Greatest Concerts I never saw
Elvis Presley Mississippi Alabama Fair at Tupelo September 26, 1956
Back in 1953 a young machinist just out of high school paid for a demo record at Sam Phillips Sun Records. In July 1954 they released Elvis Presley’s first single “That’s alright mama” b/w “Blue moon of Kentucky”. The radio announcer in Memphis played it 14 times in a row after he first heard it and it became a local hit and Elvis and the band took to road playing around the region from Memphis across through Texas. He released four more singles for the Sun label over the next 15 months before Sam Phillips was forced to sell his contract to RCA to pay legal debts arising from the song Bear Cat (You ain’t nuthin’ but a bear cat…. ) infringing on the copyright of Hound Dog.
In 1956 Elvis released “Heartbreak Hotel” b/w “I Was The One”, “My Baby Left Me” b/w “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You”, “Hound Dog” b/w “Don’t Be Cruel” and had just released “Blue Suede Shoes” b/w “Tutti Frutti” in early September. RCA had also released several EPs and an LP (where he ripped off the Clash London Calling cover). A second LP was about to be released in October. All of these records sold by the truckload and ramped up the fledgling transistor radio market among teenagers. 1956 was Elvis’s year. At the end of the year the Wall Street Journal estimated that he had grossed over $20 million for the year, an unprecedented amount of money for a popular singer.
In the two years after the release of “That’s alright mama” Elvis and his band played over 400 shows, including TV and Radio performances. Elvis had worked his way up the media dial from the Louisiana Hayride radio show, to their TV show in March 1955 and he gradually made inroads on national television in 1956 through the Dorsey Brothers Show, Milton Berle, and Steve Allen where he was ridiculously dressed in tails singing to a Bassett hound. Elvis first performed on the Ed Sullivan Show on September 9 and achieved a phenomenal rating of 82.6%. Now here he was just a couple of weeks after this triumph back in his old hometown playing his first live concert in more than six weeks. The mayor of Tupelo gave him a key to the city and the Mississippi governor tried to bask in the reflected celebrity by giving him a scroll recognising his achievements as the number one entertainer in the field of popular music. “Thank you, sir” said Elvis in his ever polite country boy way.
There is a dodgy bit of video footage with barely adequate sound quality from the afternoon show where Elvis performs Heartbreak Hotel, Long Tall Sally, I Want You, I Need You, I Love You and Don’t be Cruel. There is also some footage of Hound Dog where the crowd was even more frenzied. There is only one side stage camera angle and all we can see of the crowd is young white girls at the front and some of the National Guards deployed for the occasion standing at the side of the stage.
How good could this concert be? Elvis was loose as a goose and the young girls at the front were screaming their heads off at the slightest provocation – the boy could shake a leg. Elvis looks so cool with the back combed pompadour and sideburns in his open necked black shirt and pants outfit which is quite a contrast to his band who are wearing jackets and ties. Elvis in these songs wears his acoustic guitar as a stage prop to strum occasionally in between doing his Elvis the Pelvis hip shake, leg shimmy thing. He has been described as “the first white singer to move on stage”.
For the performance the band consists of Scotty Moore on guitar, D J Fontana on drums, Bill Black on stand up bass and the Jordanaires doing backing vocals and harmonies, as well as the RCA dog thoughtfully placed on the side of the stage by Colonel Parker. The musicianship sounds basic and competent without being outstanding but the point of many of the songs was to leave space for Elvis to do his thing with his vocal affectations and stage dancing.
Anyway the sound quality was beside the point by then. The audience were primed to respond to one of their own; America’s sexiest, hot young pop singer. And they screamed their heads off ecstatically. The reaction to Elvis is plainly the half way house between Sinatra’s postwar bobbysoxers and 1964’s Beatlemania.
There was a second concert that night for which we only have some audio. Elvis makes seemingly futile appeals for the audience to sit down between songs – “people are getting hurt, and people down back can’t see the show.”
So there it is – a nice day at the end of summer, National Guards, the County Fair, and a hot young singer in full control of his stage persona and performance out front of a hometown crowd. What a show that would have been. There are some women (and presumably a few men) over 70 from around Tupelo in 1956 who have some treasured memories of a great day out seeing America’s premier first generation white rocker at the peak of his powers.
And you really did have to be there, either in 1956 or at the return gig in 1957. After the 1956 Tupelo show Elvis only played eight more live shows for the rest of the year. In 1957 Elvis played his third and final Sullivan Show to start the year and 20 concerts up north, in Canada and out West, ending up in Hawaii. The Tupelo show was his only 1957 appearance down in his old stomping grounds of Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
After 1956 Elvis became a B grade movie star who mostly sang soundtrack albums. In 1958 he was called up for two years of military service and then he came back to his movie career and didn’t play live until the Comeback special in 1968. In 1969 he started playing Las Vegas two months a year and played some big city concerts. In 1972 he played a concert in New York City for the first time in his career.
Elvis was a fantastic 30 something Vegas concert style performer in the late 60s and early 70s but his audience was older and more restrained and there was never going to be a moment as exciting as the day he was a 21 year old rock ‘n’ roller at the Tupelo fair – “Don’t you step on maa blue suede shoes!”