The first time I saw Elvis on TV was on the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey Show in March 1956. I remember the moment very well. We were living at 17 Passaic Street in Paterson, New Jersey. I was 17 years old. I was in the living room watching the Dorsey show (big band swing and pop music, production dance numbers Broadway style, etc.). At a certain point in the show, Tommy Dorsey announced, “Ladies and gentlemen – Elvis Presley!” The “stage” went dark and EP, dressed (I think) in grayish jacket, dark pants, dark (black) shirt, and white tie, stepped into the spotlight (where his three-piece backup combo – guitar, bass, and drums – was already set up – there might have been a piano player too). EP had a guitar of his own strapped on. The camera zoomed in close up. EP had a longish, cowboy style hairdo with prominent sideburns. His hair looked blondish and glistened with hair oil (vaseline?). He looked directly into the camera in a rather challenging and intimidating way, smiled, curled his lip in a kind of combination sneer and smile, his eyes twinkled. The guitar player (Scotty Moore) played a startup chord, and EP began, “Well, since my baby left me (boom-boom from the drummer), I found a new place to dwell (another boom-boom), it’s down at the eh-end of Lonely Street, it’s (thtoom, thtoom, thtoom from the bassist) Heartbreak Hotel . . . . ” A mixture of blues, country, honky-tonk . . . I didn’t know what. He looked and sounded and moved so “bad” (in the good sense)!
I can’t remember whether I had heard (or heard of) EP before that moment, but it was the first time I had seen him. I was jolted from head to toe. I had a “thrill feeling” in my chest. Tears came to my eyes. I was mesmerized, flabbergasted, and astounded. This was something else! Something entirely new. EP seemed both innocent and dangerous at the same time. I don’t fully understand what he represented to me. His persona in 1956 was, in my mind, somehow linked with that of James Dean (who had died in a car crash just before EP hit big) and with the Marlon Brando portrayal of “Stanley Kowalski” in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1952?). EP himself stressed the James Dean connection.
Those were sweet days for me, the mid-’50s. (Also bitter from time to time.)
Well, anyway, life went on. EP eventually faded into the movies, although he continued to record good R ‘n’ R songs. Some of his movies were not bad, but most of them were really bad (in the bad sense). Then he made his “big show” singing-performing come-back beginning in 1968. I was still interested – but not very interested – in him during the period from 1968 to 1977. I had gone in my own direction (various directions). When he died in 1977, I was sorry to hear it, but I was not devastated. I continued to feel that EP – the young and dangerous EP – had touched my life in some significant way, had somehow encouraged me to move in a “radical,” anti-establishment direction, but his death did not stop me in my tracks or anything like that. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, when I began my own musical “come-back,” I regained a deep and mysterious feeling and appreciation for EP, his music, and his persona. So it goes.
EP was 42 when he died. His mother, Gladys, who he loved in the way that a “momma’s boy” loves his momma (which, also, I sadly understand), was also 42 when she died (in 1957 or 1958). Strange fact.