June 1956 was another busy month for Elvis Presley. As Paul Bélard notes in the preface to his photo-book, ‘Elvis June 1956’.
The 1956 juggernaut is picking up strength during this month with a series of dynamic live shows across America, appearing on Wink Martindale’s ‘Dance Party’ TV show, violating segregation laws in Memphis, outraging media critics and many parents with his burlesque show rendition of ‘Hound Dog’ on The Milton Berle Show and rehearsing for his appearance on The Steve Allen Show as the highlights.
How busy June 1956 was for Elvis is even more apparent when we consider his travel itinerary going from Memphis to Oakland to Los Angeles to San Diego to Long Beach to Phoenix to Tucson before returning to Memphis. Only to get back on the road a few days later making stops in Atlanta, Savannah, Augusta, Charlestown, New York and Richmond.
This graphic biography illustrates our man worked hard getting his career off the ground. All this packed on 220 pages. Nigel Patterson and Kees Mouwen read the book.
The bright red cover image on this soft-cover photo-folio really catches your eye and transports you to 1956. A great choice that “covers” the content of Elvis rockin’ all over the nation and national TV in June 1956.
Before delving into the content of ‘Elvis June 1956’, it is important to understand that Paul Bélard’s photo-books are not designed to be flashy “coffee table” releases. They are intended to provide an historic record of the full Elvis story. They do this through the author’s rigorous research in locating primary source material: photos, interviews, press articles, concert promotion flyers and more. Bélard supplements these with short overview narratives, where necessary.
While the picture-quality and artifacts are inherently of varying quality given their age, they are important “points in time” records and are often underappreciated for their historic relevance in other photobooks, as the quality of these images does not always meet the quality requirements of photo-books.
Using colorized images is a choice by the author who designed the book himself. Some fans do not like colorized photos, but personally, we have no issue with them as long as they are done well. A color image can add some color and even new dimension which provides a fresh viewing experience, something very welcome given the high number of times we often see the same image.
In this regard, it would be interesting to see what Bélard could do working with some serious photo collectors and having access to their photo archives, as many pictures used are available in a higher resolution. Perhaps his recent cooperation with the Danish Memphis Mansion offers new opportunities in content and design.
‘Elvis June 1956’ covers just one month in 1956 in a day-by-day time-line. The book offers unexpected insights to our understanding of the Elvis story as this comment from the time attests:
Presley’s most widely known number probably is ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, though ‘Tutti Frutti’, and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ are close behind.
Admittedly, ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ weren’t released until July 1956, but seeing ‘Tutti Frutti’ listed as among Elvis’ most well-known songs is surprising.
Looking back now it is interesting to read how 1956 America had trouble labeling this new kid on the block with his new singing style mixing traditional forms of country and R&B music. This is where the detailed day-by-day books by Bélard distinguish themselves from other biographies and photo-books.
The archival material is varied and includes articles with intriguing titles and captions as:
• “Singing Sensation Causes Near Riot Here” (Long Beach).
• “The Critics Stayed At Home, And Elvis Was The Greatest” (Don Oberforfer, The Charlotte Observer).
• “Writhing Singer Has Long Beach Soxers Wailing” (Paul Wallace, The Independent, June 7, 1956).
• “Elvis Sends 6,400 Here Into Frenzy” (Elinor Hayes, Oakford Tribune, June 4, 1956).
• “Presley Leaves You In A Blue Suede Funk” (Ralph J. Gleason, The San Francisco Chronicle, June 5, 1956).
• “The Presley Problem” by fan Diane (Dee) Sutlive.
• “Bell Auditorium Rocks As Elvis Presley Rolls, Makes Quick Getaway” (S.C Standard and Review, June 28, 1956)
The articles and other material are rich in information and offer a window into what particular people thought of Elvis at the height of his controversial fame. For example, in a case of “what if?”, What Al Jarvis Thinks of Elvis Presley!, a prominent Los Angeles deejay, comments:
“Despite his tremendous success in the recording field, I think Elvis Presley’s greatest talent will be discovered as an actor rather than a singer. This guy is going to be a really great actor.”
Another Los Angeles deejay, Bill Stewart, was less enthusiastic about Elvis:
“Not for me. His records give me intense pain, set to distortion.”
