Go back to 1956, the year everything changed for Elvis

As 1956 began, Elvis Presley had recently signed with RCA Records, but he was still just a regional sensation, best known in his native South. The next 12 months would change that for good. By the end of the year, Elvis would make 11 television appearances, filmed his first movie and become RCA’s best-selling artist. He was a household name, the most controversial performer in showbiz and the first true rock ’n’ roll star.

This exciting year in Presley’s career is being celebrated by two new releases. A repackaging of the “Elvis: The Great Performances” DVD scales down the set from three to two discs but still showcases many of Presley’s most notable appearances (although the new release has a washed-out look in comparison to the 2002, three-disc edition). And “Young Man With The Big Beat,” a five-CD set, has every master recording Presley made in that historic year, plus live material and other extras (see review on page 23). 1956 was a transformational year for Presley, and in many ways set the stage for much of what was to come.

Elvis Presley Cotton Bowl 1956

Elvis Presley delivers an electrifying performance Oct. 11, 1956, at The Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Photo courtesy Magic Collection/RCA/Legacy.

On Jan. 1, 1956, Presley was on stage in St. Louis, part of a Grand Ole Opry package headlined by Hank Snow. The show was followed by other dates — Presley would perform more than 200 shows during the year — but the gigs were merely a warm-up for the first big business of the month: Presley’s first recording session for RCA in Nashville. Anticipation was running high when Presley and his band — guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black and drummer DJ Fontana — arrived at the studio Jan. 10. But if Presley was nervous, he didn’t show it.

“Elvis was easy to work with in the studio,” remembers Fontana. “He didn’t want anybody nervous at all; if people got nervous, he’d say, ‘Let’s go home, guys; we’ll come back another day.’ He knew what he wanted to do, and he knew what he wanted to hear. He had a good ear; he had a real good ear. He’d say, ‘Well, let’s do this, we’ll do that.’ Or he’d say, ‘Anybody got any suggestions? What can we do?’ And if he didn’t like it, he’d say, ‘Nah, we’ll do something else.’ Whatever Elvis said, well, that was the end of it. He was the main guy. We had producers sitting there reading a comic book or something; that’s about what they did. He didn’t really pay a lot of attention to them, ’cause he knew what he wanted to do. And they couldn’t argue with him, ’cause he was generally right.”

On Jan. 10-11, Presley recorded four songs, including the song planned as his first single, “Heartbreak Hotel.” It had a dark, brooding sound quite different from the rollicking songs Presley had recorded at Sun, and no one at the session viewed it as very special — at least not yet.

“It stands out, yeah,” says Fontana. “But it was just another song to everybody. We still hoped it would be a big record for him, and he did, too.”

When Steve Sholes, who’d signed Presley to RCA and had produced the Nashville sessions, brought “Heartbreak Hotel” back to New York, his bosses were unsure of its appeal; this wasn’t the sound they expected, and they’d also hoped more songs would’ve been recorded during the sessions. Even those who liked Presley’s music weren’t sure what to make of the song.

“I couldn’t imagine Elvis recording something like ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’” says Wanda Jackson, who’d played several shows with Elvis. “I thought that was just totally different than what the fans were going to want from him. I was just baffled; I said, ‘What have they done? Taking him to Nashville and making him record songs like this?’ But I was proven wrong, and I was glad. Now, I think it’s one of the best songs he ever recorded.”

The single was released Jan. 27, and Presley made his national TV debut the following day on “Stage Show,” hosted by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. Heavy storms meant there weren’t many in the studio audience, but Elvis nonetheless seems brimming with confidence as he strides to the mike, wearing a speckled jacket, black shirt and white tie, letting out a short “W-e-l-l-l…” before launching into “Shake Rattle and Roll” (throwing in a bit of “Flip, Flop and Fly” at the end). But what really caught the audience’s attention were the moments during the instrumental breaks, when Elvis would step back to join his musicians and start jiving around with his legs.

“The country artists basically always just stood around and played,” says Jackson. “And they didn’t move. They didn’t do any gyrations, let’s call it that. And he did.”

Rehearsals of “Heartbreak Hotel” hadn’t gone well, so instead of performing his new single, Elvis also performed “I Got A Woman” next, then jauntily strode off into the wings.

