Elvis Presley, In Memoriam, Red West

Red West: One of the Good Ones

Robert Gene “Red” West died this past July, aged 81, of an aortic aneurysm. He had “pains” in the afternoon and, by evening, he was dead. Red is probably best known as a longtime “bodyguard” of Elvis Presley. They met in high school and formed a bond that lasted until 1977, the year Elvis died. As this month we mark to 40th anniversary of Presley’s death, it’s timely to take a quick look at the interesting life of Red West.

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Red and Elvis boxing, June 14, 1956

Red was born is Memphis and attended Humes High School with his cousin, Sonny West, at the same time Elvis did. Red was a strapping, red-headed athlete and knew Elvis only by sight when he came upon a group of toughs hassling Elvis in the boys bathroom. Quiet Elvis, with his slick hair piled up in a pompadour and guitar slung over his shoulder, was regularly the brunt of teasing. Famously, Red confronted the gang and managed to extricate Elvis from the situation. A friendship was born. Red went on to occupy a unique position in “Elvis World”. Never a sycophantic ‘yes man’, Red was something unique to Elvis: he was his friend. That’s not to say that their relationship ran smoothly. Far from it. But through it all I think it can be seen that Red’s motives were pure in his relations with Elvis even though Red was strong-willed enough to go toe-to-toe with his boss at times. Also, as we’ll see, he was more than capable of operating and earning outside of just working for Elvis. Keep in mind that “working for Elvis” meant a lot of good things but it also meant that you never had money of your own.

Red West was nothing if not a “good, ol’ boy” and he and Elvis hit it off instantly when they met. It floored Red when he heard his buddy on the radio and it was soon after that Elvis decided he wanted Red around so Red began driving Elvis and his band to dates. Red also tackled the challenging job of simply getting Elvis from the car to the stage door which became increasingly difficult as Elvis’ publicity soared and the girls that went to these concerts began to grow more and more demonstrative. As we’ve discussed, Red was big, strong and hot-headed. Simply put, if you stepped to him it was lights out for you. On the eve of Elvis heading to Hollywood to make his first movie, Red got into another fight. Elvis’ father, Vernon, was petrified of bad publicity and had the first of his shouting matches with Red, telling Red he was not going to make the trip to Hollywood. Red, mostly disappointed that Elvis did not have his back, blew a gasket and said he was quitting to join the Marines, which he did. Already we see Red’s “no BS” policy in effect. While many would endure anything and toe the line to ensure a free ride through life with Elvis Presley, Red wasn’t having it and quit.

Two years later came the event that perhaps is the most significant in “Elvis World”; the death of Elvis’ beloved mother, Gladys. Months before her death, Red showed up in Memphis on a two-week leave from the Marines. He learned that Elvis was in Hollywood but stopped by Graceland to pay his respects to Mrs. Presley. Before he left, Gladys implored him – as indeed she did any and all of those in EP’s circle – to “look after my boy”, indicating plainly the anxiety and worry that had plagued her since her only child had become famous. Red called Elvis from Memphis and King flew Red out to the coast, Red arriving on the set at Paramount a “crew-cut hick” in his Marine uniform. He spent the rest of his leave hanging out with Elvis in the California sun and then headed back to camp in Virginia. In August of 1958, Gladys Presley died and Elvis was beside himself. As soon as Red heard of his friends’ distress, he asked for leave from the Marines and was denied. However, later that same day, Red learned that his own father was gravely ill and was heading home to be with him when he received word that he had passed. He was unable to attend Gladys’ funeral but was dumbfounded when Elvis appeared at the funeral for Red’s father. Elvis, only two days removed from laying his beloved mother to rest and still overcome with grief, almost had to be helped over to Red where the two wept together. Elvis lamented the fact that just two days earlier he had been in the same funeral home for Gladys’ services  and now he was joining his friend in his sorrow over his father. At this moment was born a unique bond between Red West and Elvis Presley; they each had lost a parent on the same day.

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Margit Burgin, Elvis and Red, Bad Homburg, Germany, October, 1958

Elvis was in the Army going through his basic training when Gladys died. Shortly after, still mourning the loss of his mother, he prepared to ship out to Germany. On the eve of his departure, Red, fresh out of the Marines, came to say goodbye. On a whim, Elvis asked Red to come with him and he did. Mostly, Elvis desperately needed people with him; his friends, people from back home who ‘knew’ him and that would have been reason enough to have Red in Germany with him. But there was more than that. Red – and others – have been called ‘bodyguards’ but they had to do much more. There was always plans to be made and details to look after and Elvis never actually traveled with a ‘staff’ so ‘the guys’ looked after things. But protecting Elvis from overzealous fans could be a full-time job and Red did it well. Red was sometimes VERY aggressive when carrying out his duties and there was often fights. Once again, Elvis’  father, Vernon, would be sick with worry over the potential of bad press and would get into screaming matches with Red. And, once again, Red got fed up and quit.

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Red and Elvis jam on the set of “It Happened at the World’s Fair”, 1963

