I’ve written before that I wasn’t a devotee of early rock music in the fifties, but I wasn’t immune to its allure. Even though I was more fond of big band music and modern jazz, I have to admit that I was definitely aware of the new stuff pouring out of jukeboxes. After all, it was everywhere — not just on the jukes, but at school “sock hops” (remember those?) and on the radio. And there was also the inevitable attraction that teenagers have always felt for anything that’s new and a little…dangerous.
I found myself slowly warming to the music but I went into it gradually, starting with the clean-cut types like Pat Boone, moving on to progressive artists like Buddy Holly, and eventually beginning to listen to the bad boys, Jerry Lee Lewis and others. However, one guy who took a little longer for me to accept ended up being the biggest star of all, although it wasn’t until later than I started to appreciate his talent.
Do you remember the scene that shows up in almost every Elvis Presley movie, where he’s in a restaurant or club and someone starts the jukebox or strums a guitar, and – big surprise – he begins singing, and all the girls swoon? And then the camera moves to their boyfriends and they’re all giving him dirty looks, and then one of them ends up fighting him? Those guys could have been patterned after me — not because I wanted to fight Elvis, but just because I really didn’t see what all the fuss was about and why the girls found him so irresistible.
That’s probably why I was secretly delighted when it was announced that he’d been drafted. It was a big news story at the time and everybody was wondering if Elvis (or Colonel Parker) had enough influence to get him a deferment. Of course, he ended up serving and reportedly was a model soldier, but some say it changed him and made him a little softer-edged in his later career.
At about the same time, a struggling singer/songwriter named Bobby Bare was dealing with problems of his own, which also included a draft notice — something that all young guys had hanging over them in those days. But here’s where it gets a little strange — before he went into the service, Bobby and his friend Bill Parsons rented some studio time, and played around a little with some tunes they’d cobbled together. Bobby had written a parody of Elvis called “All American Boy” and they each recorded a version of the song. Bobby then began serving his time in the army and was stunned to later hear his version being played on the radio and climbing the charts, but with Parsons shown as the singer!
The record company’s mix-up didn’t keep the song from rising all the way up to number two on the charts and providing a delicious tonic for the anti-Elvis crowd. Its ingenious lyrics took us through the rise of a rock star and included a mention of a “man with a big cigar” (an obvious reference to Colonel Parker) but the best part was late in the song when the singer, at the height of his success, moans, “But then one day my Uncle Sam said…’here I am. Uncle Sam needs you, boy’.”
We know how Elvis ended up and I’m not sure what ever happened to Bill Parsons, but Bobby Bare has lasted for years, churning out a number of hits that include his biggest, the Grammy-winning “Detroit City”, and even paving the way for his son to achieve some fame as a singer. But as for me, I’ll always remember how he skewered Elvis at a time when I was one of the Elvis haters.