1955: On The Road Again
In early 1955 Elvis continued much as he had the previous year, honing his skills by playing lots of little gigs all over the south with Scotty, Bill and their newest band member D.J. Fontana, who had joined the Blue Moon boys in August of 1954. His third single, "Milkcow Blues Boogie/You're A Heartbreaker" had just been released, and on January 1st he had finally signed a contract with Bob Neal, making Neal his official manager. Together they opened up an office across from the Peabody Hotel, the first official site of Elvis Presley Enterprises, which took to advertising Elvis as "The Hillbilly Cat" or "The King of Western Bop." Sam Phillips also worked hard to promote his Sun boy, traveling hundreds of miles all over the south to sell Elvis' music to local distributors and records store. Sam's efforts brought Elvis into limited northern areas such as Cleveland. Although both Neal and Phillips were instrumental during this period, there was a deliberate intensity in Elvis' own pursuit of a musical career- he wasn't an undiscovered talent and he didn't just happen 'all of a sudden'. Elvis had been performing in local bars and night clubs for several years, perfecting his stage performance, as well as listening to all the records and meeting all the musicians he could. Not only that, but Elvis read the music trade magazines such as Billboard religiously. He knew who was hot, who was not, and what the latest trends were. He could read every audience; it was an innate skill he used well. Elvis Presley was a skillful craftsman active in all parts of his musical career who knew what he wanted and worked very, very hard to get there. Forget all the overnight star stories you've ever heard, because they simply aren't true.
On January 1, 1955, the same day he signed his contract with Neal, Elvis aired on Houston's Grand Prize Saturday Night Jamboree. Girls screamed throughout the entire show, from "Baby, Let's Play House" through Elvis' version of Ray Charles' "I Got A Woman." For the next week he was booked in West Texas with the Louisiana Hayride. Shortly thereafter, Elvis, Scotty, and Bill went on a brief tour with members of the Hayride, starting in Clarksville, Mississippi. Back in Memphis there was a 4 page spread about Elvis and his life in the Press Scimitar, complete with a photograph of Elvis, Scotty, and Bill in the recording studio. All through the early part of 1955, Elvis played concerts throughout the south, in bars, high school gyms, from the back of trucks, wherever. One time Bob Neal paid some local girls 50 cents a piece to scream for Elvis during the show. They ended up trying to rip his clothes off; they hadn't needed the money at all! This was typical- most of the time Elvis stole the show, and the other performers didn't know what had hit them. When he was on stage, it was like nothing that had ever been before. The intensity evident in the few live recordings of these shows reflects this: Elvis' energy is incredible, even in comparison to his loose and happy-sounding Sun recordings. At the end of January, Elvis appeared on Dance Party with Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings, and sang "Tryin' To Get To You." Both Buddy Holly and Colonel Parker were present and watched Elvis perform. On February 4, 1955, Elvis sang at the Golden Cadillac Lounge down in New Orleans, but was back in Sun Studios the next day for a recording session. Overly tired from the road, he cut the session short, but did record versions of "Baby Let's Play House", "I Got A Woman", and "Tryin' To Get To You." The day after that, he and the boys played Ellis Auditorium again.