Returning Stateside, Red traveled to Hollywood where he looked up people he had met through Elvis, people like Nick Adams and Robert Conrad both of whom had their own TV shows. Robert Conrad was making “Hawaiian Eye” and later “Wild, Wild West” and Red was able to find regular stunt work on these and other television shows. When Elvis returned from Germany in 1960, he tracked down Red and they renewed their friendship. It wasn’t long before Elvis was heading to Hollywood to start his movie-making machine throughout the ’60’s. He used Red often and the sharp-eyed can spot him in the films. He was usually the first guy to attack Elvis when the fight broke out. Interesting when you think of actors back then and the way they liberally used stunt men for even the most innocuous looking scrap. But here was Elvis and Red, a couple of redneck hillbilly boys, getting paid to do on camera what they had always done for kicks down at Graceland. Sometimes Red even got to say a few lines. He portrayed Elvis’ brother in “Wild in the Country”, for example. One of the many interesting things about Red West was that even with his athletic prowess and his proficiency as a street fighter, he was also a songwriter. He began to make inroads in the music industry by writing songs, making a demo recording featuring himself singing and then shopping it around to see if someone would record it. Quite often, he would present these songs to Elvis and the King recorded many of them: “If Every Day Was Like Christmas”, “Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees”, “If You Talk in Your Sleep” and the incredibly heartbreaking “Separate Ways”. This means that Red West, a “bodyguard”, wrote better material for Elvis than some of the professional songwriters writing songs for Elvis’ movies. Red’s involvement in EP’s recording career went even deeper. Often times Elvis could not be bothered to appear at the recording studio to decide on and record songs for his movies. Red was often recruited to go to the studio, sift through AND CHOOSE the songs that Elvis would sing in the movies. Once the songs were picked, Red would record them with the band, singing them in the way he knew Elvis would. He would then take the recordings to Elvis so Elvis could learn them before going in to record them properly. Red also joined Elvis in his passion for karate, sparring with Elvis and for a time running a karate school in Memphis. When Elvis’ marriage to Priscilla was on the rocks, she took up with renown karate instructor Mike Stone. Elvis was enraged. He was determined to have Stone killed. Who did he turn to? Red West. West recalls he felt he was in a daze while he arranged the weaponry and prepared to carry out any instruction Elvis gave him. Finally, Elvis cooled down and said ‘forget it. It’s too heavy’. Red breathed a sigh of relief.

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Sonny West, Elvis and Red, Atlanta Georgia, June 5, 1976

It’s common knowledge that the 1970’s saw a general decline in Elvis Presley’s health. A lot – but not all – of this was due to his use of pharmaceuticals. Red was especially persistent in trying to steer Elvis away from this lifestyle. Elvis always maintained that he knew what he was doing. He was not addicted and he knew how to use prescription drugs responsibly to relive his many ailments. In this negative atmosphere, with many close to Elvis becoming increasingly concerned with the changes in his habits and his sometimes violent reactions, everyone was on edge. In the mid-1970’s, there were a couple of instances when Elvis had his life threatened and his security staff had to be particularly vigilant. Quite often, certain lines may have been crossed in dealing with unruly fans. It was undoubtedly hard to tell, in the heat of the moment, who was a homicidal maniac and who was simply an excited fan. Again there were fights, beatings. Vernon – always petrified of being poor again and trying vainly to curb his son’s extravagant spending – continually questioned Elvis’ need of such a large ‘staff’ and when lawsuits started to mount up due to Red’s and others physicality, Vernon pushed through the idea of firing many employees. Three security men – Red West, his cousin and long-time Elvis associate Sonny West and newly arrived Dave Hebler were let go. By Vernon. Red West was hurt and angry. 22 years with Elvis and fired by Vernon without a word from Elvis. Here’s where the big debate regarding Red that polarizes many Elvis fans begins. Red is suddenly and cruelly expelled from the life of his long time friend. He is left without a job (although working for Elvis NEVER actually PAID much). He is angry, sure, at the way he’s been treated but also at the way Elvis is killing himself. In an effort to make money but also to hopefully prompt Elvis to right the ship, Red writes a book. Together with his cousin Sonny and Dave Hebler, they publish the infamous “Elvis: What Happened?”. The book is published in the summer of 1977, two weeks before Elvis dies. Knowing what we know about Elvis’ dependence on pharmaceuticals it’s tough to remember that, before Red’s book was released, the general public had no idea that anything was amiss in Elvis World. The book shocked the public and devastated Elvis. Red took a lot of flak over exposing many secrets as “silence” had long been the mantra of the Memphis Mafia. But let’s face hard facts: Elvis’ intake of prescription drugs was mammoth and – although he did indeed have legitimate health issues – over-prescribing himself was killing him. It has been suggested that Red, Sonny and Dave were the only ones of the inner circle who actively pestered Elvis to get his act together and this could be one of the reasons they were dismissed. Also, as I’ve explored in previous posts, Elvis’ father could never enjoy his son’s success as he lived in fear of one day being poor again. The Memphis Mafia were nothing but hangers-on according to Vernon and he NEVER wanted ANY of them around and this presents an obvious reason why the boys were fired. The debate rages in Elvis World: was Red motivated solely by greed or was he legitimately trying to help his friend by exposing his foibles? No one can say for sure. However, I’ve learned that analyzing the life and career of Elvis Presley is a massive undertaking.  There is so little black or white in his tale and so much room for conjecture. I have found that you need to have all the information. Consider many different accounts from many different sources. Mostly I think what you have to do is accept that Elvis was human. He was an incredibly charismatic man who lived a life that had no blueprint – NO ONE before him had trod a similar path. But he was human and, like all of us, heavily flawed. So when you take the case of Red West you have to look at the facts. Before Elvis was anything but an outcast, really, Red stood up for him – even though the two high school kids barely knew each other. He helped Elvis in the early days but then left to join the Marines. Elvis opened doors in Hollywood for Red, yes, but Red walked through most of them himself and built his own career and reputation in film. Red worked for Elvis through the ’60’s but also found success working with other artists and wrote some high quality material for Elvis. Three prominent members of Elvis’ inner circle wrote a massive book on their lives with the King. In it, they agree that Red wrote his book to make money – naturally. After all, he had a story to tell that many people would want to hear. But they also all agree that NO ONE was closer to or loved Elvis more than Red West. And, while we’re facing facts, most of the claims in Red’s book have been proved accurate. In the summer of ’77, a shocking book is published with hard-to-believe allegations about Presley’s drug use – allegations that had NEVER been raised before. Then TWO WEEKS after this ‘outrageous’ book is published, Elvis Presley dies a drug-related death. You really have to look up the facts and draw your own conclusions.

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The infamous book, released two weeks before Elvis died.

 

After Red’s life with Elvis came to a close, he became a full-time actor earning a recurring role in Robert Conrad’s series “Black Sheep Squadron”. He also made guest appearances in many television shows throughout the 1980’s. He is perhaps best known to audiences for his role in the classic Patrick Swayze film “Roadhouse”. He also appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Rainmaker” and Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” and “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer”. Unbeknownst to just about everybody, he gained his first starring role in the 2008 independent film “Goodbye Solo”. Roger Ebert called it “a masterwork” and the New York Times hailed it as “a near-perfect film”.

