Jul 10, 2015

How Television Marked Key Transitions in Elvis Presley's Career

Members of the club met to discuss Channeling Elvis: How Television Saved the King of Rock 'n' Roll by Allen Wiener. The book was published in Kindle and paperback editions. As usual the meeting was held at the:

Kensington Row Bookshop
3786 Howard Ave
Kensington, MD 20895

The bookshop has a limited number of previously owned copies of the book available for sale.

Prior to the meeting, author and long time club member Allen Wiener provided this set of links to online videos of Elvis performing on the television shows discussed in the book:
  • Elvis’ first & second appearances (Jan. 28 & Feb. 4, 1956) on Stage Show, hosted by the Dorsey Brothers, introduced by Bill Randle: Feb 4

  • On the Milton Berle Show (infamous “Hound Dog” performance + Debra Paget) (June 5 1956)
  • On the Steve Allen Show (July 1, 1956):
  • Elvis’ first of 3 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show (Sept. 9, 1956):
  • Elvis sings “Peace in the Valley”, closing his final appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show; and Ed Sullivan’s warm endorsement of him (January 6, 1957):
  • Clips from Frank Sinatra’s “Timex” show, including duet with Elvis (May 12, 1960):
  • Elvis sings “Trying to Get to You” during live segment on 1968 “Comeback” special (Dec. 3, 1968):
  • Elvis sings “If I Can Dream”, closing his 1968 TV special (Dec. 3, 1968):
  • “It’s Over” and “Blue Suede Shoes” from “Aloha From Hawaii”.  “Blue Suede Shoes” begins at 2:14 and is a good example of the way the show’s visuals were directed and what the set looked like (January 14, 1973):
  • “American Trilogy”, melding “Dixie,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “All My Trials” -  from “Aloha From Hawaii” (January 14, 1973):
  • “Unchained Melody” (taped June 21, 1977; broadcast Oct. 3, 1977) From TV special “Elvis In Concert”, taped during one of Elvis’ last appearances.  The introduction provides a good look at what had become of Elvis by that time and stands in sharp contrast to those early 1956 appearances:

Long time active member of the club Donna also suggested that before the meeting, members watch Elvis Presley - Live Comeback Special TV 1968 (HQ Full Concert)


How Allen Came to Write the Book

Allen opened the meeting describing how he had come to write this book. He had been publishing a number of articles in Discoveries magazine on the Beatles, and came to feel that he would like to branch out to do something on Elvis Presley and the birth of Rock and Roll. In the late 1950's Elvis' name was all but synonymous with Rock and Roll.

It was suggested that he start with Sun Records in Memphis. That proved to be a good lead.
Allen told us the story of Elvis' early recording sessions there, when The King thought to make it as a Dean Martin style crooner. Sam Phillips, the owner of the company, saw little chance of commercial success for Elvis until one day at the end of a session he heard Elvis playing and singing for himself, and asked for more. He recognized a new synthesis of various genres of music that had real potential. He later found some good back up musicians to support the first Presley recordings. 
Allen went on to publish three articles on Elvis and Rock and Roll for Discoveries, in the course of which he met and interviewed many of the people who had known Elvis and worked with him. Included in the people he interviewed was Ringo Star, who told Allen that it was hearing the early Rock and Roll recordings Elvis made that brought the idea of a new style of music to Liverpool; Allen who had previously written articles and books (see this and this) about the Beatles admitted to being thrilled by the chance to meet and talk music with one of the Beatles.

There is of course a huge body of writing about Elvis Presley, Allen's magazine editors had suggested that he look into the television shows that Elvis did during his career. Those shows turned out to be of considerable importance, marking key points in that career. Drawing on his existing body of interview data, and finding existing copies of the TV appearances enabled Allen to write a book that explores new territory and makes new points about a fabled career; it took him years to do so.

The Career of Elvis Presley and the TV Appearances

Elvis was born into a poor family in the South. He grew up listening to a lot of music, from spirituals sung in Black churches, to blues, to country, to pop, and even to classical music. He learned to play the guitar reasonably well, albeit from friends and neighbors rather than from formal music schools. His early life seems to have offered few clues to the success he would later have.

After his first recording sessions at Sun Records, he began his radio and concert career in the South. His good looks and unusual stage presence quickly gained him a following in one part of the country -- mostly Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana and Tennessee. Still, at this early stage in his career, he was all but unknown in the rest of the country. But even then, his appearances came to be occasions for throngs of screaming young women.

