Oct. 29, 1957
So when Elvis Presley performed his first live concert in Los Angeles at the Pan-Pacific Auditorium, The Times carried two reviews, perhaps sensing a pivotal moment in American pop music.
Then again, maybe not. One review was by Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, by then (Lord help me) 67 years old and accustomed to dealing with pliant movie stars hungry for good press.* The other review was by (Lord help me) George Walter Pearch, a.k.a. Wally George, 25, whose column, titled "Strictly off the Record" and then "Court of Records," appeared in The Times from 1957 to 1961 and heavily favored 1940s big band music.
The Times clips from the 1950s are a feast of Elvis trivia (What famous movie star was booted off the university track team because he refused to trim his Elvis-like sideburns? What famous Presley movie was briefly titled "Treat Me Nice"?).
The 1957 stories are especially illuminating as to how unaware people were that Presley's career was merely beginning. He was compared to faded singers like Frankie Laine and frequently came out second best to singers promoted as his rivals: Pat Boone and Ricky Nelson.
But all those citations (including ads, news stories and TV listings, Presley's name appeared in the paper 163 times in 1956 and 286 times in 1957, according to Proquest) are far beyond the limits of this blog. So I'll stick to the concert.
Unfortunately, The Times apparently didn't send a photographer, so we have no pictures of what went on.
Before the performance, Presley conducted a news conference before a fairly hostile group of reporters in a back room of the Pan-Pacific. He was wearing a black shirt, gold evening jacket and a rhinestone belt, according to George.
Hopper and George noted that Presley was polite. Hopper called him "young, likable, wanting to please."
"He was a pleasant, mild-mannered person who might have been any other 22-year-old young man," George wrote. "He was quiet, polite, somewhat shy and made sure to sprinkle in plenty of 'sirs' when he answered newsmen."
Here's the Q&A, reconstructed from George's articles:
A: "I don't sing. I yell."
Q: Do you intend to change your presentation due to national criticism?
A: "I can't. It's all I can do."
Q: When will you write more songs?
A: "That's all a hoax. I can't even read music."
Q: "What's your emotional power over women?" (Asked by a female reporter).
A: "Gosh..." replied Elvis, whispering something inaudible into a mike provided for the occasion.
"Read this!" snapped another reporter, shoving a magazine article into
Elvis' hands. It was an article written supposedly by Frank Sinatra
attacking the institution of rock 'n' roll music.
A: "I admire the man, he has a right to his own opinions," carefully replied the blackshirted Elvis.
Q: "That's all you have to say?"
A: "You can't knock success."
Q: Are you considering marriage?
A: No, he's enjoying playing the field too much.
Q: How long do you intend to wear your 2-inch sideburns?
A: Until Uncle Sam makes him shave them off, perhaps soon. He's 1-A.
Q: How much money are you making?
A: Over $1 million a year, he's not sure of the exact figures.
Q: What do you think of rock 'n' roll?
A: "It's the greatest ever, mainly because it's all I can do!"
For the statisticians among the Daily Mirror readers, Presley performed for 50 minutes and sang 18 "of his biggest hits," including "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Jailhouse Rock." The audience was estimated at 9,000.
Unfortunately, not a note could be heard because of the shrieking audience, according to Hopper as well as George, who also blamed a "frightfully poor audio system."
"The screams came in a sort of rhythm like a great storm at sea so you couldn't hear a word he was singing," Hopper wrote.
"It wasn't an audience of just kids; whole families were there, nice people. Dozens of policemen surrounded the stage but turned their backs on Elvis to watch the audience and see that no one moved. They were told if they got up or walked down the aisle toward Elvis the show would be over."
"He smiled and the crowd screamed," George wrote. "He nodded his head and they made as if to overrun the stage. The musical group behind him struck a chord and Elvis opened his mouth as if to sing--nothing was heard."
"Elvis rolled over and over on the floor, still clutching the mike," Hopper said. "but his performance isn't sickness. He knew what he was doing.... You felt he was mentally saying to himself: 'Do you know an easier way of making a million a year?' "
She added: "In former days police would have been looking at the performance [instead of watching the crowd]. I've seen performers dragged off to jail for less."
And after it was all said and done, it sounds as if Hopper and George may have warmed to Presley:
Hopper wrote: "Elvis' audience got the emotional workout of their lives and screamed their undying love for the greatest phenomenon I've seen in this century."
After coming to Presley's defense against enraged critics, George said: "Well, we don't particularly like his style either. But after observing him closely at a press conference we feel that, as a person, he's not too bad a kid."
I would like to salute the first Elvis impersonator apparently recorded in The Times: A student dressed up like Elvis caused a riot at Corona High School on March 6, 1957, during the school's weekly assembly. Students began shrieking "We want Elvis!" The Times said, forcing Dean of Boys Wayne Taylor to recruit every male teacher to quiet the crowd.
The student's name? Tony Colosimo. Wherever you are, Tony, here's to you!
*California death records list her date of birth as June 2, 1890.
You're wondering about those trivia questions. Surely there are Elvis fans out there who know the answers.