Elvis's Body


It’s impossible to understand in our current age of 24/7 public pornography and profanity how in 1956 the seemingly innocuous body movements of a 21-year-old former truck driver form Tupelo, Mississippi could have caused such a nationwide sensation. Elvis Presley had already become a star in the south after recording five singles on Sam Phillips’ Sun Records label in Memphis. In November 1955 Elvis’s manager, Coronel Tom Parker negotiated a contract with RCA records that propelled Elvis into the national spotlight. Parker and RCA understood that to promote Elvis the new popular medium of television would be key. Thus, Elvis was quickly signed to make television appearances beginning in January 1956. Elvis first appeared on The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show on January 28. Backed by Scotty Moore, Bill Black and D. J. Fontana, he performed “Shake Rattle & Roll / Flip Flop & Fly” and “I Got A Woman.” Although Elvis had been driving southern audiences wild with his gyrating and singing, nobody expected the uproar that his television performances would create. Somehow, to have a white man singing black music in your family living room was just too much for 1950s America. But that body, gyrating and pulsating to this absolutely sexual music was downright indecent, vulgar, and pretty much pornographic. It was Elvis’s performance of “Hound Dog,” on the Milton Berle Show on June 5, 1956 that literally created a nationwide furor unlike anything pop culture had seen in the 20th century. Without his guitar, with just the mike as a prop, and with Moore, Black and Fontana following every movement, the King began the song in normal rhythm and then, to the frenzy of the studio audience and millions watching with their children in homes across America, Elvis slowed the song down to a pulsating tempo articulated with lower body movements and gyrations that would change American culture forever. By the next day newspapers were describing the performance as everything from a striptease to unimaginable vulgarity that would surely lead to the derangement of American society. “Elvis the Pelvis” was born. Berle himself would receive some 400 thousand letters from angry viewers, many saying they would never watch the show again after seeing that “vulgar man that jives and wiggles his backside and butt—it’s disgusting!” Many of course saw this as directly related to the fact that Elvis was singing black music. Ed Sullivan said he would never have Elvis on his show, but eventually Elvis would appear on America’s most watched variety show three times, the last time, on January 6, 1957, famously shown only from the waist up to satisfy worried CBS censors. No matter, every movement Elvis made resulted in absolute pandemonium in the audience of young girls. Perhaps to help prop up his reputation, Elvis sang the spiritual “Peace in the Valley” on that last appearance. At the end of the show Sullivan declared Elvis to be “a real decent, fine boy.” One thing is certain, in 1956 Elvis’s body, as much as his voice, changed the world. 

Milton Berle Show, April 3 1956.

Ed Sullivan Show, Oct 28 1956.

Ed Sullivan Show, Jan 6 1957.