Elvis Presley and Physicalness. An Affront in 1950s America

Essay, 2011

11 Pages, Grade: 1,5



1 Introduction

2. Elvis Presley: The King of Rock’n Roll
2.1. His Youth and Early Recordings
2.2. First Provocative Performances

3. Successes and Affront in the 1950s

4. Conclusion

5 Literature

1 Introduction

Next to legends like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley and Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley belongs to the first generation of Rock’n Rollers in the 1950s. They set the standards for Rock’n Roll music in the next decades. Presley entered the stage in 1956 and he was described as “a presence who, because of his simultaneous mastery of recordings, movies, and TV, was destined to have more influence than any Broadway show could ever imagine”.1

Elvis Presley can be described as the first hero of Rock’n Roll because he had an unprecedented ability and presence to perform his songs thrillingly. He created a completely genuine dancing style and his career was without comparison from the first day onwards. Presley scored Nr. 1 in the charts with his song “Heartbreak Hotel” in 1956. Hence, he also set new standards and led on the revolution of the young against the old, thereby challenging traditions.2

In the following, we will deal with the topic of Elvis Presley and his physicalness which was regarded as an affront in 1950s America. Presley can be regarded as the King of Rock’n Roll because he revolutionized (white) music by connecting it with physical and sexual expression.

2. Elvis Presley: The King of Rock’n Roll

2.1. His Youth and Early Recordings

Presley can be described as a white American from the South who became an identification figure and role model of the 1950s youth. At the same time, Presley became the enemy image to the Bourgeois middle class. To Presley any kind of music was equally important if it expressed true feelings and emotions. Thus, he favoured “(…) Blues und Bluegrass, die Spirituals von Sister Rosetta Thorpe und die Schnulzen von Bing Crosby oder Dean Martin, die Country-Musik von Hank Snow und der Rhythm & Blues eines Ray Charles“.3 Presley’s performances were always provocative and hence, he was called “Elvis, the Pelvis”.4 Thus, Presley was regarded as the first real Rock’n Roller who shocked the adult world and who became a role model for teenagers. He also led the way into a new age that should be more tolerant and liberal.

Elvis Presley was born on 8th January 1935 and grew up in an impoverished lower-middle-class family. He sang in the local church choir (the Fundamental Assembly of God) and won a singing contest at the age of ten. In 1946 Elvis learned how to play the guitar and he was deeply influenced by singers like Roy Acuffs and Ernest Tubb. His guitar play was influenced by Muddy Waters and Bukka White. In 1949 Elvis moved with his family to Memphis. It was in Memphis that Elvis came into contact with Blacks and Black music. Hence, he preferred the tunes of B.B. King and Furry Lewis. In 1953 Elvis concluded High School and afterwards worked as a lorry driver for the Crown Electric Company.

In the same year, Elvis recorded “My Happiness” in the Sun Records Studios of Sam Phillips. This song was supposed to be a birthday present for his mother. This was when Phillips’ attention was aroused because he also searched for a white country musician who had a feeling for Rhythm & Blues. Presley’s melancholic and rebellious charisma fitted very well into this image. Nevertheless, this combination also seemed to be problematic at the beginning: “(…) am Anfang schien diese Vielfältigkeit eher ein Handikap zu sein. Den einen klang er zu “country”, den anderen zu “black”.5

For his first recording session, Presley chose four compositions of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, among them Presley’s first regional hit “That’s all right (Mama)”. Elvis had his second regional hit in 1954 with the song “Good Rockin’ Tonight”. One year later he was elected the most “hoffnungsvollsten Country & Western Künstler” of the year 1955.

2.2. First Provocative Performances

At the end of 1955, Colonel Sam Parker bought Elvis Presley free for 35.000 USD from the contract with Sun Records. Hence, Colonel Parker offered Presley a more lucrative contract with the record firm RCA and became his manager. RCA made Elvis a star but at the same time he was denunciated as a simple and uneducated seducer of the youth. The slogan “sex sells” had on the one hand a great impact on Presley’s career but on the other hand many critics and journalists were opposed to Presley. Hence, it is very telling that TV shows merely showed Presley’s half length portrait.6 Hence, people could not see Elvis’ provocative swinging of his hips which clearly had a sexual connotation.

In Nashville, Presley recorded his first songs for RCA, among them also “Heartbreak Hotel” which he performed on 28th February 1956 during his first TV performance on “Stage Show”. This was when Presley advanced to the most “(…) umstrittensten Sänger seit Frank Sinatra”.7 This marked also a revolution in Rock’n Roll music as such because in contrast to Bill Haley, Elvis Presley was loud, aggressive and sexually provocative. Thus, we might say with Paul Willis:

Elvis Presley’s records were full of aggression. Though the focus was often unspecified and enigmatic, the charge of feeling was strong. In the atmosphere of the music, in the words, in the articulation of the words, in his personal image, was a deep implication that here was a man not to be pushed around. His whole presence demanded that he should be given respect, though, by conventional standards, the grounds for that respect were disreputable and anti-social.8