Elvis Presley backstage 1956

Elvis Presley rests backstage after a May 15, 1956, performance in Memphis. Photo courtesy RCA/Legacy/Barney Sellers/Commercial Appeal.

Originally scheduled to appear on “Stage Show” four times, Presley’s run was extended to six shows, subsequent dates being Feb. 4, Feb. 11, Feb. 18, March 17 and  March 24. “Heartbreak Hotel” was finally deemed good enough for the Feb. 11 performance, in a decidedly rigid arrangement with the Dorsey orchestra horns; it fared better on March 17 and 24, and the single was soon moving up the charts. RCA was anxious to capitalize on all the exposure, and recording sessions were held Jan. 30, Jan. 31 and Feb. 3 in New York. Among the tracks recorded: a great rendition of Arthur Crudup’s “My Baby Left Me” (Crudup’s “That’s All Right (Mama)” had been Presley’s first single on Sun), and Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes.” Presley hadn’t wanted to kill Perkins’ own chances of success with the song, so the track was kept as an album and EP release.

The “Elvis Presley” album was released March 23, as were single- and double-EP sets also named “Elvis Presley.” (In June, a third EP titled “Elvis Presley” was released.) In between “Stage Show” appearances, Elvis kept busy on the road, as the crowds continued to get bigger.

“He was just exploding,” Jackson recalls. “And he was having a ball with everything. He was fresh and new and young, energetic; it was a whole new era being born, and it was exciting. There was nothing to compare it to. No one had ever seen anything like him. He just single-handedly turned our business upside down.”

Plans were now made for Presley to move to an even bigger stage. From March 26-28, he was in Los Angeles, making his first screen test. In addition to performing a scene from “The Rainmaker,” he also was filmed lip-syncing to “Blue Suede Shoes,” a terrifically lively performance that fully reveals his obvious charisma. Producer Hal Wallis didn’t hesitate; he offered Elvis a seven-picture contract, with a provision allowing Presley to be loaned out to other studios. Presley was thrilled. As a keen movie fan, he looked forward to finally being able to make a film of his own.

March 31 was Presley’s last appearance on the “Louisiana Hayride” radio show, where he’d been a regular attraction. His contract was bought out so that he’d able to tour without being tied down to weekly “Hayride” appearances. There was more TV work on April 3, when Elvis made his first appearance on “The Milton Berle Show,” broadcast onboard the aircraft carrier “USS Hancock,” moored in San Diego, in front of an appreciative audience of sailors and their dates. Presley performed “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Heartbreak Hotel,” looking relaxed and clearly having a ball. April also saw the release of the EP “Heartbreak Hotel.”

Elvis Presley Steve Allen Show 1956

Elvis Presley performs on the Steve Allen Show July 1, 1956.

On April 14, after a near mishap on a small-plane flight the previous day, Presley recorded the ballad “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” in Nashville. Ten days later, he opened in Las Vegas, playing the Venus Room at The New Frontier Hotel, along with Freddy Martin and His Orchestra and Shecky Greene. It was the first misstep in Presley’s career since his lukewarm reception on “The Grand Ole Opry” in 1954. The adult audiences in Vegas simply weren’t interested in the latest teen idol. Presley himself was so despondent about his reception he later recalled, “After that first night, I went outside and just walked around in the dark. It was awful.” Though on the first night he’d closed the show, the running order was switched for the rest of the two-week run.

But in the charmed year of 1956, there was always a silver lining. During the Vegas run, The “Heartbreak Hotel” single and “Elvis Presley” album both reached No. 1, and “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” released May 4, had a huge advance order of 300,000; it later peaked at No. 3. But the biggest payoff of Presley’s Vegas appearance came when he was offstage.

When he wasn’t working, Presley took in as many shows as he could, and, while seeing Freddie Bell and The Bellboys at The Sands, was impressed by their version of “Hound Dog.” The Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller number had been an R&B hit for Big Mama Thornton in 1953, and in 1955, Teen Records owner Bernie Lowe suggested Bell add the song to his act, having him rewrite the lyrics, as well (to lyricist Leiber’s displeasure). Presley quickly decided to add the song to his own stage act; he performed it during his second appearance on “The Milton Berle Show” on June 5 (broadcast from NBC’s L.A. studio). He pulled all stops out; instead of playing his guitar, he grabbed the mike stand and gyrated around it.