His national television appearances on Stage Show, The Milton Berle Show, The Steve Allen Show and The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956 made him a national sensation. From 1956 to 1958 he becomes a major recording star, with a number of gold records and number one hits (via his RCA recording contract). He serves in the army in Germany from 1958 to 1960; however, music he recorded prior to his military service continued to be released in the form of new records during the two years he was in Germany. His return was marked by his appearance on The Frank Sinatra Timex Special.

One of Elvis' early ambitions was to become a movie star. Starting with a film before his military service he made 33 movies, always in a staring role. Allen told us that these were low budget films, of decreasing quality, and featuring relative banal music. Still they made money for the companies that produced them. (A career starring in 33 films is better than the vast majority of aspiring actors manage to achieve!) During this period, records of his songs from the movies were also sold in quantities. However, over time, the movies lost quality and audience, as did the records made from their music.

In 1968, Elvis made a Comeback Special on TV, again marking a career transition -- away from movies and to concert tours. Allen's interviews indicated that Elvis was a consummate stage performer. His appearances in the theaters of big Las Vegas casino hotels, seating perhaps 2000 paying customers, were at first hugely successful. Initially he would appear in Vegas for a month at a time and then tour the country appearing in quality venues. This phase of his career continued for some years.  However, as the years passed, the gigs in Vegas got shorter, and the venues of his tours got further from the big cities. Allen told us that his interviews indicated that a huge fan base around the country would still pack Elvis' shows, with the fans perhaps less interested in the quality of the show per se than in the opportunity to see a hero that had had a major influence in their lives.

In 1973, Elvis made another TV special -- Aloha from Hawaii. This too was relatively successful, and marked the first ever global TV show. Originally planned for a single global distribution, the show was transmitted by satellite to Asia on the original planned date, and (because of a conflict with the Super Bowl) shown later in the United States.

His final TV appearance was in a special produced in 1977 and broadcast posthumously.

A member commented that this was perhaps the saddest book that the club had ever read. It traced Elvis' decline from a very handsome and charismatic 21 year old on the brink of stardom, through success on television, movies, recordings, radio and jukeboxes, and concert tours. It also traced his increasing use of drugs and his increasing problems with his weight, to a deteriorating mental condition, and finally to his death at age 42.

Elvis Presley in Concert, February 12, 1977

We thought he had an "addictive personality". He tended to binge eating, but early in his career would crash diet for special appearances. His use of prescription drugs appears to have been aided by several physicians in several states who would prescribe for him. But that aspect of his personality also showed up in compulsive purchases -- many cars, a huge collection of guns, jewels, etc. These addictive binges seemed to us to have led to his declining powers as an entertainer, to his later strange behavior, and ultimately to his death.

We noted that the elaborate costumes he wore during his later stage appearances, costumes so loved and often copied by Elvis imitators, were quite different from the simpler dress he affected in his younger days.

Colonel Tom Parker

Colonel Tom Parker andthe Elvis stamp.
We spent some time discussing Elvis Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Much of Elvis' success has to be attributed to the expert management of the early part of his career. Parker negotiated successful TV appearances, a successful record contract, Elvis' movie career, and his stage career. Parker unfortunately developed a gambling problem. He is reported to have taken an increasing portion of Elvis' earnings, and to have made decisions relevant to Elvis' career that maximized current income at the expense of the quality and durability of Elvis' work.

Notably, Parker was very effective in negotiating top-dollar contracts for Elvis. This was true for his TV appearances, but also for movies, records and live appearances. Parker even found ways to profit from commodities, and dollars rolled in from programs, posters and even refreshments sold at Elvis concerts.

Allen told us that Parker was a European illegal immigrant, who hid his real name and never had a passport. Since Parker would not negotiate appearances for Elvis unless he Parker could attend, Elvis had only one foreign appearance during his career; that appearance was in Canada. (Who knows how much that geographic restriction might have limited his ultimate fame and earnings?)

Parker too deteriorated as time went on and his gambling addition took a greater tole on his life. That might have contributed to Elvis' downward spiral.