At this time, Colonel Parker made his first serious efforts toward becoming Elvis' manager. To comprehend the effect of Tom Parker had on Elvis, one needs to know a little about him. Born Andreas Cornelis Van Kujik on June 26, 1909, in Breda, Holland, Parker loved America, and at a young age determined to make his fortune there. In 1932, at the age of 23, he cut all ties with his Dutch family and, as an illegal alien, settled in Tampa, Florida. He recreated himself as a good old Southern boy, born in West Virginia, orphaned as a boy, who'd run off to join the circus and eventually worked his way into the carny circuit. In Tampa, his new hometown, he met Marie Mott, a slightly older divorcee, whom he married in 1935. He worked for a while as the Chief Dogcatcher for the Tampa Humane Society, which got him and his family a free apartment above the pound. Parker was good at making friends in high places; he had already befriended RCA's Steve Sholes, Elvis' future producer, by 1944. In October 1948, Parker secured himself an honorary colonel's commission from Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis. He started out in the entertainment business by managing country star Eddy Arnold, but was fired by him in 1953, for reasons never fully stated. In the spring of 1954, Parker began to manage Hank Snow, and in November of the same year, he and his company, Jamboree Attractions, made a deal with Snow to take over management of Hank Snow Enterprises, which included radio, TV, film, and recording commitments. Parker was deathly afraid of poverty, as was Elvis, which explains some of the dynamics of their relationship. It was not until after Elvis' death that the extent of Colonel Parker's self-serving deals became apparent; Elvis was cut out of much of the decision making, and Parker took more than his fair share of Elvis' income. The fact that Parker was an illegal alien has been cited as a reason Elvis never toured internationally. Tom Parker was eventually sued in 1981 by the surviving Presley members for mismanagement of Elvis' career, and the extent of his manipulations became known for the first time. Parker had received an unprecedented 50% of Elvis' earnings for handling his business. In March 1973, Parker sold Presley's entire record catalog to RCA for $5.4 million dollars, giving RCA more than 700 recordings at an extremely low price. Elvis lost millions of dollars worth of future song revenues from this deal. Other evidence of gross mismanagement was produced. Parker settled out of court, giving up all interest in Elvis' future affairs in exchange for not being prosecuted. The Elvis Presley Estate was pleased with this, because it avoided nasty publicity that would have only served to further tarnish Elvis' reputation.
Almost all of this information about Colonel Tom Parker is from Howard DeWitt's Elvis: The Sun Years. The Story of Elvis Presley in the Fifties.
But in 1955, none of this was evident. Parker convinced Bob Neal he needed help in managing Elvis, because Parker had connections Neal just didn't have. In the couple of hours between Elvis' two February 6th shows at Ellis Auditorium, Elvis and Scotty met with Bob Neal and Colonel Parker to talk about Parker promoting Elvis. Sam Phillips and Parker's main associate, Tom Diskin, who had kept an eye on Presley's career for several months, were also there. By the time Elvis arrived, the air was thick with tension, because Sam Phillips was miffed at Parker, who had implied Elvis couldn't get anywhere on a small label like Sun. Even though Sam knew there was a grain of truth in this, he took instant dislike to Parker. Bob Neal helped break the tension by moving on into details regarding the upcoming tour. Parker wasn't managing Elvis yet, only promoting him, but he was now firmly in the picture.
At the end of February, one of Elvis' Louisiana Hayride performances was televised- the first time he ever appeared on TV. Television was an undoubtedly important factor in publicity and success in the music world; not only did such an appearance result in more exposure for the musicians, but talent scouts often noticed such shows. That's what Elvis and Bob Neal were hoping for. On February 26, 1955, Elvis flew to Cleveland to play in the Circle Theater's country music jamboree. Elvis went over well with the young crowd, who had heard some of his records on WERE, where DJ Tommy Edwards had been playing them since the previous fall. Elvis also met the legendary Bill Randle, another Cleveland DJ who had also been playing Elvis' records since September 1954. They were both impressed with each other. After meeting him in Cleveland, Randle played Elvis' "Good Rockin' Tonight" on his CBS show in New York, which didn't earn him many friends in the station at the time. This, however, marked the beginning of Elvis' rise in the northern markets. Music magazines started taking note, as well: the March 1955 issue of Country and Western Jamboree was the first national magazine to really acknowledge Elvis' rise. With such publicity, it seemed Elvis was about to make it big-time.
Directly after the appearance, he headed out on a tour which covered several southern states. Once back in Memphis, things seemed overly-tame. Elvis still hung out with his girlfriend Dixie, who he had called every night while away. They went to the movies, and to the monthly All-Night singing at Ellis auditorium as usual, but it felt different. This was the first time Elvis had extra spending money, and he bought lots and lots of records at the local stores. He went back to see Dewey Phillips, the DJ who was the first to play any Elvis song on the air, and stopped in his business office, the motif of which consisted of Elvis' favorite colors: pink and black. Perhaps he was pleased to note the Elvis Fan Club already had several hundred fan members by this time. (The first Elvis Presley fan club, formed in Dallas, had printed membership cards and handed out advertisements as early as December 1954.) On March 15, 1955, he signed another year long contract with Bob Neal, and shortly thereafter Elvis and the Blue Moon boys went back into the studio. They tried "I Got A Woman" and "Tryin' To Get To You" with little success, but then struck gold with "Baby, Let's Play House". The B-side featured "I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone", the first song written (by Stan Kesler) specifically for Elvis. They used a drummer, Jimmy Lott, for this session, which was a little different. Around the same time, Elvis, Scotty, and Bill appeared at the Messick High chapel program in support of Bob Neal's son Sonny's bid for student council. Ten days later, they all headed to New York with Bob Neal to try out for the Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts show, flying because of their tight schedule. It was the first time any of them had been to New York. Their audition for Godfrey's show was bust, much to their disappointment. Back home in the south, they almost immediately hit the road again in Elvis' new 1951 Cosmopolitan Lincoln, the first car he ever bought himself. Elvis was exceedingly proud of the car, but it didn't last longer than a month- Bill wrecked it one night by driving it under a hay truck at a high speed.