A major player in the life of Elvis Presley has died this year, the 40th anniversary of the death of the King. The Memphis Mafia is never included in official family business in Memphis during the annual Elvis Week marking the anniversary of his passing but this year Red and his wife of 56 years, Pat (Red met Pat when she was a secretary for Elvis) were going to be involved in some events with longtime Elvis associate, disc jockey George Klein. Unfortunately, that won’t happen now. It’s this Elvis fan’s opinion that Red West gets a pass. He gets the benefit of the doubt. There really is too much evidence to support the deep love that flowed between Red and Elvis. They went back too far together and Red had too many more options outside of Elvis to make any of Red’s actions purely mercenary. One of the many sad parts of Elvis’ story is the people he left behind. People who lost a son, a grandson, a father and a friend. Many people were left behind to suffer with sadness, frustration, anger and guilt. Red West was one of these people. And he was one of the good ones.

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Vernon Presley, Elvis and Red, Chicago, 1972

 

 

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Centennial, Dean Martin, music, singing

Dino 100: Part 1

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dean Martin, SoulRide will be looking at the life of this legendary entertainer. As usual with iconic personalities, the public perception of Dino is one thing but there is much to know and much to love about the man who may be in a group of only three or four singers remembered as the greatest, most definitive and most beloved vocalists of the golden era. Here’s Part 1 of our 3-part series.

Dean Paul Crocetti was born June 7, 1917 in Stuebenville, Ohio. Born to Italian parents from Abruzzo, Dean spoke only an Abruzzo dialect of Italian until he started school at age five. He was bullied in school for his broken English and dropped out of Stuebenville High in grade 10 thinking he was “smarter than his teachers”. And here, already in his early life, is where Dean’s path differs greatly from his famous friend, Frank Sinatra. As we’ll see later, Frank and Dean would set the standard for cool in the early 1960s. Sinatra was always the more earnest. Edgy and driven to perfection in all things, Frank’s nature was very different from Dean’s. In some interviews, Frank would like to cultivate the idea that he had hard scrabble beginnings and was a bit of a tough in his early days, which was not exactly the case. Dean Martin, who said little or nothing about his early days, did indeed operate outside of the law and in some shady, half-criminal environments. After leaving high school, Dean worked as a bootlegger, dealt blackjack and ran card games in speakeasies. He also worked in a steel mill and spent time – as did Sinatra – in the ring, fighting as ‘Kid Crochet’. During his 12-bout fight career, he suffered a broken nose (which was later fixed with the financial help of comedian Lou Costello) and many broken knuckles. I’ve always thought, when I looked at Dean Martin’s hands, that he had strong looking but gnarled fingers and here is the reason. Martin began singing with local bands in the early 1940’s using the name Dino Martini. His style was heavily influenced by Harry Mills of the Mills Brothers. By 1946, he was making a decent living as a singer but was unknown outside of the small east coast night club circuit he operated in.

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In 1945, Martin was performing at the Glass Hat in New York. Also performing there at that time was a comic who was nine years Dean’s junior. Jerry Lewis was a skinny, Jewish kid who would lip sync to popular records. The two became friends but didn’t team up until the summer of 1946 when “Martin and Lewis” debuted at the 500 Club in Atlantic City. They bombed. The 500 Club was owned by Skinny d’Amato, a serious guy with mob connections. After the duo’s first unsuccessful show, Skinny told them – in his quiet, menacing way – that if the boys didn’t improve, they’d be fired. What followed is one of those glorious and true Hollywood legends that reveal true talent and personality in performers that today may be taken for granted or not understood at all. Dean and Jerry, huddled in a back alley, decided to go for broke. What they had scripted wasn’t working so, for their next show, they ad-libbed a routine – made it up as they went along – and were a smash. Jerry Lewis – still alive at 91 – is class in so many ways. Not the least of which is his propensity to heap praise on his ex-partner. Lewis is always quick to point out that Martin had impeccable comedic timing and was one of the all-time straight men with immense comedic gifts. This is something often lost in Dean Martin’s story. The comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis went on to conquer first night clubs, then radio, then television and finally the movies. In the films, Dean sang the songs, kissed the girls and played straight man to Jerry’s antics. But after ten years together, the films began to be more tailored to Jerry’s insane style of comedy and Dean had had enough. Under a deep cloud of animosity, Martin and Lewis split up, ten years to the day after forming their partnership.

circa 1955: American comic team Dean Martin (1917 - 1995) and Jerry Lewis smiling in a promotional portrait. Martin smiles and rests his chin on top of Lewis's head, as Lewis makes a funny face.

By the time he split with Jerry, Dino had scored 13 top 40 hits, many of them becoming not only inextricably linked with Dean Martin but also becoming quintessential “crooning” classics: “That’s Amore”, “Sway”, “Standing on the Corner”, “Return to Me” and the worldwide number one song “Memories Are Made of This”. Recording for Capitol Records, Dean soon gained a reputation as a light, breezy, smooth vocalist known for his effortless delivery. He also embraced his heritage recording many Italian flavoured songs and a complete LP devoted to same: “Dino: Italian Love Songs” (1962). His recorded output while with Capitol consists of several great albums exhibiting the relaxed style Dean came to be known for. “Pretty Baby” (1957) contains lovely mid-tempo numbers like “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and the title track and some gorgeous ballads, most notably “Once in a While”, maybe Dino’s smoothest, loveliest work at Capitol. “Sleep Warm” (1959) is a dreamy set dedicated to songs dealing with ‘sleeping’ or ‘dreaming’. This album is notable for the orchestra having been conducted by Frank Sinatra. “A Winter Romance” (1959) is a seasonal treat to be listened to every December. Unique among “Christmas” albums, the songs don’t reference Christmas specifically but are odes to winter sports, indoor and out. “This Time I’m Swingin'” (1960) teamed Dean with the great arranger Nelson Riddle and the results are impeccable. Some of Dean’s finest recordings can be found on this LP: “You’re Nobody ’til Somebody Loves You” (this version was used over the opening credits of the film “Swingers”), “Until the Real Thing Comes Along”, “Just in Time” and a contender for Dino’s finest Capitol recording, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”. Another contender, “My One and Only Love”,  can be found on Dean’s last album for Capitol, “Cha-cha de Amour” (1962).

