Elvis: Rock-and-Roll’s Reluctant Rebel

Glen Jeansonne & David Luhrssen. History Today. Volume 57, Issue 8. August 2007.

Elvis Presley died thirty years ago this month. As a young man, he had little interest in politics and rejected the embedded racism of fellow southerners in his affinity for blues music. What drove him into the office of President Nixon in 1970? Glen Jeansonne and David Luhrssen look at how the King of Rock’n’Roll managed his rule during the cultural shifts of the 1960s.

It was dawn on December 21st, 1970, when Elvis Presley passed a handwritten letter, addressed to Richard Nixon, to a guard at the White House gate. Although decades would pass before Bono and other rock stars became familiar figures in the halls of power, Nixon’s advisors responded immediately to Presley’s desire to arrange a meeting. By 12.30 pm that same day the King of Rock’n’Roll, clad in purple velvet tunic, high-collared white shirt and a Captain Marvel cape, was ushered into the Oval Office to meet the President of the United States.

‘You dress kind of strange, don’t you?’ Nixon asked stiffly. ‘You have your show and I have mine,’ Elvis responded, standing his ground. The frostiness soon melted as Nixon warmed to Presley’s agenda. ‘I’m just a poor boy from Tennessee.’ Elvis told Nixon. “I’ve gotten a lot from my country. And I’d like to do something to repay what I’ve gotten.’

To compensate America for his success in the marketplace of popular culture, Presley proposed to help turn back the influence of the Beatles, the drug culture, the hippies, student radicals and black nationalists. Thirty years after Elvis’s death, it has already become difficult to remember how starkly apparent was the cultural political divide of the early 1970s, with long-haired liberals on one side and button-down conservatives on the other. Elvis, whose role in the inception of rock’n’roll positioned him at the vanguard of a cultural revolution, placed himself at the disposal of the leader of the reaction.

The Elvis-Nixon summit was a terrible paradox for fans and critics shaped by the 1960s ideal of revolutionary rock, revived a decade later by the Clash and other message-driven punk bands. For most musicians and their fans, however, rock music in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s represented a dramatic shift in style and personal mores, not an assault or a sustained critique on political or economic systems. The uncertain politics of rock’n’roll were present in the life of its first star, Elvis Presley. The King of Rock’n’Roll was a rebel, but a reluctant one, who worried that he had started a fire that could never be contained. It did not go unnoticed that as Elvis gained national attention through his televized appearances in 1956, this avatar of youth rebellion deferentially addressed Ed Sullivan as ‘sir’.

Elvis Presley was born in East Tupelo, Mississippi, on January 8th, 1935, and moved in 1948 with his parents to Memphis, Tennessee, as part of a great migration of rural Southerners in search of economic opportunity in America’s cities. Apart from his two-year military service, mostly spent at a US army garrison in Germany, and a few months in Pascagoula, Mississippi, where his father Vernon found federal work at a shipyard, Presley lived nowhere but in East Tupelo and Memphis. Although he held court periodically in Hollywood and Las Vegas while making movies and performing in the casinos, East Tupelo, impoverished and deeply traditional, and Memphis, wide-open mecca for Southern black musicians, were the crucibles of Elvis’s character.

The unpaved streets and wooden shacks that comprised East Tupelo were home to bootleggers and a red light district called Goosehollow, while the bustling streets of Memphis were crowded with Pentecostal and evangelical churches. Although the dens of temptation were at their doorstep, life for the Presley family was arranged around the services of the Assembly of God church in East Tupelo, where the uncle of Elvis’s mother, Gladys, served as pastor. At a young age Elvis joined the hymn singing, swaying in the choir with abandon. Much like his contemporaries, the African-American R&B singers Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, Presley would later fuse the ecstasy of Southern religiosity with secular sensuality. Previous generations of black and white Southerners had carefully maintained a wall between the sacred and the profane, although the wall had many gates to accommodate the twilight traffic between respectable society and its shadow side. Presley’s generation of musicians breached the wall, creating vibrant new forms of popular music for audiences that were usually unfamiliar with the cultural context, but were moved by the powerful rhythms.

