Throughout Elvis Presley’s career, from 1954-1977, Billboard magazine’s record charts were recognized as the standard in the music industry. Even today no recording from that era can legitimately be called a #1 record unless Billboard rated it so. Other publications, such as Variety and Cashbox, published record charts, but none of them carried the weight of Billboard’s. In deciding which new records to play, disk jockeys across the nation trusted the magazine’s recommendations.
In the mid-fifties, Billboard reviewed selected 45 rpm single releases in two weekly columns. The first, labeled “Review Spotlight,” briefly assessed and recommended new releases that the magazine felt had potential for commercial and chart success. If a “Spotlight” single sold well in key markets, it might be featured again in Billboard’s more prestigious “This Week’s Best Buys” column. All of Elvis’s single releases in 1955 and 1956 were mentioned in one or both of these Billboard columns. Let’s see what the magazine had to say about them.
January 29, 1955: Billboard reviewed “Milkcow Blues Boogie” / “You’re a Heartbreaker” (Sun #215)
“‘Milkcow Blues Boogie’ … Presley continues to impress with each release as one of the slickest talents to come up in the country field in a long, long time. Item here is based on some of the best folk blues. The guy sells all the way. ‘You’re a Heartbreaker’ … Here Presley tackles the rhythmic material for a slick country-style reading. What with the good backing this one should get action, too.”
June 25, 1955: Billboard reviewed “Baby, Lets Play House” (Sun 217) in its “Best Buys” column.
“In the past few weeks, various Southern territories have been seeing nice action with this disk. After a strong kick-off in the Memphis area, it has begun to sell well in Houston, Dallas, New Orleans, and Nashville and is moving out now in Richmond, St. Louis and the Carolinas. Flip is ‘I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone.’”
September 10, 1955: Billboard reviewed Elvis’s last Sun release, “I Forgot to Remember to Forget” / “Mystery Train” (Sun 156) in its “Best Buys” column. (A month later Elvis would switch to the RCA label.)
“With each release, Presley has been coming more and more quickly to the forefront. His current record has wasted no time in establishing itself. Already it appears on the Memphis and Houston territorial charts. It is also reported selling well in Richmond, Atlanta, Durham, Nashville and Dallas. Both sides are moving with ‘I Forgot’ currently on top.”
February 11, 1956: Billboard reviewed Elvis’s first RCA release, “Heartbreak Hotel” / “I Was the One” (Victor 6420) in its “Review Spotlight” column.
“Presley’s first Victor disk might easily break in both markets. ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ is a strong blues item wrapped up in his usual powerful style and a great beat. ‘I Was the One’ is about as close to r.&b. as you can get without horns and has more pop appeal. Presley is riding high right now with network TV appearances, and this disk should benefit from all the special plugging.”
February 18, 1956: Just a week later, Billboard again featured “Heartbreak Hotel,” this time in its “Best Buys” column.
“Another record that has demonstrated Presley’s major league stature. Sales have snowballed rapidly in the past two weeks, with pop and r.&b. customers joining Presley’s hillbilly fans in demanding this disk. Richmond, Atlanta, Nashville, Durham, New Orleans and Memphis reports were swelled by action on the West Coast and in Middle Western States. Flip is ‘I Was the One.’”
May 12, 1956: Elvis’s second RCA release, “My Baby Left Me” / “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” was covered in Billboard’s “Review Spotlight” column. (Notice that “My Baby Left Me” was listed as the “A” side.)
“Another pair of exciting Presley sides have the big-money look. The top features a real blues with that wild r.&b. infusion so well calculated to hit the all-market pay-off. On the flip, it’s a different, more gentle Presley, but he still vibrates with that husky, coin-pulling charm. Either one or both could be the big ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ follow-up.”
May 19, 1956: The same record was again featured in the “Best Buys” column. Billboard was still rating “My Baby Left Me” as the “preferred” side.
“In The Billboard last week a story detailed the phenomenal advance sale of this new Presley disk. A spot check in all key markets this week indicated that the ground work for huge volume selling was well prepared, and that the record moved over the counters in expected quantities. Both sides have gotten generous deejay play which has helped stimulate activity, but ‘My Baby Left Me’ is currently the preferred side.”
July 21, 1956: Elvis’s third RCA single, “Hound Dog” / “Don’t Be Cruel” (Victor 6604) appeared on Billboard’s “Review Spotlight” list.
“Presley hyped the ‘Hound Dog’ side on a recent Steve Allen TV airing which gave a solid, early kickoff. It’s a highly charged rhythm opus in Presley’s characteristic style and should enjoy heavy commercial acceptance. ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ is in a more subdued, frankly popish vein, and demonstrates that the singer is a versatile stylist.”
July 28, 1956: A week later “Hound Dog” appeared again as a Billboard “Best Buy.”
“From first-week reports, it has become clear already that this will be one of this year’s big grossers. Sales in pop, c.&w. and r.&b. markets have exceeded the impressive starting figures of previous Presley hits—and that is going some. There are some indications that the flip, ‘Don’t Be Cruel,’ may also develop after the initial excitement on ‘Hound Dog’ dies down a bit.”
September 22, 1956: The previous week, Billboard had listed the seven Elvis singles that RCA had released simultaneously. On this date, though, the magazine featured “Blue Moon” / “Just Because” (Victor 6640) as the one of the seven with the most sales potential.
“Of the seven singles released by Victor two weeks ago, all from artist’s album, this disk, with emphasis on ‘Blue Moon,’ is stepping out and starting to move. All seven have been reported as good sellers and the strength is well distributed throughout the country. ‘Money Honey’ and ‘I’ll Never Let You Go’ are two other sides reported as strong sellers.”
October 6, 1956: Billboard put its “Spotlight” briefly on the soon-to-be-released “Love Me Tender” / “Anyway You Want Me” (Victor 6643).
“Titled tune from Presley’s first flick has set a record for advance orders, which now exceed a million. Further comment unnecessary.”
October 13, 1956: A week later in its “Best Buys” column, Billboard covered “Love Me Tender” in more detail. It was Elvis’s last single release of 1956.
“A hit before it was ever released, this disk since issued has chalked up an all-time record for first week volume. Acceptance in the pop, country and rhythm & blues fields is complete, and, as on his last record, should soon be dominating the charts of all three categories. ‘Love Me Tender’ has gotten the lion’s share of attention so far, but there are some indications that the flip may also come in for a share of the spotlight a little later.”
As shown above, Billboard gave positive reviews to all of Elvis’s single releases in the 1955-1956 period. The magazine’s support by itself didn’t make Elvis a star, but it certainly gave some credibility to his sudden rise to fame. | Alan Hanson (January 2009)
"Billboard’s support by itself didn’t make Elvis a star, but it certainly gave some credibility to his sudden rise to fame"