When Marty McFly parked his DeLorean time machine and walked into the streets of 1955 Hill Valley he experienced a culture shock that would have been quite real.  The movie “Back to the Future” demonstrates how everyday life had changed in a thirty year span.  The differences were overwhelming:   styles of dress, technology, language, food, even the moral codes we live by were somewhat altered.  From the consternation of the drug store owner (Lou) when Marty request’s a “Pepsi Free” to the admonition of Marty’s mother (Loraine) that “girls don’t call boys;”  from Marty’s “uncle” Milton’s puzzled question of “what’s a rerun?” to Marty’s ostentatious claim to have two televisions; from Lou’s declaration, “A colored mayor, that’ll be the day” to Doc’s perplexity when Marty calls things “heavy” – the movie portrays a society that is still very American, yet altogether different.  And one of the biggest differences was the music.  When Marty takes that first step into Hill Valley, the music of The Four Aces'’ “Mr. Sandman” is playing in the background – distinctly different from Huey Lewis & The News’ “The Power of Love” played in the background of the opening sequence set in 1985.  And, of course there is Marty’s rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” at the “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance – “John, John, it’s your cousin.  Your cousin Marvin Berry.  You know that new sound you’re lookin’ for? Well listen to this.”  The music of 1955 was much different from the music of 1985.  But one reason why the movie goes back to 1955, and not 1956 was that the musical change, what is depicted as Chuck Berry’s inspiration, would change drastically in one year.  The “rock and roll” that was on the fringes of the popular music charts in 1955 would explode in 1956 and blaze forward for the next eight years.  The music with a beat would dominate the airways and record sales, and those record sales would skyrocket.  By 1963, the record labels and the music business in general would succeed in taming the beat, pasteurizing the music, making it less threatening, and giving it a broader appeal.  But in 1964, the sound would be revitalized and the words would become as important as the beat.  The time in between is the “Elvis Era.”

It is often customary to study American history in the middle of the twentieth century by focusing on time periods – the “Roaring Twenties,” “The Great Depression,” “The War Years,” “The Fifties,” and “The Sixties” (and then perhaps seventies, eighties, etc.).  This approach has the benefit of bringing cultural changes and related historical events into focus as part of an “era,” it helps us to better understand our heritage and it gives us a better historical context for understanding our current lives. But in one sense, it is futile to try to define a period of time, to assign a set number of years to an “era.”  To assign the decade of the 1950’s as an “era” is totally arbitrary, based solely on calendar change. 

But to focus on the “Elvis Era” as the time period between 1956 and 1963 we have distinct historical events as the bookends for the era, bookends that provide a reasonable beginning and ending:  It was in January of 1956 that Elvis Presley first stepped into the RCA recording studio and made the music that would make him an instant national celebrity.  In January of 1964, the Beatles came to America and instantly changed the face of popular music.  One of the biggest changes in 20th century America took place during those years – the advent of “rock and roll.”

Elvis Presley was the dominating personality in the music world from 1956 to 1963.  During that time he had 42 entries in the Billboard top twenty and eighteen number ones. Prior to 1956 he had been a huge regional success for Sun Records in Memphis, Tennnessee.  Sam Phillips sold his contract to RCA and the national label released "Heartbreak Hotel" in January of 1956.  Presley performed the song for a national television audience on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey's CBS program, "Stageshow" and it immediately started climbing the Billboard chart, reaching number one on May 1st.  It would remain at the top spot for seven weeks and eventually be named the top record of the year by Billboard.  By the end of the year Presley would have five additional chart toppers.

Presley's initial success drew attention to other "rock and roll" artists.  Prior to 1956 some rock and roll had dotted the charts, the most successful being cover versions of R&B recordings.  In 1954 a black R&B group reached #9 on the pop Billboard chart with "Sh-Boom."  The Canadian white group, the Crew-Cuts, released a cover version that was number one for nine weeks.  In 1955 Pat Boone (#1) outdistanced Fats Domino's (#10). version of "Aint That A Shame."  But in 1956 public taste began to shift towards the originals.  Pat Boone's version of "Long Tall Sally" reached number eight, but Little Richard's version was better at number six. Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers' "Why Do Fools Fall In Love" was a number six hit while covers by Gale Storm (#8) and The Diamonds (#12) trailed behind.  Some of the new rock and roll originals were also having chart success as Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill" reached number two and was in the top twenty for nineteen weeks.  The door was open and in 1957 rock and roll exploded with hits such Buddy Holly & The Crickets ("That'll Be The Day") and The Everly Brothers  ("Wake Up Little Susie") recording number one records.

Succeeding years would have many rock and roll classics in the Billboard number one slot: "Tequila" by The Champs (1958), "Mack the Knife" by Bobby Darin (1959), "The Twist" by Chubby Checker (1960), "Runaway" by Del Shannon (1961), "Duke of Earl" by Gene Chandler, and "Sugar Shack" by Jimmy Gilmore & The Fireballs (1963).  The only artist to have a top five record every year between 1956 and 1963 was Elvis Presley.  He had a number one in every year except the last (1963) when "Devil in Disguise" (#3) was his best.  It is therefore appropriate that his name be applied to the years when rock and roll was first woven into the fabric of American culture. 

While music may seem to be a minor factor in the study of history, it is often times a clear reflection of changes occurring in American society and sometimes a vehicle for bringing about those changes.  Even a cursory listen to music in the years prior to The Elvis Era and during the time period provides little doubt that a major change took place.  Change was also brewing in other areas of the lives of Americans.  When we looked at ourselves in 1963 we saw a very different image than what we had seen in 1956.  Racial issues and the civil right movement had altered our belief in America as the home of "all men are created equal."  The Soviet's success in space had challenged our belief in America's superiority in the world.  A president's assassination had broken our belief in a safe and orderly world.  A pill was altering our approach to basic values of marriage and family.  Most people would declare the decade of the 1960's as the age of social revolution in America, focusing mostly on the latter part of the decade and the hippie culture and anti-war movement.  But much of what took place in the latter 1960's and early 1970's was a product of The Elvis Era.  It was a time when teenagers found expression in a new sounding music that celebrated their youth and freedom.  Adults became alarmed at all the screaming, shouting, and jumping around.  It wasn't very far from the teens "rioting" at a rock and roll show to a protest march in the streets of the nation's capitol.  In October of 1963 Bob Dylan expressed it for us all:  "The Times They Are a-Changin'."   

Welcome to The Elvis Era.

Marty McFly doing "Johnny B. Goode" in "Back to the Future"
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Marty McFly enters Hill Valley as The Four Aces' "Mr. Sandman" is heard from the storefront.
Elvis with gold record of "Heartbreak Hotel."
The success of "Heartbreak Hotel" created an increased demand for the new sound of rock and roll. Elvis had recorded the song at his first RCA session on January 10th and 11th in Nashville, Tennessee. HIs bandmates (Scotty Moore, Bill Black, and D.J. Fontana) from Sun Records and Nashville musicians Chet Atkins and Floyd Cramer accompanied him on the recording. "Heartbreak Hotel" was written by Mae Axton and Tommy Durden who got the idea for the song from a newspaper article that reported a suicide letter stating "I walk a lonely street." In April Elvis performed the song on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey's Stageshow and on The Milton Berle Show. The national exposure propelled the song to #1 on May 1st.
In 1956 some of the r & b originals started doing better on the charts than the covers.