Explaining the Elvis Phenomenon

Why did Elvis record sales go into the stratosphere in the late 1950s? (He had a good voice, and played a pretty good guitar. He was very good with a life audience. And he was able to make several career transitions successfully. Still, one wonders if he would have done as well in another time, or if another might have under slightly different circumstances filled his role. Moreover, there are a lot of people who sing will, play well, and are charismatic performers before live audiences; why did fate smile so on Elvis?)

One explanation offered was that teen age girls went crazy for him. Those teenagers by the late 1950s had the money to play jukeboxes and buy records, especially the low-cost, 45 rpm singles. Moreover, Elvis' performances were seen by older adults as sexually suggestive (hard for us to appreciate now in these more open times) and aroused parental disapproval; that disapproval was seen as all to the good by the younger people. This after all was the epoch of the huge popularity of Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle. Many teenagers wanted to appear somewhat rebellious.

A different explanation offered to the group is that Elvis Presley was the first White musician to bring to a mass audience what had been a music developed by Black musicians for Black audiences. It does seem that early in his career, when those listening to his radio or record performances thought him to be Black, some effort was taken to clarify that he was White. Black artists seldom got national air time in the 1950s, and when later Black groups began to go national, they tended to have very formal and orchestrated television performances.

It was suggested by another member that there was an important technological shift that had happened. Television had begun to penetrate the U.S. consumer market in 1950, did so very rapidly, and by 1958 almost all homes in America had a TV. Families gathered in the evenings watched the household TV, and they no longer listened to the radio as a family in the evening. Consequently, radio found a new roll in the 1950s, primarily playing top 40 music; programs were packaged centrally and distributed to radio stations all across the country. Thus an appearance on a top show such as The Milton Berle Show or The Ed Sullivan Show got a huge audience; Elvis's appearances, given the controversy that he enjoyed, drew record TV audiences. Then his record company could successfully encourage his music to be played on the radio.

After World War II, the mass production capacity that had been built during the war was transformed to serve an increasingly affluent civilian population. Radios and record players were mass produced and (as the experience of one of our older members demonstrated) were to be found in the suburban bedrooms of teenagers. The vinyl record was commercialized in 1945, notably in the 45 rpm format; the mass production of vinyl singles and even LPs made them affordable for many teenagers. Jukeboxes were to be found in restaurants and bars, and indeed the money spent playing hit records on jukeboxes became an important source of income for the music industry.

Thus there became a synergy. Elvis' appearances on the most popular television shows of the day led to more people playing his music on radio and jukeboxes. Since radios and jukeboxes were everywhere, Elvis' hits were almost impossible to avoid. Kids went out to buy the singles (and eventually the albums) and talked them up with their friends.  The later TV shows in 1956 actually showcased Elvis' gold records, and his popularity in other media won him respect of TV hosts and executives as well as movie contracts.

Elvis and Rock and Roll

Elvis was not the first to have a hit Rock and Roll record; Bill Haley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard all had hits in the genre in 1955. But Elvis is seen as the man who was most responsible for the breakthrough.

A member who suffers from what Oliver Sacks calls "amusia" (a musical disorder that appears mainly as a defect in processing pitch, but it also encompasses musical memory and recognition), quoted President Grant who is thought to have said that he only knew two songs, one of which was Yankee Doodle and the other wasn't. She asked what was the definition of Rock and Roll music.

Allen said that there really wasn't a good definition. He too provided a quotation, this from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it,
Allen said he could not define Rock and Roll, but he recognized it when he heard it.

Elvis drew from pop, country, gospel and especially Black rhythm and blues. He did not write music, but performed that written by others. Sometimes he would take a song originally performed by another artist in another genre, perform it at a faster tempo, and record what would become a Rock and Roll standard. For many Americans, Rock and Roll came to be defined by the Elvis songbook. (Note, however, that Elvis' performances were not limited to Rock and Roll music, and he was especially effective singing spirituals.)

How TV Shows Are Produced

A member mentioned that he had grown up in Los Angeles in the 1940s and 50s, when the major business of the city was show business. In those days he knew musicians, actors, and others associated with show business. However, he had always just watched the TV programs without thinking much about how they were made. He was very interested and grateful for the detailed information provided in Channeling Elvis.

