Elvis Presley's Music in the Fifties
Puzzled Variety's Reviewers
As a weekly entertainment trade magazine, Variety has been published continually since its founding in 1905. Although primarily known for its coverage of motion pictures, the tabloid also reports on many other areas of the entertainment industry. When Elvis Presley exploded on the scene in 1956, Variety's weekly issues contained a section devoted to recorded music. Included were updated charts and reviews of recently released records. Starting with "Heartbreak Hotel" in 1956, Variety reviewed most RCA Presley single releases through 1971, when the magazine scaled back its coverage of recorded music.
Below are Variety's brief reviews of Elvis Presley's four major single record releases in 1956. In reading them, it is important to keep in mind that the journal's subscribers were record sellers. The reviews were intended to help retailers decide which records to stock in their stores. Also, since a good portion of the magazine's advertising space was purchased by record companies, Variety's reviewers were mindful to minimize negative comments in their record reviews, lest RCA and other labels take their advertising dollars elsewhere.
Below, in bold face, are Variety's brief reviews of Elvis Presley's four major single record releases in 1956.
Variety, February 1, 1956:
Elvis Presley: "Heartbreak Hotel"-"I Was the One" (RCA Victor). Elvis Presley, country singer, is a compelling stylist who tears his tunes to tatters a la Johnnie Ray. "Heartbreak Hotel" is an ideal piece of material and he goes to town with the help of an excellent background. It could establish Presley in the pop picture. "I Was the One" is a slow rhythm ballad, also with a good idea and potently rendered.
This review of Elvis's first RCA single appeared in Variety's weekly "Best Bets" list of recommended single record releases. It was fourth down on the list that week behind new releases by Don Rondo, Chuck Berry, and Jo Stafford. As the review notes, at that time Presley was seen as a country singer trying to make the transition into the more lucrative pop music field.
Over a month later, on March 7, Variety reported that, "'I Was the One' is now around the 300,000 sales mark after three weeks on the market." It was apparently unclear to the magazine at that time that "Heartbreak Hotel" was really the hit side. In fact, it would be two more months before that Presley recording would reach the top of the singles chart on May 2, 1956.
Variety, May 9, 1956
Variety, May 9, 1956
Elvis Presley: "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You"-"My Baby left Me" (RCA Victor). The current phenom of the music biz, Elvis Presley probably could have a hit if his name were on a blank disk. This coupling is sure of a big ride even though the material is not up to the level of his "Heartbreak Hotel" smash. "I Want You" is a slow ballad with a strong beat and Presley belts it with his identifying vocalisthenics. Flip, in a traditional blues vein, also gets an energetic workout.
This review of Elvis's second RCA single appeared in Variety's "Jocks, Jukes and Disks" column. Reviewer Herm Schoenfeld's "blank disk" comment revealed his bewilderment with Presley's sudden popularity. However, his use of the term "vocalisthenics" to describe Elvis's style was insightful, as it linked the singer's recorded voice to his notorious stage gyrations, a combination that had much to do with Presley's early success. Schoenfeld correctly predicted that "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You" was not "up to the level" of "Heartbreak Hotel." Still, it was a hit, reaching #3 on the Billboard singles chart.
Presley's first full page Variety ad appeared in the journal on July 4. It included the following message: "Thanks a million to everybody everywhere! You've been wonderful." Readers were encouraged to write to the "Elvis Presley National Fan Club Headquarters" at "Col. Thomas A. Parker's" office in Madison, Tennessee.
Variety, July 15, 1956:
Elvis Presley: "Hound Dog"-"Don't Be Cruel" (RCA Victor). Like Ed Sullivan found out, you can't fight statistics. Elvis Presley may not be the most polished singer but he's the most popular and these new sides will ride along the top of the wave. He gives "Hound Dog" a typical word-swallowing, beat-belting workover with some machine-gun drums in the background. "Don't Be Cruel" is another uptempo ballad with equal chances. The controversy still will go on between those who think he's not even a beginner and those who say he's the end.
This time Elvis's new RCA release topped Variety's "Best Bets" list, ahead of new records by Al Hibbler, Andy Williams, and Mitch Miller. Although he judged Elvis an unpolished singer, reviewer Schoenfeld gave Presley his due as the most popular singer of the day. He also correctly judged the equal hit potential of "Hound Dog" and "Don't Be Cruel." The final sentence of Schoenfeld's review is my favorite single-sentence summary of the controversy that was swirling around Presley in 1956.
The "Hound Dog"/"Don't Be Cruel" pairing sold at an unprecedented rate. On September 5, Variety reported the following: "Victor has been so busy with Presley pressings over the past few weeks that it has been forced to use the facilities of both Decca and MGM plants. At the present time, it's understood the Presley disks account for about two-thirds of the company's daily singles output." In an October 31 article, Variety noted that the Presley two-sided hit single had topped 3 million in sales and was still selling at better than 50,000 copies per week.
On August 31, 1956, RCA mass released seven singles comprised of some Presley Sun Records recordings and cuts from his first RCA LP. Variety did not review any of those singles, but noted in the September 5 article that the group of reissue singles "are each selling at a 12,000-a-day clip."
Variety, October 13, 1956:
Variety, October 13, 1956:
Elvis Presley: "Love Me Tender"-"Anyway You Want Me" (RCA Victor). Like his previous disks, this Elvis Presley platter is an automatic hit. But "Love Me Tender," the title song from the 20th-Fox pic in which Presley is making his film bow, is a change-of-pace material for this singer. Instead of the frantic, note-breaking style which has characterized Presley's other vocals, he makes an effort to sing in a legit ballad style. The result is not too striking, but the Presley fans will undoubtedly go for it. On the flip, Presley reverts back to his normal style, and this side could be the one to step out as the top side.
Presley led off Variety's "Best Bets" list again, this time topping new recordings by Cab Calloway, "Bill Haley & His Comets," and Caesar Giovannini. In labeling Presley's ballad delivery on "Love Me Tender" as "not too striking," Schoenfeld revealed his continuing inability to understand Elvis's allure. His prediction that "Anyway You Want Me" on the flip would be the hit side missed the mark by a long shot as "Love Me Tender" shot to the top of the charts.
In the September 5 article, Variety acknowledged that Elvis Presley was "the hottest disk name to turn up in this era." On track to sell 10 million records during his first year on the RCA Victor label, Presley's royalty payoff was estimated at $400,000 in 1956. Those 10 million records sold would also mean a gross income of $5 million for RCA. And sales would only get better during the following year.