By the beginning of 1956, everything was in place for Elvis Presley to burst onto the national and international music scene. Since July 1954, his recordings for the Memphis-based Sun label and his exciting live performances had brought him regional fame, and Presley was rewarded for his hard work at the end of 1955 when he was signed to the major label RCA. Within weeks, he would record Heartbreak Hotel, his first single for RCA and his first to reach number 1 in the U.S. charts, and then, at the end of January 1956, he would appear on national television for the first time. His performances on twelve television episodes over the next year have become both infamous and legendary and, following his final appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (CBS, 1948-1971) on January 6, 1957, Elvis would only ever appear on television three more times before his death some twenty years later.
Despite all of the success that 1956 would bring Elvis, with three singles and two albums reaching the top spot in the U.S. charts (and that’s without mentioning the release of his first film role), the year would also prove to be a difficult one when it came to his treatment in the national and international press. This article examines the circumstances of how one television performance in June 1956 resulted in a change of attitudes towards Elvis within print media from little more than curiosity about the new phenomenon to downright hostility and revulsion.
Elvis Presley’s first national TV appearance was on the January 28 edition of Stage Show (CBS, 1954-1956), hosted by big band leaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, singing a medley of Shake, Rattle and Roll and Flip, Flop and Fly, as well as I Got a Woman. Both numbers had been staples of his live performances during the Sun years.This was the first of six appearances on the show within the space of just a couple of months.
Rather strangely, Elvis didn’t perform Heartbreak Hotel, his first RCA single, until his third appearance on the series. By this point, he appeared to be causing little controversy beyond a few raised eyebrows. The trade journal Motion Picture Daily referred to him in advance of his fourth appearance as ‘an abandoned performer who plays and sings in a manner that Marlon Brando should, and doesn’t’ (Anon, 1956a: 8) – no doubt a dig at Brando’s vocalising in the previous year’s film Guys and Dolls (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1955). But the focus was on the failing viewing figures for the television series itself. ‘Properly exploited,’ we are told, ‘he might even return the Saturday night blue ribbon to CBS,’ but even Elvis (and high profile guests such as Ella Fitzgerald, Dick Haymes, Joey Bishop, and Della Reese) couldn’t save Stage Show from being cancelled in the summer of 1956.
A number of publications saw Elvis as the obvious successor to Johnnie Ray (below), a singer who had entered the charts for the first time in 1951 with his double-sided single Cry and The Little White Cloud That Cried, with the songs reaching #1 and #2 respectively in the U.S. charts. Ray was seen as a crossover artist of sorts, mixing elements of pop singing with rhythm ‘n’ blues, and his stage performances were notable for his emotional delivery as well as on-stage antics including provocative moves that would later be associated with Elvis himself. Ray’s popularity faded quite rapidly in the USA (although re-emerged briefly in 1956/7), but lasted until the end of the decade in the UK and Europe, where he would retain a devoted following until his death in 1990.
Presley’s parallels with Ray came early on. For example, in their review of Elvis’s first album, Variety stated that ‘Elvis Presley belts away in uninhibited style and his current click continues where the Johnnie Ray vogue of a couple of years ago left off’ (Schoenfeld,1956: 50). Later, Ed Sullivan was even quoted as saying ‘I’d been told this guy was disrupting the morals of the kids, that his whole appeal was sensual. But all I saw was a pale carbon copy of Johnnie Ray’ (Doncaster, 1956a: 12). Looking back at articles from early 1956, there is little suggestion of Elvis being controversial, instead he is simply referred to as ‘frenetic’ and ‘uninhibited’ (Schoenfeld, 1956: 50).
When the New York Times reviewed Elvis’s first album, they also compared Presley to the earlier singer, stating that Elvis was, ‘nominally a country singer, who has the most torrentially belting style since Johnny (sic) Ray’s early days’ (Wilson, 1956: 131). It’s also interesting that the newspaper, which would go on to criticise Elvis more than any other in the early years of his career, gives the album a surprisingly positive review. ‘On ballad numbers,’ John Wilson writes, ‘he takes off with a drive that is startling, hair-raising and thoroughly provocative.’
