SUN Records, Colonel Parker, RCA, Ed Sullivan
Hollywood, 68 Comeback
Elvis Presley career. On Monday, July 5, 1954, a 19-year-old Elvis Presley, electric guitarist Winfield ‘Scotty’ Moore, and slap bass player Bill Black walked into Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee with the idea of exploring the young man’s potential as a singer. The two musicians had practiced the day before with Elvis at Moore’s house.
“We wasn’t all that impressed (with Presley),” Moore said in 1976. “Sam asked us to do it and we were always looking for a way to play music and make some money.”
During a break in between a few attempts at country songs, Black started playing around with Arthur Crudup’s blues song, “That’s All Right Mama.” Presley and Moore joined in. Phillips immediately directed them to do it again but this time he taped it. That taping is considered by many prominent music buffs as the most pivotal moment in rock history. Three days later the song was played for the first time on Dewey Phillips’ the DJ of the “Red, Hot and Blue” show on WHBQ radio. By July 19, 1954, Sun Records received 6,000 advanced orders for the debut song of Elvis Aaron Presley.
Presley had previously paid Phillips to record four songs in the studio: “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” on July 18, 1953, and returned on January 4, 1954 to sing “I’ll Never Stand In Your Way” and “It Wouldn’t Be The Same Without You.” By July it was now “Elvis Presley and the Blue Moon Boys,” (Moore, Black and sometimes drummer D.J. Fontana) who after “That’s All Right” went on to record four more single records. They heavily toured promoting their Sun Records recordings giving audiences across the South samples of the most dynamic stage presence the world had ever witnessed.
Presley honed his skills and became the most influential legend is worldwide music history. But what were the five most pivotal moments in the career of Elvis Presley? Music historians, in Presley’s case, can usually agree on the Top 25, but the top five is difficult given the achievements and monumental moments in his career.
Besides meeting Sam Phillips, Marion Keisker, Scotty Moore, Bill Black, and Dewey Phillips at Sun Records, arguably, the following moments are the true pivotal moments in Elvis Presley’s career:
January 15, 1955 Colonel Parker sees Elvis perform
Elvis Presley, who had just celebrated his 20th birthday a week before, walked up to the microphone on the stage of the Louisiana Hayride on that cold night and sang “Tweedle Dee” and “Milkcow Blues Boogie.” With every tease and jerk from Presley’s hips and legs, a contagious pandemonium of screams erupted and spread among the girls throughout the crowd. Watching intensely, at least as much as he relished on his cigar, was Colonel Tom Parker. Parker, a country music manager for Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow, talked with Elvis’s newly signed manager Bob Neal.
“I want to meet that boy,” Parker, representing Hank Snow-Jamboree Attractions, told Neal. “Tell me about him.”
Parker booked Presley on a Hank Snow tour and saw the inevitable potential. On February 6, 1955, the Colonel arranged to meet Presley through Neal. The Colonel, a former carnival trickster knowledgeable in the fine art of P.T. Barnum-like swindling, soon befriended the talented performer’s parents, Vernon and Gladys Presley. By August, Parker closed on a deal with Neal, the Presley’s which led to the Colonel being the sole manager of young Presley. This deal resulted the $40,000 (an unheard of amount at the time) contract, bonus and buyout of the Sun Records contract with the singer by RCA Records. Colonel Tom Parker managed Presley’s musical and entertainment affairs long after the King of Rock n’ Roll’s death on August 16, 1977.
November 21, 1955 The RCA-Victor deal changes the music industry
Country and Western star Hank Snow knew a thing or two about music negotiations. He worked with Colonel Parker, Neal, and Coleman Tiley III of RCA-Victor to convince Presley to join RCA. Snow was RCA’s longest-term western star at the time and this was particularly appealing to the Presleys. Working with Jim Crudgington and Sam Esgro from RCA, and Ben Starr of Hill and Range Music, Snow and Parker were able to get a deal like no other. By the time Elvis Presley signed the contract with RCA Records that day, he was also part owner of his own publishing firm, Elvis Presley Music, in conjunction with Hill and Range.
“A minimum of eight (8) record sides shall be recorded each year during the terms of this contract, and additional recordings shall be made at our election,” the contract from RCA stated. The Presley contract was remarkable in many ways and was especially important to the future of music recording. RCA and Colonel Parker had the foresight to include Clause 6 in the contract making certain that if “a new medium shall be used for reproductions” of Presley recordings in the future—think 8-tracks, cassette tapes, discs, and downloads—the singer would be paid “a royalty based on the retail list price of each unit sold.”