The 1960’s would bring new levels of stardom and success to Dean Martin. And as the decade unfolded, Dino forged a reputation and a cultural significance that would last throughout the ages.

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Golf

Straight Down the Middle

If you’re anything like me – and I hope for the sake of your spouse you’re not – then you want a playlist for everything. Christmas is an obvious one. Then there’s Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween and Summer. Then there’s also Elvis Week, Rainy Days, Cowboy Music or Music for Working Out. And, at the more advanced level, Music for the Vacation Drive Between South Carolina and Florida, Music for Warm, Breezy, Sunny Afternoons, Sinatra from ’66-’69 and Italian Music for When You’re Making Pasta.

The toughest one for me has always been Music to Golf By. What makes it so difficult is it’s hard to find songs that specifically deal with golf in their lyrics but there are a few. Golfing season – playing and watching – really kicks in at our house with the coming of spring and the Masters Tournament the first weekend of every April which brings us to the pinnacle, the “Stairway to Heaven”, of this ‘non-genre’: “Augusta” by Dave Loggins. A cousin of Kenny, Dave Loggins wrote and recorded the music you hear during the Masters broadcast on CBS every spring. The lyrics you don’t hear on TV speak of the glory of Augusta National Golf Club – where the tournament is played every spring – and make reference to dogwoods, pine trees, Augusta National founder Bobby Jones and golfing legends Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. It’s a pleasant trip around the course and through the history of the tournament. Another golf song is “Straight Down the Middle” by Bing Crosby, the king of the golfing singers. These lyrics depict the glory of a day on the links, spraying your ball left and right and lying about your round afterwards in the locker room. Another one that comes to mind is “Double Bogey Blues” by Micky Jones which was featured in maybe the best golf movie ever, “Tin Cup”. Albums with golf depicted with cover art include low-handicapper Perry Como’s “Como Swings” album and (the back cover at least) “Swing Along With Me” by Frank Sinatra. “Augusta” may be the ultimate golf song but the album all golfers who also enjoy fine singing need to own is “Gary Player Sings”. Yes, the South African golfing legend and fitness icon released this rare gem in 1970. He tackles standard fare such as “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Kum Ba Ya” along with more contemporary classics like “Gentle on My Mind” and “Happy Heart”. To own it on vinyl and have it framed and hanging on your wall would be the ultimate. The next best thing, though, is to download the album for free which you can do at Player’s site.

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Let’s face it: normal people that play golf regularly don’t ever think in terms of ‘music to golf by’. Mainly because golf etiquette dictates that you can’t be playing music on the golf course. However, there’s a little local par 3 course I like to go to on spring mornings and what I’ll do is put a playlist together (which I call “Straight Down the Middle”) and put it on my device which I’ll shove in my back pocket and play as I go ’round. The course is usually sparsely populated on a weekday morning so it doesn’t bother anybody. When I go by myself for a leisurely morning round, I’m going for a relaxing, old school vibe so I’m going for the type of music that Ward Cleaver may have listened to on the course. My playlist starts at the beginning, with the aforementioned Bing Crosby. Crosby is perhaps the original golfing celebrity. He loved the game and was good – a two handicap – when he decided to start his own tournament in 1937. Bing put up the $10,000 prize money himself and invited his Hollywood friends to come and play with the pros and created the ‘pro-am’ format – celebrities paired with pros to compete in a tournament within the tournament. Crosby also encouraged his celeb friends to host their own tournaments, bringing in their television and movie sponsors to underwrite the events. Sounds like Bing played at least a small part in creating the original concept of today’s PGA Tour. The party time event Bing started in 1937 – originally called the Bing Crosby Clambake – eventually became the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, one of the most popular events on tour. Crosby’s influence also led to many other celebrity-hosted PGA Tour events. My playlist will continue with Jackie Gleason and some music from his wonderful mood music albums of the ’50s. The television legend took to golf late in life. He learned the game in his early 40s but quickly fell in love with it. In 1972, he started Jackie Gleason’s Inverrary Classic at the Inverrary Country Club in Lauderhill, Florida. It is still being contested today as the Honda Classic, a big part of the Florida Swing on the PGA Tour. I’ll continue with a little Andy Williams. Andy was an avid golfer who was a good ambassador for the PGA Tour. Williams is credited with playing a key role in boosting golf’s popularity in southern California and around the nation when, in 1968, he became the host of the San Diego Open Invitational. The event had taken place in many different locations until Andy came on board and the event settled at Torrey Pines where it soon became one of the most popular events on tour. Andy was the host of the event – now called The Farmers Insurance Open – for 21 years; only Bing Crosby’s and Bob Hope’s affiliations with their events lasted longer. To maintain the same mid-century vibe while trying to crack 50 on my par 3 course, I’ll continue with some Sammy Davis, Jr. Today, The Travelers Championship is held every June in Connecticut but from 1973 to 1988 it was known as the Sammy Davis, Jr. Greater Hartford Open. Even if Dean Martin never had any connection to golf, you could benefit a lot by listening to him while on the golf course. His relaxed and smooth style is conducive to swinging easy and maintaining a cool demeanor. As it happens, Dean was a huge golf fan and one of the better celebrity golfers of his day. He was a single-digit handicapper who was well known back in the day for foregoing almost everything to play golf. Phoning in performances in his films with Jerry Lewis, begging off a night of carousing with Frank and the boys and never rehearsing for his popular “Dean Martin Show” all so he could basically live on the links. Also, from 1972 to 1975 he hosted the Dean Martin Tuscon Open in Arizona, a PGA Tour event until it’s demise in 2007. Frank Sinatra liked to be good at everything but reports indicate he was a 24 handicap golfer who was good off the tee but just liked to hack it around and have fun. He did host a PGA-sanctioned golf tournament once in 1963 called the Frank Sinatra Invitational. And I’ll play some Perry Como, too. Perry’s smooth, easy style – like Martin’s – certainly can help you swing the club free from any rigidity and your putting stroke could certainly be helped if you are using a Perry Como Putter that was made by MacGregor in the early ’60’s.