In April, 1955, Elvis was booked solid. He was unhappy with some of these bookings, however, which were still for extremely small venues such as high-school gyms. The play dates had been scheduled several months in advance, not expecting or being able to account for Elvis' sudden popularity. Lack of good advertising caused further problems. For example, on April 1, 1955, Elvis played to a small crowd of 850 in Odessa, Texas, because the concert had not been well promoted. Nonetheless, throughout the tours, Elvis was besieged with women, who loved his wild clothing and trademark sneer. He was growing ever more confident, more into himself, even though he seemed the same to most who met him. Sometimes he had bursts of temper. This may have been in part because Elvis was getting a little upset with NealÕs management. He was tired of the lack of good shows and the constant touring. Although Elvis' fourth Sun single, 'Baby, Let's Play House / I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone', which had been released on April 25th, 1955, was climbing the charts, Neal's relative inexperience now began to hurt Elvis. He didn't have the connections or ability to book Elvis into larger gigs in a broader area. Bob Neal was good for Elvis Presley, but he didn't get him much beyond a 150 mile radius around Memphis.
Meanwhile, Sam Phillips had started to think about selling Elvis' contract, especially since he now had Carl Perkins, a new singer Sam felt sure could do as well as Elvis. Sam made it known to several record companies that a sale of contract was a possibility. Atlantic was the first major record label which attempted to buy Presley's contract. Executives from Atlantic even came out in May of 1955 to meet Presley. Unfortunately for Elvis, they first met with Dewey Phillips (with the idea of using his influence to convince Sam to sell), who was drunk and treated the representatives so poorly they lost interest in Elvis (DeWitt 193). This was fine by Parker, however, who, although not yet managing Elvis, surely didn't want him on a label where Parker had no connections. Parker now convinced Hank Snow, his current client, to let him book Elvis on tour with Snow. Elvis idolized Hank Snow and was thrilled to be touring with him. Snow's son, Jimmy Rodger Snow, in turn idolized Elvis: "He didn't drink, he'd carry a cigarette around in his mouth, one of those filter types, never light it because he didn't smoke, but he'd play with it. I remember how cool he was in my mind. I wanted to sing like him. I wanted to dress like him and do things that I never cared about till I met him. He was the change that was coming to American. With Jimmy Dean and all that. I don't think anybody saw it" (Guralnik 172).
Along with booking him on Snow's tours, Parker began to prominently advertise Elvis. This eventually, and understandably, upset Snow- after all, his manager was causing him to be upstaged by some new young kid whom Parker didn't have any official connections with. Elvis himself was not an oblivious player in all of this- he knew who Parker was and was intrigued by him. He asked around about Parker's reputation. Sam didn't like Parker, but he knew he needed him; Sun Records was strapped for cash. Not only that, but he knew that although Elvis Presley was a huge Louisiana Hayride attraction, he needed a national stage. He therefore said nothing against Parker. Bill Black on the other hand, wary of Parker, warned Elvis against getting involved too quickly, but Elvis didn't heed him; he felt Parker was what he needed to succeed on a larger scale. Colonel Parker, meanwhile, tried to win Elvis' parents' support. Although Gladys was never fully comfortable with the Colonel, he won Vernon over more easily, often by giving him $100 bills. Such big money was foreign to Vernon, and he took it with glee. The Colonel knew Vernon was easily impressed, but realizing Gladys was fiercely protective of her boy, he worked hard to convince the Presleys of his own Christian roots and down-home Southern attitudes.
