis Presley began to do live performances with Scotty Moore and Bill Black, forming a trio. Celebrating his early success, Presley bought his first Cadillac and they drove it to gigs; it would be the first of many Cadillacs for Elvis Presley, who eventually acquired an extensive car collection. When the first Cadillac was destroyed in a roadside file in June 1955, Elvis bought another new Cadillac as a gift for his mother Gladys Presley, and had it painted pink by a Memphis neighbour. Gladys Presley couldn’t drive, so the pink Cadillac was mostly used by Elvis and the band during the rest of 1955 and 1956.
I Forgot to Remember to Forget written by Stan Kesler and Charlie Feathers, was recorded by Elvis Presley at Sun Records in July 1955 and released on August 20, 1955; RCA Victor re-released it in December 1955. I Forgot to Remember to Forget went to #1 on the Country music charts in February 1956 for two weeks; staying on the country charts for a full 39 weeks. Below, Elvis Presley sings I Forgot to Remember to Forget on the Louisiana Hayride in 1955.
In the summer of 1955 summer, Elvis had met 17-year-old June Juanico from Biloxi, Mississippi, at one of his concerts and they began dating. The bluegrass song Blue Moon of Kentucky (written by Bill Monroe in 1946 and intended as a waltz) had been recorded as the “B” side to That’s All Right in 1954. In Elvis Presley’s first and only appearance on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, in October 1954 he sang Blue Moon of Kentucky. Although the Grand Old Opry crowd was underwhelmed, Presley’s performance resulted in a year-long contract for the trio on the Louisiana Hayride show broadcast from Shreveport, Louisiana. Below, Elvis singing Blue Moon of Kentucky on the Louisiana Hayride.
During the rest of 1954 and 1955, the trio toured and performed in other venues from Tennessee to Texas and Elvis had gained some fame in that region of the south with older baby boomers and young adults. Colonel Tom Parker signed Presley to perform on country singer Hank Snow’s February 1955 tour and took note of the singer. On March 3, 1955 Elvis Presley made his television debut on a broadcast of Louisiana Hayride. In August of 1955 Sun Records had 10 Elvis Presley singles in the vault but it was proving hard to get wider radio airplay for Elvis because of his unique rockabilly sound – neither true country, nor R&B music.
By the end of 1955 the trio had added a drummer and was now a quartet, and with the help of Colonel Tom Parker in a “Special Advisor”role, 20-year-old Elvis Presley had signed a record deal with RCA Victor (who bought out his Sun Records contract). Elvis was actively involved in producing most of his recorded songs, changing arrangements to suit his musical style, but he was usually un-credited for this. Ironically, when Colonel Tom Parker officially became Elvis Presley’s manager in March 1956 he began to demand songwriters add Presley’s name to song-writing credits if they wanted him to perform their songs.
As 1956 began, Elvis had begun dating a friend of Dixie Locke’s, Barbara Hearn; according to Barbara, Dixie and Elvis had already parted ways. Barbara Hearn and Elvis dated steadily (on Barbara’s part) throughout 1956.
At the end of January 1956 Elvis Presley’s recording of Heartbreak Hotel, written by Mae Boren Axton, Thomas Durden, was released. Elvis was now joined by The Jordanaires as backup singers and more musicians, and Elvis was added to the song-writing credits.
By mid-1956, Heartbreak Hotel was a #1 hit on pop and country music chart for more than two months. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison (The Beatles), Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones), and Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin) have all said hearing the Elvis Presley sing Heartbreak Hotel, was a major influence on their own music and the progression of rock and roll music. Countless baby boomer and later artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Ann-Margret, Cher, Bob Dylan, Tom Jones, Neil Diamond, and many others have since recorded Heartbreak Hotel. The song has inspired or been featured in several movies including Heartbreak Hotel (1988) and Honeymoon in Vegas (1992).
Below, Elvis Presley performing Heartbreak Hotel on the Milton Berle Show in April 1956, demonstrating his trademark moves.
