Elvis Presley’s success had started out as a regional phenomenon, with his contract with the Louisiana Hayride and his appearances all over the South bringing him fame and a ton of radio play (although pretty much contained in the South), and the burgeoning question that seemed to bother everyone: “What do these girls see in this boy that makes them go so nuts?” As you will see, this question was NOT a benign one. It’s not like nowadays, where pop culture is so awash with teen influences and is so teen-dominated that it is just accepted that teens will bring home Lady Gaga or Eminem or whoever, and parents will shake their heads in befuddlement at the noise the younguns are listening to today. But that was not the case during Elvis Presley’s time. There had been a wave of bobbysoxer pandemonium that greeted the young Frank Sinatra, a similar mania, and that was certainly a harbinger of things to come. The teens were growing in not only demographics but buying power. Once World War II ended, and America was prosperous (or at least more prosperous than it had been), the post-war generation grew up in relative peace and happiness, leaving them a lot of time for leisure and their own pursuits. The whole Adolescent thing became a whole time in and of itself, and the nation worried itself to death over what those kids were up to.
Marlon Brando, in The Wild One, epitomized all that was feared, especially in his famous response to the question, “Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” Brando replied, “Whaddya got?” People were very worried about this.
James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause is the epitome of that time, with the title being emblematic of the baffled reaction of square adults to angsty teens. The parents of these “rebels without a cause” had grown up in the Depression, they had had hard knocks, man, they hadn’t had time to go to sock hops and make out, what are these lazy kids going on and on about? Huge generation gap. Probably intensified by tabloid-style media attention, but very real nonetheless. At the same time that Dean and Brando (and all the other Actors Studio folks) were bringing a new style of acting to the screen, which seemed somehow threatening, you had writers like Tennessee Williams blasting apart the polite conventions of theatre with his poetic and powerful plays. There started to be things that you could say, admit to. Freud was very hot at the time.
There was also Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, all the Beats, deciding to check out of the mainstream American conversation and see what else might be out there. This was pre-sexual revolution, pre-pill. But massive cultural forces were at work. The nonconformist attitude of the “rebels” was not, of course, welcomed. The culture was far more homogenous then, at least in terms of what was perceived to be “out there”. So just reading On the Road or seeing Rebel Without a Cause was, in and of itself, a rebellious act. This is obviously a slight exaggeration, and I can’t back it up with pie charts (although I am sure others could), and painting any entire generation with one brush is always something that has vaguely annoyed me. No generation invents the wheel. (Dear Baby Boomers: You did not invent good sex. People have been having good sex since the world began. Get over yourselves. You also didn’t invent good music, political activity, or integrity. Just STOP.) But post- World War II there was definitely a huge shift towards a powerful youth demographic, and the reaction from the “establishment” – ie: adults who ran the media, as writers, editors – was often shock, dismay, scorn. If you only read their articles, you would believe the entire nation was in some huge existential crisis.
James Dean died in 1955, leaving a huge void in the acting world and in the teens who adored him (something Martin Sheen spoke about, as a young actor, hungry for another inspiring figure to come along like Dean had been for him). Brando did The Wild One in 1953, but he was already getting too old to pass for a teenager. In 1954, he did On the Waterfront and in 1955, the year Dean died, he starred as Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls. Brando pre-dated Dean, anyway, he wasn’t Dean’s contemporary.
John Lennon famously said, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.” Not quite true. Bill Haley had recorded “Rock Around the Clock” in 1954 (the same year Elvis and Scotty Moore and Bill Black recorded at Sun Records), but it wasn’t until it was included in the film The Blackboard Jungle in 1955 that the song exploded into the hit that it was (and still is, of course). Teens responded to it. They ached for it, yearned for it. I am no Bill Haley expert, but I will say this: Bill Haley was born in 1925, which means he was 10 years older than Elvis, a significant difference in terms of teen receptivity to him as an image, an icon. He also looked like the ex-country singer that he was, a nice smiling kind of goofy-looking guy. Certainly not a brooding exotic-looking creature like Elvis, with dark skin, bright blue eyes, long eyelashes, and a 2 foot-tall pompadour on his head (not to mention his scandalous onstage movements and thick-as-tobacco-chew Southern accent) – the epitome of everything America feared and loathed.
All of these forces were coming together at the same moment, and it was just one of those times when … a void was present. A void to be filled by … something. No one knew what it would be yet. Sam Phillips had an inkling, but he wouldn’t know it until he found it. It couldn’t be manufactured. (I have written before about the impact of Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” specifically – and it was subtle, if you weren’t paying attention you would have missed it – a key difference between them and Elvis, but nevertheless: that song getting radio play was like the opening cannon fire of a revolution. It was that radical. There was a void, Nirvana poured itself into the void, and thousands of other bands followed, and everything changed – seemingly overnight.)
So in 1954, 1955, along comes Elvis Presley.
But in a way the culture got more than it bargained for. The culture never figured out a way to properly respond to Presley, or categorize him, or … just freakin’ DEAL with his existence. This went on throughout his life (even though he was famous), and continues on after his death. Who was that big? Before or since? How do we manage him? How do we explain him? And if we explain him, what does that say about ourselves? What will we reveal about ourselves when we try to explain him? (This is the thing that nobody seems to want to deal with. Lester Bangs dealt with it, openly, fearlessly, in his obituary for Presley, which seems to encapsulate the entire American conversation in one fell swoop.) Presley may have some ancestors, but he really has no heirs. He was a complete anomaly, and yet when he arrived it was as though the world had been holding its breath waiting for him.