Elvis, Scotty, and Bill headed back out on the road on May 1st. While on tour, Elvis met Mae Boren Axton in Daytona Beach. She was a 40 year old English teacher who had started writing a little on hillbilly music for a magazine called Life Today. She met Elvis on May 7, and interviewed him. Interestingly, Elvis told her he'd never sang anywhere in public before he made his first record, which was false. The crowds were wild wherever they went. Elvis never lacked for company, especially female. He often cruised around with girls in the new pink and white Cadillac (with his name painted in black on the door) he'd gotten to replace his other car. According to Jimmy Snow, "He would run the women, he'd run two or three of them in one night- whether or not he was actually making love to all three, I don't know, because he was kind of private in that sense...But I think he just wanted them around, it was a sense of insecurity, I guess, because I don't think he was a user. He just loved women, and I think they knew that" (Guralnik 184). Yet he always called home to his parents and to Dixie. He liked that his parents kept an eye on Dixie- even though he was living it up, he wanted her under his control. "I know she worshipped him, and he did her", Dixie said of Gladys, "to the point where she would almost be jealous of anything else that took his time. I think she really had trouble accepting him as his popularity grew. It grew hard for her to let everybody have him. I had the same feelings. He did not belong to us anymore."
On Friday, May 13, 1955, Elvis played to a crowd 14,000 fans in a baseball park in Jacksonville, Florida. The crowd screamed so loudly no one could hear Elvis' songs, but it didn't matter. It soon became clear that no act could follow Elvis- reaction to him was just too great. In fact, after finishing the show, he laughingly told the crowd he'd see them backstage. The fans mobbed him, chasing him into the shower and stealing all of his clothing except his pants, which some of the braver girls still tried to grab. All of Colonel Parker's souvenir trinkets sold out within an hour, and girls wrote phone numbers and messages in lipstick and nail polish all over Elvis' beautiful new pink car. Elvis was upset by this, because his car was his status symbol, but Parker was elated- it showed Elvis' potential. The attention Elvis received bothered many of the performers he was touring with, however, including his own band. By the time the Hank Snow Jamboree appeared at the Mosque Theater in Richmond, Virginia, on May 16th, not only were harsh words exchanged between the Colonel and Hank Snow, but Scotty Moore and Bill Black were fighting with one another. Perhaps because of the tension in the air, Elvis spent the day of May 18th walking around Roanoke Virginia, the site of his next performance, looking at the sights and shopping at a local record store. Do you think he ever imagined 40 years later there'd be a shrine of sorts to him there?
A week later, Wednesday, May 25, 1955, Elvis was at the Third Annual Jimmie Rodgers Memorial Celebration in Meridian, Mississippi. His performance, because it strayed from true country and included blues and rhythm and blues, was not well received, and Presley was in fact booed by the crowds during the parade down Main Street. Very hurt, he cut his stay short and never again accepted a return invitation. Elsewhere, however, the rising level of pandemonium in the crowds coming to see Elvis testified to his success and immense popularity. While performing at the Cotton Club in Lubbock, Texas, in the beginning of June, 1955, Elvis met and talked with Buddy Holly, an admirer of Presley. Holly was there with a friend, Bob Montgomery, who, with his personal movie camera, made about a minute of footage of Elvis and his band. This clip pops up in documentaries from time to time, showing young Elvis looking like he's having lots of fun. Fellow Sun recording artists Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash were also there, Sam Phillips having convinced Parker to book them on the tour. On June 14, 1955, Elvis performed in Tupelo, Mississippi, his birthplace, for the first time. In spite of their happiness over their success, there were constant struggles by this point between Elvis, Scotty, and Bill over money. To make matters worse, Elvis' pink Cadillac caught fire on June 17th and was completely destroyed.
