JUNE 1956 ...MIDDLE AMERICA GETS NERVOUS
That February, Elvis Presley’s breakthrough Heartbreak Hotel had set America’s broadcasting networks twitching. “The controversy over the effect of rock and roll music on the morals of minors have prompted… a particularly cautious censorship ear open for material that might lead youngsters astray,” tutted Billboard. In the line of fire in the second week of June ‘56 was Transfusion by Nervous Norvus, a Number 15 hit on the Dot label which had fallen into immediate disfavour at NBC, ABC and CBS. These major networks either bannedthe record completely or relegated it to strict time-spots. Nervous Norvus was in reality Jimmy Drake, a Memphis-born songwriter, chronic asthmatic and sometimes truck driver. Transfusion, a novelty hit concerning a careless motorist who gets his ichor topped up following an array of accidents, roused the censors to action due to its car-crash sound effects and vocal interjections including “Slip the blood to me, Bud”, “Pour the crimson in me, Jimson”, and “Pass the claret to me, Barrett.” “There’s nothing funny about a blood transfusion,” thundered NBC’s censorship caliph, one Stockton Helfrich. The media furore caused such a demand for Drake’s demented delivery that the record was catapulted into the US Top 20. Not that pop or rock were the only sounds that alarmed American radio and TV at that time. A survey of broadcasters revealed such Cole Porter standards as Love For Sale and Let’s Do It had long been considered too risqué for family audience ears – indeed, Broadway musicals had long been seen as suppliers of songs celebrating sex, which is why I Cain’t Say No from Oklahoma was banned at NBC, the Soliloquy from Carousel was nixed at CBS, and There Is Nothing Like A Dame from South Pacific was declared verboten at ABC. So much for mere words. Others were concerned about excessive body movement. Elvis, inevitably, was blasted for an appearance on Milton Berle’s NBC-TV Show, with The Journal-American commenting: “Elvis Presley wiggled and wriggled with such abdominal gyrations that burlesque bombshell Georgia Sothern really deserves equal time to reply in gyrating kind … He can’t sing a lick, makes up for vocal shortcomings with the weirdest and plainly planned, suggestive animation short of an aborigine’s mating dance.” Elsewhere, DJ Jerry Marshall, who ran the popular Make-Believe Ballroom show on station WNEW, informed his audience that “Elvis will have to drop the hoochy coochy gyrations or end up as Pelvis Presley in circus sideshows and burlesque.” But the wilder side of rock was exploding. An open letter to DJs, dealers and distributors appeared in the month’s trade magazines,
“THERE’S NOTHING FUNNY ABOUT A BLOOD TRANSFUSION.”
Stockton Helfrich, NBC
commencing: ”You’ll know what it feels like to be a poor Negro boy in Macon, Georgia, dreaming dreams that couldn’t possibly come true – and yet it did… I invested two dollars in a test recording and sent it to a record company in Hollywood. The next thing I knew I was recording for that company.” The letter was really no more than a personalised advert for the ultra-frantic Little Richard, who, having already scored with Tutti-Frutti and Long Tall Sally, was proving a fount of ecstasy, with his latest single release, Rip It Up/ Ready Teddy, selling a remarkable 342,000 copies in its first 10 days of release. The record was, however, the cause of nationwide disapproval, following a Baltimore appearance by Richard during which concert-goers had attempted to jump from the balcony, while some female fans had ripped off their underwear and thrown it onto the stage. Earlier, on June 3, the authorities at Santa Cruz, California had slapped a total ban on all things rock’n’roll at public events following a dance featuring Chuck Higgins, who had an area hit with Pachuko Hop. It was reported that the teenagers at the venue, were “engaged in suggestive, stimulating and tantalising motions induced by the provocative rhythms.” Meanwhile, Elvis was still fighting off those who found his Milton Berle Show performance obscene, declaring that his performance was no more raunchsome than that of TV co-star Debra Paget. “She wore a tight thing with feathers on the behind where they wiggle the most and who bumped and pooshed out all over the place,” he claimed. Paget would duly be cast as the leading lady in Elvis’s first film, Love Me Tender. Not everyone disapproved of the new music and its rhythmic possibilities, though: this month none other than Benny Goodman, the King of Swing, declared of rock’n’roll, “I guess it’s OK. At least it has a beat.”
Getting kicks in rude ’56: (main) Elvis and friends on Milton Berle’s show, June 5, 1956; (top) Nervous Norvus’s wax; (right) Elvis and Miltie; (bottom) Debra Paget.