The exciting beat of rock’n’roll and R&B liberated the First wave of Baby Boomers from the dourness of suburban housing and Cold War anxiety. But for Elvis and many of his colleagues in the American South this liberation was purchased at great cost to conscience and peace of mind. Presley’s labelmate at Sun Records, Jerry Lee Lewis, imagined that he had become a servant of Satan, and gleefully abandoned himself to hellfire. By contrast, Presley interspersed his rock and pop recordings with heartfelt gospel LPs. His hopes for the future were expressed through his rendition of ‘Peace in the Valley’. Meanwhile, there was always ‘Good Rockin ‘ Tonight’. Unlike Lewis (who happened to be the cousin of another fiery performer, the fundamentalist preacher Jimmy Swaggart), Presley never renounced the beliefs of his youth even as he sought after the treasures of this world that, as never before in history, tantalized almost everyone with the rise of mass-market consumerism.

In the lower-class society of Presley’s origins, men never spoke of their dreams, even if their heads ached with them. After September 1949, when the Presleys moved from a single room without kitchen or bath in a Memphis slum, into a tidy apartment in Lauderdale Courts, a public housing block, the material circumstances of Elvis’s life became sufficiently comfortable to allow his aspirations gradually to assume reality. In high school he enrolled as a cadet in the Reserve Officers Training Corps, and continued to tag along with his mother to social gatherings. At the same time he listened to the blues on WDIA (‘the Mother Station of the Negroes’), explored the black neighbourhoods around Beale Street, and began to cultivate the long sideburns and greasy ducktail that soon became the preferred look for rockabilly musicians in the US and teddy boys in the UK. The hairstyle was inspired by the look of the white urban gangs depicted in the Tony Curtis movie City Across the River (1949).

Presley found the clothes to go with the coiffure at Lansky’s, a Jewish-owned store catering to black men. The proprietors recalled Elvis as a shabbily-dressed country boy, polite and diffident, saving his quarters from odd jobs to purchase the flashy clothing that would set him apart from his schoolmates.

Presley’s rebellion on Beale Street was a manifestation of a cultural urge that remains prevalent today, the acting out of a young person trying to fashion an identity apart from those around him. It was not consciously political, but had implications in a city whose censor, Lloyd Binford, banned Annie Get Your Gun because it boasted a black railroad conductor among its characters. Binford worried that the musical represented ‘social equality in action’, a disturbing idea at a time when the ideological basis of” American racism had been undermined by the war against Nazi Germany and the discovery of the Holocaust. During the 1950s the governing class of the South redoubled its efforts to keep the black population separate and unequal, but desegregation was proceeding on the cultural plane even as legal challenges to segregation began to advance through the federal courts. The US Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Brown-v-Board of Education, outlawing racial segregation in public schools, the same year as Elvis’ recording debut (1954).

Sam Phillips and his independent label, Sun Records, were at the vanguard of cultural desegregation in Memphis. A modest operation housed inside a converted radiator shop. Sun was the vehicle of a great ambition. ‘If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars,’ Phillips said. He wanted to become rich, but wanted to change the world in the process. Phillips had once dreamed of becoming a criminal defence attorney, an advocate for the downtrodden, but was unable to attend college. He became a radio announcer and engineer instead, and his love of music and technology led to opening his recording studio in 1950. His sympathy for black Americans inspired him to record blues and R&B acts such as Howlin’ Wolf and Rufus Thomas. In 1951 Phillips achieved success on the R&B chart with Jackie Brenston’s ‘Rocket 88′, a hard-driving track acclaimed by some critics in hindsight, as the first rock’n’roll record.