The New York Times also published a positive piece in late May 1956 about a New York library that was trying to lure in young readers through a series of ‘disc jockey concerts,’ with the one in question concentrating on Elvis. The librarian in charge of the events told the newspaper: ‘It is an important part of the librarian’s work to help young people identify their interests and to guide them in reading that will develop these. What some youngsters consider music, many adults consider noise. But libraries aren’t run for individuals with just special kinds of tastes’ (Barclay, 1956: 24). While many adults were not approving of Elvis’s music, there was at least a tolerance for the latest teen idol.
Not all writers were quite as positive, however. Gord Atkinson in the Ottawa Citizen, for example, was using the ‘C’-word about Elvis (‘C’ for ‘Controversial’ that is) as early as March 1956, but not in an entirely negative way. While bemoaning the fact that ‘it’s the gimmick today that seems to make recording stars,’ they do call Elvis ‘the most controversial and electrifying show business personality since Johnny (sic) Ray’ and note that he ‘almost explodes before an audience’ (Atkinson, 1956: 26).
Over in the UK, relatively little was written about Elvis at all in the newspapers of the first half of 1956. Perhaps most notable was Lionel Crane’s article in the Daily Mirror, entitled Rock Age Idol. Remembering that UK audiences had yet to see footage of Elvis (outside of, possibly, a newsreel), the article is again one with a tone of curiosity rather than viewing the new star as controversial. What is perhaps most notable here is that it introduces one of two themes that would recur in articles during the second half of 1956 and beyond: class. Elvis’s poor background and, in particular, his new-found riches, would be mentioned time and time again as the year went on. Here the writer quotes Elvis as saying ‘“Look at all these things I got … I got three Cadillacs. I got forty suits and twenty-seven pairs of shoes.” I asked him how knew it was exactly twenty-seven pairs and he said: “When you ain’t had nothing, like me, you keep count when you get things”’ (Crane, 1956: 9).
Following the series of appearances on Stage Show, Elvis was seen twice on The Milton Berle Show (NBC, 1948-1956). The first of his appearances was a special edition on April 3, 1956, from the U.S.S. Hancock stationed in San Diego, and saw Elvis on a bill that also included movie star Esther Williams and jazz greats Buddy Rich and Harry James.
By the time of the second Milton Berle appearance on June 5, we start to get early signs that Elvis was being viewed as a commodity as much as a serious artist. Vernon Scott’s article in the Schenectady Gazette on June 7 (but clearly written before the Berle appearance) is one of the first to find Elvis’s manager, ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker, blatantly and unashamedly selling merchandise – to journalists, no less. He gives Scott a postcard and says ‘this is for you…absolutely free of charge. Any fan who writes in gets one for nothing. Then, of course, if they want one of our souvenir packages can send in the attached order’ (Scott, 1956: 26). Elsewhere in the same article, Elvis is asked why he sings ‘such off-beat songs. Elvis grinned, “I like rock and roll because it’s selling. But if I had my way I’d be singing ballads and love songs. Man, I’m no bopster or hipster. I’m from right back in the country.”’ Once again, we have another reference to Elvis’s background/class (this time through a supposed quote from Elvis himself), and the article also appears to demonstrate a sense of naivety and innocence on his part – a young man caught up in a business he doesn’t quite understand or have control over, but enjoying the ride while it lasts.
While the vast majority of articles in the first five months of 1956 show curiosity, bemusement, and general head-scratching by the authors at the Presley phenomenon, that all changed after the performance of Hound Dog on the second Milton Berle Show appearance. The articles that appeared shortly afterwards condemning the performance set the tone for how Elvis was seemingly viewed by many adults and conservative America in particular for the rest of the year and beyond. Previous commentators such as Guralnick (1994) and Jorgensen (1998) have put forward a straightforward account that Elvis’s performance was viewed with disdain by television audiences at the time, and this was the catalyst for the condemnations of Elvis as both a person and an artist that were to follow. However, the issue is somewhat more complex than this, and has as much to do with how television (and Milton Berle himself) was viewed at the time.