Blue Suede Shoes had been written by singer-songwriter Carl Perkins in 1955 and Perkins had a #1 hit with the song after he released it in February 1956. While in New York City in mid-March to appear on the weekly television series Stage Show with big band leaders and brothers Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Elvis recorded Blue Suede Shoes at the RCA New York studio. Unfortunately Carl Perkins was sidelined due to a serious car accident on his way to New York City the following week to perform on The Perry Como Show, and Perkins’ singing career from that point on was overshadowed by Elvis Presley.
Because Elvis knew Perkins personally, he asked RCA Victor to hold back from releasing his cover version as a single while Carl Perkin’s version was still hot on the charts. Although Elvis Presley performed Blue Suede Shoes live on television 3 times in 1956 – including on Stage Show in March the week before Perkin’s accident – and the song was on his first album that year for RCA, Presley’s single of Blue Suede Shoes wasn’t released by RCA until September 1956. Elvis’ single of Blue Suede Shoes didn’t fare as well as Perkin’s earlier in the year, only getting to #20, but it remains one of his trademark songs beloved by baby boomers as well as older and younger generations.
Presley had told his new manager Colonel Tom Parker that he wanted to be an actor in movies; Parker arranged for Presley to have a screen test with film producer Hal Wallis in March 1956 at Paramount Studios. Although Elvis didn’t want to sing in his movies because he wanted to be taken seriously as an actor, and his screen test showed he could act, Parker had other ideas.
By the end of April 1956, Heartbreak Hotel was a #1 hit record; Elvis Presley performed a two-week residency in Las Vegas and while there, met a young dancer named Marilyn Evans, whom he began dating while in Las Vegas. Elvis’ girlfriend June Juanico complained that Colonel Tom Parker kept telling Elvis to date actresses and Las Vegas showgirls for the publicity. Presley also signed a 1-year contract with Paramount Pictures, with a 6-year option. Wallis promised Elvis he would look for dramatic roles. Presley began a tour of the mid-west and started closing his show with a cover of the blues song Hound Dog written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Hound Dog was originally written by Leiber and Stoller for blues singer Big Mama Thornton in 1952, who had a hit with it that year.
In April 1956 Elvis took a break in his touring schedule to fly from Amarillo, Texas to Nashville, Tennessee, to record a new single at the RCA Studios. On the way, his airplane developed engine trouble and dropped unexpectedly several times, shaking up Elvis and his band members. A rocky recording session ensued on April 14, 1956 and RCA producer Steve Sholes ended up having to splice two different takes of the song I Want You, I Need You, I Love You together to come up with the final version. I Want You, I Need You, I Love You was written by Maurice Mysels and Ira Kosloff; after it’s May 1956 release it went to #1 on the Country music charts , #3 on the Top 100 charts. Below, Elvis Presley singing of I Want You, I Need You, I Love You live on The Steve Allen Show in July 1956.
Elvis appeared on the Milton Berle Show again in June 1956 and performed Hound Dog live on television for the first time. A controversy ignited in the press because of his body movements and Ed Sullivan said he was “unfit for family viewing.” The nickname “Elvis the Pelvis” began to be heard, annoying Elvis. Elvis Presley finally recorded Hound Dog on July 2, 1956, at RCA recording studios in New York City. Elvis Presley’s rendition of Hound Dog was a #1 hit single for 11 weeks on the Pop, Country, and R&B charts, selling over 10 million copies; it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1988 and recognized as one of the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock And Roll” by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Below, Elvis sings Hound Dog live on the Steve Allen Show on July 1, 1956 – for the first time, the Steve Allen Show beats The Ed Sullivan Show in the ratings.
At the same July 2 recording session at RCA New York, Elvis also recorded the first song brought to him by his new publishers Hill and Range. Hill and Range required that songwriters give up 30-50% of their royalties, in order for Elvis to record their songs. Don’t Be Cruel was written by songwriter Otis Blackwell and Elvis Presley’s recording of it was released in July 1956, knocking Hound Dog off the #1 spot on the Pop and Country charts, and taking over the #1 spot on the R&B charts as well. Don’t Be Cruel was the #2 top selling single of 1956, and Presley’s biggest single of the year. Don’t Be Cruel has since been covered by other artists including Connie Francis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jackie Wilson, and Debbie Harry among others; it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002, and consistently ranked in the Top 200 greatest songs of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.
