Jailhouse Rock: Elvis Presley; Queen; ZZ Top

Hello there! This is the fourth installment in our new feature: “Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies.” Here we discuss a famous song that makes an important contribution to a movie. We also review the artist(s) who performed the song, and compare a couple of covers of the song.

This week’s blog entry is Jailhouse Rock. This is a pop song composed by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and sung by Elvis Presley. It was featured in Presley’s 1957 movie Jailhouse Rock.

Elvis Presley:

We featured Elvis Presley in several earlier blog posts; see here; here; here; here; here; and here. In this post we will briefly review his life and early career.

In rock and roll, Elvis was universally acknowledged as “The King.” Ever since he traveled from Tupelo, MS to Memphis to record a song for his mother, Elvis became a rock and roll star and then a legend.

In 1954, Sam Phillips recorded him in the Sun Records studios. Elvis’ rockabilly cover of Arthur Crudup’s That’s All Right, Mama become a big hit locally from the moment that Memphis radio DJs began featuring it.

Phillips was convinced that he could make a ton of money if he could find a white artist capable of producing ‘cross-over’ hits from R&B songs by black artists. Memphis was the ideal location to search for such a cross-over musician, as producers such as Phillips and Stax Records’ co-owners Jim Stewart and Estelle Axon were recording songs by both black and white artists.

During the mid-50s, Phillips produced records by artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison, but Elvis was his greatest discovery.

Elvis’ big break-through record was his cover of Hound Dog. Like Jailhouse Rock, Hound Dog was composed by Leiber and Stoller. They had originally written the tune for Big Mama Thornton, who performed the song in slow down-home Delta blues style.

However, Elvis sang it as a breathless, rousing rockabilly tune. Furthermore, in live performance he threw in a few bumps and grinds that he borrowed from burlesque routines.

In June 1956, Elvis performed Hound Dog live on popular TV shows hosted by Milton Berle and Steve Allen. This was capped off with his appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in September, 1956.
Presley’s first appearance that September drew a record 60 million viewers, 82.6 percent of the national TV audience, making it the most-watched broadcast of the decade.

Below is a photo of Elvis Presley in his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan TV show on Sept. 9, 1956.

The hype surrounding Elvis’ debut on Ed Sullivan was unheard-of. As a defining moment in the history of rock music, it would not be repeated until Sullivan debuted the Beatles in 1964, and then never afterwards.

In those days, my parents did not own a TV set. So in Sept. 1956, I made sure that I could get over to a friend’s home to watch Elvis live on Ed Sullivan.

Elvis’ appearances, and particularly the spot on Ed Sullivan, made him notorious; while teenage girls screamed with delight, Elvis received venomous reviews from “serious” music critics.

As a result of this exposure, Elvis became the face of rock music. His performances, notably of Hound Dog, were seen as corrupting the values of American youth. For example,
morally outraged crowds in Nashville and St. Louis began burning him in effigy.

Not only that, but many critics insisted that Presley was a terrible singer. In retrospect, this was an absurd claim. Not only did Elvis have a terrific voice, but he was incredibly versatile – he was equally successful with blues, rockabilly, gospel and even American standard songs.

The song and movie Jailhouse Rock:

The wife of producer Pandro Berman saw Elvis on TV, and talked her husband into creating a movie that would feature Elvis. The plot was based on an original story by Nedrick Young, a black-listed writer, and had the working title The Hard Way. Berman chose Richard Thorpe to direct the movie, apparently because Thorpe had a reputation for working fast.

the great songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were commissioned to write the music for the movie. Legend has it that the studio flew the boys to New York to check on their progress on the songs.

Music publishing executive Jean Aberbach demanded to see what Leiber and Stoller had written.
When he was told that there was no material, Aberbach decided to lock the songwriters in their hotel room by blocking the door with a sofa. Aberbach told them that they would not leave the room until they had created the material. Four hours later, Leiber and Stoller had written [the four songs for the movie].

One of Leiber and Stoller’s four songs was Jailhouse Rock, and the movie was subsequently re-named after that theme song.