It is easy now, some sixty years later, to wonder what all the fuss was about. However, television was still in its relative infancy, and many adults were still getting used to the idea of sharing their family evenings together with strangers being beamed into their homes. Television time in the evening was also family time for parents and kids to gather around the small box in the corner of the room and experience the programme they were watching together. But people were not yet as comfortable with television as they would be in the decades to come. However, while parents struggled to grapple with the new medium and the implications it would have on their family life, an article from the period reminded readers that ‘Children and teen-agers in television homes form a unique group in that they will be the first group to grow up with television. Particularly to children, television is not something intruding upon already established patterns, but is an accepted fact in their lives, present from virtually the beginning. Television at this point promised to be a part of their total experience far more significant than it can ever be for the great majority of adults’ (Riley, Cantwell and Ruttiger, 1949: 230).
Despite what appeared to be a concern that children and teenagers might view television in a different way to their parents, there was also the understanding that the new technology could help to bring the family together. The article goes on to say that there was deemed to be a high percentage of ‘TV owners who express an awareness of an enhanced family solidarity. Television itself is a new focus of interest, the fact that the family is together more, and the creation of a bridge between adults and children, all reflect the possibility of an enlarging role of television in creating new ties between family members’ (Riley, Cantwell and Ruttiger, 1949: 232). A New York Times article from the same year put it altogether more simply: ‘Today the homely scene has changed. Mother, Dad and the children aren’t reading books – they’re grouped around the television set in the living room’ (Anon, 1949: 21).
At the same time, there was also a fear of the new technologies that had started entering homes in the years following the end of World War Two. Lynn Spiegel writes that ‘the home magazines of the postwar era adopted [an] ambivalence toward machines, scrutinizing each step forward in household technology for its possible side effects (Spiegel, 1992: 47). She goes on to say that ‘the idea of “technology out of control” was constantly repeated as the language of horror and science fiction invaded discussions of everyday life. The television was often likened to a monster that threatened to wreak havoc on the family’ (ibid).
Television in America was therefore being viewed in contrasting and contradicting ways during the early-to-mid 1950s. On the one hand, it was seen as an instrument to bring the family together as one but, on the other, there was almost a sense of fear that it could also ‘wreak havoc’ on the same family, not least because what children and teenagers liked to watch and what parents wanted them to watch were often vastly different to each other. Spiegel notes that ‘as numerous surveys indicated, youngsters often preferred the programs that parents found unwholesome, especially science-fiction serials and westerns’ (Spiegel, 1992: 57). These concerns were nothing new, nor were they exclusive to the medium of television, having been debated around film almost since the movies began and, in part, leading to the introduction of the Production Code. Even this, however, did not stop all concerns. For example, in 1947 the New York Times reported that ‘crime movies and radio programs offer too many pointers on criminal methods to youngsters, members of the Women’s City Club of New York declared yesterday at an open meeting’ (Anon, 1947: 25).
Despite (or because of) these various arguments, many saw the people they were watching on television as, essentially, being invited into their homes, and therefore they expected them to be on their best behaviour and act as they would expect their own family to act – and not everyone on television was obeying those unspoken rules. At the very centre of this issue was Milton Berle whose variety show was entitled at the time Texaco Star Theater. Lynn Spiegel writes that ‘Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater (which was famous for its inclusion of “off-color” cabaret humor) became so popular with children that Berle adopted the personal of Uncle Miltie, pandering to parents by telling his juvenile audience to obey their elders and go straight to bed when the program ended’ (Spiegel, 1992: 57).
