By Brad Dison
Elvis Presley. The mere mention of his name evokes fond memories of the early days of Rock and Roll, a gold lamé suit, signature dance moves, and a snarling upper lip. In March 1956, Elvis released an album simply titled “Elvis Presley,” and he rocketed to stardom with his own blend of gospel, boogie woogie, and rhythm and blues. His first album was the first rock and roll album ever to top the charts. In November 1956, Elvis appeared in his first film entitled “Love Me Tender,” and he became a box office hit as well. Elvis’s live performances sold out and people waited in long lines to watch “Love Me Tender” over and over again. It seemed as if everyone loved Elvis.
Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, was a ruthless businessman and a brilliant promoter. It was Colonel Parker who brokered the deal which transferred Elvis’s recording contract from Sun Records, a small and independent recording company, to RCA Victor, one of the largest and most powerful recording companies in the world at the time. It was Colonel Parker who ruthlessly negotiated bookings for Elvis to appear on the most popular television shows including The Milton Berle Show and The Ed Sullivan Show, bookings which made Elvis the highest-paid star on television. It was Colonel Parker who negotiated a merchandising deal which brought in an estimated $22 million by the end of the year. At Elvis’s concerts, the concessionaires sold a variety of Elvis memorabilia including Elvis pencils, Elvis pens, “I Like Elvis” buttons, Elvis bubble gum cards, Elvis pennants, Elvis calendars, photographs of Elvis, and programs which included a biography of Elvis. In the year 1956, much to the credit of Colonel Parker, Elvis went from relative obscurity to one of the most successful stars in the world.
While it initially seemed as though everyone loved Elvis, many people disliked him to the point of outright hatred. Their criticisms were many. One newspaper incorrectly predicted that Elvis “is a singer on an emotional jag and won’t last long.” Some people focused their criticism on Elvis’s hair and said it looked like he had forgotten to get a haircut. When a reporter asked students what they thought of Elvis’s hair, one male student proclaimed, “I don’t like it. I’ll stick to my flattop any day.” A female student declared, “I hate Elvis Presley and everything he represents, especially his hair. It is absolutely immoral.” Most people who disliked Elvis argued that his movements during live performances were vulgar and suggestive. Another newspaper printed that Bing Crosby said Elvis “is a really good singer—carries a tune quite well.” However, Crosby said Elvis could be more successful if he dressed better, got a decent haircut, shaved off his sideburns, and stopped wiggling.
Several newspapers printed articles which focused on Elvis’s “wiggle.” In one such article, Carol Weinberg wrote, “The only reason I hate Elvis is because he wiggles to[o] much. If he didn’t wiggle, I would like him a bit. I think he is a wiggle worm. I think everybody should stop writing about the jerk because it takes too much space in the columns. That is why I will not write about Elvis Presley.”
All across America, people who disliked Elvis formed “I Hate Elvis” clubs. Hordes of people joined these clubs as hating Elvis became hip, to use a parlance of the time. Before long, people joined “I Hate Elvis” clubs around the world. As far away as Tehran, Iran, officials of the government began a campaign against rock and roll music and used “I Hate Elvis” as its official slogan. The Iranian government banned all rock and roll music from its radio stations on the grounds that it was “harmful to health and morals.” The Iranian government warned that violators would be severely punished, and radio stations had no choice but to comply.
Shops which sold Elvis’s records and other memorabilia, including “I Like Elvis” buttons, began selling “I Hate Elvis” buttons. A shop in Philadelphia sold the “I Hate Elvis” buttons for fifteen cents while the “I Like Elvis” buttons only cost a dime. The vendor explained that he had to reduce the price of the “I Like Elvis” buttons because they were not selling. All across the country, the “I Hate Elvis” buttons outsold the “I Like Elvis” buttons. In some cities, the price of the “hate” buttons reached thirty-five cents due to high demand. People began selling the “hate” buttons in the stands at Elvis’s concerts. At a press conference, Elvis jokingly told reporters that the “I Hate Elvis” buttons were sold by communists.
“I Hate Elvis” buttons appeared almost everywhere. At a circus in St. Louis, Missouri, a clown acted out a “comical mimicking of a well-known youthful television performer who affects sideburns and a guitar. The whole arena rocked with laughter as the clown unveiled a giant-sized “I Hate Elvis” button.” At a Girl Scout scavenger hunt in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, the scouts searched for items including a duck feather, a shoe with a hole in it, and an “I Hate Elvis” button. In an Elvis concert in Detroit, Michigan, 28,000 fans screamed, wept, and went wild. One teenaged girl who wore her “I Hate Elvis” button was forced by a group of fans to remove the button before they would allow her to reach her seat. Charles Richardson, the 12-year-old son of the famous actor Sir Ralph Richardson, became the “hippest chap” in England when he wore an “I Hate Elvis” button to school. Charles had bought the souvenir button while on a visit with his parents to New York City.
Reporters were eager to learn who was behind the “I Hate Elvis” buttons. Their investigations led them back to a single individual. It was not a leader nor a member of one of the many “I Hate Elvis” clubs, as they had suspected. It was Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s own manager, who had masterminded the strategy to make money off of those who not only liked Elvis, but also those who disliked him and otherwise would not buy Elvis souvenirs. This was no underhanded scheme against Elvis, for Elvis made a hefty royalty off of every single “I Hate Elvis” button sold.