John Lennon was asked to reflect on Elvis Presley‘s passing in 1977. “Elvis died in the army” was Lennon’s terse reply.
When Elvis entered the Army in 1958, a mere two years after he burst onto the world’s stage in early 1956, rock and roll was viewed as the soundtrack to rebellious youth. Churches organized public burnings of records, riots happened in nearly every town Presley and his fellow rock pioneers went. But by the time Presley was discharged in 1960 most of his peers had been wiped out, and he was suddenly thrust upon a whole new landscape of squeaky-clean pop stars.
The years of 1958-1960 were filled with blows to the head and heart of rock and roll. In January of ’58, Little Richard, who had placed fourteen songs in the Top 10 R&B charts in just three short years, denounced rock and roll and his large contribution to it – and enrolled in Bible College. With Little Richard off the scene, by the time Elvis entered the army in March of ’58, the rock world was already unraveling. While Elvis was away in the Army, the main contender for his throne was Sun Records’ latest star – Jerry Lee Lewis. With huge singles like “Great Balls of Fire”, and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”, it was obvious he had the voice and the charisma, and something even Elvis didn’t have – virtuoso musicianship. But in May of ’58, while on tour in Germany, it was revealed that he had married his 13-year-old cousin. While this may have been something he could have kept quiet in the States, especially in the South during that period of time, the European press had a field day. The tour was cancelled and his career never fully recovered from this public condemnation. So that makes three major stars all out of the public eye before 1958 was even half over!
February 3rd, 1959 will live in infamy as the “The Day the Music Died,” thanks to Don McLean’s nostalgic 1971 hit, “American Pie.” It was the day 22-year-old Buddy Holly (along with J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Ritchie Valens) died in a tragic plane crash. More than any other early rock and roll star, Buddy was showing how rock and roll could evolve. He was one of the first artists to write, arrange and produce his own records. He was already incorporating string ensembles and choirs, combining teenage and adult music into a more sophisticated version of rock and roll. But his plane crash caused a major stunt in rock and roll’s growth.
The early days of rock have often been criticized as little more than white singers stealing black music. One of the few black artists during the first wave of rock to have hits with his own recordings was the “Architect of Rock and Roll” – Chuck Berry. From 1955-1959 he put ten songs in the Top 40, and everyone from Gene Vincent to Pat Boone used Chuck’s material to fill their albums and singles. And it wasn’t just America listening; nearly every British Invasion band that came out in the mid-’60s had a cover or two of Chuck’s. But another near fatal blow to rock and roll came in December of ’59, with Berry sentenced to serve five years in jail. A former employee of his was arrested on a prostitution charge and with a trial fueled by racism, Chuck somehow ended up in jail. Although he was released early in 1963, rock’s first great poet was silenced during this fragile time in its infancy.
Losing this many leaders during the first five years of any movement would surely cause most revolutions to lose steam. The final blow came on April 16, 1960 – just a month after Elvis was released from the army – when 21-year-old Eddie Cochran was in a fatal car crash. Cochran was another visionary, writing his own songs (“Summertime Blues”, “Twenty Flight Rock”), and experimenting with overdubbing years before the Beatles perfected the craft.
It’s no wonder that in the absence of all of these vital visionaries, the record labels had to create more “reliable” stars like Frankie Avalon, Fabian, and Annette Funicello. Elvis stated in many interviews during his early days that he believed rock and roll was a fad, and that he would have to change with the trends if he wanted to keep his job. So with that in mind, it makes perfect sense that his post-Army output would include much more variety than any of his early material. These were not the recordings of a dead man, or worse a “has-been” (as Lennon’s quote suggests); this was rock’s greatest interpreter expanding his (and the whole movement’s) vocabulary. But now without Buddy, Chuck, Little Richard, or Jerry Lee to give him a run for his money, he settled to compete with chart-toppers like Del Shannon, Chubby Checker, Dion, and Brenda Lee – not exactly the dangerous delinquents of rock’s early days. Rock lost its momentum for a number of years, nearly suffocating in Beach Party movies and AquaNet, until those four lads from Liverpool showed up.
The Beatles have gone down in history as the saviors of rock, but their early songs (“Love Me Do,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”) were much more clean-cut than the early records of their heros – Elvis, Chuck, Little Richard or Jerry Lee. Since the early revolutionaries had already laid down the groundwork, the Beatles were able to attack from different angle. As they put on their best smiles and wore their matching suits, they won America’s heart and were given free rein to revolutionize the music world from within, and the industry has been forever changed.