“I feel Elvis is one of the most talented youngsters today,” Sam Phillips told Robert Johnson, a reporter for the Memphis Press-Scimitar, that day. “And by releasing his contract to RCA-Victor we will give him the opportunity of entering the largest organization of its kind in the world, so his talents can be given the fullest opportunity.”
As part of the deal, Parker had been promised Presley would make three guest appearances on the Dorsey Brother’s Stageshow television program. The pivotal moments of Nov. 21, 1955 virtually guaranteed Elvis Presley would be a national star. Soon Presley recorded “Heartbreak Hotel”….and the music world was never the same.
September 9, 1956: Elvis busts all TV records
Now signed to a RCA-Victor, Presley didn’t just make three appearances on the Dorsey Brothers’ CBS variety program, he exploded onto the screens of millions with a total of six performances on that show. Presley’s immodest pelvic thrusts incited letters of protest, as did his showing on the April 3, 1957 NBC Milton Berle special. By now America was addicted and Presley was paid to sing and shake on another Berle show and a July 1st appearance of Steve Allen’s NBC show. The King of variety television would take no more. After CBS’ Ed Sullivan Show ratings torpedoed with the Presley appearance on competitor Steve Allen’s show, Sullivan relented to the demands of America and signed the singer for three appearances for a whopping $50,000.
The result was so astounding that not even Sullivan or Parker could image the almost impossible would occur. Although Presley was filmed from the waste up on his last Sullivan showing, his debut performance of Sept. 9, 1956 shattered all records and became one most cultural defining moments in entertainment history. The national appearance of Presley on Ed Sullivan was seen by 82.6% of all television viewers that night, with over 60 million watching his performances of “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Love Me Tender,” the title song for his first Hollywood movie. Note: As a comparison, the highest watched Beatles performance on Ed Sullivan’s show was 60% and the Super Bowl XLIX viewing of 2015 broke records as the highest ever watched football game on TV, with 47.6% viewership.
In 2006, The History Channel designated this Sept. 9, 1956 event as one of the “10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America.”
Oct. 17, 1957: Elvis becomes a movie star
It can, and it has been argued with much debate over the years about which Elvis Presley movie was the best, highest rated, and most pivotal in his career. Certainly 1956’s “Love Me Tender,” his debut movie was fundamentally important, as was the next one, Loving You. But it wasn’t until the Oct. 17, 1957 release of Jailhouse Rock is where virtually every fan and film critic shared similar outlooks: Elvis Presley was now a proficient and certified movie star. Elvis’ quintessential performance as Vince Everett in the Jailhouse Rock sing and dance scene brought it all together. The memorable dance moves proved to be the early motivations for music videos and classic dance sequences for movies such as Grease, Saturday Night Fever, Footloose, Pulp Fiction, Urban Cowboy and Dirty Dancing. Jailhouse Rock was recorded at Hollywood Studios on April 30, 1957.
Dec. 3, 1968: The Elvis ‘68 ‘Comeback Special’
By 1968, Elvis’s career appeared to be lost in such nonsensical Hollywood movies, that he sensed the loss of live audience performances. He wanted to sing live again, but could he cut it in this new era? Three years had gone by since he even reached the Top 10 charts. As soon as he could find a gap in his movie contract obligations, the Colonel met with television producer Bob Finkel and director Steve Binder to create “Elvis,” an NBC special set to release in Dec. Elvis, in his rawest form and looking better than ever, looked America square in the eyes and asked, “Are you lookin’ for trouble? You came to the right place…”
Presley dressed in jet black leather and sang fresh versions of his favorite songs surrounded by fans as if he was Muhammad Ali in a boxing ring. This top rated show of the year was just what Elvis needed to prove he was ready and able to return to live stages again. Parker worked on a well-paid contract for eight weeks at the newly constructed International Hotel, beginning at the end of July 1969 in Las Vegas. World-class guitarist James Burton and Elvis formed a superlative band and backed them up with The Imperials gospel group and Sweet Inspirations. By February 1970 Elvis was on tour headlining the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and moved on to Phoenix, St. Louis, Detroit, Miami, Tampa and Mobile, Ala. The path for the balance of his career would be focused on frequent tours with the notable exception of his Jan. 14, 1973 “Aloha From Hawaii Satellite Special.” This performance was beamed across the globe to almost 1 billion people from 38 countries both live and over the next couple of days.