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1960 And The Re-Branding Of Elvis


Colonel Tom Parker knew there would never be another 1956. It was highly unlikely that Elvis Presley, or perhaps anyone, would so dominate the record charts, spending half the year at number one with multiple million-selling releases. The colonel knew, in fact, that as that first blush of the teeny-boppers of the 50’s matured and were abducted by real life, record sales were declining. Even though Elvis still put out million-selling records, the sales figures had been trending downward since “Jailhouse Rock”. True, his first post-army single “Stuck On You” shipped close to 1.4 million copies, but almost a half million were returned unsold. Parker knew that Presley’s image as a rock-and-roll rebel was cast by the wayside as soon as that army barber handed him his sideburns. On the other hand, Tom knew where he could get guaranteed money up front by simply moving his star’s career emphasis from the small speaker to the big screen. Here was page one in the colonel’s playbook: In the decade of the sixties, Elvis would shift from being a recording artist who made movies into a movie star who made records.

Step one was to ensure that there were no freebies. He negotiated $125,000 for Elvis to appear on the Frank Sinatra/Timex Special on ABC in May of 1960, but this would be the last glimpse of Presley on TV for the next eight years. Within a year, Elvis would do his last concert appearance until the late 60’s. Colonel Tom made sure that if you wanted to see his star, you had to buy a ticket, and maybe some popcorn and a candy bar. In November of 1960, G.I. Blues was the film which ushered Elvis back to the screen. It would gross over $4 million, but compared to King Creole or Jailhouse Rock it left critics and moviegoers wanting something more substantial.

Step two was to expand the available audience for record sales. The success of the 50’s ensured a fan base which would eagerly await any new releases. The good will earned by Presley doing his duty in the Army opened up his appeal to an older market.

The first single to broach this approach would become Presley’s all-time biggest seller, with international figures exceeding 20 million. While in Germany, Elvis became enchanted by the tune “O Sole Mio.” Elvis placed a request with his publishing connections to put together an English translation so he could do the song. Publisher Freddy Bienstock called in the composer of Presley’s last two chart toppers, Aaron Schroeder. Teaming with writer Wally Gold, the two put together a new set of lyrics, a task which took around a half-hour. Time well spent, as the resulting song, “It’s Now Or Never,” spent five weeks at number one in the summer of 1960. In the UK, it hit the top for eight weeks, and in a re-release would actually hit number one again in 2005.

The song proved inspirational for a teenager in jail for stealing tires who was looking for a direction to escape the world of South Central LA gangs. Barry White was serving a four-month sentece when he heard “It’s Now Or Never,” and it stirred him to clean up his act and pursue putting his talents to use stealing hearts instead of hubcaps.

As noted earlier, Bill Black had moved on from Presley’s backing band. The Jordanaires were still adding their vocals. In the Nashville recordings, players from the so-called “A-team” were making their way into the mix. Original drummer D.J. Fontana’s steady foundation was being augmented by Buddy Harman’s fills. Bob Moore held down the bass line, Floyd Cramer played the slip-notes on piano, and Boots Randolph slipped in on sax. While working with Fernwood Records in his spare time, Scotty Moore was still strumming, but guitar star Hank “Sugarfoot” Garland’s twang would make its mark in the early 60‘s hits.

We could spend quite a while focusing on the influence Hank Garland had on the Nashville sound, adding his jazz-graced licks to the works of the nitty-gritty glitterati from Patsy Cline to Roy Orbison and beyond. But here are two Hank Garland licks you’ll immediately know; the sweeping stabs from “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree," and “Jingle Bell Rock."

My heroes have always been disc jockeys. I especially admired the ones who could take the canvas of the fourteen-second intro of a teeny-bopper song and paint a masterpiece. From my youth, I strove to emulate them. I had the good fortune to walk in some of their footsteps, albeit a respectful pace behind.