Therefore, Elvis Presley was largely demonized by the middle class and the Bourgeoisie. In fact, his physicalness and sexual provocation was regarded as vulgar, detrimental to the youth and liable to corrupt young people. In this context, Scheurer says: “His hips moved almost as if controlled by a force beyond him – or, perhaps better, within him that knew no bounds”.9 Concerning the impact of Presley’s music, we might also argue with Wicke that

(…) Presley finally made these songs ‘their’ [i.e. the young people’s] music, for he was one of them. It was no longer an alien cultural identity which spoke through these songs, the identity of outlaws, of the Afro-American and white ‘fringe-groups‘ from the lower end of the social scale, but their own.10

Hence, Presley was highly celebrated by the younger generation and this was also the reason why controversies about him soon vanished. As a consequence, his musical style was thus also copied and became absorbed by the mainstream: “Many of the styles […] that symbolized rebellion and danger (even for teenagers) finally became acceptable when worn by Elvis”.11 Hence, the question arises, why Elvis’ physicalness was initially regarded as an affront and how it was possible that this became accepted. We will deal with this question in the following chapter.

3. Successes and Affront in the 1950s

One of the reasons why Elvis could become very successful was that he “amateurized” the music business, thus reducing the typical Rock’n Roll band. He became a role model to teenagers because he made the music himself and his guitar play dominated in his songs. He could sing slow ballads (e.g. “Love me Tender”) as well as very quick Rock’n Roll songs (e.g. “Jailhouse Rock”). In this way, Guralnick argues that “Die Jugend identifizierte sich mit ihm, mit seinem rebellischen Rockabilly-Sound genauso wie mit den beinahe opernhaften Tönen, sie liebte die schlichten Songs in Gospeltradition, aber auch die pompösen Auftritte in seinen Las Vegas Shows. Das alles war ‚Elvis Music’“.12

Elvis Presley was special because he was passionate and exploded on stage. His style of dancing was very provocative and nobody did what he had done before. Hence, his often wild shows shocked the American middle class which have not yet been seen since then. Therefore, we can also claim with Posener:

Elvis ist Sinnlichkeit pur, von den schwarzblau gefärbten sorgfältig frisierten, pomadigen Haaren über die vibrierende, flüssige, geschmeidige Stimme, die empfindsamen, zu einem verächtlichen Grinsen verzogenen Lippen, die kreisenden Hüften, zuckenden Beine und lasziven Handbewegungen.13

According to this image, Presley’s record firm advertised his music with the following slogan „Elvis singt, wie Marilyn Monroe geht […] und man ist versucht hinzuzufügen, dass sich Elvis bewegte, wie Marilyn Monroe sang“.14 In this way, the political scientist Rainer Eisfeld also expressed the connection between youth, pop culture and erotic with the lifestyle of the late 1950s.15 In a similar way, Franz Schöler also says about Elvis:

Natürlich verdammten damals alle anständigen Bürger den Stil seiner Bühnenauftritte. Denn die unmissverständlichen Bewegungen seiner Hüften ließen alle weiblichen Besucher seiner Konzerte in Ekstase ausbrechen, und keine hätte ihn zu dieser Zeit bemuttern wollen.16


1 Timothy Scheurer (ed.), American Popular Music: Readings From the Popular Press (Volume II: The Age of Rock), Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1989, p. 74.

2 Cf. Peter Guralnick, „Elvis“ (Auszug), in: stern spezial BIOGRAFIE I – Menschen, Dramen, Lebenswege, Gruner & Jahr, 2002, p. 28.

3 Ibid, p. 40.

4 „Pelvis“ refers to the movements with his hips when dancing.

5 Guralnick, p. 30.

6 Wolfgang Rumpf, Elvis forever – Dramaturgie der Unsterblichkeit: Wie Medien und Unterhaltungsindustrie Elvis Presley inszenier(t)en, ASPM Jahrestagung 2008/Remscheid, http://www.wolfgangrumpf.de/presley.pdf. 02.12.2011.

7 Samuel B. Charters, Die Story vom Blues (translated by Iris and Rolf Hellmut Foerster), Nymphemburger Verlangshandlung, 1962, p. 230.

8 Paul Willis quoted in Peter Wicke, Rock Music: Culture, aesthetics and sociology, Cambridge University Press, 1990, p. 42.

9 Scheurer, p. 106.

10 Wicke, p. 42.

11 Scheurer, p. 104.

12 Guralnick, p. 32.

13 Alan Posener, „Revolutionär der Lust“, in. Die Welt, 16. 09.2002.

14 Ibid.

15 Rainer Eisfeld, Als Teenager träumten. Die magischen Fünfziger Jahre, Nomos, 1999, p. 61.

16 Franz Schöler, „Plastic Fantastic Lover – Der unaufhaltsame Niedergang des Elvis Presley“. In. Ders. Let it rock. Eine Geschichte der Rockmusik von Chuck Berry und Elvis Presley bis zu den Rolling Stones und den Allman Brothers, Hanser Verlag, 1975, p. 72.

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Elvis Presley and Physicalness. An Affront in 1950s America
University of Hamburg
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Elvis Presley, 1950s, Physicalness, Rock n' Roll, Provocation, Affront, Youth, Recordings
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Dr. Sirinya Pakditawan (Author), 2011, Elvis Presley and Physicalness. An Affront in 1950s America, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/284065


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