The King of Rock n’ Roll

Elvis Presley, known as the King of Rock n’ Roll, was responsible for helping to shape the direction of popular music. His raucous sound, rebellious dance moves, high-energy delivery, and iconic persona turned him into an international sensation. He obtained the superstar status lifestyle of the Rockstar, immersing himself in extravagance and the limelight until his untimely demise. And although Elvis Presley was one of the most influential American musicians of the 20th century, his life began humbly like many American success tales from the 1930s. Fame came through hardship and with early unwanted woes.

“Elvis the Pelvis”

More often than not, popular icons have fascinating yet little-known backstories. The King of Rock n’ Roll’s rise to dominance was no exception. In one of his earliest presentations, at the beginning of his career, just as his fame and music were gaining striking popularity, Elvis broke the mold. On June 5th, while performing on live television on the Milton Berle’s show to his version of the powerful blues song “Hound Dog,” Elvis shook his hips and, along with a slowing of the tempo, sang with an enduring sexual appeal that utterly captivated younger audiences. This performance gave his musical persona unprecedented power and attracted enormous attention. His provocative moves played into the emotions of American teens nationwide. At the same time, their parents reviled his hip gyrations and leg swings, which reminded them of movements made during burlesque shows, something considered obscene back during a conservative time in the country’s history. After this performance, the pejorative “Elvis the Pelvis” nickname would become popular, and a repudiation of his act by sectors of the public would take a center fold.

“(Music) has reached its lowest depths in the ‘grunt and groin’ antics of one Elvis Presley. … Elvis, who rotates his pelvis … gave an exhibition that was suggestive and vulgar, tinged with the kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos.” – Ben Gross, New York Daily News, after Presley’s performance.

The Steve Allen Show

The Milton Berle Show performance was such a television rating success that he was booked on the Steve Allen Show for July 1st. Elvis’s performance began with an introduction and perhaps disclaimer to the viewers by Allen that stated:

“A couple of weeks ago on the Milton Berle Show our next guest Elvis Presley received a great deal of attention, which some people seemed to interpret one way and some viewers interpreted another. Naturally, it’s our intention to do nothing but a good show. We want to do a show the whole family can watch and enjoy and we always do. And tonight, we are presenting Elvis Presley in what you might call his first comeback. And at this time, it gives me extreme pleasure to introduce the “new” Elvis Presley.”

Alfred Wertheimer, Elvis Presley with Hound Dog
Alfred Wertheimer, Elvis Presley with Hound Dog, 1960, Vintage Silver Gelatin Photograph

Elvis Presley with Hound Dog

In a white bow tie and black tails accompanied by a hound dog on a podium wearing a top hat, Elvis again performed his hit success Hound Dog. Delivering a much tamer performance compared to the previous show, Elvis kissed and interacted with the dog while singing the lyrics and breaking out in slight laughter at the comical nature of it all. He performed in under one minute and left the stage. Of any photographer who captured Elvis, Alfred Wertheimer’s images are the most beloved. He had an almost unlimited early access to the future star and published a book “Elvis at 21” that would become a huge, best-selling photography book. Alfred Wertheimer’s picture of Elvis and the hound dog shows the duo during dress rehearsal, where at some point, Elvis would exclaim:

“I’m holding down on this show. I don’t want to do anything to make people dislike me. I think TV is important so I’m going to go along, but I won’t be able to give the kind of show I do in a personal appearance.” – Rock N’ Roll Stars 1956 Magazine.

Resilience in the Face of Controversy

Elvis understood that he had to control his public image. Even though he thought the hound dog theatrics were demeaning, he understood that this presentation could showcase his unique talent. His resilience in the face of controversy allowed his innate skill to flourish. It’s precisely this country-boy charm and hardiness mixed with music heavily influenced by African American blues and whose moves dared to provoke the gaze of adults and captivate the American teenage audience that changed the world. Whether referred to as the King of Rock n’ Roll or Elvis the Pelvis, he helped make Rock n’ Roll the universal language of popular music worldwide. Elvis is viewed today as the international symbol in the global revolution of Rock n’ Roll.

“Elvis Presley’s talent, his instinct, his sense of being at home in his own body, his delight in provoking people, in breaking the rules without seeming to. He was not a figure that could have been predicted, and he’s not a figure that could be explained in retrospect. If we want to get to why so many millions of people just changed their minds about what life was all about after seeing Elvis Presley on TV, after hearing his records, I think you have to talk about this particular man. The way he moved, the way he sounded, the timbre of his voice, the fact that it was the sexiest thing anybody had ever heard, including a lot of people who’d never had a thought about sex and wouldn’t literally for some time to come.

He was someone who, had he not been born, the world today would be different… I’ll tell you when I was an Elvis fan in 1956 when I was eleven years old, he didn’t represent to me any sort of alternative way of life, he was life itself. There was no opposition, not consciously.” – Greil Marcus, American author, music journalist, and cultural critic.