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If you throw in some more contemporary recordings by Huey Lewis and the News and Darius Rucker/Hootie and the Blowfish – Huey and Darius are both noted celebrity golfers – you can easily build yourself a nice golfing playlist. The songs themselves may not deal with birdies and bogeys but knowing that the singers loved to tee it up as well as tapping in to the mellow, relaxing and rhythmic nature of their music, can go along way to helping you get the most out of your round by yourself on a warm spring morning at your local par 3.

 

 

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Uncategorized

Stayin’ Alive: Tony Bennett

A couple of years ago I published a post I called “Stayin’ Alive” (https://wordsbywellsy.wordpress.com/2015/05/26/stayin-alive/) . It served as a tribute to certain legendary figures from different walks of life that were still alive and – for some – even still working well into their 80’s. Then 2016 happened, a year when we lost a long list of entertainers. Although I’ve only lost three from my list (Gordie Howe, Arnold Palmer and Chuck Berry), as 2017 dawned I felt like I wanted to shine some light on some older entertainers. Just in case they start dying.

Tony Bennett is a good place to start. Tony Bennett is the ONLY place to start. The man and his career are both truly remarkable. Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born in Astoria, Queens, New York on August 3, 1926. As of today, that makes him 90 years old. Here’s the thing, though, that I want to establish up front: in these “Stayin’ Alive” episodes, I will try to focus on those legendary personalities that continue to maintain their visibility, at least somewhat, despite their advanced ages. Here again, Bennett is the only place to start as he continues to release albums as recently as December 2016.

Tony grew up the youngest of three kids born to parents from families of Reggio Calabria, a town in rural Italy that is also the birthplace of Gianni and Donatella Versace. Tony grew up in poverty but his father, who died when Tony was 10, instilled in Tony a love of art and literature and a compassion for human suffering. Like so many others of his generation, Tony grew up listening to Al Jolson, Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong. He was known in school as a caricaturist and a singer. In fact, when the Triborough Bridge – now known as the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge; a bridge that connects Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx – opened in 1936, Tony sang and stood next to legendary Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who patted Tony on the head. Tony began singing for money at age 13 in 1939. At this juncture we should pause to consider: Tony Bennett is still ‘singing for money’ – 78 years later. Tony also attended New York’s School of Industrial Art and considered a career as an artist.

Tony was drafted into the US Army in November of 1944 in the final stages of World War 2. In Germany, Tony saw bitter combat in cold winter conditions and escaped death several times. He was also involved in the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp. At the conclusion of the war, Tony stayed on in Germany and joined the Special Services, entertaining American troops. Dining one night with a black friend from high school, in an army that was still heavily segregated, Tony was demoted and reassigned to Graves Registration duty. He was discharged in ’46 and studied singing on the GI Bill, Bel Canto singing, a discipline that Sinatra was also a proponent of. He made a few recordings in 1949 (68 years ago!) as Joe Bari but got no love. Also in ’49, singer and actress Pearl Bailey heard Tony sing and asked him to open for her at her show to which she had also invited Bob Hope. Hope liked what he heard and took Tony on the road with him, simplifying Tony’s birth name to ‘Tony Bennett’. The next year, 1950, Tony became a proper professional singer and was signed by Mitch Miller to Columbia Records. Again, let’s stop: Bennett records for Columbia today, a working relationship that began 67 years ago.

Tony began his tenure at Columbia as a crooner of pop tunes. His earliest hits remain some of the songs that are still most closely identified with him: “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, “Because of You”, “Stranger in Paradise”, “Cold, Cold Heart” and “Blue Velvet”. When it comes to ‘mid-century modern’ culture and style, these early recordings of Bennett’s are essential listening. As early as 1954, Bennett began to lean towards jazz and soon after hooked up with the man who would become his long-time pianist, Ralph Sharon, who wisely told Bennett that a career focused on singing sweet pop songs would be a short career. So, Bennett continued to go in a jazz direction and to record quality compositions from Broadway shows and Hollywood films. Perhaps the pinnacle of his recording career came in 1962 with his recording of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”. The single only reached #19 but it spent close to a year on various other charts and increased his exposure. The album hit #5 and the single and album reached gold record status. At the Grammys that year the single won Record of the Year and Best Male Solo Vocal Performance. It has, of course, become his signature song and was ranked #23 on a list of ‘historically significant’ recordings of the 20th century.

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Bennett continued recording quality material as an album artist into the 1970’s when the most telling episode of Bennett’s career occurred. A common method that singers would use throughout the late ’60’s and ’70’s to stay relevant in the rock era was to record the ‘hits of the day’ in their own easy listening style. Andy Williams basically spent his career doing this. Other notable artists employing this method include Mel Torme (listen to his “Sunshine Superman”), Peggy Lee (“A Hard Day’s Night”?) and maybe most infamously, Bing Crosby and his album “Hey, Jude! Hey, Bing!”. The evil Clive Davis suggested that Tony do the same. Bennett was so opposed to the idea that he became physically ill while recording these tracks. The result (“Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today!”) was dreadful and Tony never revisited this genre. And this is the thing about Tony: he has always been a tireless purveyor of what’s known as “The Great American Songbook” or American popular standards. These include quality songs that, for the most part, were written in the early twentieth century and have been recorded countless times by every vocalist that operates in this idiom.

Shortly after this episode, Tony took a hiatus from Columbia and joined Verve, a predominantly jazz label. He recorded sparingly and released two quality albums with jazz pianist Bill Evans but real success evaded him at this time. The nadir of his career came in the late 1970’s. Bennett found himself without a record label, without a manager while performing virtually no concerts outside of Las Vegas. His second marriage was failing and the IRS was after him. Worst of all, he developed a cocaine addiction. An overdose almost took his life in 1979.

At this point, Tony Bennett’s story is a common one. Popular singer struggles in the rock era and turns to drugs and trades on his past successes. But also at this point, his story takes a decidedly heartfelt turn. Actually, Tony’s decisions throughout the ’80’s are a blueprint for getting a career back on track. It started with family. Nice. At the dawn of the 1980’s, Tony called his sons, Danny and Dae. Danny, a failing musician with a head for business, joined forces with his father, an immense musical talent who struggled in the business arena. Like Tom Jones with his son around this time, Tony Bennett’s son became his manager. Danny worked wonders with his father. Most importantly from a musical standpoint, Danny began to book his dad into small clubs and colleges to restore his reputation and image. By 1986, Bennett was back with Columbia Records, this time having full artistic control over his recordings.