At this time, Leiber and Stoller were composing songs for The Coasters, and many of their Coasters tunes were tongue-in-cheek novelty items such as Charlie Brown and Yakety Yak (Don’t Talk Back). Leiber and Stoller intended Jailhouse Rock to be a similarly silly tune. However, Elvis performed it straight.

The song Jailhouse Rock describes the scene that ensued when the warden hosted a dance party in the jail.

The warden threw a party in the county jail
The prison band was there and they began to wail
The band was jumpin’ and the joint began to swing
You should’ve heard them knocked-out jailbirds sing

[CHORUS] Let’s rock everybody, let’s rock
Everybody in the whole cell block
Was dancin’ to the Jailhouse Rock

Spider Murphy played the tenor saxophone
Little Joe was blowin’ on the slide trombone
The drummer boy from Illinois went crash, boom, bang
The whole rhythm section was the Purple Gang

Given Elvis’ stature at this point, and the effervescent nature of this song, it was clear that this would be a major hit. And it was a rather spectacular cross-over success for Elvis.

As expected, Jailhouse Rock went straight up to #1 on the Billboard pop charts; however, it also hit #1 on the country charts, and #2 on the R&B playlists.

Here’s a capsule summary of the plot for the movie Jailhouse Rock. Elvis plays a character named Vince Elliott, who is imprisoned after accidentally killing a man in a brawl. Elliott’s prison cell-mate, Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy) teaches him to play guitar.

Vince participates in an inmate talent show that is televised nationally. He receives a ton of fan mail, but Hunk hides the letters from him, and offers a “deal” that would make Vince and Hunk equal partners.

After Vince is released from prison, he gets a job at a nightclub. With the help of his girlfriend Peggy (Judy Tyler), he records a demo record. They play it for the manager of a record company, who seems unimpressed by the song. However, they later find that the manager had the song recorded by one of his own artists.

Vince accosts and beats up the manager, after which he and Peggy form their own record company. Vince is scheduled to appear on a TV show, at which the song Jailhouse Rock is played. At left is a photo of Elvis in the famous dance scene from the movie.

Elvis Presley in the dance scene from the 1957 movie Jailhouse Rock.

Once he becomes famous, Elvis’ character Vince treats Peggy quite shabbily. Eventually, his current business partner and former cellmate Hunk Houghton punches Vince in the throat.

Vince is rushed to the hospital to see if his vocal cords are permanently damaged. There, he reconciles with Peggy and they confess their love to one another. Vince then tests out his voice by singing Young and Beautiful to Peggy. Hallelujah – his voice is OK!

And here is the famous Jailhouse Rock song and dance number. Pay close attention to the dance scenes involving the convicts.

Jailhouse Rock is a unique Elvis film for several reasons. First, the songs were written by Leiber and Stoller, who had legitimate rock-music credentials.

In later Elvis movies, the songs were tossed off by hacks who frequently had zero familiarity with, or interest in, rock music. It showed, as the tunes were often total garbage.

As we noted earlier, Leiber and Stoller originally intended Jailhouse Rock as a comedy piece. Also, they stuck in some rather daring lyrics for that era. Gender studies professors go on at great length regarding the homoerotic elements in both the dance scene and the song (“you the cutest jailbird I ever did see”, etc).

Unlike his later films, where an increasingly overweight Elvis seemed to be sleep-walking his way through the picture, Presley was young, virile and actively involved in Jailhouse Rock. In fact, Elvis rejected the dance moves suggested for him and essentially choreographed his own routine.

Jailhouse Rock was rushed into production. Filming began on May 13, 1957, was concluded on June 17, and the film debuted on Oct. 17 in Memphis.

Elvis’ backup group at the time – guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black and drummer D.J. Fontana – appear in the film as Vince’s band, together with songwriter Mike Stoller who has a cameo as the band’s pianist.

It is now generally agreed that Jailhouse Rock was the best Elvis movie ever. However, at the time of its release the film was considered edgy and scandalous.
It portrayed Vince Everett as an anti-heroic character, presented a convict as a hero, used the word “hell” as a profanity, and included a scene showing Presley in bed with co-star Tyler.