Phillips’ collaboration with Presley at Sun Records has become a pillar in the mythology of rock music. On July 18th, 1953, Presley paid a small fee at Phillips’ studio to cut a recording as a gift for his mother, a version of the Ink Spots’ ballad ‘My Happiness’. Something in his voice caught the ear of Sum’s business manager, Marion Keisker, who eventually persuaded Phillips to arrange a recording session for the young unknown. What Keisker later remembered about Presley was the neediness of a boy with a dream he struggled to express. The notion popularized by an earlier generation of rock critics that Elvis was an untutored primitive, who poured out his miscegenistic blues and country the instant Phillips pressed the record button, is myth.

Phillips worked with the young singer over many weeks, patiently drawing out and shaping the music later called rockabilly. Many critics who praise Elvis as the rockabilly rebel ignore the flip side of his vision. His epochal 1954 debut single, a countryish version of bluesman Arthur Crudup’s ‘That’s All Right’ coupled with a bluesy take of Bill Monroe’s ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky,’ represented only part of Presley. He had another dream, which involved joining the ranks of Bing Crosby and Dean Martin, representatives of the old order for most Baby Boomers. After Elvis returned from military service in 1960, many of his recordings brought that dream to reality.

Presley was the ideal exponent of Phillips’ culturally subversive project on behalf of civil rights. Unlike fellow Sun recording artist Jerry Lee Lewis, Presley came from a family that took seriously the Christian message that all are equal in God’s sight. Unlike Lewis, who disparaged blacks and seemed to regard the black elements of his music as merely a midnight sortie into ‘dark town’, Presley’s music honoured its cultural roots without prejudice. The other Sun artist of enduring significance, Johnny Cash, was not unfamiliar with the blues, but was more firmly grounded in the tradition of white country music. Like Presley, he took the dread, piety and ecstasy of Southern Protestantism to heart. As a man of conscience, Cash zigzagged across the cultural and political spectrum, and contributed a rousing theme song to the 1972 presidential campaign, ‘Nixon Now More Than Ever.’

Although Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, passed out ‘Elvis for President’ badges on the occasion of his first performance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956, Presley had no passion for politics and maintained the posture of sullen deference to authority traditional among lower-class Southern whites. As the Ring of Rock’n’Roll, adored by millions, Elvis eventually fell able to walk with Nixon on something approaching equal footing.

In many ways Presley was the product of attitudes prevalent in the region where he was raised. He was a dutiful citizen celebrity who accepted his conscription into the army in 1958 without protest. As a Southerner, he was exposed to the romantic rebel mythology of the Civil War, and a resentful class system that was buttressed by racism and religious fatalism. The example of tolerance found in his family, and especially his mother with whom he was emotionally close, was crucial in the construction of his attitude toward himself and others. In rejecting the racist component of the Southern worldview, the Presley’s left Elvis open to black culture with an empathy for the cry of the blues.

Without casting himself as a fighter for racial equality, Elvis became a subversive standard bearer for cultural desegregation at a time when the codified racism of the South was under increasing pressure. While white teenagers in the American North embraced Elvis for the vibrancy of his beat, white racist groups in the South understood the source of that rhythm and attacked him as a threat to what they viewed as the Southern, and indeed the American way of life. Although Presley never marched in rallies for civil rights in the 1960s or signed any manifestos, he knew his side of the issue, years before he sang ‘In the Ghetto’. In June 1956 Elvis publicly violated segregation ordinances by attending the Memphis fairgrounds on ‘colored night.’

The notorious hip-swivelling of Presley’s performances had its roots in Southern gospel music, yet Elvis soon discovered that in secular society, his body language suggested something other than a passion for the Lord. In the Northern states of the US and elsewhere, the racial edge of Presley’s rebellion was obscure if it was perceived at all. For many fans and detractors, Presley represented sexual rebellion, a proletarian counterpart to the cocktail-hour hedonism espoused by Hugh Hefner’s new magazine, Playboy.

