Mark Duffett [+]
University of Chester
Debates in this section will include: • In what context did Elvis emerge as a recording artist? • How did Elvis’s music relate to those who came before him? • What was Elvis’s role in the rock’n’roll era? • How is Elvis’s story used to represent the South in transition? • How do notions of Southern modernity authenticate his phenomenon? • What can be said about Elvis’s controversial relationship to black culture? • What role did Elvis play in the sexual revolution? • How was Elvis’s authenticity constructed and what can analysis of it contribute to debates around authenticity in popular music? • How was Elvis’s stardom engineered and how should it be conceptualized? In the 1950s, Memphis emerged from a South that had been decimated by the Great Depression but was nevertheless modernizing at a rapid rate. As part of a series of industrial and economic shifts (notably the rise of local radio and cheaper recording technology) independent producer Sam Phillips was able to set up a small recording studio and label that aimed to capture the rawest and most authentic voices on the Memphis r’n’b scene. Elvis’s visits to Sun studios to record two unreleased amateur singles marked the start of an association which saw him paired with musicians Scotty Moore and Bill Black and urged to create something interesting. The result was Elvis’s first single ‘That’s All Right’, a breezy uptempo country blues number backed with a cover of Bill Monroe’s ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky.’ On the strength of the 1954 single The Bluemoon Boys, as they were known at the time, started to perform as a local trio. When Elvis was contracted to sing weekly on the Louisiana Radio Show he quit his day job driving a truck for Crown Electric and started a twenty three year career as a professional musician. Sun then released a series of singles that catapulted him to regional stardom. In the wake of this success he became contracted to manager Colonel Tom Parker, an experienced promoter who worked on the country circuit with Hank Snow. Parker landed Elvis a $35,000 contract with the major label RCA Records that included national TV appearances and later a contract with Hal Wallis in Hollywood. After repressing and promoting Elvis’s fifth and final Sun single ‘Mystery Train’, RCA in turn released a series of singles, EPs and albums that cemented Elvis as a superstar at national and global levels. Elvis’s contribution to the rock’n’roll era placed the music firmly in the mainstream and showed the power of the youth market. It also indicated that white artists could perform r’n’b (Sun dropped its black roster), caused a national controversy over his racial associations and sexually suggestive gyrations, transformed country music (reducing the role of fiddles and steel guitars) and had international ramifications. With a unique package of youth, looks and music, Elvis emerged as the key figure in rock’n’roll at the same time that individual style was becoming celebrated in consumer society and populist was becoming crucial to electoral politics. His particular advocacy of conspicuous consumption rode the wave of materialism of his era (increased leisure time, cars, fast food, flash clothes) and offered a critique of its failings (perceived sexual repression, a lack of social inclusion). For some, Elvis’s fusion of vernacular music genres located him as a traitor to both his own race and its project of social progress. His own stance constantly disowned the code of rebellion and showed deference to family and the commercial process as a way of pleasing the people. Indeed, Elvis’s refusal to enter the fray of political causes was itself political in locating his image as the ambassador for an inclusive form of universal humanism. In effect he was the young populist who spearheaded mass culture. While his effort to become a family entertainer and buck the controversies surrounding rock’n’roll succeeded when he joined the army, for many the move also marked the end of his time as the unwitting leader of a youth rebellion. Such perceptions provide a good example of how Elvis was made to carry the whole weight of social change. His return to performance in a tuxedo on Frank Sinatra’s television special, and his return to cinema screens in a GI uniform in GI Blues, are often said to presage the bland (but fan-friendly) face of Elvis in the following decade.