Forty years after Elvis Presley’s death, fans and critics agree that Elvis changed the world through his music, style and rebellion against society’s norms. That’s why we call him “The King of Rock and Roll.”
“No other solo singing star — not Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Madonna or Beyoncé — has matched Elvis,” explains music critic George Varga. “His influence and example helped pave the way — directly or indirectly — for The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and countless others.”
As Bruce Springsteen describes, Elvis was “the precursor of the sexual revolution, of the civil rights revolution… a new way of being, a new way of looking, a new way of thinking about sex, about race, about identity, about life.”
“Elvis is the greatest cultural force in the 20th century,” orchestral composer and conductor, Leonard Bernstein, said. “He introduced the beat to everything, music, language, clothes, it’s a whole new social revolution – the 60’s comes from it.”
Here are just a few reminders of why Elvis Presley is The King in the form of his Top 5 TV performances:
1) Elvis performing a seductive version of ‘Hound Dog’ on The Milton Berle Show
It was a legendary moment in music history on June 5, 1956. Elvis Presley was appearing on The Milton Berle Show for the second time. He was singing his yet-to-be recorded future hit single “Hound Dog.” Instead of ending the song at the appropriate verse, something came over Elvis and he extended the song, adding not one, but two slowed-down striptease-style verses.
When Elvis started singing the seductive verses of “Hound Dog” on the Berle Show, this was a surprise not only to the audience but also to his band, which was later confirmed by Presley’s drummer DJ Fontana.
Though seemingly harmless to watch by today’s standards, Elvis’ impromptu burlesque-style dance moves in 1956 caused controversy. The media went into an uproar after seeing Elvis’ gyrating on stage in an “obscene performance,” and the nickname “Elvis The Pelvis” took hold.
As a result, Steve Allen, who had scheduled Elvis to appear on his show the following month, expressed there was strong pressure to cancel Elvis’ appearance. If he did appear, Allen said, Presley would “not be allowed any of his offensive tactics.”
It seemed like a real setback for Presley’s career. However, Elvis returned to TV with a less threatening appearance in what Steve Allen jokingly called Presley’s “first comeback.” Before Presley’s performance, Allen showed Elvis and the audience a petition sent in from a DJ in Tulsa, Oklahoma that was signed by over 18,000 fans saying they wanted to see Elvis again on TV.
On July 1, 1956, “the new Elvis Presley,” as he was introduced, performed on The Steve Allen Show in a tuxedo with tails to set things right with the older generation. Elvis later expressed regret for his participation in singing “Hound Dog” to a Basset Hound on Allen’s show, but at least for the time being, he had calmed his critics.
A few months later, Elvis would cement his stardom by making three separate appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. However, to avoid creating another “Elvis The Pelvis” scandal, the producers would only show Presley from the waist up during his entire third appearance.
2) The King of Rock and Roll dares to sing gospel on The Ed Sullivan Show
Although Elvis Presley was declared “The King of Rock and Roll” in 1956, he was not devoted to rock and roll the way many of his protégés and followers were. Early evidence of this fact was Elvis’ decision to hire The Jordanaires, a gospel quartet, as his backup singers during the height of his career in 1956 and to release gospel records as early as 1957.
It is evident from his actions on and off stage that Elvis Presley’s first love was gospel music. In March 1960, Elvis was asked what his favorite style of music was and he responded “spiritual music… I know practically every religious song that’s ever been written.”
By the end of 1956, Elvis had just finished a streak of 16 consecutive weeks at number one with “Don’t Be Cruel/Hound Dog” and then “Love Me Tender.” So why would Presley’s record company, RCA, and shrewd business manager, Colonel Parker, allow Elvis to veer off in another musical direction to sing a gospel song on national television and possibly risk alienating his fanbase?
The answer is simple — because Elvis insisted. Presley’s mother, Gladys, loved gospel music. Elvis decided he would sing one of his mother’s favorite songs, “Peace in the Valley,” on his third and final appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on January 6, 1957.
The show’s producers did not want Elvis to sing a gospel song on national television, but Elvis insisted: “No, I told my mother that I was going to do ‘Peace in the Valley’ for her, and I’m going to do it,” he said. Ed Sullivan supported Presley’s decision.
The network’s hesitation with Elvis singing gospel was proven wrong when the public reacted positively to the performance. One writer hailed Presley’s appearance on the Sullivan show as “terrific” and attacked critics by comparing Elvis’ roots in American culture to that of Will Rogers and Carl Sandburg.
The positive response prompted RCA to support a four-song gospel EP called Peace in the Valley which was released a few months later in April. The Peace in the Valley EP surprised everyone by initially selling over half a million copies (and ultimately going Platinum), prompting RCA to encourage Elvis to do his first gospel album a few years later.
This performance of “Peace in the Valley” represents how Elvis stayed true to his musical roots. After all, it was the unique way that Elvis combined the genres of gospel, country and rhythm and blues that helped popularize the new form of music in the 1950s called Rock and Roll.
Elvis would go on to record three gospel albums during his career. Ironically, the only GRAMMY awards The King of Rock and Roll ever won were for his gospel recordings.