Criticism of Berle’s television shows began in the early 1950s. Jack Gould (who would go on to be one of the most vocal critics of Elvis Presley in 1956) launched an attack on Berle’s show in the New York Times in September 1951. ‘Uncle Milty, the self-appointed guardian of the nation’s youth on Tuesday nights,’ Gould writes, ‘is a rather trying relative this season’ (Gould, 1951: 32). He goes on to accuse Berle of reducing his performance to the ‘one-dimensional plane of the burlesque comedian.’ Speaking of Berle’s various guises during his television appearances, he says ‘the characterization is neither pleasant nor amusing any more and, as executed by Mr. Berle, has a harshness and coarseness which are most unpalatable.’ Perhaps most notable within the article are references to the striptease and the burlesque – terms that Gould would go on to use in relation to Elvis. He ends his article by writing ‘Steadily creeping in Berle’s act are routines more generally associated with the runway of the burlesque house than the screen of home TV. … Mr Berle could not resist the temptation last Tuesday [of] prancing around to the accompaniment of the standard theme for a striptease. … Much of the contemporary Berle humor has for its payoff some reliance directly or indirectly on effeminacy, and already this season the comedian has come through with the inevitable reference to the trapdoor on the long underwear. … Television viewers are not prudes…but Mr. Berle has rather special obligations to TV…with a large children’s audience, [and] he must keep in mind that there are minimum standards he is expected to observe’ (Gould, 1951: 32).
By the time Elvis appeared on what was by then called simply The Milton Berle Show in 1956, Berle’s fortunes had fallen considerable from the early 1950s when he was generally known as ‘Mr. Television.’ Texaco had withdrawn their sponsorship several years earlier following falling ratings, and the show had thereafter gone through format changes, for a time becoming what is best described as a backstage sitcom with Berle playing an exaggerated version of himself, with ‘self-deprecating jokes about Berle the control freak, Berle the egomaniac, Berle the frantic comic’ (Inman, 2006: 18). When Elvis performed on a special edition of the show from the U.S.S. Hancock on April 3, 1956, as with the Stage Show appearances, reviews were indifferent. There was certainly none of the outpouring of shock, revulsion and hatred that would follow the June 5, 1956 show – the very last episode of The Milton Berle Show to air.
The Berle show had already been cancelled (and was only airing every three weeks during its final run), and so eyes appear to have been on the programme to see how Berle’s eight-year residency on a Tuesday evening would come to an end. Elvis performed both I Want You, I Need You, I Love You and Hound Dog. The latter was a song that he heard performed by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys during Elvis’s largely unsuccessful stint in Las Vegas during late April and early May, and quickly incorporated it into his act. The performance of the song on The Milton Berle Show was similar to that which he had been giving in concerts for the previous few weeks. Dispensing with his guitar, television audiences got to the see the gyrations that Elvis’s live shows were becoming famous for. This would, perhaps, have been bad enough but, for the last minute or so of the song, he cut the tempo in half, upped the ante when it came to his suggestive movements, and treated viewers to what is perhaps best (and most often) described as a ‘bump ‘n’ grind’ routine. Guralnick states that he ‘goes into his patented half-time ending, gripping the mike, circling it sensuously, jackknifing his legs out as the audience half-screams, half-laughs, and he laughs, too – it is clearly all in good fun’ (Guralnick, 1994: 284).
As we have already learned, there was already concerns about what children and teenagers were seeing on television during this period, and The Milton Berle Show (in its various guises) had already come in for criticism for this. Now, as Berle was saying goodbye to his television show, with much of America watching, Elvis had turned television into the unwanted ‘monster’ and ‘bad influence’ that much of middle America had been fearing. Watching Elvis’s performance now allows us to appreciate that the young performer was, as Guralnick suggests, just having a bit of fun – the end of Hound Dog is clearly tongue-in-cheek rather than intending to be viewed as something overtly sexual. What’s more, Berle’s history of ‘off-colour’ humour during his period as a TV show host only compounded the issue. There is also the unanswered question of whether Elvis’s half-speed finale to Hound Dog was planned or off-the-cuff. A surviving live recording from a concert in Little Rock a couple of weeks earlier informs us that this was part of Elvis’s normal act and so, presumably, he would have performed it that way during rehearsals for the television show. This, in turn, begs the question of why someone didn’t inform him that such a routine wasn’t suitable for television audiences. Or, perhaps, with it being the last show in the series, no-one cared anymore.
