28 January 1956, The Day Music TV Changed Forever

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Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley photo web optimised 1000
Photo: Frank Sinatra Enterprises

Back in the 1940s when Frank Sinatra became the Bobby-Soxewr’s idol and had girls swooning, he was seen by an older generation or two as a menace on society. By 1956 he had mellowed, brought a tuxedo, or two, and sang to America about all the things they dreamed about – life, travel, love and losing.

Synchronicity is such a wonderful thing. ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, Elvis Presley’s first record for RCA Victor, entered the Top 100 on March 3 1956 at No.68. It was his first appearance on the national chart.

One place above Elvis was another new entry, Frank Sinatra’s ‘You’ll Get Yours’. Two months later Elvis made No.1 where he stayed for another six weeks, Frank got no higher than No.67; musically things would never be the same again. Naturally, rock ‘n’ roll’s take over was not total, nor was it instant. But it clearly was a shift in the taste of the nation. The young wanted their own heroes and not ones that sang in a suit, and especially not a tuxedo. The debate as to what was the first rock ‘n’; roll record is one that has raged for over five decades, but with no conclusion. There never was one record that established the genre. There was no big bang, no epiphany…no blinding flash. Nor was Elvis the first rock ‘n’ roller to hit the mainstream Billboard charts. Bill Haley had hits in 1954 and 1955 and before Elvis made the Top 100 Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ had done well.

Elvis made his TV debut on Saturday, January 28 1956 on CBS’ Stage Show hosted by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey but didn’t perform ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, which had been released the previous day; he chose to do Big Joe Turner’s ‘Shake Rattle and Roll’. Elvis was on Dorsey’s show again the following week but it wasn’t until his third Dorsey appearance, in mid-February, that he performed ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. It was two weeks later that Frank and Elvis rubbed shoulders on the Top 100. But it was not Elvis’s performance that propelled the song into the charts; it was actually something of a disaster. The stilted accompaniment by the Dorsey orchestra meant it was a wonder that anyone even bought the record; cynics have even muttered sabotage. Ironically Tommy Dorsey didn’t live to see what he’d unleashed upon the world as he died less than a year later.

As Elvis was appearing on TV Chess Records released Chuck Berry’s ‘No Money Down’. Berry was the link between black R&B and Jump recordings of the late forties and rock and roll. Chess also boasted Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and John Lee Hooker. In 1951 they had released Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats ‘Rocket 88’, which made No.1 on the R&B chart. ‘Rocket 88’ was cut in Sam Phillips’s Memphis Recording Studio, the same studio in which Elvis made his first records in 1954. ‘Rocket 88’ is another hailed as the first rock ’n’ roll record, admittedly it’s a stronger contender than many and a lot stronger than ‘Rock Around The Clock’….but it still isn’t the one.

While many in the music business thought rock ‘n’ roll was nothing more than a passing fad there were others who thought it a deadly threat. In 1958 The Catholic Youth Center’s newspaper, Contacts, felt compelled to issue a dire warning.

“Smash the records you possess which present a pagan culture and a pagan concept of life. Check beforehand the records, which will be played at a house party or school dance. Switch your radio dial when you hear a suggestive song.”

Perhaps Frankie wasn’t so bad after all…

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