An awkward and uncertain young man in private, Elvis exuded sexuality onstage, making him a magnet for screaming crowds of young girls and women who flocked to him in Hollywood, where he travelled as early as 1956 to make his first movie, Love Me Tender. A nationwide furore erupted after his June 1956 performance on the Milton Berle TV show. He was condemned by a member of Congress from New York, Emanuel Celler, who complained to the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives of the singer’s ‘animalistic gyrations’. Erring on the side of inoffensiveness, Ed Sullivan chose to film Presley from the waist up. In some cities the police filmed ins concerts, hoping to document illegal acts on stage. In Jacksonville, Florida, the county judge glowered at Presley from the stands, watching for any violation of public decency. Presley acted hurt and surprised over the uproar, and his dismay, at first, may have been genuine. ‘I can’t figure out what I’m doing wrong’, he said in defence of his stage act. ‘I know my mother approves of it’.

Not all public officials joined the clamour against Presley. In Tupelo (which by then had annexed Elvis’ hometown of East Tupelo), the mayor and city council, pleased by his humble offstage manner, welcomed him as a favourite son before his 1956 concert on the local fairgrounds. That same year, the governor of Louisiana granted Elvis the title of colonel, a kind of knighthood awarded in several Southern states.

Victorian attitudes toward sex had begun their slow retreat decades before the emergence of Presley and rock’n’roll. The cinematic depiction of sexuality in all its forms remained restricted by the Hollywood Production Code, but this never prevented creative filmmakers from conveying eroticism. If anything, sexuality was becoming more overt in Hollywood, even before the rise of Marilyn Monroe, whose ascent to stardom with How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) defined male fantasy in the era. Two years prior to Presley’s debut, liberal columnist Max Lerner warned that American children grew up ‘in a jungle of sights and symbols that portray the seductiveness of sex’, and parents wishing to isolate their children ‘had better put blinders on them, stuff their ears and shut them in their rooms without a TV set’. The Kinsey Report (1948, 1953), a groundbreaking if not always scientifically objective study of American sexuality by University of Indiana biologist Alfred Kinsey, noted the increased sexual activity of teenage girls since the Second World War. Kinsey stimulated frank discussion of sexuality, promoted the decoupling of guilt from sex, and the stripping away of religious taboos. Kinsey, who openly called for the overturning of antiquated laws and traditional morality, was eagerly read by educated middle-class Americans. What was permissible as a topic in glossy magazines was still out-of-bounds on television, whose screens now occupied the place of honour in the parlour. Sexuality was restricted to a greater degree on American TV than in literature or film. For many middle-aged, middle-class Americans, Presley’s appearance on Milton Berle amounted to an assault in their living rooms. Conveyed with the immediacy of the still young medium of television, Elvis was more worthy of moral panic than the lurid pulp fiction and comic books that came under public scrutiny a few years earlier.

After attaining stardom, Presley lived the careless life of a libertine. He began courting his future wife, Priscilla Beaulieu, stepdaughter of a US army officer in Germany, when she was only fourteen years old, and moved her into his Memphis mansion, Graceland, upon his return to the states (1960). By Priscilla’s account, they never ‘went all the way’ until their wedding night nearly seven years later. Apparently, Elvis maintained the conventional view on the subject of the kind of woman a man would marry. The open sexual license of the 1960s counterculture left Elvis disgruntled. He was not the only man in history who condemned in public what he practiced in private, yet he was in the unique position of blaming himself, as the King of Rock’n’Roll, for the excesses he decried.

The die for the rebel image Elvis would assume was cast by Marion Brando in his role as the motorcycle-riding anti-hero of The Wild One (1954). Described by film critic Richard Shickel as ‘the first major movie to confront the seismic rift that slowly, surely opened between the generations in the 1950s,’ The Wild One drew from a growing concern over juvenile delinquency, not a new problem but one that gathered momentum with the social disruptions of the Second World War. The hooliganism of street gangs and motorcycle gangs represented the most lurid face of what psychiatrist Robert Lindner termed the ‘mutiny of the young’ in a much-reported 1954 lecture, ‘a profound and terrifying change’ in adolescents of the new generation. Lindner called them ‘rebels within the confines of conformity’, not lashing out against social injustice but only at the bruises they have received.