Nobody saw it coming. Sam Phillips did, Dewey Phillips did, those in the know did, but the media establishment (and parents and preachers) were taken completely unaware. Patti Page was on the radio yesterday, and we totally understand what that sound is, it makes sense to us, and and now we have … this? What exactly is this?
The whole “is he white or is he black” thing came into play. It was controversial. He was controversial before anyone even saw him perform, but when they saw him perform it went up to another level. He MOVED. He wiggled his left leg. He almost lay on the ground, stretching the mike-stand out beneath him. He would move his shoulder in a provocative manner. He would collapse after shows he was so wiped out. And the crowds went In. Sane.
And that was when the op-ed columns and the pulpits went into overdrive.
The girls were running and screaming and crying and tearing their hair out. It cannot be overstated how radical it was to see young girls behave in the way they did at Elvis shows.
That girl is biting her own hand.
In a never before heard interview (just released in the awesome box set Young Man With the Big Beat, which tries to put into one place the madness of Elvis Presley’s entire year of 1956 -recordings and interviews), Presley says something fascinating about all of this. About what goes on at his shows and how really, people, it’s nothing to worry about.
I watch the audience and we are getting something out of our system and no one knows what it is. The important thing is we are getting it out of our system and no one is getting hurt.
As that quote makes clear, he totally understood what was going on on the level he needed to understand it. It’s quite eloquent, and is yet another example of that “three-dimensional awareness” thing he had going on while onstage that puts him in very rare company.
But the world at large did not see it that way.
If you read the interviews with Presley at the time, the hostility towards him is breathtakingly open. This would not be the Elvis the media embraced a year or so later, when he became a movie star, and then, only a year after that, when he was drafted. (I mean, the mind boggles. What a time this young man had.) By the time he shipped out to the army, you can hear the fondness for him in all of the press conferences, people shouting out to him (reporters, mind you) how sorry they were to hear of the passing of his mother. He had been accepted. Still not understood, at all, but the questions are quite nice, not hostile, they obviously love him – nothing like what was going on in 1955 and 1956 when he was openly treated like a Satanic force. To his face.
A well-mannered young man, he “yes sir” and “no sir’d” the reporters to death, often disarming them with his humor, good nature, and politeness. But the reporters always came in for the kill. He had a lot to answer for is the attitude of many of the reporters. Why was he doing this to the young girls? Was he doing it on purpose? What was he after? And why?
There is a deeper level to all of this, one that interests me greatly: the hostility towards women choosing something without prior approval from … men? The patriarchy? I don’t know. There are approved tastes, even more so then, and girls chose Elvis Presley all on their own. They screamed spontaneously when he moved because it turned them on, and although op-ed columns clucked at them disapprovingly, they did not care. This was a threat. Nobody understood it. Boys will be boys, oh sure, we understand boys, we indulge boys, they need to have a little fun, but the entire structure of our moral society rests on girls’ shoulders, and they cannot be allowed to run wild, willy-nilly. It’s incredibly misogynistic, and paternal, and was the beginning of a revolution of its own kind that had nothing to do with Elvis Presley, but it was something he helped start.
To quote my friend Mitchell, “Women openly admitted he got their vaginas wet. Had never happened before.” Maybe Rudolph Valentino had brought on a similar frenzy? But who else? It was a bomb going off in the culture. Women were sex symbols and pin-ups. That was not supposed to be men’s job. Women didn’t ache for sex like men did. If we allow THAT to happen … it’ll be dogs and cats living together … it’ll be MASS HYSTERIA!
I have written before about my dismay, in the current world, when I see male critics overly bash something that women have chosen to like. It seems excessive. They certainly give superhero movies a pass, even the bad ones don’t get the kind of vicious commentary that the Twilight series gets or Sex and the City. Male taste is STILL seen as the default taste. When women choose their own thing, they are veering away from the norm (as though being male is the norm). I’m not big on gender rigidity when it comes to taste. I dislike most so-called chick flicks, I love action movies, and I love things like guns and whiskey. But the DISDAIN shown for female taste by men is something I despise. I don’t despise YOUR fantasy wish-fulfillment Iron Man. I see it as boyish wish-fulfillment. That’s part of storytelling. But you DESPISE the female version of a fantasy wish-fulfillment in Sex and the City and treat it as some kind of dangerous social commentary on how shallow women are now? You don’t see that it’s the flip side of the same coin as your superhero franchises?
This attitude towards women’s tastes still exists, despite the fact that they, in terms of their buying power, are the most powerful demographic on earth. And if you tap into the teenage market? If you somehow hit that Mother Lode of teenage girls? You are almost set for life, because we girls are nothing if not loyal. If Ralph Macchio came out with Karate Kid 8, I’d be first in line to see it. Because I remember him from when I loved him when I was 13. We are LOYAL. And you know what that also means? We keep buying shit. There is zero reason to disdain such a powerful demographic. So we sometimes like shit you guys don’t understand? So? Why the disdain? It’s so rude.
All of this is to say that in these interviews with Presley, you can hear that the fate of the nation is being placed on his shoulders by the questions. Why are you doing this to young girls? Are you doing it on purpose? Why have you made them so crazy? Why have you sent them to a place that I can’t understand? There was rumblings of worries about juvenile delinquency, and sullen boys (Elvis Presley’s hair was a big big deal), but the entire society didn’t rally around the cause. However, EVERYBODY worries when girls rebels. It’s amazing how often the questions in these early interviews go back not to Presley’s music, but to the audience. That’s the obsession. Presley was just a symptom of the national sickness. The girls were the real problem. (If you think I’m exaggerating, read a transcript of one of the interviews below.)
