Released: January 27, 1956, as a single, with “I Was the One” on side B
Label: RCA Victor
My earliest musical memories come from the basement of our house in Portland, Oregon, where Dad had his photography darkroom, and I had a nook where I worked on my stamp collection. It was late 1940s into early 1950s. As we hobbied, Dad listened to his big band albums, and to crooners like Bing Crosby and Jo Stafford. It became my music by default, and it can still punch me 65 years later – not so much the music itself, but the powerful memories rooted in it.
Popular music was just about to turn a corner, and leave Dad’s big bands and crooners behind. It was getting younger, grittier, sexier, more emotional, even angst-driven. It grew out of black rhythm and blues. It was rock ‘n roll. Bill Haley and the Comets introduced us white folks to it in 1954 with “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “Rock Around the Clock.”
But the first song to turn the corner and tell us there was no going back was Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” in the winter of early 1956. I was 14, and Mom and I had walked two blocks for lunch at the new fast-food hamburger joint. We ordered 19-cent hamburgers – cheap even then – and sat in plastic chairs at a Formica-topped table. It was all so modern.
Suddenly this wild new sound came from the burger joint’s speakers, like nothing we had heard before. A white man was singing rock ‘n roll like a black man. He was singing hard knocks rock. Not only had Elvis turned the corner, he’d gone down to the end of Lonely Street, and took us with him. It was revolution by music. The world would never be the same.
When Bob Dylan paid tribute to the most influential rock stars of that era in a March 2015 AARP interview, he mentioned everyone but Elvis. I thought it was an incredible omission that not even old age could excuse. Maybe Dylan was not able to reconcile Las Vegas, or all those silly movies. But it was Elvis who hit rock ‘n roll out of the park and around the world on January 27, 1956. Even my mom, an ancient 33, became an instant fan. I’ll bet Dylan was too, for a while.
Drink: Bourbon, neat, no chaser.