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Elvis Presley Mastered Rhythm and Blues

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Elvis and Rock and Roll


Elvis Presley is an after the fact personality regarding the creation of rock and roll. The music existed as rhythm and blues before Presley started his professional career. However, Presley entered the arena just as Alan Freed's campaign began the rock and roll name change. By performing rhythm and blues, Presley joined the long legacy among many white Americans that drew them to negro performing art forms. His passion, mastery and respect for negro music eventually landed him on national television. The enormous media attention showered upon him, and his subsequent popularity, extended the already massive embrace of rhythm and blues music among young whites; known only to them as rock and roll. 

Bo Diddley, the electrified country blues string instrument genius, in the film, "Electrified," placed Presley in historicc perspective. 



Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, Presley at an early age his passion for music included an attraction to country blues; the lone negro singer accompanying himself with the guitar. Later, his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee. They lived in a neighborhood near one that also home to negro citizens and the East Trigg Avenue Baptist Church. The pastor, Rev. W.H. Brewster, operated a non-segregated food and social service outreach programs and white families participated, too. 

Rev. Brewster, a native of  Somerville, Tennessee was also a famous gospel songwriter. His church musicals often drew visits from famous gospel quartets such as The Soul Stirrers that featured Sam Cooke; and occasionally a local white recording group, the renowned Blackwood Brothers. Young Elvis attended those programs and sometimes sang with the East Trigg Avenue Baptist Church's radio choir.

Presley's attraction and passion for negro culture made him a faithful listener to WDIA Radio, a rhythm and blues station. He was also drawn to Beale Street and became friends with a other young negro musicians and singers on the scene. He often hung out with a group of musicians that became historically known as The Beale Streeters.

Presley's blues experiences accidentally surfaced during his first professional recording session at Sun Records in Memphis in 1954. Sam Phillips the producer/engineer captured and recorded Presley singing, “That’s All Right Mama.” It was a song that had been written and performed by Arthur Crudup, a country blues artist who had recorded for RCA Victor in the mid 1940s. Elvis imitated Crudup’s up-tempo singing style and added a soaring-like B.B. King falsetto. 

Presley version of “That’s All Right Mama” was popular among negroes in Memphis. Promotion of the song began with a white disc jockey, Dewey "Red" Phillips, who ran a nighttime rhythm and blues program on Memphis station WHBQ called "Red,Hot and Blue." After he played Presley's record the audience started calling in to request information about the record, and eventually it sold well among negro  people in the Memphis rhythm and blues market, and later throughout the South. (27) Back in New York City,  Alan Freed's "Rock and Roll Party" was being formulated, but its transformation into a second name for rhythm and blues had not yet not yet matured. 

Phillips, the white owner of Sun Records, was already an extremely successful rhythm and blues producer. He had produced at least two number one hits on Billboard: “Rocket 88,” the now Ike Turner classic, and “Bear Cat,” which he wrote for Rufus Thomas. Phillips observed a significant cross cultural interest and growth in rhythm and blues, and he became convinced that a white male that could sing like a negro would lead to great wealth via the larger white market. Ostensibly, Phillips was looking for the negro voice(sound) backed by a [hillbilly] country band.

Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley were even more encouraged in mid 1955 by the sales of another rhythm and blues release called, "Baby Let's Play House." Presley's vocal included the Joe Turner roll, but the music was still country. The song had been recorded by Arthur Gunter and released on Excello Records in Nashville. Gunter made the Rhythm and Blues Billboard chart in January 1955 and stayed for three weeks. (Whitburn, Joel, Top R&B Singles 1942-1995) Elvis Presley's cover of Gunter's hit rose to #5 on the Billboard country music chart, July 1955, and remained there for fifteen weeks.

Presley's next release on Sun Records, "I Forgot To Remember To Forget" was pure country in vocal and music. It debuted on the Billboard country chart in September 1955, went to #1 for five weeks and remained on the chart for thirty-nine weeks. Along with his solid live performances, Presley's recording success brought him to the attention of RCA Records executive, Steve Shoals. 

RCA, Inc. purchased Presley's contract from Sun Records in late 1955. By that time, Decca Records, another recording industry giant, had already achieved great success with their white rhythm and blues artist, Bill Haley with "Rock Around The Clock." Decca then fired Louis Jordan who had greatly shaped the post-World War art form. Haley's hot record sales inspired the production of a late 1955 Hollywood film, Rock Around The Clock. The movie brought both Bill Haley and Alan Freed together, and retro-actively promoted Bill Haley's rhythm and blues music as, rock and roll. That film and Blackboard Jungle, were distributed around the world. Haley and his band were credited with creating the [rhythm and blues] music Alan Freed called rock and roll. It was the beginning of the false origin of rock and roll. That was the white side of the story.
In the meantime, the great music achieved national attention and recognition under its status quo name, rhythm and blues. Dr. Jive, a Harlem radio disc jockey had been programming rhythm and blues before Alan Freed brought his "Moondog Show" to New York City in 1954. On November 20, 1955, a sample of Dr. Jive's electrifying "Rhythm and Blues Revue" appeared on "Toast of the Town," a CBS Television Network show, hosted by Ed Sullivan. In eight minutes Dr. Jive presented a near full range of rhythm and blues: the solo singer, a small electrified rhythmic blues band, an African work gang vocal group, and closed with an intense instrumental ring shout rhythm. That was the negro side of the story.  Rhythm and blues may have had two confusing names, but it was the future, and RCA knew it.

Elvis Presley had earned three national hits in 1955 for Sun Records; all highly ranked on the Billboard's Country Music Chart. RCA Records and Presley were ready to move in a different direction. Presley had not yet recorded for RCA but his new team made arrangements for him to appear on national television in early 1956, singing rhythm and blues.