A lot of credit has to go to Tony’s son, Danny, who simply thought that a youthful audience would appreciate his father if given a chance. Subsequently, no changes were made to Bennett’s formal appearance, song choice, singing style or musical accompaniment. He continued to be exposed to a young, hip audience with appearances on shows such as “Late Night with David Letterman”, “The Simpsons” and various MTV shows. Bennett stood out, he was different, a sixty-year-old man in a silk suit. The kids were down. It was at this time that Tony put his stamp on the Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album Grammy and began what I call the ‘victory lap’. When a performer is on top of the world, the wheel tends to come around. Tastes and styles change and even true artists can fall out of favour with the public as well as with critics. But after a season, if the artist is true and genuine and has the tools and uses them well he can rise again and achieve legend status. His past career is appreciated and he performs again with fresh ideas while maintaining his classic style. Bennett stayed true to who he was as a performer and took up the banner again as the world’s predominant singer of standards.

Writing this post has made me reassess my feelings towards Tony’s recorded output since his victory lap began with the release of “The Art of Excellence” in 1986. I’ve always been a little disappointed with the themes he has explored on his albums. Each of his albums seems to be dedicated to a specific set list of tracks united by a common thread: songs associated with a certain artist or composer and endless variations on the dreaded ‘duets’ format. Too often it seemed to me to be gimmicky. And let’s face it, some themes have been decidedly ill-advised (“In the Playground”, children’s songs ‘featuring’ an appearance by Rosie O’Donnell and “Viva Duets” containing  duets with Spanish artists, most of whom are unknown in English-speaking North America). I wanted them all to be like 2004’s fine “The Art of Romance”: a small group, good songs, excellent singing. My distaste with these ‘theme’ albums stems mostly from my immense disappointment with the two duets albums with which Frank Sinatra ended his decades-long recording career. Pointless and poorly executed, Frank’s “Duets” and “Duets II” are considered pointless debaucheries by Sinatraphiles: classic Frank songs that need no new versions recorded with a baffling parade of duet partners. Compare this with the stellar final recordings of the late Johnny Cash and you lament what could have been: 80-year-old FS, on a stool, singing live with a couple instruments. So, I didn’t want to see this happen to Bennett. I mean, who needs “If I Ruled the World” with Queen Latifah? Add to this the fact that if you saw Bennett live around this time, as my wife and I did twice, you would have been delighted with the sound of his three-piece group and his impeccable and ageless chops. So, why all the gimmicks on the albums?! But here’s what I figure. Tony goes into the studio to record an album of the songs of Irving Berlin, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, etc. with the intention of using his unique platform to let the world know what wonderful songs these artists are responsible for. After all, that has been Bennett’s thing since at least the ’60’s, carrying the banner for the great musical figures of the 20th century. Something else to consider is something I had an inkling of but I really had no idea about until I looked into it. It’s about the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. This award has been given out for the last 26 years and Bennett has won it an astounding 13 times, including one stretch when he won it 5 years running. What’s even more amazing is that since the award’s inception, Tony has released 19 albums – and 13 of them have won this award. They’ve also fared well on the charts. Tony’s last six albums have gone to #1 on the U.S. Jazz Albums chart giving him a total of 11 (of his last 19) albums to top this chart. “Duets II” and “Cheek to Cheek” both reached #1 on the Jazz Albums chart as well as the Billboard 200 chart of all pop albums. After a second look, I guess I can concede that only “The Playground” – kids songs featuring Elmo and Rosie O’Donnell, “Viva Duets” – the disposable collection featuring Latino vocalists that Bennett for the most part has little or no rapport with and “Cheek to Cheek” – his chart-topping gimmick album with the questionable talent and repulsive personality of Lady Gaga, are the ones I can say were actually bad ideas.

Bottom line: Tony Bennett has become a legend who really has no peer. And his career as a whole? Well, not even FS was topping the charts at the age of 88. He is a true survivor, still vital, active and relevant well into his 80’s. He truly deserves the accolades now, while he is still here, stayin’ alive.

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Spotlight on…Del Shannon

I recently listened to a Del Shannon 2-CD Greatest Hits package and it really got me thinking. I have known of him since basically the beginning of my awareness of “oldies”, due in most part to his timeless 1961 #1 song “Runaway”. It was the biggest success of his career and the number he is most remembered for. But I seemed to recall having heard things about his later career, about how super stardom seemed to elude him and of his tragic end.

Del was born Charles Westover in Michigan. Just as he was beginning to get his recording career off the ground, he joined forces with a keyboardist named Max Crook who had invented his own organ-type keyboard called a musitron. Del and Max reworked an older song of theirs called “Little Runaway” and recorded it as “Runaway” in early 1961. The song reached #1 in many countries in April of that year and became one of what I would call the pillars of classic rock ‘n’ roll. Even today, many people have heard or heard of the song and it has even become something more than just a song and has become an iconic symbol of another era. “Runaway” also received the Lucas Stamp. George Lucas deemed the song indicative enough of classic rock ‘n’ roll that he included it in his seminal document of the era, “American Graffiti”. Del is interesting to me because he was more than just a one-hit wonder and was able to follow up “Runaway” with other moderate hits. Indeed, his next single – “Hats Off to Larry” – peaked at number five and he closed out the year with two other songs reaching the top 40. Not bad. While Del was not an excellent vocalist, he did have an excellent falsetto that was featured on both of these early hits and became something of a trademark of his recordings. 1962 started with minor chart activity until late in the year when “Little Town Flirt” reached #12 in the US and also did well globally (#1 in Ireland). And then the hits seemed to dry up. So, really, that’s only two calendar years but three notable hit recordings – one eventually reaching iconic status – is a pretty good resume for the fickle world of early ’60’s rock ‘n’ roll.

