Thursday, June 18, 2015

TV as a Factor in Elvis Presley's Career.

I just finished reading Channeling Elvis: How Television Saved the King of Rock 'n' Roll by Allen J. Wiener. I would not normally have chosen to read this, but it is a selection by the book club to which I belong and is written by a friend. I actually learned quite a bit from the book.

Elvis is of course a phenomenon, hugely popular in the late 1950s and early 60s, his popularity decreased. He went on a downward slide of use of (perhaps prescription) drugs, weight gain and crash diets, until his death at age 42 in 1977.

The book is very good at explaining how a certain kind of television show comes about and how it is made. For the early Elvis Presley television programs, he simply fit into a slot in a continuing variety show. His later shows were built around him (and in one case another established star -- Frank Sinatra). These were negotiated by his manager (Colonel Tom Parker), sometimes with the participation of his record company or a firm of agents.

Then one or two people were chosen to pull together the show. They would come up with a theme. Elvis would usually bring his own small band and backup singers. The producers/directors might add a network orchestra and dancers. There would be set design and construction. There would be a plan for the camera work, and the cameras and camera operators would be chosen. The book makes mention of the people working the sound system and the lights. There would be costume design, fittings, etc. as well as makeup. Sometimes new music would be selected or written for a TV show (coordinated with the record company, that would be thinking about issuing singles and albums to take advantage of the public interest that the TV special would generate). Colonel Parker would be looking at commercial tie-ins which might include sale of programs to live shows, sales of pictures and posters, fees to hotels or other businesses to be mentioned in the show, to food served in the venue. Since Elvis was such a gifted audience favorite, shows tended to have a live audience, and that would also involve arrangements, up to the selection of the lucky audience members. Finally, there would be an editing job to make a great show out of an abundance of film material. Moreover, network executives and representatives of the sponsors had to be consulted and their views taken into account (even if not accepted). The hour of light entertainment for the viewer was the result of a lot of work by a very gifted and skilled group of people.

I found myself looking into the technological changes that made the Elvis phenomenon possible:

I also thought about the more general cultural changes that were occurring during the 1950s and 60s:

What Was There About Society That Made the Elvis Phenomenon Possible?

After World War II, the American economy tooled up to meet the pent up consumer demand; people had money in their pockets and were willing to spend it on more comfortable housing, cars, and notably in terms of Elvis, electronics. Factories that had produced guns and ammo now used mass production techniques to meet the market demand with new and more affordable radios, cars with radios, record players, records, and starting in the 1950s, televisions. By 1956, a family might of an evening be found with the father in the living room watching the news and sports on TV, the mother in another room listening to top 40 music while doing chores, and the kids in still another room listening to records on the family record player.

The family still went to the movies, albeit less often, but might see one of Elvis' 27 movies (in the 60s), Mom and dad, or the teenage kids, or the whole family together might go out to a restaurant where they would hear music on the jukebox,

While by 1956 most families had a black and white TV (and would get color TVs in the 60s) the best entertainment was on one of the three networks. Thus, a program like The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights would draw a huge audience, especially if there had been a lot of buzz about an act such as would occur when Elvis appeared in 1956.

Record stores were to be found conveniently to where most people lived, stocked with the latest 45 rpm hit singles and with hit albums. Even kids could now afford their products, and the top hits of the day sold like hot cakes.

The music audience had somewhat fragmented by the late 1950s and early 1960s, but there were indications that it was ready for something new. Elvis could draw a youth audience, some of the audience for country music, some of the black audience, and the audience for something new.

Then there was synergy. As more people bought his records, they were more interesting to radio disk jockeys and TV shows were more interested in featuring him. The jukeboxes brought in more money if they had his top hits, and so they did. People talked about his appearances on TV, and then went out to buy his records.

By the time Elvis arrived on the scene, the record industry was multinational, and he quickly got an audience abroad. For his 1968 television special, satellite broadcasting was possible, and in fact that special was the first to go world wide.

What Was It About Elvis That Allowed Him to Grow Rock and Roll So Big So Fast?

Allen Weiner, after his extensive interviews, seems to feel that Presley had a good voice and a good understanding of the music he performed (often based on the gospel music he heard as a child in church or the music of the black communities in which he lived as a young man). His overt sexuality worked at the moment in time that he was discovered and most popular. He was very good with audiences, and seemed to learn and repeat what worked with an audience.

I think that we also have to give credit to "Team Elvis". This fairly simple young man lucked out when he met the folk at Sun Records who recognized a talent in him, put him together with the right group, and made some good records. He was lucky to get on Louisiana Hayride, a well established show with a regional audience where he learned a lot about performing for the media.

He was exceedingly lucky when he signed on Colonel Tom Parker as his manager -- a man who had already developed a couple of music stars and who was full of ideas for getting Elvis' music before the public and able to negotiate the contracts to implement those ideas. The Team Elvis also included back up musicians and singers who fitted his music and stayed with him for years at a time.

When RCA Records signed him up, Team Elvis got their staff of people who got his records into the record shops, who got the radio disk jockeys to play his new releases, who helped get him good TV appearances, and who got his music onto the country's jukeboxes.

When Elvis got on a major TV show, others joined Team Elvis on a short term basis to build the audience for that show. When he did a TV special, the network PR staffs went all out. When he made a movie, the studio joined the team to publicize the film and to increase the buzz about Elvis.

And of course, fans by the million joined Team Elvis, buying his pictures and posters, playing his records for their friends, and adding to the buzz~

Final Comments

The book turns out to be very sad, telling a history of a nice young man with talent who becomes too famous and too rich too fast, loses his career and his health and dies young.

This book may not be for the died in the wool Elvis hater, nor the Elvis fan who knows all that it contains already, but I found it interesting and readable.

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