Presley was given six appearances on "Stage Show" hosted by the white jazz legends, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey. He appeared twice on the Milton Berle Show.  Next Presley was booked on the Steve Allen Show. He closed out 1956 with two appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. Television was used as the communication channel to propel the singer to stardom and make him the idol of millions of U.S. teenagers. 

The first three songs Elvis Presley performed on network television were rhythm and blues hits: "Shake Rattle and Roll,""Flip Flop and Fly," (both by Joe Turner) and "I Got A Woman." The latter was a secular song by Ray Charles that he based on a hit gospel release from Duke Peacock Records.  Viewed from any perspective, classic rhythm and blues music was used as the booster rocket to launch Elvis Presley into orbit. 



In early 1956, in the midst of successive national television appearances by Elvis, RCA released its first record on him. "Heartbreak Hotel" was a bluesy like composition, containing some Joe Turner like vocal phrasing and Jay McShann breaks. It reached the top of the rhythm and blues, pop, and country and western music charts.

Heartbreak Hotel - E Presley 1956

Confessin' The Blues - McShann 1939

Subsequently, Presley strengthened his negro sound by employing some rhythm and blues songwriters. Chief among them was Otis Blackwell who wrote the popular "All shook up," Don't Be Cruel," "Return To Sender," and others for Presley.


Return To Sender - Otis Blackwell

Return To Sender - Elvis Presley


Bobby Charles, Gale Storm, Pat Boone, The Diamonds, Georgia Gibbs and other white artists also experienced tremendous success with rhythm and blues recordings, but none sold ten million records in less than one year, 1956, as did Presley. His hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi, honored him with a special celebration in recognition of his entertainment achievement. 

Despite Elvis Presley's obvious love and mastery of rhythm and blues, he was not called a blues or rhythm and blues performer. He was labeled a rock and roll artist; the new name which also had rapidly spread around the world based on the title of Alan Freed's WINS radio show, "Rock and Roll Party." 

One of Presley's old Beale Street friends from Memphis, B.B. King, spoke on National Public Radio about Elvis Presley's rock and roll music being the same as rhythm and blues.


NPR Question:

The mid '50s-'56, '57-Presley comes along, Bo Diddley, Little Richard… What did that mean for you as a blues musician? That sound? 


I never thought of it that way because, see, Little Richard played some blues; Elvis—believe it or not—played some blues; all of these guys. And I wondered why they called them rock and roll. The only reason I could see was because they were white. I couldn't see any other reason why they were rock 'n roll, 'cause a lot of the black guys was doing the same thing they were doing. So the only difference was sort of like the records when we first started making records. They would have "race records," you know, if the dude was black. That's a black one right there. If it's pop, that's a white one right there, and that was the difference. But when rock 'n roll started, in my opinion—I said in my opinion—Little Richard had been doing some of the same things I heard the Rolling Stones doing. Fats Domino had been out—his way, his style—but he was doing the same changes and progressions that these guys were doing. The only difference I saw was white and black. I don't know if it was done because of prejudice. I didn't think of it that way, but I thought of it "Okay, that's a white guy there; he's rock 'n roll. That's a black guy over there; he's playing the blues." 'Cause they hadn't, for some reason, thought of soul at the time. These guys obviously didn't have any soul. They called guys like me rhythm and blues, so somewhere along the line I guess I lost my rhythm! [And I] wind up here - just the blues, you know. To answer your question, I didn't think anything other than we had more [people] on the scene. The more, the merrier…"  


B. B. King lived in Memphis during the the late 1940s  and 1950s. His "3 O'Clock Blues" recording was #1 in the nation in 1951. It was during that time that King befriended a young white kid named Elvis Presley when he hung out on Beale Street. They continued there association in Houston, Texas where King's bookings were picked up by The Buffalo Booking Agency. Peacock Records also acquired Duke Records of Memphis, and some Beale musicians travelled, visited or stayed around Houston; Elvis included. In 1953, Peacock Records achieved its first # 1 hit on Billboard’s Rhythm and Blues Chart. The song, “Hound Dog” had been recorded by Big Mama Thornton, played on Memphis radio, and Presley loved it.    

Don Robey's Peacock Records
Rockin' with Big Mama
# 1 on Billboard - March 28, 1953 



Three years after Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog" hit #1 on Billboard's Rhythm and Blues chart, Elvis Presley's cover version rose to #1 on both the Billboard Rhythm and Blues and Popular Music Charts. The record's flip side, "Don't Be Cruel" also went to #1. Presley's arrangement of "Hound Dog" was very similar to the Johnny Otis arrangement for Thornton's original. However, Presley's RCA recording and the rhythm and blues covers of other white artists were promoted in white American media as rock and roll, not rhythm and blues. Like Haley, Presley also rode Alan Freed's rock and roll campaign to fame and fortune; selling more than 10 million records in 1956. 

Powerful negative forces operated in many segments of American society, the recording industry, and among some elected government sources. They did not fancy Elvis Presley giving respect to negro music. Slavery may have ended in 1865 but legal racial segregation, a continuation of dehumanization, was legalized nationally in 1896 by the U. S. Supreme Court in Plessey vs. Ferguson. The legal practice of white supremacy was ruled unconstitutional after three hundred years in 1954 with the Brown vs. Topeka - U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Elvis exploded upon America two years later, 1956. White supremacists knew Presley was championing a form of positive, creatively intelligent negro music. To them it did not matter whether the music was called rhythm and blues or rock and roll. In the face of wide spread criticism, Presley stood alone, and faced down his racist naysayers, and denied any disrespect to negro culture and people. His friend, B.B. King and others came to his defense, and upon his death the media deposited comments from many others who knew him.


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