During the song’s extended coda, he jerked his hips and legs in comic exaggeration, a humor readily picked up by the laughing studio audience, and Berle (who shook Presley’s hand afterwards while enthusing “How about my boy? I love him!”), but which clearly went over the heads of American’s moral guardians, who branded Presley as “obscene.”

Such denunciations came as a shock to Presley, Fontana recalls.

“He said, ‘That’s the farthest thing from my mind is being vulgar. My mama would whip me if I were vulgar,’” Fontana remembers. “But the public thought he was vulgar, and they made fun of him.”

The controversy had an immediate impact on Presley’s upcoming appearance on “The Steve Allen Show” on July 1. There was pressure on Allen to cancel, but who could pass up such a high ratings draw? It was decided that Presley would appear, but Allen assured viewers that he “would not allow [Elvis] to do anything that will offend anyone.”

Rehearsals for the show were held June 29 in New York, and the next few days would be superbly documented by photographer Al Wertheimer, tapped by RCA to be on hand. Wertheimer accompanied Presley to his next gig on June 30 in Richmond, Va., where he snapped an iconic photo of Presley playfully touching tongues with his date backstage. For years the identity of the young woman was unknown, but earlier this year, Elvis author Alanna Nash, in an article for “Vanity Fair” online, revealed that Presley’s “date for the day” was Barbara Owens (now Barbara Gray), then 20 years old.

“I thought, ‘God, he’s beautiful,’” Owens said of the moment she first met Presley.

Then it was back to New York for “The Steve Allen Show.” Allen had Presley dressed in a white tie and tails, a satiric jab at those who touted the merits of “respectability.” The joke was clearly lost on Presley, who looked uncomfortable in his outfit, but he proved to be a good sport, throwing a doleful “Look what they’ve made me do” glance at the audience before performing “Hound Dog” to a Bassett hound wearing a top hat. But afterwards, the strain of the last few days began to show; during his appearance on “Hy Gardner Calling” that night, he looks positively exhausted.

Elvis Presley With The Jordanaires 1956

Elvis Presley performs with The Jordanaires during an Oct. 28, 1956 appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

The next day, there was a recording session of the song that was the obvious choice for the next single: “Hound Dog,” with Otis Blackwood’s “Don’t Be Cruel” as the flip side. Presley then returned to Memphis by train; remarkably, he got off one stop prior to the main stop, and walked home alone. Just hours later, he headlined a show at Russwood Park, announcing at one point, “You know, those people in New York are not gonna change me none! I’m gonna show you what the real Elvis is like tonight!” Fans stormed the stage, and in words of a local reporter, “[Elvis] rocked ’em, socked ’em, set them screaming with delight.”

Presley then had a month off, during which time “Hound Dog”/“Don’t Be Cruel,” released July 13, easily topped the charts, becoming another million seller (initially “Don’t Be Cruel” was regarded as the chart topper, with “Hound Dog” peaking at No. 2; but since the single is regarded as a double A-side, both songs are now listed by “Billboard” as being No. 1s, and both were included on the “30 #1 Hits” CD). Live performances continued on Aug. 3 in Florida, and controversy continued to plague Presley. While in Jacksonville, he was told he’d be arrested if he didn’t tone his act down, so he responded by teasingly wiggling his little finger during the show, to the screaming delight of the audience.

Mid-month, Presley was in L.A. to begin work on his first movie for 20th Century Fox. What was then titled “The Reno Brothers” began shooting on Aug. 22. Presley had hoped it would be a purely dramatic feature, but to his disappointment, he was sent into Fox’s studio on Aug. 24 and Sept. 4 to record four songs for the film, including the number that would become the film’s new title: “Love Me Tender.”