In June, Elvis rented a modest two-bedroom home for his parents at 2414 Lamar. (A couple of sources said this was already the house at 1414 Getwell.) There appeared to be a little rift between Elvis and his father Vernon at this point, because his dad didn't seem inclined to look for a job. But Gladys kept the family together; she was very down-to-earth, always concerned about his health and well-being, and was always concerned about those around him. Elvis was very aware of the fact that she did everything she possibly could to help give him a chance, and he wanted so much to do big things and nice things, particularly for his mother (Guralnik 196). For the time being, his phone number was listed in the phone book, and he was generally accessible to fans and friends- the mythical proportions he would soon reach were not yet in evidence. He was just a regular guy. His next-door neighbors were the Bakers, who got very friendly with the Presleys, especially since the Presleys used the Bakers' phone for several months until their own was installed. They remembered Gladys as a physically sick woman, a "nervous creature" who seemed to carry such a burden of sadness that she couldn't stand to even be in the house alone. But they liked her a lot. Elvis also made occasional phone calls from the house, and was extremely gracious and deferential to his neighbors. Scotty and Bill came over sometimes to rehearse. He bought a brand-new Cadillac and had it painted his custom colors of pink and black. Dixie came over a lot. Elvis took her to her junior prom, double-dating with Dixie's best friend Bessie Wolverton and his cousin Gene. Some changes were apparent, however. Even as his circle of friends tightened, Dixie was having a hard time fitting in with all of his new acquaintances. It seemed now he came alive only when other people were around, craving their attention. They'd broken up more than once already. He was very possessive and very jealous and didn't want her to have any sort of independent existence. But their break-ups didn't last long- they'd cry because they didn't want to break up since they were still friends. When he was out of town, which was more often than not, she stayed with his parents and slept in his bed.
Elvis felt constant pressure to deliver perfect performances, and he would practice for hours in front of a floor-length mirror. He was always concerned with his stage appearance and his repertoire. He therefore learned every song that any of his favorite artists, such as Roy Hamilton or Rufus Thomas, recorded, and performed many of them on the Louisiana Hayride. Elvis kept up a frenetic schedule during this period, touring constantly and performing one to two shows a day. Both Bob Neal and Colonel Parker pointed out numerous times that it was the fans which were promoting him more than anything else, and therefore the live performances were crucial. Such touring was hard, but as D.J. Fontana recalled, "Elvis had barrels of energy. We'd get off a date at night and have to drive maybe four hundred to five hundred miles and he was so keyed up he'd wanna talk all night. So we'd stop the car at a restaurant and me or Scotty or Bill- whoever's turn it was- would walk him down the road a mile or so" (DeWitt 155). Some of that energy extended to amorous pursuits. Although still dating Dixie, the number of young girls with whom he had liaisons was numerous. The vast majority refused to speak or write of their involvement, largely to protect him. Everyone realized that any hint of scandal or excessive sexual activity would hurt his career (DeWitt 216). Some of them he formed more lasting relationships with. On June 26, 1955, while performing in Biloxi, Mississippi, Elvis met Juan Juanico. She was, according to DeWitt, typical of Elvis' women: a dark-haired beauty with lithe features and a quiet, understated personality. Although it was eight months until he contacted her again, they then dated for more than a year.
Over the 4th of July weekend, Elvis performed in Waco, Texas, and was thrilled to participate in a gospel jubilee with some of his favorite musicians, including The Statesman and the Blackwood Brothers. He decided to sing only gospel that day himself, much to the disappointment of the fans who'd come to see him. At home, he talked to his parents all the time about Colonel Parker. Gladys didn't want to hear anything about the Colonel, she was just scared for Elvis. Vernon became more withdrawn. Neither of them knew how to deal with Elvis' success. Meanwhile, Bob Neal was fielding offers from a variety of labels, both major and independent, by this time. Decca, Capitol, Mercury, Chess, Atlantic, and Dot Records were all were interested; some offers Elvis was told about, some he wasn't.