In his later life, Elvis Presley rarely gave interviews. As in almost never. The Colonel saw to that. Dole the boy out in tiny doses in giant engineered press conferences, and keep access to a minimum. But back in the early days, 1955, 1956, Elvis was seemingly everywhere. He signed with the Colonel in March of 1956. Then came some major TV performances which brought him fame on a nationwide level, changing the playing field immediately. (It also can’t be overstated just how fast things happened for this young man with the big beat.) He had gone to Hollywood and done a screentest for Hal Wallis, and had been signed to Paramount. He would start his first movie in the fall. In the meantime, in the summer of 1956, he had some performances around Memphis and down in Florida and other places. Everywhere he went he was mobbed. He had just bought his parents a nice ranch house in Memphis and he was busy furnishing it and getting a pool dug, and riding around on his motorcycle. Fans would gather outside at his gate. The nationwide fame was just hitting. July and August of 1956 were tipping point moments in Presley’s life. There would be no turning back.
He was 21 years old.
In June of 1956, he came back to his house and there was a crowd of fans outside. In that crowd of fans, he recognized a girl from Biloxi, whom he had taken out on a couple of dates the year before. Her name was June Juanico. She was in Memphis with her girlfriends for a short time. Elvis pounced on her. He took her out. He showed her the sights. He traveled around Memphis in a vast entourage of not only his family but her friends. He was always like that. A big crowd man. The more the merrier.Then June went back to Biloxi. Come the next month, Presley had some time off. So on a whim he drove to Biloxi to find June. He showed up at her house unannounced. (Can you imagine being June Juanico? She seems like a very substantial person, nice, kind, funny, her own gal … but Elvis Presley was, at that very moment, becoming a nationwide phenomenon, and he’s driving to her house to find her.) He had three weeks vacation. He figured he’d just hang out in Biloxi for that time. (This whole month of activities cracks me up.) And so he did. But then he missed his parents. So he had them move to Biloxi. He had some of his cousins come out to Biloxi, too. He spent all his time with June. They went water-skiing, they made out on various piers late at night, they star-gazed, they went to amusement parks. Presley was due to go to Florida for a couple of big shows, but he kept putting off his departure. Newspaper reporters were trailing after them. Rumors of a marriage started. (The Colonel was dismayed at all of this. He just wanted June Juanico to go away.) But Presley, at this time in his life, was doing whatever the hell he wanted to do. And in the summer of 1956, he was all about June Juanico.
The two of them were driving around one night listening to the radio and they heard a New Orleans disc jockey say that Elvis Presley and June Juanico were apparently engaged. Elvis was panicked that the Colonel would find out. On a whim, Elvis and June drove to New Orleans, walked in unannounced, and basically barged onto the air to dispel the rumors. This was damage control. Presley had been warned against 1. getting involved with one girl 2. getting married 3. getting anyone pregnant. That 1956 impromptu interview with Elvis Presley suddenly appearing on the air to dispel the rumors exists. He is polite, not annoyed – “We are not engaged. I’ve taken her out a couple of times …” June is standing off to the side probably having the time of her LIFE. By dispelling the rumors, Presley hoped it could buy him some privacy. He still didn’t quite get what fame of that kind was going to mean.
This is still a moment in his life when Elvis Presley could circulate out in public. Those days were numbered.
He hung out with her family. He assured June’s mother he had honorable intentions. He would never harm June, he told Mrs. Juanico. Apparently he made a good impression because her mother basically let her be with him day and night. She even slept over at his place in Biloxi. Her mother okayed this (after all, Mr. and Mrs. Presley were staying with Elvis, so June and Elvis would obviously have chaperones). They never had sex. Lots of hanky panky going on, clearly, but not sex. He was obsessed with who else she was dating, and what else she had done with other guys. She relates (she’s a very funny woman, love her stories) that she would get exasperated with his jealousy, and finally said something along the lines of “I haven’t done anything with anyone, you bozo.” Elvis said, “June, really? You’re a cherry?” And she replied, “George, I’m not only a cherry, I’m the whole pie.”
“George”? I love her.
She shares one anecdote of the two of them wrestling on his bed at his rented’ house in Biloxi, or maybe it was a motel, and their clothes somehow came off and they kept wrestling, both of them laughing from nervousness. Aware of how close they were. Then came a little knock on the door. It was Mrs. Presley, and she said through the door something like, “Elvis, we had better talk about making sure that June doesn’t have too many babies.” Busted. Later, much later, June Juanico said that that was the closest they came to ever having sex in their entire relationship, and on occasion, in the middle of a crowd, Elvis would lean in towards her and say privately, “June, honey, we almost did it! Baby, we almost did it!” The pictures kept pouring out in not only the regional newspapers but the national: Elvis water-skiing with June, Elvis horseback riding with June, Elvis and June in his car. He had to be in Florida. The Colonel was expecting him. Elvis kept putting off going. Elvis and June had big fights. He expected her to be a certain way. She told him “You don’t own me. I am my own person.” He would slam doors. Then come find her when she was alone, and tell her he was sorry. He’d take her entire family to the amusement park. The Presley parents and the Juanico parents became friends. Elvis had moved his entire family to Biloxi in a 2-day period of time. I just love his impulsivity, it’s so crazy.
As July neared its end, Elvis really had to go to Florida. It was killing him. He couldn’t be apart from June. He just couldn’t! So he somehow convinced June’s mother to allow June to accompany him to Florida. He would get her her own hotel room. She would be totally safe with him. Nothing would happen to her. Unbelievably, her mother said Yes.
So off June and Elvis went to Florida.
