“Drugstore Malteds” (text of the poem from Sequestrum: Literature & Art)
July 19, 1954 Sun Records released Elvis Presley’s first single: a countrified take on Big Boy Crudup’s “That’s All Right” as the A-side, and his up tempo bluesing of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” as the B-side. Played on local Memphis radio stations, they lit up the request lines like a July 4 fireworks show, Sam Phillips of Sun had a hit for his label, and Elvis Presley was a star. In most accounts, this is THE BIG BANG that propels the rapidly expanding universe known for a time as Rock ‘n’ Roll and later more simply as Rock. And in most accounts, Presley’s early Sun singles with their decisive fusion of Black and White musical styles into this new idiom, figure as the core his significance: the molotov cocktail that blew the barn doors off the barn dance dance hall; the sound that swiveled a thousand hips; the beat that set a generation of Baby Booming lads and lasses to sock hopping and soda shop jukeboxing.
But July 1954, Kitty Kallen’s pop ballad “Little Things Mean a Lot” is topping the charts, and the big stars nationally are figures like Rosemary Clooney and Eddie Fisher. And if Presley was tearing up the Louisiana Hayride, he was still a regional figure viewed as a minor “country and western” act, with the circulation of his Sun singles limited mostly to the southeast. July 1954 Presley was a local sensation, not a national star. It was the slightly later recordings, after he’d left Sun Records and signed with RCA Victor in 1956, that paved the way for his appearances late that year on the Ed Sullivan show and made Elvis a national phenomenon. And this Elvis, the Elvis who was suddenly a national figure, didn’t just rock, he also crooned, and to that the young ladies swooned. In the usual accounts, the synthesis of Blues and Country in the Sun recordings is given pride of place, and eventually that’s what would matter most to the development of Rock ‘n’ Roll, but in the first few years of his early RCA stardom, from the early 1956 singles like “Heartbreak Hotel” up to being drafted and inducted into the Army in 1958, what was also crucial to his impact was the way he blended the directness of Blues and Country with the lusher indirection of adult pop—blending not just Blues and County but Blues, Country, and Pop. Step aside Ms. Kallen.
When Gene Vincent, Capitol Records attempt to emulate RCA’s success with Presley, sings “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” the lyrics make it clear that Ms. Lula is his “baby doll”; Vincent’s delivery of the lyrics suggest that he and his “baby doll” aren’t simply be-bopping to the juke box after school while their soda shop Sundaes wait back at their booth and their admiring teen friends dabble french fries into ketchup. Presley’s Sun Records recording of “Baby, Let’s Play House” (derived from Hard Rock Gunter’s blues recording) is perhaps even more direct in its physicality,” but by the time Vincent was releasing “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” the Elvis who had gone on to RCA was adding songs like “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Love Me Tender” into his repertoire and stylistic mix—songs in which the ultimate cipher term of pop music, love, is not simply code for sexual energy, sexual desire, or even more simply sex but is also in part an emotional matter, a matter of relationships. That first evening on The Ed Sullivan Show (September 9, 1956), Presley’s first two songs were “Love Me Tender” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” In the second half of the show he rocked it up with his version of Little Richard’s “Ready Teddy” and his revisionary take on Big Mama Thornton’s blues shout “Hound Dog.”
Country music and Blues and Rhythm & Blues were, in the early to mid-1950s full of songs that were rich in the figural. In “Baby Let’s Play House,” suggests one aspect of coupling up that occurs primarily in one room of this figural house. In this song or a country classic like “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” the figural expresses the actual (or the desire for the actual or the cost of actual). When Elvis begins blending the fantasy of Pop into his fusion of Blues and Country, he may, as various commentators have suggested, started down the path to Elvis the Las Vegas act, but there’s another dynamic to this, at least in the first years of his RCA stardom. In the adult pop of Kitty Kallen (and Doris Day and Dean Martin and Perry Como and…) the fantasy in the song offers a way to move beyond reality. It tends toward escapism, a three-minute respite from the real. In Presley’s initial RCA work, fantasy evokes reality—its dynamics, its limitations—yet celebrates a possibility of breaking out of that reality. And in the tension between the two what’s evoked is more than the fantasy, even if the terms of reality aren’t admitted or engaged and can’t, ultimately, be evaded. That, I’d suggest, is the genius of “Jailhouse Rock,” especially as it’s staged within the movie Jailhouse Rock, where it functions as a celebration of the sense of freedom that energy can offer, yet frames that as a dance scene within a jail. Great Rock ‘n’ Roll? Yes, and part of its greatness is the implicit tension within it between the realism, the energy, of Rock and the fantasy of Pop.
Richie Unterberger’s All Music Guide entry for Elvis Presley is a good place to start exploring Presley’s life and career. For those who want a deeper dive, Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (Little, Brown and Co.) is a good option. And for an exploration of Presley as cultural symbol, Greil Marcus’s Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession (Doubleday).
- For an overview of Presley’s whole career, from the initial Sun sides to Las Vegas, Elvis Presley, The 50 Greatest Hits, is a good place to start.
- The most comprehensive (and most recent) gathering of the Sun Records material is A Boy from Tupelo: The Complete 1953-1955 Recordings, which includes live recordings from the era as well as the studio sides.
- Young Man with the Big Beat: The Complete 1956 Masters documents the initial RCA Victor era with both studio and live recordings.
Notes to the Poem:
- Route 66 is both the iconic highway from Chicago to Los Angeles that opened in 1926 and the title of a TV series (that ran from October 1960 to March 1964) that featured two young men traveling in a Corvette along the route (the show was, it seems, in part inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, but Kerouac refused to license rights to the title).
- Shifty Henry is a figure in the song “Jailhouse Rock.”
- “Love Me Tender” and “Don’t Be Cruel”