Channeling Elvis explains how Elvis' television specials were made, and the great deal of work by a team of highly skilled experts that goes into such a special. Someone selects one or more producers who have the special skills to produce music specials for TV. They in turn recruit set designers, costume designers, and -- with the performing artists -- select the music to be performed. Lighting is done by professionals, and the cameras are operated by professionals. Musicians are recruited (often backup singers and dancers as well) and they rehearse with the stars. A director specifies what is to be done by which person in real time during the performances. Elvis specials included large sections filmed with live audiences, which involved ticket sales and management of the audience. Notice, that not all singers are great at achieving audience rapport, and the whole cast and crew has to be involved in assuring that rapport. There is coordination with network executives, the record companies, agents and managers, and sponsors. Often much more is filmed that will actually be shown, and a considerable time is spent editing the raw footage into a finished show to be broadcast.

We noted that the logistics differed according to the format of the TV shows and the time they were made. Early in his career, Elvis appeared in variety shows as one of several acts, and recording technology was very primitive. The shows essentially were sent to a national audience live by cable. Later, Elvis made specials that had smaller casts, were more formally scripted, and were recorded with the improving recording technology. Many hours of recorded performances could be edited down to an hour show. Satellite transmission made international broadcasts possible.

Returning to an earlier point, we may think of Elvis himself and Colonel Parker as being responsible for the Elvis phenomenon, but in fact there is a huge team behind them. Not only is there the team producing the TV specials, but there is the network team that is responsible for broadcasting and publicizing the specials. The record companies have their part with the team in the recording studio, the manufacturing team, and especially the team getting records into jukeboxes, record stores, and radio programs.

We noted that Elvis seemed always to be passive in his dealings with others. (The fact that he was easy to get along with may have made the successful operation of these large teams possible.)

A member commented and Allen agreed that sometimes the backup musicians are both more skilled instrumentalists and have deeper musical understanding than the headliners of shows. (The headliner may have more charisma, or different skills than the professional musicians playing backup.) It was noted that positions as members of famous bands or movie studio orchestras were both hard to get and very desirable, providing stability in a profession where many skilled instrumentalists work only on short term gigs. A member mentioned a friend who had worked with many well known bands and acts, but those engagements were typically short term when a touring group would come to the city where the friend lived.

As a digression, a member told an anecdote about two men he had known as a boy -- Ingolf Dahl and Sol Babitz. While both had many musical engagements, Babitz was a long term member of the 20th Century Fox studio orchestra and Dahl occasionally worked as a studio musician. The member had found this anecdote doing background reading related to the discussion of Elvis.
Lead Belly was a Black musician and song writer who had spent many years in jail, and indeed earned early fame as one who had sung his way out of prison. Discovered by the early folk music collector, John Lomax, Lead Belly had a career from the 1930s as a performer. His signature song, Goodnight Irene, as covered by the Weavers was ranked as the number one song of 1950 by Billboard. 
One night in the late 1940s, Dahl, Babitz and their wives took Igor Stravinsky and his wife to hear Lead Belly perform in a Los Angeles night club. Thus, perhaps the most famous avant guard composer of the 20th century was taken by two studio musicians to hear a Black ex con doing the blues at a night club.
(It should be noted that both were friends of Stravinsky's. Babitz, a world class violinist, helped Stravinsky assure that violin parts Stravinsky wrote could indeed by played; Dahl, who had been an arranger for Tommy Dorsey, an arranger and conductor for Victor Borga, as well as having played many other roles in the music world, was later described as Stravinsky's closest musical collaborator in the latter's years in Los Angeles. The story illustrates the musical sophistication of studio musicians of the time.)

We got diverted into a discussion of dubbing. We noted that when Natalie Wood appeared to be singing in West Side Story, Marni Nixon had in fact made the recording and Ms. Wood was mouthing to the sound track. It was suggested that few if any movie music sound tracks are actually recorded on the sets where the movie is filmed, because the acoustics are not good on sound stages. In movies, the actors who appear to be singing are while being filmed lip-sinking to prerecorded music -- usually music that they themselves had recorded earlier. We went on to mention that in some cases, singers performing "live" before audiences are actually lip-sinking to prerecorded material, and indeed, sometimes the instrumentalists are also faking while the audience hears a recording. Indeed, there is now technology that can recognize when a note is wrong in a life performance and correct it electronically in real time -- the audience hears only the right note.

To the best of our knowledge, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and other major singing stars did not lip-sink to recorded music in their stage or television appearances.

