How Television Saved the King of Rock 'n' Roll
by Allen J. Wiener
Beats & Measures Press, USA, 2014, Softcover and Digital editions, 322 pages, Illustrated, ...........................ISBN-13: 978-1500320072.
"The young singer also transformed television by demonstrating its promotional potential through access to a huge national audience."
(Allen J. Wiener)
How Television Saved the King of Rock 'n' Roll
One of the key elements in the success of Elvis’ career was television. As he broke onto the national (and international) stage it was his appearances on the Dorsey Brothers, Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Toast of the Town (Ed Sullivan) shows that put him front and centre with the public – television was the platform from which Elvis moved from regional music star to mainstream icon!
On his return from the Army his arrival back into civilian and performing life was signalled by the Frank Sinatra TV special Welcome Home Elvis. And then after the eventual malaise of his once flourishing film career it was the 68 Comeback Special that served as the turning point of his resurgence again as a powerful music force.
In the 1970s Elvis reinforced his position globally with the Elvis Aloha From Hawaii satellite telecast. And in the closing months of his life the confronting television special Elvis In Concert emotionally recorded the personal decline which was to claim his physical presence but not his legacy.
It is surprising that the Elvis library is bereft of books addressing his television career. In fact until 2014 there appear to have been only two titles released devoted to the totality of Elvis’ television career - Rocky (Strictly Elvis) Barra’s booklet, Elvis on TV (mid 1970s) and the little known 1986 hardcover release by Ian Bailye, Elvis The T.V. Years (Bailye was a prominent member of the Albert Hand/Todd Slaughter British fan club). Marc Weingarten’s excellent 2000 book release, Station to Station The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll on Television, also deserves mention as it contains two strong chapters on Elvis’ impact on the small screen. Several books have been published focusing on particular performances, for example Gillian Gaar’s excellent examination of the Comeback Special: Return Of The King Elvis Presley’s Great Comeback.
In this context the publication of Allen J. Wiener’s latest book, CHANNELING ELVIS How Television Saved the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll is particularly welcome
The author has adopted a dual descriptive-analytical approach in writing his delightfully engaging and illuminative narrative. Each of Elvis’ performances is presented in 'fly on the wall' style as Wiener's absorbing writing brings the reader center stage to observe the action in front of and behind the camera.
The inclusion of press reports and reviews for each performance adds immeasurably to the unfolding story.
Apart the author's rigorous research and strong writing style, another strength of his book is the potency it gains from the many interviews he conducted with those responsible for, or present during Elvis’ television performances. Those interviewed offer considerable insight, and occasionally criticism, about Elvis' television appearances.
Wiener's consideration of Elvis’ television performances is well measured and thoughtful.
At its core, his narrative deftly argues a powerful point which has often been ignored or overlooked by writers and researchers. Unlike his largely formula driven, uneven and creatively unrewarding career in Hollywood and the limited audience impacts that the one dimensional (non-visual) medium of radio offered, television not only made Elvis Presley in the 1950s but it was also the major factor driving his resurgence in the public eye (post Army and Hollywood) and served to reinforce (Aloha) his stature as the music and entertainment world’s greatest icon of the 20th century.
In addition, Wiener instructively comments:
In the end, television alone recorded the full path of Presley's career, from its explosive beginning to its tragic end, and it provided the most extensive look at Elvis the performer.
On Elvis’ television start Wiener nicely sets the stage for what is to follow:
Elvis Presley was the first performer without nationwide recognition who used television to establish himself on the national stage, and he did it in a matter of weeks. When he first set foot on Stage Show in January 1956, he was still touring with country and western package shows, playing gigs in high school auditoriums, and appearing on the country-oriented Louisiana Hayride radio show. By the time he bid Stage Show farewell two months later, he was headed for Hollywood and boasted hit records on all three billboard charts.
Reinforcing the point the author also records:
....Elvis knocked pop culture on its ear merely with the sound of his voice and, when he appeared on television, he drove much of America screaming from its collective living room. All that was new, exciting, and threatening about the man and his music was multiplied tenfold once his uninhibited performing style could actually be seen.
Wiener’s text is continuously interesting (and at times amusing) as this incident involving British actress and comedian Joyce Grenfell attests:
Grenfell was intrigued by Presley and recorded in her diary: ”His hair isn’t long and his side-burns aren’t all that long either.” I asked him if all the adulation was a bit trying. He called me ma’am and said: ‘I don’t want to brag, bit I’m kinder used to it now. It’s been goin’ on a year.’ I thought he was pleasant, a bit of a roly-poly boy, but a good singer of his sort of hill-billy songs. We were photographed together. He put his arm around my neck and breathed down my ear-hole.”