Florida was a madhouse. The hotel was mobbed. Elvis would peek out his balcony window and see crowds gathered on the beach all through the night below his window. Many of the fangirls were vicious about June and would shout, “WHORE” at June when she walked by with Elvis. You cannot make this stuff up. It really happened.
June’s mother gave an interview to the press, praising Presley as a good mate for her daughter. Even June was tricked into making some comments about her relationship with Elvis. The Colonel was out of his mind. He gave Elvis a stern talking-to, told him that whatever he did to not get June pregnant. Elvis would tell June what the Colonel said late at night in their hotel room (because of course she slept over in his room every night – despite the assurances to her mother – hilarious – those were some hot and bothered nights), and do imitations of the Colonel while June rolled around laughing. But Elvis was upset about the gossip too. Everything seemed to be getting out of his control. Was it really anyone’s business that he was dating this one little girl? In Florida, came the notorious show where some parental or religious group had complained, and the cops were called to the performance, and Elvis was told he couldn’t move his body during the performance. He complied, only wiggling his little finger the entire show (he tells the story in the 1968 comeback special). There were riots.
He was getting ready to go to Hollywood. He read through his lines with June. Told her he was nervous about Love Me Tender because he died in it, and he didn’t want to die in his first movie. June gives this great quote from him. She asked him what it was like for him when he was up onstage. She says that he said:
I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. It’s like your whole body gets goose bumps, but it’s not goose bumps. It’s not a chill either. It’s like a surge of electricity going through you. It’s almost like making love, but it’s even stronger than that.
June asked him if all entertainers felt the same way, and Elvis said:
I don’t know. The few I’ve talked to experience excitement and nerves, but they must not feel the way I do. If they did, they would say more about it, don’t you think? They say they get nervous, but after they sing a few lines they calm down. Hell, I don’t calm down till two or three hours after I leave the stage. Sometimes I think my heart is going to explode.
That’s one of my favorite Elvis Presley quotes, and we have June Juanico to thank for it.
Now all of this gossip is leading up to something. It’s just that I am obsessed with 1956, and that situation has only been exacerbated by Young Man with the Big Beat. So much was going on in 1956, important stuff for him, but it cannot be denied that this romance with June was one of the most important of his life. (In 1957, June gave him a gift, a copy of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, and it was found after his death on the bedside table at Graceland.) He would be too famous the following year to ever behave the way he did with June in those two months in 1956. And you can see the difference in the pictures of Elvis and June, so many pictures. He looks relaxed, his own man, happy, and in love.
During his following year in Hollywood, he kept in touch with June, calling her all the time, quizzing her about what she was doing, who she was dating. She was faithful to him. He, obviously, was not. But he couldn’t let her go. She eventually got married to someone else and there’s a painful story about how she sprung the news on Elvis during one of his visits home. She wanted to hurt him. She did. But she is one of those good ladies in his life who maintained a good memory of him and always speaks highly of him. She thought he was an awesome person, and still does.
But in August, 1956, they were inseparable. In Lakeland, Florida, before a show, he gave an interview with a reporter for the Tampa Tribune, Paul Wilder, which was going to run in TV Guide. Wilder taped the interview. You can hear fragments of that conversation on Youtube and elsewhere (which is now notorious, because it is one of the only times that Presley seems angry – and when you hear the questions, you can’t blame him), but the entire taped conversation is included on Young Man with the Big Beat, and it is riveting. Paul Wilder was not an Elvis fan, that is clear, although you can hear him warming up to him a bit over the course of the prickly conversation. Wilder starts the interview by bringing up a column written by a Mr. Herb Rau, which is one of the meanest things ever written about Elvis Presley (including Albert Goldman’s book). Herb Rau went off on Presley – but more than that: he went off on the screaming fans. He compared Presley’s act to a striptease, saying, by implication, that all of the girls who loved him were being corrupted without measure by contact with him. Herb Rau said that all of the girls who loved Elvis deserved to be slapped in the mouth.
Blatant hatred and fear of women doing what they want to do. Talking about the young women of America in such a dismissive and violent manner? It was par for the course, and in some respects, it still is.
It is difficult to imagine such vicious commentary today, although we still have our own brand of generation gap commentary. So Paul Wilder decides to open the interview by bringing up Herb Rau’s article – and then – and THEN – he reads it in its entirety to Elvis, asking for comments. Paul Wilder’s voice is nerdy and obnoxious, and despite the fact that he is very annoying – I am grateful for his annoying comments because it is one of the most interesting interviews Elvis Presley ever gave.
Presley maintains his cool, except for a few moments when he gets noticeably angry. You can hear it in his voice. It’s startling, and actually a little bit scary, because that side of him was never shown. Ever.
He jokes about Herb Rau’s comments about his act, but when Herb Rau criticizes the fans, calling them bad girls, etc., you can hear Elvis’ anger in his response. It’s very emotional.
The other time he gets angry, angry enough to actually cut off Paul Wilder, is when Wilder brings up religion, and says the word “Holy Roller”. Wilder is wondering if Presley got his movements ideas from being a “Holy Roller”. Presley actually explodes in anger as a response. It’s extremely revealing. It shows the kind of condescension he faced from the get-go. Hostility towards his background.
But there’s so much going on in the interview. Paul Wilder is not interested in who Elvis Presley is at all. What interests him is understanding why does he move that way? You can hear his obsession with it. He wonders what Presley is up to. Does he do it on purpose? And when Presley says that yes, he does do it because it gets a reaction, you can almost feel Wilder’s opinion about that in the room. That Presley is some demon-child corrupting the youth.
And nobody cares about the music. Paul Wilder doesn’t care about the music. He cares primarily about why Elvis Presley moves the way he does.