Self Publishing

Allen J. Wiener
At the request of several members, Allen discussed the process of publishing Channeling Elvis. Note that Allen has published several other books. This book was self published using the services of CreateSpace, an Amazon.com subsidiary. Allen sent the firm a document prepared using Word word processing software which included the complete manuscript and indications of where the illustrations were to be placed. The firm processed that into their format, and returned a copy to him for proof reading. The revised version was then made available on Amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle (ebook) versions. Allen has been quite satisfied with their service, noting that when he posted a request on the CreateSpace website to be contacted, he would receive a phone response in a matter of seconds.

The research and writing of the book took years. He himself wrote for permission to use copyrighted materials such as photos, paying the related costs out of pocket. He also hired a free lance editor to edit his text, working with the editor to perfect the final manuscript. Similarly, believing a good index to be important for a work of history, he hired a free lance person to produce the index. Thus in addition to his time and effort, there was significant out of pocket expense in producing a book.

The book has been in distribution for some 9 months, and has sold approximately 400 copies. The paperback books are produced on demand, so there is no inventory of printed books. He can check the Amazon.com webpage for the book as often as he wishes to get updates on reviews and sales.

After publication Allen helps market the book making appearances and giving interviews. (A well known local bookshop refused to allow him to give a book talk and sign books, since their policy is not to provide such venues for self-published books through Amazon.com.)

Given the large community of Elvis Presley fans, one might expect more sales. There is a wealth of Elvis literature available to those fans, and a new book is in competition with existing books for the reader's dollar. Moreover, it would appear that Elvis fans tend not to be book buyers. Allen mentioned that, in conversation with another author, he was warned not to go to the annual Elvis event at Graceland; his informant had done so, and not only had she not sold her books, but Elvis fans had asked for her to autograph pieces of blank paper.

Allen noted that publishing houses today no longer deal with authors directly, but only with their agents. The agents effectively screen out material that would be unlikely to interest the publisher, thus saving the commercial publisher time and effort. Only well established authors with significant fan bases can expect to deal directly with the publisher. One effect of this change is that an author planning a new book often fails to get the advice of a publisher as to what will find a market, and how to best prepare a book to reach that market.

Final Comments

Elvis Presley remains high in the pantheon of popular recording stars. As of now, 90 of his albums have gone gold, 52 platinum, and 25 multi-platinum. During his lifetime, Presley had 18 No. 1 singles;  he is ranked #3 on Forbes’ list of the 15 Top-Earning Dead Celebrities; his estate brought in $55 million.

The discussion Wednesday evening was lively and interesting. Members present had a wide variety of tastes in music and indeed of exposure to Elvis Presley and his music, but all members present found the book interesting. I think it was interesting because it dealt with a social phenomenon that occurs from time to time (think of the bobby-soxers who screamed when the young Frank Sinatra sang, or the reception to the Beatles in the mid 1960s). The book also raised the question of how and why new music genres arise in the USA, and why the audience for music has become so fractured when in an earlier era is seemed that there was a much wider audience for a single genre of popular music (crooners, moon-june songs).

Here are some posts done by one of our members on his personal blog on the book:


  1. John sent me this comment by email:

    I think the summary of the discussion should have better addressed the racism that made Elvis Presley a symbol of Rock and Roll. Allen began addressing this at a few points, but this did not get very far. I think it should have gone further. Elvis was a singer whose style was derived from others who preceded him. I think of Chuck Berry in particular as much more important in developing the music. Though Elvis played instruments (at least guitar and piano), he did not do so performing or recording (at least according to Allen) nor did he write the music or lyrics. Why Elvis is considered important is mysterious to me.

  2. The first transistor radio was marketed in the USA in 1954. Sony introduced its transistor radio in 1957. These apparently were marketed to the youthful consumer, and were small enough to fit in a pocket or purse. See this video on History Detectives TV show on the early transistor radios; someone said in the broadcast that they made the teenagers even more rebellious that they might otherwise have been.


  3. Elvis Presley began his national television career at the time when variety shows were very popular. "In the 1970s, the variety show format began to fade from prime time. Audiences were more fractured than ever with the advent of the remote control and cable television." Perhaps, had Elvis and Rock and Roll music emerged when TV variety shows, especially those featuring musical performers, were dominating the key watching hours, his magic would have been deminished?

    Pioneers of Television: Variety Shows