July 11, 1955, saw another recording session at Sun, where Elvis, Scotty, and Bill cut "Mystery Train", a Little Junior Parker song, as well as "I Forgot to Remember to Forget" and "When It Rains It Really Pours." Lastly they re-did "Tryin' To Get To You", adding Johnny Bernero on drums and Elvis himself chording on the piano. [This is my favorite Elvis song, if anybody cares]. "Baby, Let's Play House" was still on the charts, where it peaked at #10 in late July 1955. After a year with Sun, Elvis was truly a Memphis entertainment phenomenon. With the little time off from touring he had, Elvis often went with his old friend Dewey Phillips to some of the clubs on Beale Street. On Monday, July 25, 1955, Elvis opened a five-day tour at the 116th Field Artillery Armory with some big-name performers, such as Andy Griffith, Jimmy Rodgers Snow, and Marty Robbins. After this tour, he continued his one-night performances all over the south, starting in Texas and moving on to Florida. The tour ended in Tampa on July 31, and he immediately went off on another with Johnny Cash, heading to Alabama. His last Sun single, "Mystery Train/I Forgot To Remember To Forget", was released August 1st. On the 3rd, Elvis played Little Rock, Arkansas, where Gladys and Vernon came to sign a contract naming Colonel 'special adviser' to Elvis and Bob. Their signatures were necessary because, at the age of 20, Elvis was legally still a minor. In the end, Gladys balked. She thought Parker was bad for her son. The contract remained unsigned for the time being. Elvis was severely disappointed. On Friday, August 5, he was back home in Memphis, appearing in Bob Neal's "Eighth Anniversary Jamboree" at the Overton Bowl with other singers like Johnny Cash and Charlie Feathers. Parker started bombarding Elvis' parents with phone calls and the like to get them to change their minds. They all met again in Memphis on Monday, August 15, where Elvis and his parents signed the contract naming Parker Elvis' manager. It was a contract which favored Parker in some strange ways: Elvis had to play 100 concerts for only $200 a piece, including paying for backup musicians, and also had to pay $2500 to Parker no matter what happened. Parker also had the right to book Elvis into any one of 47 cities. This led to Elvis never knowing where he was going to be from one day to the next, a very stressful situation.
Shortly before all this, Bob Neal had renegotiated the Hayride contract so that when Elvis' first year was up on November 12, 1955, he would get $200 per appearance, in part to be able to support the addition of D.J. Fontana as their drummer. This was a significant raise from the original $18 union scale. Scotty and Bill, however, went on a fixed salary. This intensified the ill feeling and suspiciousness already present. It is said Parker even suggested to Elvis to go on and leave Bill and Scotty behind, although Elvis refused. In addition, the Colonel had made it clear he would sign Elvis only if he was sure he could make some high-priced deals with a major record label, so now the pressure was on Sam to sell. And Parker was aiming for RCA. In spite of others' misgivings, on Wednesday night, August 31, 1955, Elvis appeared with Scotty and Bill on Bob Neal's radio show on WMPS, and chatted excitedly about his deal with Parker and his future.
That future involved expanding into the northern market. Bill Randle was immensely influential in this. At the height of his own career, Randle had recently contracted with Universal Pictures to make a movie called The Pied Piper of Cleveland: A Day In The Life of a Famous Disc Jockey. He chose to feature Bill Haley and the Comets, Pat Boone (just beginning to rise as a teen idol), and Elvis with his Blue Moon Boys. Filming would begin in October. This was highly significant for Elvis in terms of northern success; Randle's interest in Elvis led other big names in the music business to begin looking at him a little more seriously, including Arnold Shaw, the general manager of New York's Albert B. Marks Music Corporation. Randle and Shaw were significant early supporters of Elvis' music, whose ranks RCA's Steve Sholes soon joined. Because of their approval, they helped spread northern interest for Elvis not only among teenagers but also among record labels. Back at home in the south, Colonel Parker worked to get Elvis to adapt a more clean-cut image, especially in the wake of Boone's success. This marked the beginning of a long struggle to mold Elvis into a mainstream performer, a transformation which, under RCA's tutelage, restricted Elvis' creative license and led him to record many songs he was dissatisfied with. The Sun sound, those loose, energetic, happy tones one hears in Elvis' earliest recordings, were lost not only because of the difference in the recording studios, but in the restrictions placed on Elvis himself.
Radio itself was undergoing a major change; 1955 was the beginning of the Top 40 period. Radio stations now played the most popular songs more often, once they realized listeners wanted to hear these songs over and over. With several of Elvis' Sun recordings on the chart during this transformation, his music received more air time, thereby ensuring not only that more people heard it, but directly influencing record sales as well. Although Elvis' personal appearances fueled the intense demand for his recordings, radio was very influential in spreading Elvis' music. It served to gauge listener reaction to Elvis. People's feelings were vehement: you either loved Elvis, or you hated him- there were no half-measures. Already in 1955 various adults, civic organizations, and church groups complained about Elvis' "lurid" music. Nobody could really articulate what it was that made rock and roll so dangerous, but whatever it was, Elvis epitomized. Such controversy actually boosted his ratings and sales, as did Elvis' unusually cooperative attitude with the press. D.J.s had good success at getting him to agree to interviews, which they appreciated and reciprocated by beaming Elvis and his music all over the south. People heard him, and demanded he be booked locally- this added to his early success.