Between work on the film, more sessions were held at L.A. studio Radio Recorders from Sept. 1-3. Presley recorded 13 songs, most of which were slated for his second album. Most notable was “Old Shep,” a tearjerker about a man and his beloved dog, which Presley had sung at age 10 at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show in his hometown of Tupelo, Miss., and won a prize. He also recorded another of Otis Blackwell’s songs, “Paralyzed,” and a smoky version of Leiber-Stoller’s “Love Me.”

RCA kept up a steady stream of record releases. August saw the release of “The Real Elvis” EP, as well seven singles, mostly drawn from Presley’s first album, the idea being to generate sales from people who preferred to buy singles (especially teenagers, whose small, portable record players weren’t always capable of playing albums). His next new single, “Love Me Tender,” was released on Sept. 28, soon reaching No. 1, with the flip side, “Any Way You Want Me” reaching No. 27 (the latter song was also the title of an EP released the same month).

Ed Sullivan had sworn he’d never have Presley on his program, but the ratings he pulled in were too tempting to resist, and Presley finally appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” Sept. 9. The show was hosted that week by Charles Laughton, as Sullivan was recuperating from a car accident, and the New York broadcast cut away to Los Angeles for Presley’s segments. His performance of “Hound Dog” was restrained; Presley only really cut loose on “Ready Teddy,” the camera cutting away from his more wild gyrations. He also debuted “Love Me Tender.”

Elvis Presley 1956 state fair

Elvis Presley performs at the 1956 Mississippi-Alabama State Fair. Photo courtesy RCA/Legacy.

On Sept. 26, Presley returned to his hometown in triumph, performing two shows at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair; a recording of the shows, though rough, readily conveys the excitement of the performances. Presley began October with a quick recording session in L.A. for “Love Me Tender.” His next records, the album “Elvis” (another No. 1) and two EPs, “Elvis Vol. 1” and “Elvis Vol. 2,” were released Oct. 19. By the end of the month, Presley was back in New York for his second “Ed Sullivan” appearance on Oct. 28, the same day a 40-foot-tall replica of his image was unveiled on the top of the Paramount Theater’s marquee, promoting “Love Me Tender.” There was a clear element of put-on in Presley’s performance; knowing how easy it is to provoke screams from his audience, he plays with them in a manner that’s quite different from his more straight-ahead TV performances earlier in the year.

Sun Records' owner Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley hang out Dec. 4,<br
/> 1956, the day of the Million Dollar Quartet jam session. Photo courtesy<br
/> Sam Phillips/Peter Jones Productions/A&E.

Sun Records' Sam Phillips and Johnny Cash, circa 1961 (left). Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley, Dec. 4, 1956. Photos released in conjunction with the Biography channel special "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock and Roll." Credit: Sam Phillips/Peter Jones Productions/A&E.

The next day, there was a final bit of filming for “Love Me Tender” in New York; though Presley’s character is killed in the movie, his ghostly face was superimposed over the final scene, singing the title song, to soothe distressed fans. The film opened in New York on Nov. 15, with wide release following Nov. 21 (an EP with the film’s songs was released the same day). Reviews were mixed, with critics taking potshots at Presley’s performance. But the real problem lay in the film itself. Aside from the title track, based on the Civil War ballad “Aura Lee,” the songs sat uneasily in the film, and the storyline, which had Presley and his screen brother competing for the same woman, was a melodramatic soap opera. It was an unsatisfying film debut for such a charismatic star, and Presley’s talents would never be fully utilized in the movies.

But that disappointment lay in the future. December was a relatively quiet month for Presley. On Dec. 4, he dropped in at Sun Studios in Memphis and ended up hanging out with Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Producer Sam Phillips quickly put in a call to Johnny Cash, as well as a reporter and photographer, turned on his tape recorder, and the “Million Dollar Quartet” was born, producing a recording of the performers singing snatches of songs and trading stories of their newfound success. (Turn to page 62 to trace the Six Degrees of the Million Dollar Quartet.)

Presley’s final performance of the year was his last “Louisiana Hayride” show (also part of the buyout deal), a benefit for the Shreveport, La., YMCA. In the audience was Hal Kanter, who would write and direct Presley’s next film, “Loving You.” Already plans were being laid for next year’s work. But no year was destined to repeat the accomplishments of 1956.

There were certainly further triumphs to come, but Elvis Presley would never have such a hectic year again.

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