As we mentioned earlier, many people at this time saw Presley as a danger to youth. His raw sexuality and the lustful appeal of rock music were viewed as a menace to decent society. So Jailhouse Rock, tame as it seems nowadays, was criticized as immoral.

There is one very sad note to this movie. Just days after filming was completed, Elvis’ co-star Judy Tyler and her husband were killed in a car crash. As a result, Elvis never watched the film.

Over the years, Jailhouse Rock has been a favorite song for groups who appreciate the early days of rock and roll. There are over 150 covers of the song.

The song was an early favorite of The Quarrymen, John Lennon’s schoolboy group that eventually morphed into The Beatles. Unfortunately, we know of no surviving recording of John singing this tune.

Jeff Beck recorded a cover of this song. It also appears as the final song in the John Belushi – Dan Aykroyd film The Blues Brothers. After the brothers are returned to prison, they perform at a dance for their fellow prisoners. The song plays while the closing credits flash across the screen.

In this post, we will include covers of Jailhouse Rock by Queen and by ZZ Top.

Queen, Jailhouse Rock:

We encountered the band Queen in a previous blog post on their song Somebody To Love. Here is a brief summary of their career.

The band Queen was a British quartet that formed in London in the early 70s. Guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor met up with vocalist Farrokh Bulsara. They then tried out a number of bass players until they settled on John Deacon. At that point Bulsara changed his name to Freddie Mercury, and the band adopted the name Queen.

For a couple of years, the group attempted to attract fans and score a record deal. In 1973, they signed a record contract with Trident/EMI.

For the next couple of years, Queen gained popularity in the UK but made little commercial headway in the US. All that changed dramatically with the release of the group’s fourth album, A Night At the Opera, in 1975.

That album, titled after a Marx Brothers’ movie, contained the song Bohemian Rhapsody, a pop tune written in operatic style. Mercury showed off his astonishing 4-octave vocal range in this tune.

Below are the band Queen in Sept. 1976, when their first big hit Bohemian Rhapsody was being honored. Back: John Deacon; front from L: Brian May; Roger Taylor; Freddie Mercury.

And before you could say “Beelzebub!” the group’s fame multiplied across the globe. The incredible sounds produced by Queen were a combination of special effects produced by Brian May and his home-made Red Special guitar, plus massive overdubbing by the members of the band.

Freddie Mercury’s bravura performances were just perfect for Queen’s trademark arena shows. Mercury was a riveting and highly theatrical performer.

Queen subsequently became one of the most successful rock bands in history. Their Greatest Hits album outsold even the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper blockbuster.

Queen regularly performed Jailhouse Rock as part of a medley that included several old rock standards. The song appears in concerts as early as 1970. Here is Queen performing Jailhouse Rock in 1974.

Freddie Mercury’s vocals and extravagant performing style are well suited to Jailhouse Rock; he also throws in a few lines from Be-Bop-a-Lula. And Brian May shows off some impressive guitar licks.

However, if you are paying close attention you will notice that Freddie Mercury is not actually singing Jailhouse Rock here. This YouTube video is a bit of a swindle. The audio is Queen singing Jailhouse Rock, but the video is a montage of Queen performing at the same 1974 concert.

The video is cleverly assembled. When Brian May commences a guitar solo, the picture cuts to May playing guitar; and when Freddie is singing, one sees him at the microphone. I apologize, this was the best video I could obtain.

Even as Queen became international superstars, Freddie Mercury’s health declined. As a youth, Mercury had a number of romantic relationships with women; however, he then became bisexual and later homosexual.

One gets the impression that, like so many people in the early 80s, he engaged in rather risky sexual behavior. In any case, in 1987 Freddie learned that he had HIV, and later that year found that he had contracted AIDS.

Queen stopped touring but continued to record albums in the studio. However, over time Mercury’s condition worsened. He lost a considerable amount of weight and eventually became haggard, which caused much speculation regarding his health.

