During early January of 2000, Murray Horwitz, vice president for National Public Radio's cultural programming, and producer Elizabeth Blair wanted to conduct a survey for their listeners. The NPR staff produced the works for the ballot and requested their listeners to cast a vote for “The 100 most important American works of the 20th century. ” The audience was asked for suggestions of songs ranging from symphonies to pop melodies. The ballots started rolling in, with no end in sight. Before long Horwitz and Blair had approximately a list of 300, not the 100 that they had originally had planned.
To help their progress, they asked a variety of 18 musicians to contribute in this survey. When the two lists arrived, the staff found that their choices of music were not that far apart. With a little more help from the NPR staff, “The 100 most important American works of the 20th century” was born. When reading the archive of the top one hundred, two particular songs reached out and caught my attention. Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel” became the biggest hits of his career.
The story behind each of the songs is what makes them even more special to Elvis and his fans. Hound Dog” was written in 1952, by lyricist Jerry Leiber and composer Mike Stoller. Both coming from Jewish families, they shared their love for rhythm and blues. “Hound Dog” was originally written for Big Mama Thorton, with her powerful singing voice described as “scary and growling”. In 1953, her fans carried her to the number one spot, for seven weeks on the Billboard R&B charts. It was 1956, when Elvis Presley heard Freddie Bell and the Bell Boys do a remake of “Hound Dog”. Elvis fell in love with the song and asked the band if he could record his own version of the song.
Within weeks, Elvis had added the song to his live show. Elvis said the song created a comic relief and his “gyrations” got big reactions from his fans. So much, that he made “Hound Dog” his standard closing song. The more he moved on stage the more his audience went crazy for him, especially the ladies. Elvis was becoming popular for not being able to stay still while dancing, quoted “We are all getting something out of our system. None of us knows what it is. The important thing is, we are getting rid of it and nobody is getting hurt.
Along with his blues song “Hound Dog”, Elvis was remembered for choosing another hit song in 1956. “Don’t Be Cruel”, was written by Otis Blackwell. Blackwell originated from Brooklyn, New York, with many talents under his belt. He was a songwriter, singer, and pianist. Blackwell was also known as one of the leading African American artists of early rock ‘n’ roll. His inspiration derived from Tex Ritter, which led to his writing of “Don’t Be Cruel. ” He sold the song for $25, soon to be picked up by Elvis Presley.
Blackwell had no idea who Elvis was, but wanted to make sure that his song went into good hands. Soon enough, Blackwell heard Elvis’ rock ‘n’ roll version of “Don’t Be Cruel” as it shot up to number 1 on the charts. Both singles were placed on a record and became his best-selling record of all time. Also in 1956, Elvis Presley removed any ideas that he was responsible for a new type of music, “I just sing from my heart. ” Another song from the archive that I found interesting was Jerry Lee Lewis’ 1957 hit, “Great Balls of Fire”.
Also written by Otis Blackwell, only this song was more daring and tested Lewis from the beginning. During this time he was so conflicted and feared that his new lifestyle in rock ‘n’ roll was leading him down a path to Hell. Many believed that this song was full of angst and passion, introducing danger to the rock ‘n’ roll industry. The song only made it to number 2 on the Billboard’s pop chart, but making it to number 1 on the R&B chart. Interestingly enough, in 1956, Elvis and Lewis were joined by Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash for an impromptu jam session, officially making them “The Million Dollar Quartet.
When comparing the three musical works together, this was a time of artists becoming more involved in rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, and rhythm and blues. Both men were born into poverty, raised in Christianity, and drawn to music at an early age. Sun records picked up Elvis Presley and soon after picked up Jerry Lee Lewis. Both Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis sang a hit song written by Otis Blackwell. These two individuals tested the waters with their different styles of singing and dancing, which drove their fans crazy.
Elvis’ “gyrating” caused uproars as well as Lewis’ style that could be categorized with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. They both had hits in the mid-1950’s that really kick started their career. Among the comparing of these two, there’s also the contrast that plays an important part. Elvis was a good-looking male, who had a grin that melted the women’s hearts. Jerry Lee Lewis, on the other hand, had a sinister leer that made people slightly uncomfortable. Elvis became phenomenal in his work, making hits, until his unfortunate death with drugs.
While Jerry Lee Lewis, only had a few other hits and falling from the charts after his love affair with his 13 year old first cousin. When choosing from “The 100 most important American works of the 20th century”, there were definitely people who thought certain artists or songs should have made the cut. It was a difficult decision, but when the two lists were brought together by the panel of 18 musicians, it was clear who should make the list. These two artists with their songs, created the pathway for rock ‘n’ roll for what it is today.