The criticisms came thick and fast. One of the first and most scathing was Jack Gould in the New York Times who, as we have already seen, had been one of the most vocal critics of Milton Berle’s variety show. He started by criticising Elvis’s vocals. ‘For the ear he is an unutterable bore,’ he said, ‘not nearly so talented as Frankie Sinatra back in the latter’s rather hysterical days at the Paramount Theatre. Nor does he convey the emotional fury of a Johnnie Ray’ (Gould, 1956a: 67). He went on: ‘His one speciality is an accented movement of the body that heretofore has been primarily identified with the repertoire of the blonde-bombshells of the burlesque runway.’ Elvis was essentially being compared to a female stripper but, as we have seen, these are not dissimilar accusations to those that Gould had already made against the Berle show when it was still Texaco Star Theater back in 1951, comparing Berle’s comedy routines to burlesque. While Elvis’s Hound Dog routine was clearly pushing the boundaries of acceptable taste on television at the time, one also has to wonder, given the past criticisms of Berle and his shows, whether he would have attracted less condemnation had he performed in a similar way on a show hosted by someone else. Either way, the floodgates had opened, and attacks on Elvis and his performances continued unabated.
Gould didn’t end his tirade on Elvis with the Berle show. With Berle no longer on air, Gould appears to have found in Elvis a new corrupting influence to campaign against. Picking up again three months later, following Elvis’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, Gould wrote that Elvis ‘injected movements of the tongue and indulged in wordless singing that were singularly distasteful’ (Gould, 1956b: X13). He then launched into a strange and almost hysterical monologue about how teenagers were being failed by society. He complains that teenagers have too much money in their pocket and that easy access to cars has ‘been accompanied by a lessening of parental control. Small wonder, therefore, that the teen-ager is susceptible to overstimulation from the outside’ (ibid) He goes on to blame record companies who have ‘disgraced themselves’ by ‘some of the rock ‘n’ roll songs it has issued.’ He ends his rant with the hope that Elvis ‘will do everyone a favour by pointing up the need for earlier sex education so that neither his successors nor TV can capitalize on the idea that his type of routine is somehow highly tempting yet forbidden fruit…If the profiteering hypocrite is above reproach and Presley isn’t, today’s youngsters might well ask what God do adults worship.’
While Gould might have been the most vocal opponent of Presley in the mainstream American media of the time, he certainly wasn’t the only writer at the time to compare Elvis to a female stripper – and attacks on Elvis’s masculinity were something which continued within newspapers and magazines right through until his death in 1977 and beyond. Pat Doncaster reminded UK readers in December 1956 that Elvis had been called ‘a male burlesque dancer’ and a ‘male Marilyn Monroe’ (Doncaster, 1956b: 7).
Jane Newcomb, in the same month, repeats the stripper complaint telling us that ‘his wiggles have been variously described as: shagging, jazzing it up and acting like his pants were on fire. … They are all slang terms for the physical act of love. And this, most people agree, is what is selling Presley. Just plain, crude sex’ (Newcomb, 1956: 9). Newcomb’s article continually refers to sex. ‘Every girl watching him sees herself as Elvis’ partner in his fantastic writhing orgy,’ she writes.
Newcomb also makes reference to Elvis’s appearance on The Steve Allen Show (NBC, 1956-1960), telling readers that he had been ‘de-sexed’ on the show. Elvis’s appearance on The Steve Allen Show, on July 1, 1956, is almost as infamous as his one on The Milton Berle Show. Unlike Berle’s show, which was reaching the end of its run, Allen’s was just starting out in a new format that concentrated more on comedy than on variety. Allen’s humour was also very different to Berle’s. While Berle was often low-brow, Allen tended to veer more towards satire, and often poking fun at the establishment with it realising. He presented on his show the ‘new’ Elvis Presley, with Elvis wearing a full dress suit and singing Hound Dog to a real basset hound. Allen wrote nearly forty years later that ‘When I booked Elvis, I naturally had no interest in just presenting him vaudeville-style and letting him do his spot as he might in concert. Instead we worked him into the comedy fabric of our program. I asked him to sing Hound Dog (which he had recorded just the day before) dressed in a classy Fred Astaire wardrobe – white tie and tails – and surrounded him with graceful Greek columns and hanging draperies that would have been suitable for Sir Laurence Olivier reciting Shakespeare. For added laughs, I had him sing the number to a sad-faced basset hound that sat on a low column and also wore a little top hat’ (Allen, 1992: 172).
