Mid-South Features
12:40 pm
Tue July 26, 2011

How Elvis Rode An Otis to the Top

Memphis, TN – One of the biggest thrills in the young life of Elvis Presley was the time he spent soaking up the spirit of the All-Night Gospel Singings at the Ellis Auditorium, two blocks from his home in Lauderdale Courts in Memphis. Long before he infused a hillbilly song with R&B soul, and a bluesy number with backwoods country in the laboratory of Sun Studio, Elvis witnessed Memphis' Blackwoods Quartet do the same with gospel music. He sat under the spell of the flair and panache of the Sunshine Boys, The LeFevres and Stamps, and especially the Statesmen. Jake Hess' highs and Big Chief Jim Wetherington's lows drove the Statesmen sound. Their stage movements, decried by puritanical pastors, pushed the envelope of divine decorum. Elvis' love for gospel singing led him to audition for a local group, who turned him down. They didn't see him has having much potential as a gospel singer, or a singer at all, for that matter.

It was after Elvis had a couple of Sun Records' singles under his belt, and was gaining a regional reputation, that he wrangled his way backstage at the Ellis Auditorium, and met Hoyt Hawkins of the quartet The Jordanaires. That was in the fall of 1954. After telling Hoyt how much he admired their music, Elvis added that if he ever got successful in recording, he would like to have The Jordanaires back him up someday. That someday finally came around in the July, 1956 sessions that brought us Hound Dog along with the song that joined it as a two-sided number one single.

From the beginning of his RCA career, Elvis had one of the Jordanaires, Gordon Stoker, singing background on his Nashville sessions. Rather than bring in the full quartet to sing back up, RCA Nashville coordinator Chet Atkins had teamed Stoker with Ben and Brock Speer, who were already under contract to the label. By the time Elvis' TV spots aired on the Milton Berle show in June, the Jordanaires' full line-up was filling out the Presley sound. In town for the Steve Allen ShowJuly 1st, the group made their way into the RCA Studios' session in New York, July 2nd.

On a break following the 31-take marathon to record Hound Dog, producer Steve Sholes played a demo of writer Otis Blackwell's Don't Be Cruel. Blackwell was a prolific writer, with over 1000 titles in his career. His Great Balls Of Fire would propel Jerry Lee Lewis to the top. Under another pseudonym, John Davenport, Blackwell would touch off the torch for Peggy Lee with Fever, and Elvis would again dip into the Blackwell song well for All Shook Up and Return To Sender.

With the number one slot secured for 11 weeks, Hound Dog and Don't Be Cruel would be replaced at the top by yet another Elvis song, which would be a by-product of his next endeavor, the movies.

Over the course of his career, Presley had the most double-sided hit singles, with 26 of them reaching the top 40, and 51 hitting the top 100. Presley's bassist Bill Black revisited Don't Be Cruel with an instrumental version in 1960, charting at #11, video gamers will recognize the bass line from the song as the repetitive basis for Donkey Kong's background music, and Cheap Trick went retro with their #4 version in 1988.