Nobody had ever seen girls lose control like that before. What was Presley doing to them?
And notice how Wilder asks if the girls who scream the most are blondes. It is unbelievable. He’d be fired for such a comment today. (Presley’s response is perfect. He starts laughing.)
You can feel how baffled Wilder is in his voice, not just in the questions (which are amazingly persistent), but also in the responses to Elvis’s answers. Elvis, for the most part, is quite polite. He calls Wilder “sir” throughout. This is a transcript below, so some of the responses may seem more blunt than they actually are. (When Elvis counts out the months, for example: That reads as though Elvis is being contemptuous, but he’s not. He got a little bit confused himself and had to count it out.) But his annoyance is clear at some of the moments, and his temper gets hot when it is suggested that the girls who watch him deserve to be slapped in the mouth. Really? Slapped in the mouth? Elvis sticks up for those girls. His voice is gentle, patient, but you can hear it all wearing thin a bit at times.
Later in the hotel room, joking with June about all of the brou-haha surrounding his performances in Florida, he said to her, “They’re calling me vulgar.” He put a pair of her underwear on his head and said, “You don’t think I’m vulgar, baby, do you?”
It is hard to imagine any star tolerating such behavior from a reporter now, and if you listen to the questions – persistent, nagging, Paul Wilder cannot stop thinking about what is to be done about all those screaming girls – you really can see the revolution that Elvis Presley had unwittingly unleashed.
Enjoy. Here is the transcript.
August, 1956: Paul Wilder interview with Elvis Presley, Lakeland, Florida
PW: How do you feel about [Herb Rau’s article] generally?
EP: He called me ‘idiot’s delight’, he said all the kids was a bunch of idiots and they all should be slapped in the mouth.
PW: I’ll read it to you… He says, “When this day is over, an unhealthy crowd teenage girls will have unashamedly screamed their lungs out to frank adoration of the biggest freak in modern show business history in 7 stage shows at the Olympia yesterday and today. Elvis Presley is a no-talent performer riding the crest of a wave of mass hysteria unprecedented.’ How is your feeling on that? ‘No-talent performer’?
EP: I don’t know, I don’t even want to think about it.
PW: Does it make you mad?
EP: He ain’t nothing but an idiot or he wouldn’t sit up and write all that stuff. He just hates to admit that he’s too old to have any more fun. [Laughter.]
PW: ‘He’s young and averages 2000 kids per show and nearly all of them are girls.’ We’re continuing now with the quotation. ‘Elvis can’t sing, he can’t play the guitar–‘ Can you play the guitar?
EP: No. And I can’t sing either. But somebody likes it. [Laughs]
PW: And you can’t dance.
EP: No. I can’t dance. I can’t do nothing but read Herb Rau’s article in the newspaper. That’s all I can do.
PW: ‘He has 2000 idiots per show’ – continuing the quotation – ‘yelp every time he opens his mouth, plucks a guitar string, or shakes his pelvis like any striptease dame in town’. Do you shake your pelvis like any striptease dame in town?
EP: Well, he should know. I guess that’s where he hangs around. [Laughs]
PW: ‘In over a decade of active professional participation on the fringes of show business, we’ve never seen anything like it’, Rau says. ‘nor can we understand it. A division of infantrymen, fresh from the frontlines, never screamed at Bob Hope like mindless teenagers are screeching for Elvis Presley. Judy Garland killed them at The Palace but they never heard anything like the Olympia on Wednesday. Nor did Al Jolson at the height of his glory, or Frank Sinatra, or Will Rogers, or Jerry Lewis, or Bing Crosby.’ New paragraph. ‘What Elvis Presley dishes out is entertainment. Then we give up. We’re beyond our teens but not so ancient that we can’t appreciate what might appeal to a youngster.’ New paragraph. ‘Except in regard to Presley.’ New paragraph. ‘There’s a quote warmup unquote screen program prior to the proceedings onstage. One of the movie shorts is a rock and roll thing featuring Bill Haley and the Comets.’ New paragraph. ‘They yell and scream through this, too. And if it weren’t for the cops and firemen on hand, they’d dance in the aisles also. The scream warmup routine is reminiscent in staging of another kind of film prior to another kind of performance in another kind of house.’
EP: Sir, those kids that come here and pay their money to see this show, come to have a good time. What’s-his-name here probably might have had a little bit of fun when he was younger, but I doubt it.
PW: Rau. Herb Rau.
EP: Herb Rau, whatever his name is. I mean, I’m not running Mr. Rau down, but I just don’t see that he should call those people idiots. Because they’re somebody’s kids. They’re somebody’s decent kids, probably, that was raised in a decent home, and he hasn’t got any right to call those kids idiots. If they want to pay their money and come out and jump around and scream and yell, it’s their business. They’ll grow up someday and grow out of that. But while they’re young, let them have their fun. Don’t let some old man that’s so old he can’t get around sit around and call them idiots, because they’re just human beings like he is.
PW: Okay. We’ll go back to quotations. ‘They can’t like Presley for his voice or his guitar playing’ [Presley starts laughing] ‘no matter how lousy both may be. They can’t adore him for these things because they scream so loud they can’t even hear him sing or strum his guitar.’ Do you strum your guitar?
EP: Uh … well … I beat on it. I have for quite a number of years. I’m not an expert on it. I’ll say this, and I’d like to add it to what I just got through saying about him. As a rule, most of the adults are real nice. They’re understanding. I’ve had them come around to me by the hundreds and say, ‘I don’t personally like your kind of music, but my children like it, and so on, and if they like it, I haven’t got any kick about it, because when I was young I liked the Charleston, I liked the foxtrot, I liked this and that.’ They’re adults with a little intelligence. They don’t run people into the ground for having a nice time.