He continued to be popular in England – where he was always more popular – and in fact added to his rep in 1963 by becoming the first American artist to record a Beatles song. Del’s recording of “From Me to You” charted in the States before the Beatles version did. In 1964, after a few more minor chart entries, Del had a hit with the excellent “Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow the Sun)” which entered the top ten late in the year. Also in 1964, Del produced some demo recordings for fellow Michigander Bob Seger. The demos fell into the hands of Dick Clark and shortly thereafter Seger signed a recording contract and began his lengthy career with some regional successes. In 1965, British pop duo Peter and Gordon scored a hit with Del’s gorgeous “I Go to Pieces” but chart success eluded Shannon during the late 1960’s. He turned to production and discovered country singer Johnny Craver (?) and the band Smith, who you may remember had a hit with a remake of “Baby, It’s You”. He also produced Brian Hyland’s 1970 hit “Gypsy Woman”. A telling sign that his own recording career was nearly over is his re-recording of his big hit “Runaway” in 1967, although the single was successful in Canada and Australia. Also in that year, back in welcoming England, Del worked with former Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham on an album called “Home and Away”. Oldham intended the album to be in the vein of the Beach Boys’ 1966 masterpiece “Pet Sounds”. However – and this is a common story in rock ‘n’ roll history – the record company shelved the ambitious album and refused to release it. Another highly regarded album – “The Further Adventures of Charles Westover” – couldn’t find an audience and sold poorly.

So, at the dawn of the 1970’s, Del had a good rep as a live performer and was looked on as somewhat of a survivor but his lack of chart success disappointed him and – another common story – he turned to alcohol. However, Del cleaned up enough to record the album “Drop Down and Get Me” in 1982. Del had a fan in Tom Petty and Petty produced this album and his Heartbreakers play on it. It features the moderate hit remake of “Sea of Love” (#33). Petty and his friends would come back onto the scene after Del enjoyed a resurgence when he re-recorded “Runaway” yet again for use over the opening credits of the great Michael Mann show starring Dennis Farina, “Crime Story”. At this time, Del also worked with Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty’s band mate in the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys who had just lost their resident early ’60’s legend when Roy Orbison died. Here’s the part I actually remember about Del and it used to bug me. There was every indication that he would be the perfect – freakishly perfect – replacement for Orbison. But Shannon had been suffering from depression, depression caused by his faltering recording career. He had been taking Prozac for this depression and, despite his possible future as a Wilbury, he took his own life in February of 1990 with a rifle (!?).

The part that bugged me was, at the time, I was stunned by his depression caused by not having a chart hit for many years. What did he expect? I remember thinking. He started out in 1960, he still wants hits in 1990?! Well, yes, he did. Easy for us fans to sit back and say ‘hey, Del, you gave us “Runaway”. That’s good enough’. But for him and for artists like him it’s not good enough. They want to continue to make music and have it heard by the world. When they feel they can’t do that, I’m sure it can be a blow.

So, what is Del Shannon’s legacy? What is he? A ‘one-hit wonder’? Just another tragic example of how middling success can take a toll on those who aim for super stardom? Seems to me it’s yes and no and somewhere in between. He was responsible for one of the most enduring songs of an era that has taken on the rosy glow of nostalgia for many people. And that’s enough for us, the fans. But he had ambitions and he had more music in him. It’s just that the majority of the record-buying public wasn’t into that music. And that’s a shame. It’s also a shame that Del Shannon’s story is a common one.

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Elvis Week 2017: Day 5 – Hollywood

Day 5: Hollywood – Released from the Army in 1960, Elvis Presley found himself right back in uniform. King went straight to Hollywood to play Specialist Tulsa McLean in “G.I. Blues”. This film is actually a great example of what is good and what is bad about King Movies. “G.I. Blues” is probably his most comedic film that features one of his best comedic performances. Presley breezes through the film with confidence, sings some great songs, and looks fantastic. The cast is pretty good and King interacts with them well and delivers some funny lines with impeccable comedic timing. On the flip side, however, there are some key things wrong with the film that unfortunately became part of the ‘formula’. The bulk of the film takes place in Germany but of course Presley never shot any scenes there. He’s acting up against a screen for some scenes and for others a stand-in is used. The cast, as I said, is not bad but some of the actors are the goofy, lightweight type that we will see ad nauseam in the films to come. Along with the great songs are some lame ones and the soundtrack ‘features’ a lullaby sang to a baby. His next two films were serious dramas, both excellent: “Flaming Star” and “Wild in the Country”. They weren’t received well and performed relatively poorly at the box office so he found himself back in a playful romp, the greatest of all King Movies and my favourite film ever, “Blue Hawaii”. This film featured an exotic locale, pretty girls and 14, count ’em, 14 songs and became Presley’s most successful film. So, the die was cast. People didn’t want to see Serious Elvis. They wanted Fun Elvis. And that’s the paradox: you know “G.I. Blues” and “Blue Hawaii” became the blueprint for every derivative and lightweight film to follow and you wished he would make more serious films. But, man, Fun Elvis is so enjoyable!

The films of Elvis Presley deserve to be studied at length. Presley’s time in Hollywood needs it’s own book or website – I’ve been making notes to this end for years. There is a general and widespread misconception regarding them. Not about their quality, unfortunately, but about the level of enjoyment they – and many other ‘bad’ movies, for that matter – can provide. As I say, there is a paradox at work here: you find yourself frustrated with the lack of quality of most of the films while at the same time you are enjoying them immensely. Again, it’s so hard to accurately and thoroughly report on this area of Presley’s career in such a short space. I think it can be summed up thusly: the years Elvis spent in Hollywood are the years when Col. Tom Parker did the most damage to his client’s reputation. It’s also the time when Parker’s business practices reached the height of thievery and the pinnacle of abuse of power. In a nutshell, basically every deal Parker made in Hollywood for ‘his boy’ succeeded in benefiting himself more than Elvis and showed a blatant disregard for the effect that releasing a succession of family-friendly, light comedy films overloaded with poor songs would have on the reputation and legacy of his only client. Elvis’ acting ability was undervalued and commerce was not only valued by Parker over art but was held up as the only reason to be in Hollywood.