Finally, on Nov. 22, 1991, Freddie Mercury issued a press release acknowledging that he had AIDS. Two days later, Mercury died at the age of 45 from bronchial pneumonia, brought on as a complication of AIDS.

Mercury’s death was devastating to his Queen bandmates and to his many fans. Brian May was particularly depressed as a result of his close friend’s demise. He checked himself into a clinic in Arizona, and later threw himself into various solo music projects.

Over the past 25 years, bassist John Deacon has retired. Roger Taylor and Brian May have re-united at various times, and have toured with guest lead vocalists.

Queen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. With total record sales somewhere between 150 million and 300 million, they are one of the best-selling musical acts of all time. In 2005, Brian May was named a Commander of the British Empire by the actual Queen for “services to the music industry and for charity work.”

ZZ Top, Jailhouse Rock:

ZZ Top are a blues trio from Texas. They were originally formed in 1969 by guitarist Billy Gibbons. For a very short period they had a different bassist and drummer, but fairly rapidly they acquired Dusty Hill on bass and Frank Beard on drums. They have stuck with that lineup for the past 45 years.

Gibbons was inspired by artists such as B.B. King and Z.Z. Hill. He quickly settled on ZZ Top as the name for his group. Initially, the group was unable to land a recording contract with an American label, so they signed with London Records.

Billy Gibbons circa 1973.

At left is a photo of Billy Gibbons at the start of his career.  Fans of ZZ Top may not recognize this guy, as his appearance has changed dramatically (see below).

The group’s first big splash was in 1973 with their album Tres Hombres. That record contained the single La Grange, which referenced the notorious brothel The Chicken Ranch in La Grange, Texas. This was the establishment that inspired the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

La Grange established a formula from which ZZ Top have never deviated. Billy Gibbons lays down a driving, thumping blues guitar line, while Dusty Hill chimes in on bass, and Frank Beard complements with a persistent drumbeat.

Another ZZ Top trademark is the appearance of sexual double-entendres in their lyrics. This is evident in songs such as Tube Snake Boogie and Gimme All Your Lovin’.

From 1977-79, the group went on two years’ hiatus after touring nearly non-stop for the preceding four years. Billy and Dusty took advantage of the down time to grow chest-length beards, which have become their signature look. Below is a photo of ZZ Top in 1984. From L: Dusty Hill; Frank Beard; Billy Gibbons.

Probably the most successful album from ZZ Top was the 1983 release Eliminator. That album contained four hit singles, including in particular Legs and Sharp Dressed Man. This was the era of MTV, and Sharp Dressed Man won an MTV Video Music Award.

The album Eliminator marked a new phase for ZZ Top, as it prominently featured synthesizer and distorted guitar sounds.  Also, their music videos portrayed ZZ Top as arguably the hippest dudes on the planet.

Here is a live performance of Jailhouse Rock by ZZ Top. Their version of this song originally appeared on their 1975 Fandango! album.

This concert took place at Moncton Casino in New Brunswick, Canada in Nov. 2013.  Here, Dusty Hill performs on lead vocals, and provides the bass to Billy Gibbons’ thumping blues guitar. ZZ Top slow down the pace in Jailhouse Rock considerably from Elvis’ iconic version.

Over the years, ZZ Top has stuck with their recipe for success. This has garnered a steady string of hits for the band over the past few decades. Critics complain that ZZ Top’s hit songs all sound suspiciously similar; however, their loyal fans have made ZZ Top rock superstars.

Their work has brought them many honors, including induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. Over the years, ZZ Top have sold more than 50 million records.

So boys, keep on boogieing because “every girl’s crazy ‘bout a sharp-dressed man.”

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Jailhouse Rock (song)
Wikipedia, Jailhouse Rock (film)
Wikipedia, Elvis Presley
Rolling Stone magazine, Jan. 28, 2016: Elvis Presley on TV: 10 Unforgettable Broadcasts
Wikipedia, Queen (band)
Wikipedia, ZZ Top

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats, Lewis and Clark. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
This entry was posted in Pop Music, Rhythm and blues, Rock and roll, Rockabilly and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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