By Gillian G. Gaar
Had he lived, Elvis Presley would have turned 75 in 2010. A number of releases have celebrated that milestone this year, including the “Good Rockin’ Tonight” CD box set, the “On Stage” live CD set, the release of “Elvis On Tour” on DVD, new box sets of Elvis’ movies, and the mammoth “The Complete Masters” set, a limited-edition, 30-CD box due in September.
Clearly, Elvis’ legacy is one that has lived on and will continue to do so. But what if there had been no Elvis? How would the world be a different place? It’s more than just a matter of what it would be like if Elvis’ classic songs were no longer part of the musical landscape. After all, one of the key reasons why Elvis is such an important figure in music history is not just because of the influence he had on music, but also on the music industry itself.
John Lennon once famously stated, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.” In 2002, this catchphrase was reworked in the ad campaign for the “ELV1S: 30 #1 Hits CD” — “Before anybody did anything, Elvis did everything.” It’s a bit of an overstatement — Frank Sinatra’s crooning attracted hordes of screaming bobby-soxers in his day, and a few singers, such as Frankie Laine (with songs like “That’s My Desire”), were bringing black musical influences into the white mainstream — but no one turned the music world upside down quite like Elvis. There would indeed be a big hole without him.
There’s long been a debate about what the first rock ’n’ roll record was. Most critics favor “Rocket 88,” recorded by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats at what was then the Memphis Recording Service (later Sun Studios) in 1951, with Sam Phillips producing. But if Elvis wasn’t the first to record a rock ’n’ roll record, he was the first to achieve great success with genre, which opened the doors for a host of other performers to come on through. Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly all had hits after Elvis broke big in 1956 (Chuck Berry had his first hit in 1955, while Elvis was still a growing regional sensation). Rick Nelson launched his singing career by dressing as Elvis for an episode of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” (the guitarist in his band was James Burton, who later became Elvis’ guitarist in 1969).
“None of us could have made it without Elvis,” Buddy Holly said. And what would rock be like today if they hadn’t made it?
Elvis also recorded his early records at Sun with Sam Phillips, and his success changed the course of Phillips’ life (and the future of record collecting). The money Phillips received when RCA bought Elvis’ contract for $35,000 was plowed back into Sun Records, thus boosting the careers of Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison, and confirming Sun’s place in history as an incubator of prime talent.
Elvis may even have had an impact on the hotel industry; Phillips also used the money he earned from working with Presley to invest in a hotel chain called Holiday Inn.
Nor was it only in America that record executives searched for the “next Elvis.” Over on the Continent, Johnny Hallyday carried the banner as the French Elvis. In the U.K., Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard, Billy Fury, and Adam Faith were all touted as Britain’s answer to Elvis, though as Chris Farlowe, who had a U.K. No. 1 with “Out Of Time” in 1963 admitted, “Sure we had our versions of Elvis, but how the hell could you compete with him?”
The success of Elvis’ records had a profound impact on the business side of the music industry, for at that point, no one had achieved sales like him. His first album, 1956’s “Elvis Presley” became RCA’s biggest-ever pop seller with sales of 300,000 — that is, until the album “Elvis” was released later that year, with sales topping half a million. His four main singles in 1956 each sold more than a million, with “Don’t Be Cruel”/“Hound Dog” selling nearly four million. Sales like that encouraged record companies to see that rock was more than just a passing fad.
Elvis changed the nature of merchandising as well, with a wide range of items produced to cash in on his popularity as the first solo rock star. While these were aimed at the teenage market in the ’50s, the nature of merchandising evolved over the years to encompass adult fans and collectors, as well.
Elvis’ success also had geographical significance for the music industry. In the mid-’50s, the entertainment industry was primarily based in New York City and Los Angeles. Chicago and Nashville also had music scenes of note, but for the most part, big commercial success was achieved in the metropolitan centers on either coast. Elvis’ success helped break that stranglehold, with the result that regional scenes began attaining more prominence. No longer was it necessary to move to get a big break, as the music scenes that developed over the years in Detroit, San Francisco, Austin and Seattle demonstrated.
Another element not as easily quantifiable — but undeniably present — is the influence Elvis had on the acts that were inspired by him, most notably The Beatles. Though each of The Beatles became involved in music due to the skiffle craze in Britain, it was Elvis who made them confirmed fans of rock ’n’ roll.
“That’s the music that inspired me to play music,” John Lennon later told Rolling Stone. “There is nothing conceptually better than rock and roll.”