Elvis' controversial appearance on The Steve Allen Show
In relation to the Welcome Home Elvis special hosted by Frank Sinatra, Wiener uncovered a number of ‘behind the scenes’ incidents involving the Colonel. These include how the Colonel’s plan to have the predominately Elvis fan audience rush the stage when he appeared was thwarted and his grab for more money when he found out it was intended to telecast the special by closed circuit television throughout the Fontainebleau Hotel where the special was being filmed.
Reflecting both the power of the artist and of the medium, in relation to one of Elvis’ greatest performances, the ’68 Comeback Special, Wiener writes:
In less than an hour, Elvis wiped away the previous lacklustre decade and the foul taste of his movies and accompanying songs. Rarely had anyone, except perhaps Elvis himself, so effectively and pointedly used television to put himself back on top of the entertainment world – in one performance and literally overnight……
Elvis dominated the hour from first to last. He recaptured the power he had shown in 1956 and enhanced it further with seasoned professionalism and showmanship. If anything, he was more mesmerising, captivating and irresistible than at any other time in his career.
1968.....the Comeback Special
On the triumphant Aloha from Hawaii satellite telecast Wiener debunks the myths about Elvis being significantly overweight and (through smart research) the claim that the special was watched by between 1 and 1.5 billion people worldwide!
There is also an striking reflection on the Aloha telecast. Glen D. Hardin was interviewed by the author and among other things is critical of its director/producer, Marty Pasetta, and of Elvis’ deference to him.
In discussing the final chapter of Elvis' amazing television career, Wiener expressively observes:
Elvis in Concert completed television's capture of the full arc of Elvis Presley''s career, from its explosive beginning, through its stops and restarts, to its bitter end.......Although his final appearance was a sad one, it is only one tile in the Elvis television mosaic.
CHANNELING ELVIS How Television Saved the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll includes Endnotes (18 pages), a Bibliography (9 pages) and Index (20 pages). There are also a small number of black and white photos.
Verdict: Cogent, thought provoking, insightful. Allen J. Wiener’s CHANNELING ELVIS How Television Saved the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll is a long overdue major book release which provides an invigorating analytical perspective on the seminal importance of television in making, breaking and maintaining Elvis Presley as one of the world’s pre-eminent icons. In so doing Channeling Elvis offers a valuable window to our greater understanding of the complex Elvis story.
| About Allen J. Wiener
Allen J. Wiener is author of "Channeling Elvis: How Television Saved the King of Rock 'n' Roll," (October 2014) and "The Beatles: The Ultimate Recording Guide." He is co-author of "David Crockett in Congress: The Rise and Fall of the Poor Man's Friend," winner of the 2010 Independent Publishers Award for Regional Non-Fiction, and "Music of the Alamo."
He has written for the Washington Post, the Nashville Tennessean, People, American History, Goldmine, Discoveries, Journal of the Wild West History Association, Western Clippings," the Alamo Studies Review, the Alamo Journal and the Crockett Chronicle, as well as liner notes for several CDs. He was born in New Jersey and lives in Maryland.
Allen says that his books on Elvis Presley and David Crockett have been his most rewarding writing experiences to date. "I think I've given readers a new look at Elvis through dozens of fresh interviews with those closest to him and those who worked with him on television, and by viewing many hours of TV and other live footage of him. Television played a larger role in Presley's career than had been acknowledged before and TV also left us the single largest body of Elvis doing what he loved most -- performing live."
Regarding Crockett, the author says "I feel that we reclaimed the real Crockett, who had been obscured by his quasi-fictional alter-ego, 'Davy' Crockett, but the real man was far more interesting. Contrary to a thread that runs through most biographies of him, he was anything but a clueless frontiersman, out of his depth in Washington. He could play the political game as well as anyone and knew how things worked in Congress. He failed in the end because he refused to compromise on fundamental beliefs or put party discipline ahead of them. The Jacksonians were afraid of his growing national popularity and saw him as a threat, and they pulled out all the stops to unseat him and heavily outspent him. His sacrifice at the Alamo should be remembered and honored, but so should his long political struggle as an advocate for the poor, social reformer, and egalitarian."
Do not turn the channel. Stay tuned for EIN's in depth interview with Allen Wiener........ ...........................coming to this station in November!
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