How Elvis Presley Started a ‘Riot’ and Changed the Music Industry

When Elvis Presley died on Aug. 16, 1977, there was no official day of mourning. But ever since then, the date has been both an international commemoration of his death — and a rocking celebration of his life and work.

Presley burst onto the scene in January 1956 with the release of his first RCA single, “Heartbreak Hotel.” By October, Variety estimated he was already a millionaire, which was amazing for a rocker in those days.

On Oct. 24, 1956, Variety reported that H.G. Saperstein & Associates had lined up 51 licenses for Elvis merchandise, estimating $40 million retail volume in next 15 months — and that was just domestic. Items were 80% targeted at the female audience, such as lipstick and perfume, but included products like Presley “hound dogs” (hot dogs) and houndburgers, which were touted as “a hamburger with glamour.”

Variety said, “The campaign is unprecedented in that it is the first all-out merchandising drive aimed at teenagers, who have their own money to spend.” This was in contrast to such consumer crazes as Davy Crockett caps and other Disney items, for which tykes needed to ask parents to buy the goods. The banner story by Mike Kaplan predicted Presley would personally earn seven figures for the year: $450,000 in royalties, $250,000 in movie deals, $100,000 in TV appearances and at least $200,000 in his percentage of the year’s 40 personal appearances. Presley’s manager Col. Tom Parker was mum on the figures, but said the merchandising was a great opportunity for “hustlers” to work hard and make a fortune.

Starting with “Heartbreak Hotel,” Presley sold 10 million records within the first 10 months of 1956, also including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” He scored great ratings on TV shows hosted by Milton Berle and Steve Allen, with the latter beating Ed Sullivan, usually the timeslot winner. As a result, Sullivan paid $50,000 to book Presley for three appearances. The Sept. 9 show, featuring guest host Charles Laughton, of all people, hit an audience share of 86.2, or an estimated 60 million viewers.

On that show, Presley debuted the song “Love Me Tender.” Variety reported on Sept. 27, “For the first time in the history of the record business, a single record has achieved one million sales before being released to the public.” It was such a phenomenon that Fox accelerated post-production on Presley’s movie debut, finishing it in only four weeks and rushing it into theaters Nov. 1. Fox wanted “to capitalize on the current teenage craze” for Presley. The film, which had originally been titled “The Reno Brothers,” ended up doing “socko” box office.

Presley’s millions of fans included William Steif of Scripps-Howard’s San Francisco News, who described him as “a God-loving, jelly-kneed kid” who’s taken rock & roll out of the “race or rhythm and blues music” and made it pop.

But of course there were detractors. After two April concerts in San Diego, Presley was scheduled for another one in the fall, but San Diego Police Chief A.E. Jansen told Variety, “If he puts on the same kind of show that he did last April, I’ll arrest him for disorderly conduct.” The city’s Social Service director Ed Cooley said, “We’ll give him a license here only if he cleans up his act and eliminates the bumps and grinds.”

In San Francisco, a promoter tried to book Presley into the city’s 3,300-seat Opera House; the trustees “were OK with Elvis himself, but were afraid his fans would wreck Opera House furnishings. Hence his show is banned.” In D.C., the National Guard Armory rejected all rock and roll concerts at the 6,000-seat venue as “contrary to public interest.” And Seattle Civic Auditorium nixed him, with assistant manager Don Johnson explaining, “there’s a very real opportunity for a riot with someone like Elvis Presley.”

He caused a riot, all right, but it was within the music industry. And while some skeptics had dismissed Presley as a flash in the pan, he had an amazing 20-year career while he was alive — and an amazing 38-year career since then, with no signs of letup.

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