The Wild One fulfilled Lindner’s prophesy. Wearing an insolent sneer and a leather jacket, Brando’s Johnnie rode into town without the benefit of a political agenda, but with an urge to upend the neatly-planned bourgeois world of postwar America. In a classic remark, Johnnie replied ‘Whaddya got?’ when asked what he was rebelling against. Although his motorcycle gang listened to jazz, their sensibility informed the attitude of the emerging genre of rock’n’roll. Hiding his bashfulness under a crooked sneer, Elvis became Johnnie with a guitar.

Elvis strode into the generational cleavage as a symbol of what parents feared and their children embraced. Characteristic of early Baby Boom culture was a fascination with the alienation of J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and James Dean’s Jim Stark. Presley was seen as another role model of generational misunderstanding, yet he was at odds with those expectations. Where many middle-class American youths were uncomfortable with the newly-won affluence of their parents, Elvis was uncomfortable with the poverty that was his legacy. He may have been alienated, yet he yearned for his place in the sun. Presley was never in revolt against his family, but lavished them with presents and lived with his kinfolk until his death. If Elvis rebelled against his parents it was only directed toward the frugality they maintained even after he became rich. Carried away by the merchandized dream of endless consumption, Elvis knew no limits to his extravagant spending.

By the time the Beatles called at the Hollywood home he rented from the Shah of Iran (August 27th, 1965), Elvis was peevish about the challenge they represented to his hegemony. The Beatles had overtaken his popularity and supplanted him in the affection of a younger wave of Baby Boomers. He was still the King of Rock’n’Roll, but his realm had been halved. Accounts of the Elvis-Beatles summit are contradictory, but the consensus indicates little warmth and even a terse exchange with John Lennon. Another cultural shift was occurring, and it was leaving Presley behind. Ironically Elvis, without entirely rejecting the faith of his upbringing, had begun to investigate Eastern religion and philosophy years before the Beatles made their pilgrimage to India. He was uncomfortable in speaking of such things, and received no encouragement from Priscilla or Colonel Parker, who at one point arranged for Elvis’s esoteric books to be burned in a bonfire.

Even before he presented himself to Richard Nixon, Elvis had become a cultural counter-revolutionary for many who were bewildered by the 1960s. His elaborate stage shows in Las Vegas provided the King with a splendid setting and a loyal audience. By then his act included rock’n’roll, but encompassed Elvis’ old-fashioned dream of success in show business. He could live out his fantasy of becoming Dean Martin. With the upheavals of the 1960s still playing out, Presley even performed an act of national healing in a medley he called ‘American Trilogy’. One part, ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’, represented the North; another, ‘Dixie,’ represented the South; and the spiritual ‘All My Trials’ stood for black Americans. All three songs had their origins in the period of the American Civil War, which for Elvis retained a romantic poignancy that exceeded historical facts.

Disturbed by the drug culture but oblivious to his own descent into pharmaceutical addiction, angered by draft-dodgers and Vietnam War protestors when he had done his patriotic duty, and perturbed by Woodstock and the changing sound of rock, Elvis collected guns and honorary memberships from various police agencies. He indulged in fantasies of crime fighting and drug raids. Nixon rewarded his interest at their 1970 meeting by making Presley an honorary agent in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

Presley inherited an identity in a tradition-bound society, yet social and cultural movements in twentieth-century America allowed him to imagine a new one. What he imagined, however, was compounded from old and new, distilled from the teachings of the rural South and the glittering prospect of American popular culture. Except on the issue of race, Elvis never intended to question American values or challenge the status quo. He wanted only to take advantage of the American Dream, which maintains that the status quo is open to all who work hard to attain it. Presley became an illustration of Alexis de Tocqueville’s definition of the American spirit in his embrace of ‘the notion of bettering one’s condition, the excitement of competition, the charm of anticipated success.’