3) Elvis sings with the number one detractor of rock and roll, Frank Sinatra
During the two years Elvis was in the army starting in 1958, he was worried that his career would be over once he returned to civilian life. To make his grand entrance back into public life in 1960, Presley agreed to appear on a special edition of The Frank Sinatra Show called “Welcome Home Elvis.”
For rock and roll fans, this may have seemed like a surprising choice — not only for Elvis Presley but also for Frank Sinatra. In the late 1950s, Sinatra had been very vocal about his distaste for the relatively new musical genre referred to as rock and roll calling it “the most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear.”
When asked to respond to Frank Sinatra’s negative comments about rock and roll in the late 1950s, Elvis said, “He is a great success and a fine actor, but I think he shouldn’t have said it. He’s mistaken about this. This is a trend, just the same as he faced when he started years ago.”
On March 26, 1960, Elvis, wearing a tuxedo, performed his two latest songs, “Fame and Fortune” and “Stuck on You” for the television special. He also performed a duet with Sinatra. Elvis sang Sinatra’s song “Witchcraft” intertwined with Sinatra singing Presley’s song, “Love Me Tender,” or as Sinatra called it “one of the other ones.”
The show, which aired on May 12, was a win-win for both Sinatra and Elvis. From Presley’s manager, Colonel Parker’s point of view, Elvis would be reaching an older, more mainstream audience, a safer bet in case “rock and roll” died out soon, and Sinatra received huge ratings for his show. Frank’s daughter, Nancy, who also appeared on the show, would go on to co-star with Elvis in his movie, Speedway in 1968.
This performance also showed how versatile Elvis was in terms of singing different genres. Elvis could sing country, blues, gospel, pop and rock and roll to name a few. He would became the only artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Gospel Hall of Fame, the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
4) Elvis reminds everyone why he is The King on his ’68 ‘Comeback’ Special
Filmed in June 1968 and aired later that year in December, the Elvis special on NBC would in later years be referred to as “The Comeback” special. After a 7-year hiatus from live performing and an 8-year gap from his last appearance on television, Elvis starred in his first TV special.
His unplugged performance while dressed in black leather from head to toe brought Elvis back to his rock and roll roots singing many of his 1950s hits with a raw, sexy energy. This “in-the-round” jam session, a last-minute addition to the show, turned out to be the highlight of the show reminding everyone why Elvis was the King of Rock and Roll.
Even though this program received outstanding ratings, the TV special, which had been filmed six months earlier, did not immediately change things for Elvis in terms of a “Comeback”. Contrary to what is suggested in Elvis’ lore, Presley did not immediately quit movies and start the next phase of his career performing in Las Vegas. Just the opposite — things kept proceeding as normal, with the Elvis movie machine churning along.
In fact, at the time when Elvis was filming the TV special in June 1968, his film Speedway co-starring Nancy Sinatra was pulling in box office earnings that rivaled many of his earlier movies. Speedway ranks 14th in box office earnings of all 31 Elvis Presley feature films. Therefore, the perception that all of Presley’s films at this time were box-office failures is a myth.
Although Elvis wanted to return to live performing, his movie career was not perceived as washed up or a failure. Each year from 1960 to 1966, Presley was among the top ten most popular stars at the box office. Overall, Elvis was ranked as the 6th top box office star of the 1960s.
When Elvis returned to the stage in Las Vegas in July 1969, his final two films had not yet even been released. As far as Presley was concerned, in the future, his time would alternate between making more films and live performing.
Elvis still had high hopes for a career as a dramatic actor even though the public generally did not support him at the box office in these type of roles. When asked about his films in 1969, Elvis replied: “I really enjoyed making Charro. It was the best film I’ve done since Flaming Star. The story was good and so was the cast. I would like to do more films like this in the future.”
Six years earlier, The Beatles had taken part in the Our World broadcast, which was the first live satellite TV production, broadcast worldwide on June 25, 1967. The two-and-half-hour event had the largest television audience ever up to that date: an estimated 400 to 700 million people around the globe watched. It is most famous for the segment from England which featured The Beatles performing their song “All You Need Is Love” for the first time.
Although it was rumored that Elvis Presley, The King of Rock and Roll, felt threatened by The Beatles and their success in the 1960s, he did not let any rivalry or competition prevent him from singing several of their songs during the second half of his career.
“Nothing really affected me until Elvis,” John Lennon said. “I basically became a musician because of Elvis Presley.”
This was a mutual appreciation society. In 1969, Elvis praised The Beatles in an interview: “They’re so interesting and so experimental,” Elvis said. “But I liked them particularly when they used to sing ‘She was just seventeen. You know what I mean.’”
Beginning in 1969 when he returned to the concert stage after an eight-year absence, Presley incorporated several of The Beatles’ hits into his live act. Probably the most prominent Beatles’ song covered by Elvis is “Something” due to the fact that Presley sang it live during his Aloha from Hawaii concert special.
“So I said, ‘There’s a song I think you really should listen to,'” she continued. “And he said, ‘Well, put it on.’ So I did, and he just sat there at the desk. He put his head down and kind of nodded to it. He closed his eyes and said, ‘Damn, damn good song.’ And the next thing I know, we’re back in Vegas, and he ate it up and spit it out.”
For more fascinating Elvis Presley facts, read a free excerpt of the author’s book, ELVIS: Behind The Legend: Startling Truths About The King of Rock and Roll’s Life, Loves, Films and Music