PW: Okay, back to the clipping. ‘What remains unfortunately are his pelvic gyrations and that’s the core of his whole appeal: “sex stimulation”.’
EP: Well, I don’t roll my – what do you call it? Pelvic gyrations? My pelvis has nothing to do with what I do. I just … I get kind of in rhythm with the music and jump around to it because I enjoy what I’m doing. I’m not trying to be vulgar, I’m not trying to sell any sex, I’m not trying to look vulgar and nasty. I’m just enjoying what I’m doing, trying to make the best of it.
PW: Where did you get the name Elvis the Pelvis?
EP: From somebody just like the character who’s writing this article here.
PW: Do you have any idea who?
EP: No, sir, I don’t know. I wish I knew. Of course I don’t like to be called Elvis the Pelvis. It’s one of the most childish expressions I’ve ever heard coming from an adult. Elvis the Pelvis. But if they want to call me that, there’s nothing I can do about it, so I just have to accept it. You got to accept the good with the bad, the bad with the good.
PW: Okay. Back to the quotation. ‘We’re no prude, but we might suggest a gift for these 14,000 girls who, as if it were a fetish, are vocally and mentally genuflecting to Elvis Presley: a solid slap across the mouth.’ Rau means, a slap across the mouth to these girls. Do you have any comment to that?
EP: Yeah, but I don’t think I should say it.
PW: Okay. Okay. This isn’t over the air, this is for TV Guide.
EP: TV Guide. I don’t think I should say it, you know?
EP: Cause I’m a singer not a fighter.
PW: [Laughs] May I also ask where did you pick up your style?
EP: Well, sir, I don’t know. I really don’t know. I just started out doing what I’m doing now.
PW: Have you ever seen anybody else do it?
EP: No, sir. I never have.
PW: Have you got any techniques you’ve added since you’ve started in show business?
EP: No, sir, I’ve been doing the same thing – You know, I only been in the business about a year and a half.
EP: And I’m doing the same thing I started out doing. Haven’t added or taken anything away.
PW: Did your first appearances – did your first success occur in records or personal appearances?
EP: My records started selling very well.
PW: Your records started selling before you made any success as a performer?
EP: Yes, sir.
PW: So do you think that your gyrations merely add to the performance you give? Or do you?
EP: Uh … well …
PW: Do you think that the movements you make have made you famous or your style of singing?
EP: I don’t know, sir.
PW: You don’t have any idea. Okay. I read a clipping somewhere where you were attributed as saying that the Holy Roller —
EP: I have never used that expression. That’s another deal. See, I belong to an Assembly of God church, which is a Holiness church. I was raised up in a little Assembly of God church. And some character called them ‘Holy Rollers’–
PW: Oh, I see.
EP: And that’s where that got started. I always attended a church where people sang, stood up and sang in the choir, and worshipped God, you know? I have never used the expression ‘Holy Roller’.
PW: Do you still attend church?
EP: Every opportunity I can get. I don’t have as much opportunity as I used to because I’m on the road most of the time.
PW: In the Holiness church, do they have peppy music?
EP: Peppy music?
EP: They sing hymns and spirituals, they sing spiritual songs every once in a while.
PW: Do they sing in a fast tempo?
EP: Yes, sir, they do sometimes.
PW: Did that – has that – how long have you been going to that church?
EP: Ever since I was old enough to walk.
PW: About 5 or 6?
EP: Yes, sir.
PW: And do you think you try to put some of that rhythm into your–
EP: That’s not it. That’s not it at all. There was some article that came out where I got the jumpin’ around from my religion. My religion has nothing to do with what I do now, because the type of stuff I do now is not religious music. And my religious background has nothing to do with the way I sing.
PW: Do you recall the first time you sang in public? Do you remember?
EP: Yes, sir, back when I was about 10, 11 year old. I was in an amateur program at a fair.
PW: And did you use the gyrations then?
EP: Well, I wasn’t doing the types of songs I’m doing now.
EP: Nobody knew what rock ‘n roll was back in those days.
PW: But when you hear rock ‘n roll, it gets you all afire, or …?
EP: Oh, I … Not when I just hear it on the radio, but when I’m doing it on the stage – you have to put on a show for people. In other words, people can buy your records and hear you sing. They don’t have to come out to hear you sing. You have to put on a show in order to draw a crowd. If I just stood out there and sang and never moved a muscle the people would say, ‘My goodness, I can stay home and listen to his records.’ But you have to give them a show, something to talk about.
PW: In this show – we’ve established that it is a show that you put on. How did you get the idea for the rapid amount of action? Have you ever seen anybody move around as much?
EP: No, sir, I never have.
PW: You never had any old showman advise you you ought to do it?
EP: Nobody has ever told me anything.
PW: Where is the first time that you used the rapid action?
EP: The very first appearance after I started recording – I was on a show in Memphis where I started doing that. I was on a show as an extra added single, a big jamboree at an outdoor theatre, outdoor auditorium, and I came out onstage and I was scared stiff. It was my first big appearance in front of an audience. And I came out and I was doing a fast-type tune, one of my first records, and everybody was hollering and I didn’t know what they were hollering at. Everybody was screaming and everything. I came offstage and my manager told me they were hollering because I was wiggling my legs. And I was unaware –
PW: Who was your manager?
EP: Bob Neal was my manager.
EP: And so I went back out for an encore and I did a little more and the more I did, the louder they went.
PW: Okay. Now we’re down to the questions. In other words, you picked up your style from when they appreciated just a little wiggle, you figured they’d appreciate it more with a little more wiggle, and they did. So now you really give ’em the works, right?