Some of the stress was starting to get to Elvis by September. On Friday, September 2, 1955, he was ticketed for speeding. A few hours later, he was involved in an automoblie accident which resulted in more than a thousand dollars damage to his new 1955 pink Cadillac. He was also showing signs of fatigue, and complained to Johnny Cash that the price of sudden fame was burdensome- he was tired of always being in the public eye. Although he didn't drink or smoke, his diet, sleeping habits, and personal hygiene were not conducive to a healthy life. When Elvis graduated from Humes High, he had weighed 185 pounds. Two years later, in spite of his penchant for junk foods, he was down to 160, and appeared haggard in concert. Bill Black often served as a sort of surrogate father during this period, helping Elvis through all the stress, but it was a difficult time for everyone, especially since they all knew that the tours and live performances were essential to succeed. Elvis began his last tour with the Hank Snow All Star Jamboree, starting in Norfolk, Virginia, on September 11, 1955. He and the Blue Moon Boys received wilder reaction and approval than any other act in the tour. By September 23, 1955, Elvis was back in Memphis. Around this time, Sam Phillips offered Elvis to Decca for $5,000. Surprisingly, the offer got no response. After asking for a much higher price of $20,000, both Columbia and Decca made inquiries. Atlantic Records was also back in contention. Colonel Parker got actively involved in the record negotiations, peddling Elvis to the major labels, but it was obvious he wanted to end up with RCA, where he had significant connections. Contrary to popular myth, however, it was NOT easy to sell Presley's recording contract. No one knew how he would do in national markets, and most labels recognized they would need in any case to pursue an extensive and expensive advertising campaign. This led RCA and others to tread slowly.
In October 1955 Elvis, Scotty, and Bill were once again back out on the road. Now, however, Elvis was headlining his own Jamboree, which started touring on October 11th. On the 15th, he appeared in Lubbock, Texas, where he played with Buddy Holly. While in Lubbock, Elvis was threatened with physical violence for the first time. He received an anonymous call at his hotel, telling him he would be assassinated on stage, an event which left Elvis, Scotty, and Bill shaken. Shortly thereafter, Elvis drove his pink cadillac to Cleveland to participate in Bill Randle's movie mentioned earlier. On Wednesday, October 19, Elvis played Cleveland's Circle Theater. The next day, he played in two high schools. Here he met 21 year old Pat Boone and Bill Haley. Elvis was nervous, but the show itself was a great success. Girls screamed and fought to get to both him and Boone. Their performances were filmed and were intended to be spliced in the documentary, but the film was never released due to a studio member. (Wouldn't it be interesting if someone found it and released it now?) Elvis, Scotty, Bill, and D.J. toured for a while with the Snow-Haley group. Elvis was thrilled because he liked Bill Haley. Meanwhile, his parents had moved to 1414 Getwell. Gladys kept up her scrapbook religiously, saving every story she came across. As for Elvis, "part of him still didn't believe it was all really happening: the records, the shows, the success, the Colonel, the sex. But part of him-most of him-did. It was all over with Dixie, he realized" (Guralnik 220). So he broke his trial engagement with Dixie. He didn't really want to end it, but he knew it was unfair to her, and knew that she knew he had been unfaithful. She and Gladys cried together over it, and they all promised to remain friends.