Now the good news. Elvis Presley’s 33 films are infinitely enjoyable. From a strictly critical standpoint, they are hard to defend. They are the very definition of ‘guilty pleasures’. Elvis Presley loved to go to movies as a young man and when the opportunity came to go to Hollywood to make his own films he jumped at the chance and had aspirations of following in James Dean’s footsteps. He wanted to make serious films with no singing. His first four films showed promise: these four showed him in his natural, untamed state, the songs he was made to sing were, for the most part, good – some even great – and he was surrounded by quality actors. Also, keep in mind that in one of them he shoots his brother and in two others he kills men; one he kills with a switchblade in an alley. They were gritty, vibrant and two of them were the best dramas he ever made. But the evil colonel’s plan went into effect when Elvis returned from the Army. And so began a cycle of film contracts that benefited Elvis, yes, but the Colonel even more, box office hits mostly bereft of any artistic quality and songs so asinine that, taken out of the context of the films they were used in, they are slight, ridiculous tripe. It’s even baffling to me that this is what qualified as an album release by the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the 1960’s. Soundtracks. Eight to twelve tracks from the movie with maybe a spare leftover song from the past to flesh it out. The Colonel’s theory was that the films would sell the records and the records would sell the films. For financial reasons, the Colonel had his own stable of songwriters and they filled the movies with songs about fat men overeating, songs about shrimp, about how hard it is to dance in a small vehicle and lullabies sung to babies and small children. They were plot devices not songs. The movies gradually began to feature poor casts and ridiculously claustrophobic studio and back-projection filming techniques. And yet…and yet. Much like Cary Grant and John Wayne, Elvis Presley exuded a natural charisma and a magnetic personality that allowed him to basically play himself in most of his films. And it’s this charm above all other things that makes them so enjoyable. As for the soundtracks, as ridiculous as some of the songs are, Presley’s voice, his style of singing and his way with a song makes a lot of them more-than-listenable. It also helps that there are some genuine gems to be found in these films. The movies are wonderful as ‘comfort viewing’. Often they feature great photography of some beautiful locales, great looking female co-stars, they feature scenarios and lifestyles that any young (or young at heart) person would love to find themselves in and they feature Elvis being Elvis.

By 1967, though, Presley had had enough. He wanted – needed – the exhilaration of live performance again. So, the wheels were set in motion to stop making movies and get back to making records and back to the concert stage. Author Alana Nash has written a mesmerizing book on Col. Tom Parker and his relationship with EP. In this book, she puts forth an astounding notion. Elvis didn’t write his own songs. As previously stated, Parker had a stable of songwriters who were not affiliated with Elvis because they were great songwriters but because they were willing to give up a large percentage of their portion of the profits gained from songwriting to Colonel Tom. These songwriters simply did not have what it took to write songs with a style or a quality to rival the output of Bob Dylan, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Therefore, Elvis spending the bulk of the 1960’s in the vacuum of Hollywood and the family-friendly musical comedy served to preserve his celebrity and keep him visible during this turbulent, political era. Talent and charisma aside, the notion is put forth by author Nash that Presley did not have the apparatus in place to stay relevant during the music scene of the ’60’s. The movies kept him alive in the industry until the time was ripe to bust out of the celluloid prison he was trapped in.

When he emerged, he embarked on a season of artistry that rivaled the significance of his first years. His timing was perfect. Yet again.

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Elvis Week 2017: Day 3 – 1956

Elvis Presley was born 82 years ago this coming Sunday. That makes this Elvis Week! We’re looking back on his life and career in seven all-too-brief segments.

Day 3: 1956 – Sam Phillips called it. History has venerated him as the man who first heard the potential in Elvis Presley. Not only that but he knew that this was the performer and this was the time and place for a new and energetic sound. The sound began sweeping the nation and Sam Phillips’ record label – Sun Records – released five records by EP that were successful in the south in late 1955. But then Sam started to quiver financially under the weight of promoting the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll star and when the opportunity arose to sell Presley’s contract to RCA Records for $35,000, he sealed the deal and spent the money building up the careers of other singers that got their starts at Sun: Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and others. So, at the dawn of 1956, Elvis Presley had a new record deal and a new manager. He began to go national. In January, he began appearing on variety shows of the day and he would literally tear those television studios apart. Any and all young people in the audience were beside themselves with glee watching this young man sing and play music that they were just beginning to appreciate. And then there was the effect that his inability to stand still while he sang had on the audience. Middle-aged people were sure it was some sort of a gimmick but the kids were drawn to everything about him. The music he played and the way he played it, the clothes he wore, the way he moved. In March, his eponymous debut album was released. It featured covers of some black R&B tunes but unlike some other white artists of the time, when Presley covered an R&B tune he didn’t water it down. Quite the opposite. The cover of this album featured Presley in wild abandon with a guitar strapped around his shoulders. This image played a crucial role in putting the guitar front and center of this new music. He recorded some his most recognizable songs early in the year among them “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog”; the latter of which he performed which such ‘vigor’ on the Milton Berle show that his performance touched off a powder keg of criticism regarding his singing style and ability and mostly his unbridled enthusiasm and gyrations when he sang. Steve Allen had Presley on his show and made a big deal of how he was presenting a “new Elvis”, dressing EP in a tuxedo and tails and having him restrain himself as he sang. That night Allen beat his biggest rival Ed Sullivan in the ratings. This forced Sullivan to have Presley appear, even though Sullivan had said he wouldn’t have Presley on because his was “a family show”. Elvis’ first appearance on the Sullivan show was viewed by 60 million people – a record 82.6% of the TV audience. It was this appearance that really put him over the top. His second album was released in October. It went to number one. In November, he appeared in his first film, “Love Me tender”. I have found in writing this that it is very difficult to fully appreciate the impact Elvis Presley had on the public during the year 1956. Literally everything began to change because of the exposure and the success he had during these twelve months. The year ended with a front page article in the Wall Street Journal that reported that $22 million worth of EP merchandise had been sold that year – on top of record sales. Also, at RCA – one of the biggest record labels in the business – Presley had accounted for over 50% of the label’s singles sales. We have to end with the words of historian Marty Jezer to put 1956 in perspective: “As Presley set the artistic pace, other artists followed. … Presley, more than anyone else, gave the young a belief in themselves as a distinct and somehow unified generation—the first in America ever to feel the power of an integrated youth culture.”

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