EP: That’s right.
EP: I’ll say this, sir, before we go any further. It’s back on to the subject we were talking about at first, talking about reporters. The rumor has gotten out that I don’t have no time for reporters, that I just answer with a Yes or a No. It’s very untrue. I have my first one yet to turn down. I’ve never turned down a reporter, I’ve never turned down a disc jockey, I can’t visit radio stations like I’d like to but I don’t have time. I have never turned down a reporter, I have never been sassy to one. In fact, I’ve never been sassy to anyone. And I’ve always stayed and talked to them as long as they wanted to talk. I admire them. Because they keep us in business. The newspaper columns, the reporters, the disc jockeys, we all work hand in hand.
PW: Do you have any idea one way or the other whether the criticism has helped or hurt your career?
EP: I don’t know, sir.
PW: Would you agree with myself in the opinion that the criticism has helped skyrocket you – with a defense coming to your rescue every time somebody knocks? With every knock there’s a boost, in other words?
EP: Well that makes a lot of sense.
PW: Here’s a new question now. What is your reaction to the NBC comment after they learned Ed Sullivan had hired you that you are just a flash in the pan?
EP: Maybe they’re right. I don’t know. Nobody knows. In fact, if I knew, I would be a mastermind. I’m not.
PW: Okay. That’s a good answer. Next question. What about your acting career? Do you have any plans for an acting career?
EP: Yes, sir, I do.
PW: You have a contract now with-
EP: I have one with Paramount.
PW: And how long is it?
EP: 7 years.
PW: 7 years. And how many pictures?
EP: A picture a year.
PW: A picture a year. Can you give me an approximation of the amount of that contract over the 7 years? The amount of fees you’ll receive?
EP: No, sir, that’s never been released.
PW: Have you ever had any experience in acting before?
EP: I’ve never read a line in my life.
PW: How do you figure on going about learning to become an actor?
EP: Well, sir, I don’t think you learn to become an actor. Maybe you’ve got a little bit of acting talent, and you develop it. I don’t think you learn to be an actor. If you learn to be an actor – in other words, you’re not a real actor. You’re false.
PW: In your acting, are you taking advice from anyone? Tom Parker, or –
EP: I don’t take advice from anybody.
PW: Well, I mean, is anyone responsible for assisting you in it?
EP: Well, the Colonel is responsible for assisting me in everything. I’ve talked to veteran actors, I’ve talked to a lot of the producers and directors in Hollywood, and they always give you advice.
PW: They think you’re a natural?
EP: Well, I wouldn’t say that. But they told me that I had good possibilities because when I took my screentest – like I said, I had never read a line, I had never studied acting, or been in any plays or anything. I got out there, I knew my script – they had sent it to me before I came to Hollywood –
PW: How many pages of lines, do you know?
EP: About 15 pages.
EP: I knew my script, I got out there and just tried to put myself in the place of the character I was playing. I tried to act as natural as I could.
PW: And did you have any wheels that approved the test, that you know of?
EP: You mean …
PW: Movie wheels?
EP: Well, all of them saw it.
PW: Do you look forward to your acting career, or–
EP: Yes, I do. I think I’m going to enjoy it.
PW: Do you think that will eventually become your main source of income?
EP: I don’t know.
PW: Wait and see. Next question. Are you looking for a TV show of your own?
EP: No, I’m not, I haven’t even thought about it.
PW: If not, why not?
EP: I’m just not ready for that yet.
PW: You mean, in your own experience, you’re not ready yet?
EP: That’s right.
PW: Next question. Who are your most avid fans? What age group would you say?
EP: Well, I don’t know. Most of them are teenagers, I guess.
PW: Have you had many older people go real excited when you’re around, that you recall?
EP: Not when I’m around.
PW: Trying to get to you …
EP: I’ve seen quite a few adults-
PW: Men or women?
EP: Mostly women. Jump up and down and scream and everything.
PW: Do you recall seeing any grey-haired women jump up and down?
EP: There was one in Tampa, Florida. Yesterday.
PW: That was August the 5th.
EP: August the 5th. This one lady –
PW: What’d she do?
EP: She looked about 65 year old, or 70, completely grey hair, she was clapping her hands and everything, getting right along with the other people.
PW: But most of them are teenage girls. How about the boys?
EP: Well, the boys … they seem to like the music.
PW: Next question. How about tiny children? Do you have many tiny children before we go to the next question?
EP: Quite a few of ’em. In fact, I guess I get more real tiny ones than I have adults.
PW: How do you handle autographs?
EP: What do you mean, how do I handle them?
PW: Do you autograph everyone that reaches you?
EP: Everyone that gets to me I always do. I’d never turn nobody down.
PW: Sometimes you seem to disregard the protection given you by people in the theatres and the ushers and so forth and maybe shake hands with someone or reach over the rail or something like that, or you open the window when you’re riding in a car when you know you shouldn’t. Why do you do that?
EP: Because I hate to … In other words, if it wasn’t for getting mobbed and maybe clothes torn off and stuff like that, I would go right out in the middle of those people. I hate to turn anybody down who wants an autograph or who buys pictures and wants to get them signed.
PW: How many autographs do you sign a day?
EP: I don’t know. But I hate to turn anybody down. In a situation like – well, most of the time – the crowds are so large so you couldn’t autograph everybody.
PW: Have you noticed the girls who scream and shout the most – are many of them blondes? Have you noticed?
EP: That doesn’t mean anything. [Laughs]
PW: It seems like so many of the girls that I’ve seen were bleached blondes. You don’t notice –
EP: I haven’t seen that many. I saw more in Tampa, Florida, on the same date than anywhere else.