Many fans believed that Allen, who had stated on record that he didn’t care for rock ‘n’ roll, was simply making fun of Elvis. However, Allen was correct when he said that the routine fitted into the ‘comedy fabric’ of the program, and certainly Elvis wasn’t the only performer on the show to be presented in such a way. When Jerry Lee Lewis kicked his piano stool off-stage during his appearance, it can be seen thrown back on to the stage again (presumably by Allen).
Allen was, in fact, one of the first to jump to the defence of Elvis following the Milton Berle appearance. Allen had been criticised in the Sarasota Journal for booking Elvis on his TV show, to which he replied: ‘He has made many TV appearances before the Berle show, all without arousing any hue or cry, so there can be no firm basis for keeping him off TV altogether. The heart of the matter is that he thoughtlessly indulged in certain dance movements in his LAST TV appearance which a number of people thought objectionable. … When I was a teenager all the adults I knew told me that Frank Sinatra had no talent. Later I’ve heard it said that Vaughn Monroe had no talent, that Liberace had no talent. I’m sure the point is obvious’ (Allen, 1956: 2).
Allen’s point, quite clearly, was whether someone had talent or not was not something that could be measured in a definitive way, and that previous teen idols who had been criticised when they came on to the scene were now respected members of the music world and that the same might happen to Elvis (and, of course, Allen turned out to be correct).
Another subject that often arose in articles about Presley at the time was that of his poor background, his upbringing, and his newfound wealth – with the rise from poverty to riches seemingly irking the journalists as much as Elvis’s gyrations. Many writers of the period seemed to think that somebody from Elvis’s poor background should stay there, and in not doing so, he was punching above his weight or trying to be something he was not. ‘He’s been criticised for his wild extravagance in buying four cadillacs,’ Jules Archer wrote. ‘But this seems an understandable spree for a youngster who is now being showered with sudden wealth, but who as a child only saw meat on the table once a month’ (Archer, 1956: 19).
Newspapers, particularly the New York Times, appeared to see this change in financial fortune as pretension. We can see this coming through most notably if we return to Jack Gould’s attacking piece from just after the Berle show aired. Gould writes that Presley was ‘attired in the familiar oversize jacket and open shirt which are almost the uniform of the contemporary youth who fancies himself as terribly sharp’ (Gould, 1956a: 67). Already we can see that the stance is being taken that the singer is a nobody attempting to be a somebody (‘fancies himself as terribly sharp’). In fact, Gould believes that Presley is only good at the ‘hootchy-kootchy,’ but then adds that is ‘hardly any reason why he should be billed as a vocalist’.
It was almost inevitable that Elvis’s acting in his first movie would be criticised, particularly in the hostile New York Times. It was, after all, seen as Elvis trying to go legit – here he was trying to prove he was an actor when the newspaper wouldn’t even believe he could be called a singer. Again, it was being misinterpreted as something akin to pretension or, more simply, another case of Elvis trying to be something he wasn’t. Bosley Crowther’s put-down in his review of Love Me Tender (Robert D. Webb, 1956) is almost legendary: ‘The picture itself is a slight case of horse opera with the heaves, and Mr. Presley’s dramatic contribution is not a great deal more impressive than that of one of the slavering nags’ (Crowther, 1956: 22).
It was only with the arrival of G. I. Blues (Norman Taurog, 1960) in 1960 that Crowther would start to give Elvis some slack, and thereafter many Elvis films were given good reviews in the New York Times, particularly the light-hearted musical comedies. They weren’t, after all, attempts by Presley to be taken seriously as an actor as he was in the 1950s, but seen as an admittance that what he was good for was ninety minutes of fluffy nonsense with nice scenery, a few palatable songs, and pretty girls. The New York Times were far happier with that; any attempt at being a dramatic actor had gone. The status quo had been returned. Elvis now knew his place.