Ed Sullivan had to change his position on Elvis, since he had become an undeniable phenomenon. Sullivan booked Presley – to the tune of an incredible (at the time) $50,000 – to make three appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. Below, 60 million viewers watched Elvis Presley perform Don’t Be Cruel live on The Ed Sullivan Show on September 9 1956. At the end of the performance, Sullivan tells audience that Presley is “a real decent, fine boy“.
According to an Elvis.com article, Elvis and his girlfriend June Juanico took a three week vacation after he finished recording Hound Dog and Don’t Be Cruel. Despite this, and their talk about getting married (Elvis told her Colonel Parker had told him he could not get married) June has said that she and Elvis never slept together.
By October 18, 1956 Elvis Presley went out for a drive in one of his Cadillacs, and pulled into a Memphis service stations to get the vehicle checked out. A crowd gathered at the sight of Elvis and the Cadillac, and he began signing autographs. The station owner asked him to move the car so other customers could get to the gas pumps, and a minor scuffle ensued. Both men were arrested and Elvis was charged with assault and disorderly conduct, but the charges were dismissed the next day. When a jealous husband challenged to Presley to a fight a month later in a bar, the fight was over quickly with no injuries to either man. Elvis was already encountering the negative side of fame and being a sex symbol.
Presley’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show firmly cemented him and rock and roll in the hearts of baby boomer fans. He’d already begun working on his first movie role in August, a historical/western for 20th Century Fox that he’d been loaned to from Paramount. The movie’s title was changed from The Reno Brothers to Love Me Tender (1956), for a musical number that Elvis would perform in the movie. Love Me Tender the movie was panned by critics but did well at the box office when released in November 1956.
The lyrics to the movie’s title song Love Me Tender (1956) were adapted by songwriter Ken Darby (he used the pseudonym of Vera Matson) from the American Civil War ballad Aura Lee (with a mandatory songwriting credit to Elvis Presley). Elvis recorded Love Me Tender in August 1956 at the 20th Century Fox Studios in Los Angeles, California, and performed it in September during his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. By the time the single Love Me Tender was released in October 1956, it was already a gold record due to the volume of advance orders that followed Presley’s Ed Sullivan appearance. Love Me Tender went to #1 on the Billboard charts in November 1956 and made it to #3 on the R&B charts as well. Love Me Tender has since been recorded by numerous artists, and Presley re-recorded it as a duet with Frank Sinatra in 1960. Barbra Streisand sampled Elvis Presley’s recording to create a duet version with him in 2014. Below, Elvis Presley singing the title track in the movie Love Me Tender (1956).
Elvis and Las Vegas dancer Marilyn Evans had kept in touch by phone and he invited her to stay at his Memphis home for a week in December 1956. In 2008, now septuagenarian senior citizen Marilyn Evans recounted her experience with Elvis for the Chicago Tribune, and says they did not sleep together: “He was extremely honorable. He was young; I was young.”
On December 4, 1956, Elvis dropped into Sun Records while he was in Memphis and brought Marilyn along. New Sun recording artist Johnny Cash had already stopped by to get some money from Sam Phillips, and Carl Perkins was there to record songs with Jerry Lee Lewis brought in to play piano. The four musicians jammed together and sang each other’s songs, along with gospel and country tunes. The jam session became known as The Million Dollar Quartet and the recordings from it were released in 1981 with 17 tracks. The Million Dollar Quartet was made into a stage musical and after premiering in Chicago in 2007, went on to Broadway and has been a touring production ever since. In 2016 CMT is preparing to launch a new 8-episode television series Million Dollar Quartet based on the sessions.
At the end of 1956 Elvis Presley was declared by Billboard to have placed more songs in the top 100 than any other artist since they had begun charting records. Presley accounted for more than 50% of all of RCA Records singles sales in 1956. His star was fully launched.
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