RCA had been closely monitoring Presley for some time, as evident from a series of internal memos regarding Elvis dated between July and November 1955. Steve Sholes now really entered the picture. He was a Nashville-based country producer for RCA, but argued forcefully for Elvis' crossover appeal. Encouraged by Sholes, RCA executives spent some time talking to Sam Phillips. Sam, desperately in need of cash but slightly apprehensive about selling Elvis' contract to RCA, asked for $40,000, which included a $5,000 bonus to pay Elvis for past royalties. Annoyed with Parker's pressure tactics, he even declared the whole sum had to be raised and the contract executed before December 1, 1955, less than two months away. Perhaps part of him hoped Parker couldn't do it. The price was higher than had ever been asked for any other artist, but included rights to all of Elvis' songs previously recorded at Sun. On Friday, October 28, Parker got a telegram from RCA saying $25,000 was as high as they would go. At this moment, Hill and Range, a music publishing company, quietly entered into the scene. They offered to advance $15,000 of the money needed to secure the deal in exchange for obtaining publishing rights to Elvis' songs. During the first week of November, 1955, RCA finalized arrangements with Colonel Tom Parker to bring Elvis under their wing. On November 10, 1955, Elvis went with Bob Neal to the annual Country Music Disc Jockey convention in Nashville, where they met with Steve Sholes to look over the contract. Mae Boren Axton, the same woman who had interviewed him back in May, drove to the convention from Florida with a new tune called "Heartbreak Hotel", co-written by Tom Durden, in hand. She specifically wanted Elvis Presley to record it; she knew he was going to be a big act. He reacted enthusiastically to the demo, and promised her it would be the first song he did with RCA. Two days later, November 12, 1955, Billboard ranked Elvis as the #1 Most Promising Country and Western Artist. That same day he played in Carthage, Texas, and then drove to the Louisiana Hayride to perform again. The very next day he and the band drove 400 miles back to Memphis to play two shows at the Ellis Auditorium, a testimony to their intense touring schedule. Back in Texas a week later, Elvis' November 19, 1955 Hayride appearance was one of the most exciting of his career. It was broadcast that night on TV, and Elvis worked the audience into a frenzy. The next day, November 20, 1955, Elvis signed the final agreement with RCA, a recording contract for three years, which had been approved 5 days earlier. He came to Sun studios along with Steve Sholes, the Colonel, and others to sign the papers. Elvis would now get a 5% instead of a 3% royalty. Elvis would also now receive two cents for every Hill and Range composition he recorded. Colonel Parker convinced him to set up Elvis Presley Music, Inc., and Gladys Music, Inc., to hold the copyrights on his songs. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, among other songwriters, were hired to write especially for Elvis. At the time of the RCA signing, Colonel Parker and Bob Neal signed a contract renewing Neal's involvement with Presley through March 15, 1956, although the confusing contract ended up severely limited the money Neal would make off Presley. Many have criticized Neal for agreeing to this contract, but in actuality it earned him more money than simply selling out would have.
The Colonel decided to immediately seek national television exposure. He had seen it boost Elvis' sales in the limited broadcasts of the Hayride, and knew it was the best way to achieve mass exposure of RCA's newest star. Television was beginning to make its impact felt throw such shows as Ed Sullivan's Show and American Bandstand. On December 17, CBS signed Elvis to the Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey Stage Show for a number of appearances in early 1956. While Parker worked on that, RCA went about releasing Elvis music as quickly as possible. With their $40,000 purchase, RCA received the rights to all of Presley's Sun recordings, and Sam Phillips dutifully sent over fifteen boxes of Sun session tapes. Hill and Range published the first Elvis song folio on December 10th, and by December 20th, RCA had released all of his Sun singles under his new label. But RCA didn't comprehend the value of these recordings. At the time, everyone at RCA was still convinced Elvis and rock and roll in general were just a fad that they were hoping would outlast Elvis' 3 year contract. So the Sun tapes were simply stacked in a warehouse with no labeling, no filing system, and no way of analyzing the contents. To this day, RCA has no idea where all its Presley tapes are stored. There have also been rumors that RCA taped over some of Elvis' outtakes and unreleased tunes. Before they were stored, however, Steve Sholes made use of them in preparing for Elvis' first recording session with RCA, which took place on January 11, 1956.
The success of rebellious teen idols like James Dean led to the increased acceptance of rock music and its snarling figureheads like Elvis. But still, as Guralnik said, the world was not prepared for Elvis Presley. The violence of its reaction to him testified to this. "Elvis was the Tony Curtis forelock and ducktail, the Marlon Brando sneer, the James Dean cynicism all wrapped up in one musical package, and it caused a sensation. Elvis was the ultimate contradiction; half rebel and half solid citizen- a God-fearing, flag-waving, down-home American boy". That American boy set the world on fire in 1956.