Love Me Tender also got poor reviews elsewhere. In the UK, The Times thought that Elvis sang with ‘jerks that suggest a species of St. Vitus’s dance and breathlessness natural to the end of a cross-country race’ (Anon, 1956b: 5). Rather oddly, the anonymous writer also thought there were ‘some pleasant scenes of train hold-ups and robberies!’
While Elvis’s class, aspirations, singing, acting, and even masculinity were under attack, there were still some people that were willing to stand up in defence of the young star. Jock Carroll, a Canadian writer, came to Elvis’s defence in Weekend magazine with a lengthy article simply entitled I Like Elvis Presley. ‘The solemn accusation that these old codgers throw at our boy is that he is “selling sex,”’ he writes. ‘Come now, fellows. Ever hear of Marilyn Monroe, Anita Ekberg, Jane Russell, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Eartha Kitt? Or, perhaps in your day, Mae West or Theda Bara? What do you think the girls have been selling? Violin lessons?’ (Carroll, J. 1956: 7). It’s interesting to note that, once again, Elvis was being compared to women and not men. Carroll could just as easily have listed Valentino, Clark Gable and Errol Flynn. The meaning would have been the same.
But it was John S. Wilson who was the critic that perhaps made others think again about the musical worth of Presley. In his lengthy review of Elvis’s second album, he refers to Elvis’s ‘impressive, if sometimes distorted, talent’ (Wilson, 1957: X16). Elsewhere he praises Elvis’s mastery of the blues in So Glad You’re Mine, Anyplace is Paradise and Long Tall Sally, before stating that between his first and second album there has been ‘an improvement in his diction, in the use he makes of his strong natural voice, and in the thoughtfulness of his presentations.’
Despite the album being released in October 1956, the review was not published until mid-January 1957. By this point, Elvis had appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on three occasions, with his final performance ending with Sullivan patting Elvis on the back and telling him he was ‘thoroughly alright.’ It was the start of the change of public (and critical) opinion towards Elvis. Sullivan, like Berle had once been in the late 1940s and early 1950s, was treated by audiences as part of the family, invited into their homes each week, but Sullivan had attracted none of the controversy of Berle. Indeed, Sullivan’s show was possibly the most family-friendly variety programme on television. If Sullivan thought Elvis was alright, then perhaps he was.
While the print media didn’t change its mind about Elvis overnight following the endorsement from Sullivan, attitudes towards him and his music softened in general. That said, it was not all smooth sailing from this point on. For example, a review of Jailhouse Rock (Richard Thorpe, 1957) in the UK referred to it as a ‘dreadful film. An unsavoury, nauseating, queasy-making film, to turn even the best insulated stomachs’ (Zec, 1958: 11). Also, not all of the American public were convinced either. In response to a defence of Elvis by Fred Sparks, letters poured in both for and against Elvis. ‘Your pal Presley acts like a baby with a handful of blue blades who’s been told to go play in traffic,’ writes one (Sparks, 1957: 12). While another doesn’t hold back, saying that ‘the joker can’t sing on key. When he tries his eppiglotis stands out like a jumping frog on account of because frogs croak and it’s an awful strain (sic). He has a nasty curled lip, a mean eye and those ridiculous sideburns remind me of a hoss-rangler who was hanged a long time ago in Helena, Montana.’
Elvis’ Christmas Album, released in late 1957, was also greeted with contempt and, in some cases, horror, by a number of critics, and a few radio stations banned the playing of any tracks from the record. However, the often-told story that Irving Berlin was so incensed by Elvis’s version of White Christmas that he and his staff called radio stations imploring them not to play the track, appears, following an in-depth search of trade journals/magazines and newspapers of the time, to be unfounded. There appears to be no indication in any print media from the time that this ever happened.
Elvis’s transformation in the media from a bad influence on teenagers to ‘thoroughly all right’ was completed when he spent two years in the army, from 1958 to 1960, and then was welcomed home in a TV special hosted by then-establishment figure Frank Sinatra, even allowing the former and current teen idols to tentatively duet together for the one and only time. This was swiftly followed by the release of the romantic comedy G. I. Blues, the gospel album His Hand in Mine, and singles such as Are You Lonesome Tonight and It’s Now or Never, that reached out far beyond the core Elvis fan base. The transformation (still a controversial one among some of the fan base) from rock ‘n’ roll performer to family entertainer was complete.
