The King and I
When I say I remember Jan. 28, 1956 better than yesterday, I’m not kidding.
In fact, I remember it better than every other day for the past week, month or even year. Then again, why wouldn’t I?
Yesterday, and the rest, were all as uneventful as each other. Jan. 28, 1956 was a day I could never forget — and neither could anyone else. It was Elvis Presley’s national TV debut on the Dorsey Brothers Stage Show.
And what a debut it was!
For one thing, as soon as he was introduced, girls in the audience started shrieking hysterically. Girls, those Fragile Flowers of American Femininity, those delicate souls we’d been taught to open doors for, to help put on their coats, and to always walk on the outside of a sidewalk with them, were now screaming uncontrollably like wanton hussies. As a young Dope, not only did I think I’d never see such a sight — I didn’t think it was even possible.
Then there was Elvis himself. If the girls screaming boggled my mind, Elvis’s performance blew it.
Thanks to radio and TV, I’d heard and watched all the pop singers. But they’d been of the Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin ilk: Suave, smooth, and controlled. But this guy wasn’t a singer — he was a force of nature. Or more exactly, a force of nature, unleashed!
He moved and grooved, romped and stomped, rattled and rolled, and didn’t just belt out the tunes — he belted ’em out of the park. He sang only three numbers (and I use the word “only” in the loosest sense), and after he finished, I was never the same. Then again, neither was the rest of the world.
The rock explosion
After that night, rock and roll exploded. And, appropriate to the zeitgeist, it happened hydrogen bombwise: Seemingly, within days rockers were everywhere at once.
You want some names, here they are.
First, the Prime Movers — Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry. Then my two favorite wildmen — Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. Next, Bill Haley and the Comets, Richie Valens, Bobby Darin, Ricky Nelson, the Fleetwoods, and Eddie Cochran.
Next, the rock tidal wave washed up on our shore artists from other genres.
For the first time, we heard soul singers like Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and Jackie Wilson. Plus the guy groups like The Platters, the Drifters, the Tokens, the Five Satins. the Coasters. And of course the girl groups — the Ronettes, the Shirelles, the Chiffons, the Marvelettes.
Country music (one of Elvis’s main influences) gave us the likes of Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee, Johnny Horton, Carl Perkins, the Everly Brothers and Mary Robbins.
And from the blues (Elvis’s other main influence) we heard BB King, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
Next, folk music was up and at ’em, with such luminaries as The Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary, the Highwaymen, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Odetta …
If this list seems mind-boggling, it’s because that’s exactly what it was. The only way I can describe this musical onslaught is a Genghis Khan sacking of the psyche and soul. And it never let up. As a matter of fact, each month it accelerated in number and kind.
The Brits may have burned down the White House in the War of 1812, but that was small doings compared to what the Beatles did to us in January 1964, on the Ed Sullivan show. The White House got rebuilt and and recovered, I’m not sure I did. Nor did I have time to, since The Lads from Liverpool were only the shock troops, followed by fellow British Invaders like the Stones, the Animals, the Kinks, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield …
Then there came psychedelic rock and the San Francisco sound of Jimi, Janis, the Doors, the Stone Ponies, Spanky and Our Gang …
And where was Elvis while all this was going on?
He was fading into the background.
Coming back — bigger and badder than ever
For sure, he hadn’t disappeared. He still made music and movies and he still had his hardcore fans. But he was no longer The Rocker, n’est plus ultra. There were just too many other suns in his rock cosmos for him to be the center of attention. Plus, he hadn’t done a live performance since his 1961 concert to raise money for the USS Arizona memorial.
Certainly, while I still liked Elvis and his stuff, I no longer thought of him as the Prime Mover I once did. Or at least I thought that till 1970, when he shredded my preconceptions and psyche, all in one fell swoop.
I was in the Navy, stationed on an army base in Germany, doing my level best to keep the commies from invading (and apparently it worked, since they never did). Anyhow, the base theater charged two bits, changed movies twice a week, and was everyone’s go-to, regardless of what flick was playing. One week the flick was Elvis’s 1968 TV Comeback special, and my bestie Dale Piirainen I went.
Keep in mind, this was Elvis’s first live performance in years. And it was the first time Dale or I had seen him in live performance since that Dorsey show, 14 years before. But it didn’t matter how long it’d been, because nothing — but nothing — could’ve prepared us for what we were about to see.
In the realm of world-class entertainment, everyone has matchless beauty, talent and charisma. That said, within minutes it became obvious no one could match Elvis in any of those categories (and no one ever did … or would).
Rockin’ a black leather jumpsuit, he was thin and gorgeous. His voice was fabulous, his moves were riveting. He stormed the house, and kept storming it … till the last note had faded away and the audience was probably as wiped out as he was.
I sat through it, gobsmacked and transfixed.
In the half-century since then, I’ve forgotten all the specifics of his performance. But I remember the results perfectly. Or, to be more precise, I remember the apparent lack of results.
When the flick ended and the house lights came on, neither Dale nor I said anything. Nor did we speak on our way out the theater, or into the parking lot. But then, when we got to Dale’s car, we both stopped.
He said only two words: “The King.”
In return, I said only one: “Amen.”
On our way home, neither of us said a word.
Clearly, there was nothing more to say.
Nor was there anything more that could be said.