Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The King: Elvis in the 1950s

The History Book Club to which I belong has chosen to read Channeling Elvis: How Television Saved the King of Rock 'n' Roll by Allen Wiener (a long-time, active member). The club has not read much on cultural history, and this seemed an interesting departure. Elvis Presley had a meteoric rise to stardom starting in 1956. Allen's book suggests that his television appearances were of great importance in that rise and in the continued success he enjoyed for most of his short life.

I would note that West Side Story opened in 1957, with music by Leonard Bernstein, a book by Steven Sondheim, and Choreography by Jerome Robbins. The show changed Broadway, and the three principals went on to huge careers.

The 1950s were also a time when movies were still very popular, and there were great movie musicals produced: An American in Paris (1951), Singin' in the Rain (1952), Call Me Madam (1953), Carmen Jones (1954), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Guys and Dolls (1955), Oklahoma (1955), The King and I (1956), Pal Joey (1957). Silk Stockings (1957), Gigi (1958), and South Pacific (1958) would make my list. Elvis Presley made several movies in the 1950s, and they no doubt contributed to his popularity and reputation: Love me Tender (1956). Loving You (1957), Jailhouse Rock (1957), and King Creole (1958); they did not rise to the level of the previous list for quality in my opinion. There were also in the last years of the 50s a number of other Rock and Roll movies.

Young Elvis
Presley had 10 singles that topped the popularity charts in the period from 1950 to 1958, and his records enjoyed the number one spot for 57 weeks during that period. His act was quite different than those of the other chart toppers in the period (Patti Page, Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Rosemary Clooney, and Eddie Fisher). In the following years (1958 to 1969) he remained popular, but was displaced from the top spot by the Beatles and the Supremes.

The late 1940s to the early 1960s has been called the Golden Age of TelevisionThe number of homes in the United States with TVs increased from 0.4 percent in 1948 to 55.7 percent in 1954 and to 83.2 percent four years later. The first sets were expensive, and the first viewers had few channels and few programs to choose from; they were relatively affluent. In the 1948 to 1958 period, ownership democratized, and television content improved greatly. In "the Golden Age", there was a lot of very good TV drama, and some high-cultural content.

I seem to remember the 1950s as a time when Ed Sullivan had the top variety show, and there were a lot of comedy variety shows (Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Jackie Gleason) and musical variety shows (Perry Como. Nat King Cole, Tennessee Ernie Ford).

As families more and more watched television, radio was more and more replaced as the main medium of family entertainment. Wikipedia informs us that:
After 1955 television's visual images replaced the audio-only limitation of radio as the predominant entertainment and news vehicle. Radio adapted by replacing entertainment programs with schedules of music interspersed with news and features, a free-form format adopted by NBC when it launched its popular weekend-long Monitor in 1955. During the 1950s automobile manufacturers began offering car radios as standard accessories, and radio received a boost as Americans listened to their car radios as they drove to and from work. Although this period saw the overall decline of the AM radio, some new stations, like the WGIV station in Charlotte dedicated to African American Music, were still coming up. 
In the 1950s, as a result of television's increased popularity coupled with dramatically loosened restrictions on playing recorded music on air, the network model of radio dramatically declined. In its place was the first music radio format: top 40, the forerunner to modern contemporary hit radio. Top 40 stations could be operated locally and gave rise to the disc jockeys, who became prominent local celebrities in their own right. Top 40 became the outlet for the relatively new style of music known as rock and roll.
Young people sometimes had cars, and even teenages borrowed their parents' cars, so they too listened to the car radios, and not only when a parent was driving.

In 1954 the transistor radio was introduced, making radios both more easily portable and more affordable. FM broadcasting was introduced in the United States in 1945, grew in importance in the 1950s, but it was not until the 1960s that it became widely popular.

Vinal Disks were introduced for recordings in 1948. 45 rpm disks became the preferred medium for single records, and 33 1/3 rpm for albums.  Records became popular, and even teenagers often had record players and could buy vinal records, especially the 45 disks. People, especially teenagers, went to each others homes to hear records, and loaned their records to each other.

Jukeboxes were to be found in many restaurants and other places. Teenagers as well as adults could play (hit) records inexpensively using the jukeboxes, and in gathering places music could be essentially continuous with the cost shared among many clients. Elvis Presley performed for live audiences a lot, and that no doubt helped develop his skill as a performer. However, it was the new technology -- television, radio, records, and jukeboxes -- that allowed him to become famous.

As the means of listening to music and watching musical numbers increased, it seems that the audience also fragmented. In the glory days of radio, the audience listening to the national network radio programs was huge and relatively undifferentiated. By the late 1950s, the audience was segregating by age, by race, and by musical preferences (country, pop, rock and roll, classical, etc.) Elvis seems to have appealed especially to the young, and to young women -- as of course had the young Frank Sinatra years before, and as have many boy singers since.

Allen Wiener notes ((page 37) that in 1956, Elvis Presley scored a "triple double crown award" with Heartbreak Hotel: The triple was that is was number one in record sales, number one on jukeboxes, and number one on radio disk jockey plays. The double was that the triple was achieved on both the pop music lists and on the country music lists. I assume that there was synergy: the TV appearances, plays on radios, plays on jukeboxes, record sales and movies all contributed to Elvis Presley's popularity, and each added to the ratings of the others.

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