1956 was, without doubt, the most important year in Elvis Presley’s career. His recordings and television performances within those twelve months have gone down as some of the most important moments in 20th Century cultural history. While he started out the year by simply causing many to raise their eyebrows, just a two-minute performance of Hound Dog on The Milton Berle Show turned opinions from confusion to outrage. What is clear, however, when putting this performance into a wider context of television history (and therefore cultural and social history) is that Elvis very much became a scapegoat for those that disapproved of the changes going on around them, from the new technology of television through to the social acceptance (and even the embracing) of less prudish elements of entertainment that came with the new technology and, most importantly, the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll, which would change popular music forever.
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Carroll, J. (1956). ‘I Like Elvis Presley.’ Weekend, 8 September 1956, p.7.
Crane, L. (1956). ‘Rock Age Idol.’ Daily Mirror, April 30, p.9.
Crowther, B. (1956). ‘The Screen: Culture Takes a Holiday.’ New York Times, 16 November, p.22.
Doncaster, P. (1956a). ‘Do We Want this Shockin’ Rockin’?’ Daily Mirror, 16 August, p.12
Doncaster, P. (1956b). ‘The Rage of the Year.’ Daily Mirror, 28 December, p.7.
The Ed Sullivan Show. (1956). TV, CBS. September 9.
The Ed Sullivan Show. (1957). TV, CBS. January 6.
G. I. Blues, (1960). Film. Directed by Norman Taurog. USA: Paramount.
Gould, J. (1951). ‘Radio and Television.’ New York Times, September 28, p.32.
Gould, J. (1956a). ‘TV: New Phenomenon.’ New York Times, 5 June, p.67.
Gould, J. (1956b). ‘Elvis Presley.’ New York Times, 16 September, p.X13.
Gurlanick, P. (1994). Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley. London: Abacus.
Guys and Dolls. (1955). Film. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. USA: Goldwyn
Inman, D. M. (2006). Television Variety Shows: Histories and Episode Guides to 57 Programs. Jefferson: McFarland & Company.
Jailhouse Rock. (1957). Film. Directed by Richard Thorpe. USA: MGM.
Love Me Tender. (1956). Film. Directed by Robert D. Webb. USA: Twentieth Century Fox.
The Milton Berle Show. (1956). TV, NBC. April 3.
The Milton Berle Show. (1956). TV, NBC. June 5.
Jorgensen, E. (1998). Elvis Presley: A Life in Music. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Newcomb, J. (1956). ‘The Ants in Elvis Presley’s Pants.’ Exposed, December, pp.9-11, 55.
Riley, J.W. Cantwell, F.V. and Ruttiger, K.F. (1949). ‘Some Observations on the Social Effects of Television.’ Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol 13, No. 2, pp. 223-234.
Schoenfeld, H. (1956). ‘Album Reviews.’ Variety, 14 March, p.50.
Scott, V. (1956). ‘“Can’t Sing Worth a Hoot’, Elvis Presley Drawls.’ Schenectady Gazette, 7 June, p.26.
Sparks, F. (1957). ‘Why Elvis Fans Howl Like Hound Dogs.’ Movie Teen Illustrated, Summer, pp.10-12.
Spiegel, L. (1992). Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Stage Show. (1956). TV, CBS. January 28.
Stage Show. (1956). TV, CBS. February 11.
Stage Show. (1956). TV, CBS. February 18.
The Steve Allen Show. (1956). TV, NBC. July 1.
Wilson, J. (1956). ‘Stylists in Jazz.’ New York Times, April 15, 1956, p.131.
Wilson, J. (1957). ‘Elvis Presley: Rocking Blues Shouter.’ New York Times, 13 January, p.X16.
Zec, D. (1957). ‘Elvis, You’re a Bore!’ Daily Mirror, 16 January, p.11.
 Dates given here are for The Milton Berle Show in all its incarnations and covering the various title changes over the years.