Other press reports have Elvis as a “popular Hillbilly singer”, while Alan Hanson’s commentary on how Elvis was treated with respect by journalist Robert Epps in Savannah illustrates that press stories were not always negative.
‘Elvis June 1956’ also features an eight page transcript of Elvis and Dewey Phillips’ interview with Wink Martindale on his “Dance Party” TV show.
An article in the Long Beach Independent from June 6, 1956 offered the views of fans, including this evocative passage:
“Suddenly, the perfection I’d conjured up about him as he sang switched to a disheartening reality. It would become a theme in my life: fantasies about men would always have their earthly price - the inevitable imperfections. “Hold me close, hold me tight, make me thrill with delight, darling you’re all that I’m living for … I want you, I need you, I love you, more and more .... every time that you’re near, all my cares disappear ... I want you, I need you, I love you, with all my heart” When Elvis sang those words, I was suddenly catapulted into a thrilling, aching, stratosphere of longing that was brand new. Oh, I’d mooned over actors in movie magazines, but I’d never felt anything like this. I could barely move. Or speak.”
The visual element is a mix of professionally taken photographs and fan taken candids. One of the most interesting is the cover image, which is now “colorized”, giving a brilliant new feel to its original black and white incarnation, as we now see Elvis in a rich red jacket. Additional glorious images of Elvis wearing the jacket appear later in the book.
Another partly colorized image is similarly interesting, with Elvis and Carl Perkins (in color) surrounded by fans who are in black and white. The contrast between color and black and white is impressive. Elvis and Carl literally jump out-off the photo, which also shows Elvis’ and Vernon’s former secretary Becky Hartley Yancey, who passed away July 14, 2021.
There is also a full-length black and white shot of Elvis on stage with knees bent, mic in hand, and mouth fully open, while Scotty Moore look on. This is how we remember him in 1956.
Also interesting to see - from a 2021 perspective - is Elvis’ appearance on Tuesday June 19th at an African American only event in Memphis, violating segregation laws and sparking an outrage (it also counters claims that Elvis was racist). Belard records:
“Elvis chose to attend the black-only event in one of the most racially divided cities in America. He sought no publicity for this, but as usual, he was tailed by photographers. In some pictures, he’s playing one of the throwa-baseball-and-win-a-prize games and being watched by a huge crowd of African-Americans and policemen ... This is the event that led local newspapers to report that Elvis had violated segregation laws when he attended the Memphis Fairgrounds amusement park on “colored night” on this evening.”
This clearly shows that Elvis knew where part of his roots come from and where he wanted to go. Elvis was looking beyond color, and following his heritage and heart.
Elvis and Barbara Hearn canoodling (lip-locked) in the front seat of his automobile, entertaining themselves in a typical 50’s way and walking hand-in-hand. Particularly interesting as they are photographed from behind. They look like just any couple in love on a date.
Other images show Elvis performing to an enthusiastic audience while dwarfed by a huge RCA logo hanging behind him or doing the “splits” on stage in South Carolina. A great, albeit grainy, black and white candid of Elvis with his hair in motion leaning onto the mic stand at the Mosque Theater in Richmond, Virginia.
As you would expect, while the professionally captured photos are very good, some of the candid shots by fans can be dark and grainy, given their age (65 years) and sometimes blown up a bit too much, a better choice would have been to use several smaller images on one page instead. Despite this, most images are still a treat to see.
Paul Bélard only provides two photos in Elvis June 1956 of Elvis’ scandalous June 5 appearance on ‘The Milton Berle Show’, but with an upcoming volume dedicated completely to the show, this is understandable.
‘Elvis June 1956’ maintains the look and feel of previous volumes in the series, and we still believe the author should use another (lighter) color as the page background. The black background can be harsh. Many readers (particularly other researchers) will appreciate that Bélard specifies the source and credits for all the content he has collected and used.
‘Elvis June 1956’ is another well-researched entry in the Paul Bélard series documenting the Elvis story through “primary source” historic visual and archival material. Compiled from various off and on-line sources, it brings together everything from June 1956 in one book. The information contained in the words and images is rich, interesting and sometimes surprising. It offers a robust “point in time” record of what Elvis did and perceptions of him at that time.
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Review by Nigel Patterson / Kees Mouwen.
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