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.