JW and EP and “Don’t Be Cruel”

On September 9, 1956, Elvis Presley makes the first of his three appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and performs his smash hit, “Don’t Be Cruel.”

At the time, Jackie Wilson was the lead singer for Billy Ward and His Dominoes. You can bet he had heard the record many times by this date. It’s likely he saw Elvis performing the song somewhere—possibly on this Sullivan broadcast. (The show was guest hosted because Sullivan had been injured in an automobile accident.)

Elvis sees Jackie. The Dominoes played Las Vegas as a lounge act, and part of their entertainment menu included their own renditions of current hits. Jackie had a go at several Elvis Presley numbers, and guess who ended up in the audience four nights in a row in November, 1956? Right. Elvis. A few weeks later, Elvis, sitting in the Memphis studios of Sun Records with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash, describes the performance of a “real slender” “colored guy” (“a Yankee”) who is “one of Ward’s Dominoes.” The conversation, along with Elvis’s demonstration of Jackie’s interpretation of the song, is preserved on the recordings known as the Million Dollar Quartet sessions.

Note that Elvis says that the singer is doing a “takeoff” of him. I hardly ever hear that term anymore, but it was common in the Fifties. Rather than being an impersonation, a “takeoff” indicated that an artist approached something by adopting and adapting someone else’s performance: starting with an exaggeration, perhaps, of some features of the original, then proceeding to improve on the original, making the performance unique.

As you can hear, Elvis declares that Jackie “sang hell outta that song” and sang it better “than that record of mine.” Also note that Elvis has studied the details of what Jackie did, including footwork, diction (“don’t ta” is a “Yankee” pronunciation of Elvis’s Southern “doan a”; “tel-ee-phone” draws a laugh from the whole Southern crew), tempo, and Jackie’s big finish for the song.

Elvis incorporates Jackie-isms. Jackie studied Elvis. Elvis studied Jackie. Each knew he had seen something worth analyzing. Each would use the other’s vocal and stage mannerisms–often playfully. Look at Elvis’s January 9, 1957 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, just a month after his Sun Studios explication of Jackie’s performance. Listen to his pronunciation of the word telephone at :15 and then watch him grin. What do you think he is thinking about? No doubt in my mind. At :54, check the sexy “ummm” and the resultant laugh. Note the slightly slower tempo—and the need for the “big finish,” which is unfortunately compromised by the order to photograph Elvis only from the waist up. Since he cannot get down on the floor with a microphone, Elvis elects to just spin out of the camera shot, but it’s a far step from the tame ending he used in his first Sullivan appearance.


Jackie does Elvis. One of my favorite Elvis bits in Jackie’s repertoire is the music video for “Lonely Life” from the teen movie Teenage Millionaire. Jackie’s fans know the man loved to smile. Well, he holds off long enough to give us a taste of an Elvis-as-tortured-rebel face before that smile sneaks in. Supposedly Elvis sat through this horrible Jimmy Clanton movie twice just to see the two videos of Jackie the film contained (“Lonely Life” and “The Way I Am.”)

For Jackie doing an Elvis sound-a-like, listen to “Love Train.”

I hate those “X stole from Y” arguments, but I love looking at how Jackie and Elvis showed each other respect and admiration. After he became so extremely famous, Elvis disliked going out to clubs, but he would make an exception when he got the opportunity to see Jackie perform.

9 thoughts on “JW and EP and “Don’t Be Cruel”

  1. jat24

    Just came across your site from a Google search, I’m a huge fan of the great man himself & Elvis Presley too so very happy you’ve acknowledged the mutual respect these two great artists had for each other. From what I’ve read I believe Jackie was visiting the ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ movie set when Elvis decided to incorporate some of his moves into his performance of ‘Return to Sender’. Jackie wasn’t sitting at one of the tables in the song but was watching from the sidelines during it’s filming.

    I would love to hear Jackie’s version of ‘Don’t be Cruel’ while he was a member of Billy Ward and His Dominoes.

  2. Don Horn

    I love this. The very name of this site could describe Elvis Presley. HE LOVED Jackie Wilson (I admit I do as well). I wonder if you have seen the clip of Elvis performing “Return To Sender” in the movie Girls! Girls! Girls! He is trying his best to imitate Jackie. There are also a couple of clips from the movie “Double Trouble” where he is imitating Jackie and smiling towards an off-camera, beaming Jackie.

    I have also heard that after Jackie had his stroke, Elvis paid to have him moved to a better care facility than the one in which he was initially put. Have you head that as well?

    1. jackiewilsonlover Post author

      Actually, Jackie was never moved to a better facility, so that bit of the legend is false. That story comes from Etta James’s “as told to” biography, Rage to Survive, which contains a number fabrications in addition to this one, including some falsehoods having to do with Sam Cooke and Jesse Belvin. Elvis may have provided money to Jackie’s true widow, Lynn Crochet, and according to Guralnick’s Elvis biography, Elvis sent a sizable check, usually said to be for $30,000, to help with the medical expenses.

      Off the top of my head, I cannot remember which film set Jackie visited, but he did go to the set of one of Elvis’s films. Jackie mentions it in an interview. I know that Jackie is not, as sometimes stated, at one of the tables in the “Return to Sender.”

      Do you know anything about how Jackie picked up the Otis Blackwell songs he recorded, “Love Train” and “Hurt So Bad”? I have wondered if they were originally meant for Elvis films; Jackie does his best “Elvis” vocal mannerisms on them.

  3. extinct327

    Yep it looks like the commenting feature is working. I knew that Jackie and Elvis met and incorporated each others styles but I didn’t know that they did that early in time in ’56. Great job on creating this blog, I might even have to attempt to create a blog for David Ruffin. Thank you for creating and if you need anything just let me know.

    1. jackiewilsonlover Post author

      Thank you, good buddy. I highly recommend WordPress. As you certainly know, I am as technophobic as folks get, and I managed to get this up with the encouragement of some wonderful graduate students at my university. I met with them four times and read some of the instructional material the WordPress people have online, and it took less than six weeks for me to get it this far–and that was just working on it a few hours at a time.

      WordPress is open-source software, and you can do this for free or at very little cost if you want some extras. (For example, I paid a fee to keep ads off the site.)

      Let me know if you want any of my new-found “expertise” for a Ruffin site!

      1. extinct327

        If I do end up making a Ruffin blog it will probably be sometime in the future when I can find time which I lack at this point, but I will make sure to ask for your feedback as you asked for mine.
        One question I have had is who came first, Jackie or Elvis? I know they both started sometime in the early 50s but which one first appeared and recorded material first?

        1. jackiewilsonlover Post author

          Technically, probably Jackie, due to those Sonny Wilson recordings. Plus, he was lead singer for the Dominoes and recording with them before his nineteenth birthday. But Elvis was definitely a solo star first.

          1. extinct327

            Do you know if there is any material recorded of Jackie with the Dominoes covering Elvis songs, or did they just do them in live performances?

            1. jackiewilsonlover Post author

              I am sure they only did them live. Jackie was about to leave the Dominoes to go solo, for one thing, and Ward was not going to get a replacement performer of JW’s quality. He ended up getting Eugene Mumford from The Larks (good voice, but nothing beyond that).

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