Rock and Roll effectively combined elements of many musical traditions including blues, gospel, country and western, boogie-woogie and rhythm and blues. According to Stephen Feinstein in his book,
The 1950s From the Korean War to Elvis,
explains that Rock and Roll was such a hit because of "a winning formula--simple melodies, basic chords, and a backbeat. It was loud and sexy" (p. 25). For a time Rock and Roll was referred to as the Big Beat.
The timing for this brand of music was right as one-third of the U.S. population in the mid-1950s was under fifteen years of age and searching for an identity. Rock and Roll held great appeal for all these young people who were struggling not only to define themselves but also the world they now lived in. Here was a new form of music, shunned by their parents, which David Shirley in
The History of Rock and Roll
describes as an "exciting mix" of both black music and white music (p. 41).
The early 1950s was a time when white musicians and white musical styles, in fact, dominated mainstream radio play and record sales. Black artists' blues and rhythm and blues music at that time held appeal for a smaller African-American market. Says David Shirley, "If this new style of music that was now sweeping Memphis and the surrounding area was ever to find a mainstream national audience, it would have to be introduced by a white musician" (Shirley 1997, p. 14).
Rock and Roll took the nation by storm. Screaming teenagers feverishly danced to the beat of Elvis's music. What helped spread his fame was television. As Karal Ann Marling describes in her book,
As Seen on TV,
"Rock 'n' Roll and television were made for each other. In dancing blips of light, television registered the bobbing hanks of hair, the swinging jackets, the swiveling hips. Detail wasn't important: on the little living room screen, motion--new, exciting, and visually provocative in its own right--was the distilled essence of Elvishood" (p. 179). The Rock and Roll Movement was in full swing under the leadership of 'the King'.
The person who filled the bill in 1953 was 18 year old Elvis Presley. At a time when segregation predominated, Elvis introduced 'race music' to the world. Other people had played similar music before he came along but, as Holly George-Warren states in her book,
Shake, Rattle & Roll: The Founders of Rock & Roll,
Elvis put "his unique stamp on the sound and brought it to everyone across America" (p. 6). He effectively served as the catalyst for Rock and Roll.. As the Beatle John Lennon said so emphatically, "Before Elvis, there was nothing" (
The Importance of Elvis Presley
by Adam Woog, p. 9).
The passion and unapologetic way with which Elvis brought Rock and Roll to the world marks him as a revolutionary. He redefined music forever. As students read about the early years they will note the fair amount of opposition that Elvis faced. Presley became the symbol of his rebellious generation and, in fact, revolutionized youth culture (Woog 1997, p. 11). Finally here was an artist whose music spoke directly to teenagers
Historians maintain that Rock and Roll really began in 1956 with Presley's recording of 'Heartbreak Hotel'. Indeed, no other single recording has ever had a bigger impact. Young people in postwar America, bored with the complacency all around them and unlike their parents who were striving to build new lives in suburbia, began to assume their own identity, to develop their own interests and to create their own idols. That is not to say that the youth were not caught up in the same consumer consciousness as their parents. Presley represented to them a young person from a lowly background who had made it as evidenced in the expensive clothes he wore, the sleek cars he drove and the large mansion he bought for himself and lived in. He had won for himself both fame and fortune and he had done it
Not only did Elvis Presley introduce Rock and Roll to the world, he personified it. With great effect he played his untamed music while he wore his ducktail pompadour with long sideburns, dressed in flashy clothes and became notorious for his shocking gyrating dance moves on stage. Some say he was responsible for "single-handedly releasing the pent-up sexual frustrations of 1950s youth" (
by Magdalena Alagna, p. 6).
Plateaus and Pivotal Events
In an effort to provide a framework to guide students in their reading of Presley's life I will lay out what I consider to be the plateaus in his life and the pivotal event that influenced him during each plateau. I have laid out three plateaus that we will focus on in our study of Elvis. As a child Elvis loved to sing hymns in church. He entered his first plateau when his parents gave him a guitar for his 11th birthday. His interest grew in music as he listened to cowboy singers on the live radio show called Grand Ole Opry. While roaming the Memphis neighborhood called Shake Rag, he listened to street musicians play rhythm and blues and was very impressed by their music. The pivotal event during this plateau came when he sang an R & B song entitled 'Long Black Train' at a school talent show. His performance was met with hearty cheers from all of his peers. "Everything seemed to change for me that day," Elvis said. "After that I could always count on my music to help me make friends--especially girls" (
Elvis Presley The King
by Katherine E. Krohn, p.18).
Presley's second plateau was his whole recording career. He began recording his music under the guidance of Sam Phillips. Especially successful was the hit, 'That's All Right, Mama' which quickly climbed to the number 3 spot on the Memphis charts. Elvis grew in popularity. The pivotal event during this plateau took place when he was performing at the famous Grand Old Opry in Nashville. The audience gave him a very cool response and did not appreciate his brand of music. Elvis was so upset that he wouldn't play for 2 weeks. This event was a negative one but ultimately made him want to work harder to reach his goals. Phillips persuaded him to perform on a nationally broadcast radio program called the Louisiana Hayride and he was a big hit. He went on to record many other songs.
The third plateau that we will look at is Elvis's life after the army. He had many successes but in the context of a frustrating career, filled with ups and downs. His musical hits were not consistently great as they had been in his early career. The pivotal event is the peak he reached in the 1970s when he was called the King of rock and roll.
I provide these plateaus and pivotal events because an important unit objective in our reading of biographies is to trace the subject's character development. The sample questions cited in the beginning of this unit require the student to do just that. It is a very interesting though sad journey we take in tracing the life of Elvis. Initially we feel exhilarated when we read about the rush of exciting events that swept him up and made him a star. When asked how he first got into the music business, Elvis replied, "I just fell into it, really…The people were looking for something different and I was lucky. I came along just in time" (Woog 1997, p. 31). We approach the last year of his career and indeed his life with a feeling of sadness. Elvis tried to make comebacks and to some degree was successful but all the drugs he took and the eating binges he went on eventually took their toll and ultimately led to his early death.
In regard to response journals, I plan to include the following journal questions for students to reflect on and write about after reading:
Write an entry that could have appeared in Elvis's journal during the time
· when he was first making TV appearances.
· when he was stormed by loving fans on stage
· when he was in the army.
· when Colonel Parker became his new manager.
How did Elvis's beliefs about his music guide his actions on stage? If you wanted to describe how Elvis changed, what event would you write about? Imagine you are a young fan of Elvis when he first became popular. What two questions would you include in a letter to him? What type of person do you think Elvis was? Use information from the biography to explain your answer.