PW: That just seems to be a local situation, then.
EP: Maybe it’s a fad going around town, I don’t know. That doesn’t mean … I mean, it’s girls, brunettes, redheads, streakies, everything else.
PW: Most of the boys – do most of the boys wear long sideburns? Or do you notice?
EP: No. There is a lot of them that wear them, but I guess there’s more with crewcuts than anything else.
PW: How did you happen to adopt long sideburns?
EP: I just always wanted to when I was growing up. I always wanted to grow ’em because …
PW: Made you feel like a bigger man, or …
EP: Yeah. It makes you look a little older. I just always liked ’em.
PW: Did you ride motorcycles when you were a kid?
EP: No, sir. I ride one now. But I didn’t when I was growing up.
PW: You think of motorcycle rider as being long-sideburnned. That’s why I asked it. How is show time? We doing all right? [Answer in background: “We got a few more minutes.“] Next question. Do you have any opinion why you are such a big hit? This is a question a lot of people want to know.
EP: Why I am …
PW: Give yourself some time to think about it.
EP: That’s a pretty stiff question. I don’t know how to answer that. It’s all happened so fast. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know what it is.
PW: Well, now, when you’re performing, and the screams, do you realize that every movement will bring a surge of screams from the crowd? Do you enjoy making the movements that will make the crowd scream?
EP: Yes, sir.
PW: Do you sort of play the audience? I mean, see which sides of the auditorium you’ll make scream? Do you try to work the audience in any way?
EP: Just try to work the audience. Half the time I can’t even see the audience.
PW: Half the time.
EP: In most theatres, and auditoriums, the lights’ll keep you from seeing anyway.
PW: Sometimes you throw your head back and laugh. Is it because you enjoy making a surge of noise come up?
EP: No. I get tickled. I get tickled sometimes. Maybe because some little girl–
PW: Some individual?
EP: — in the front row will do something real funny like grab her hair or something like that.
PW: What’s the funniest thing that you recall seeing happening in the front row? That made you laugh? Have you ever gotten broken up on your show?
EP: The whole band has, several times.
PW: Where was the last time?
EP: I don’t remember exactly where but a couple of times I had to walk offstage.
PW: Because of the roughhouse or because you got tickled?
EP: Because I got tickled.
PW: Can you remember that incident when you had to walk offstage?
EP: I remember what was happening. This girl, this blonde girl, in Atlanta, Georgia, had come to three different shows and sat in the front row and screamed through all of them, and then the night we closed, she decided to get up on the stage, so she made a dive for the stage and had gotten almost up there, and about 5 policemen grabbed her and she was … fighting ’em just like some man would … [starts laughing] It just broke the audience up. She was screaming, ‘Let me at him’ and stuff like that. And I got so tickled that I had to walk offstage.
PW: Did you leave for her protection or just because you were tickled?
EP: Because I was tickled.
PW: Then did you come back out?
PW: And by that time what had happened to the girl?
EP: They had carried — I don’t know. I didn’t see her anymore. They must have taken her outside.
PW: Another question, which I’ve already asked you I think, but I’ll ask you again. How did you feel about having to calm down for the that one show. You say you didn’t have to calm down.
EP: No, I didn’t have to.
PW: Nobody asked you? Your manager?
EP: Yes, people asked me. But I still didn’t have to unless I had wanted to, but I didn’t want to make anybody mad, so I did.
PW: Let me ask you a question or two about Tom Parker. That’s the Colonel Tom Parker of Madison Tennessee who managed Hank Snow, Eddy Arnold and some of the others. How did you first meet Tom Parker?
EP: Well, when I was with Bob Neal – Bob Neal was my manager – and the Colonel used to take shows out on the road. He’d hire me for an extra added single. And he undoubtedly liked the performance that we did, so we decided to start working together, with him as my manager.
PW: Did Bob Neal turn you over to Tom?
EP: Yes, well, his contract was up.
PW: His contract was up.
EP: Yes, I had been with him a year.
PW: Did you pick Parker or did Parker come for you?
EP: We more or less picked each other. It was like this. The Colonel said, ‘If you want me as your manager, I’ll do the best I can’ and I told him, ‘If you’d like to manage me, I’ll work …” It was a deal like that, you know.
PW: What date did Tom Parker take over?
EP: It was March the 15th.
PW: Of what year, this year?
EP: Yes, sir.
PW: Nineteen fifty…. Uh, six.
PW: This is August. He’s just been with you for three months.
EP: Now, wait. March, April, May, June, July, August, he’s been with me about six months.
PW: Six months. Has that been the period of your biggest rise in popularity?
EP: Yes. It has. Definitely.
PW: Do you ascribe any of that rise in popularity to his operations?
EP: Most of it, yes, sir, I would.
PW: A while ago, I asked you a question – do you have any opinion as to why you are such a big hit? Do you think that the commotion which Parker handles has anything to do with you becoming a solid hit or do you think you would have been a hit anyway? [Pause.] That’s kind of a tricky question.
EP: Well, the Colonel is a very … I was making quite a bit of money but I wasn’t as nationally known as I am now. The Colonel has a lot of friends in the entertainment business, he has a lot of connections, he knows lots of people, important wheels in the business.
PW: Do you recall any publicity gimmick or promotional gimmick that he used that amused you particularly that worked out?
EP: He’s a very amusing guy. He plans stuff that nobody else would even think of. I could tell you lots of things, I don’t have the time right now.
[The sounds of pandemonium and screams are now louder in the background. Commotion. It’s almost showtime. Tape turned off.]