Greenwich Village and the East Village have launched many a musical career over the decades. But perhaps one of the least known examples of the neighborhoods as musical launching pad involves one of the most famous names in music.
Elvis Presley, “the King of Rock and Roll,” or simply “The King,” has been known and loved by music devotees, conspiracy theorists, impersonators, Graceland visitors, and kitsch enthusiasts for well over sixty years. But long before that, a 21-year-old Elvis headed to East 11th Street for a recording session that would change his career and the course of musical history. At the time, what we know today as Webster Hall at 125 East 11th Street was owned by RCA Records, Elvis’s record label at the time, and used as a recording studio. It was there that on July 2, 1956, recorded his hit songs “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “Anyway You Want Me” — not only the biggest songs of his career, but the biggest of the entire rock era for more than a generation.
“Hound Dog” has been recorded more than 250 times, but Elvis’ is the best known version — ranked number 19 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Backed with “Don’t Be Cruel” (the rare double-A side hit), it sold about 10 million copies globally and was simultaneously number one on the US pop, country, and R&B charts in 1956. In fact, it topped the pop chart for 11 weeks — a record that stood for 36 years. Elvis’ recording of the song at Webster Hall was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1988, and is listed as one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.” It can easily be said that no other songs defined Elvis’ career and record-breaking and epoch-making success like those which he recorded at Webster Hall on that hot July day in 1956.
Elvis was in great company recording at Webster Hall. Other artists who also did so include Harry Belafonte, Perry Como, Tony Bennet, Frank Sinatra, and Julie Andrews, among many others. Many broadway shows and songs were also recorded in that space, including Carol Channing’s original Hello, Dolly!, Fiddler on the Roof, and Ethel Merman’s Annie Get Your Gun.
Elvis at RCA, 1956
Despite sweltering heat, Elvis recorded all day long on July 2, 1956. He did 31 takes alone of his song “Hound Dog” until he got it right – the song was cut the same day. The single was released for sale just eleven days later.
In his 2019 book Can’t Give It Away on Seventh Avenue: The Rolling Stones and New York City, Christopher McKittrick wrote:
Though Webster Hall was used mainly to record soundtracks for Broadway musicals, Elvis Presley recorded “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “Anyway You Want Me” there on July 2, 1956. The day before, Presley had appeared on The Steve Allen Show and performed “Hound Dog” in a memorable appearance. Elvis performed the song while singing to an old dog in a top hat (with Allen remarking to Elvis, “You’re going to record it tomorrow”), with a screaming crowd long before the song was even a hit for him.
In 2007, the Memphis Recording Service put out the RCA Studio complete session as an album. The sessions album/DVD has 39 tracks including a variety of takes that he recorded of the same songs, as he did with “Hound Dog.” At the same time, photos were released that were taking at that session by the famous photographer Alfred Wertheimer – his photos are the ones used in this blog post (unless otherwise noted).
From 1953 to 1968, RCA Records owned Webster Hall. While it’s nice to imagine Elvis recording on the familiar stage at Webster Hall, the recording studio wasn’t set up that way. RCA actually refashioned the space with state-of-the-art technology. Webster Hall was at that time known as RCA’s East Coast recording studio 1.
Built in 1886, Webster Hall is “one of New York City’s most historically and culturally significant large nineteenth-century assembly halls.” As we previously reported: By the 1910s and 1920s, Webster Hall became famous for its masquerade balls, following the success of a 1913 fundraiser for the socialist magazine The Masses. The parties, which attracted the bohemians of the Village and beyond, grew more and more outlandish–and the costumes, skimpier and skimpier. Although Prohibition could have killed the momentum of the parties, in fact, it had the opposite effect. As liquor consumption was driven underground, Webster Hall became a speakeasy, and the legends of the parties grew. Gay and lesbian Villagers first attended the parties of accepting organizations like the Liberal Club, but by the mid-1920s were putting together dances and celebrations of their own at the hall. These celebrations were able to continue without harassment, as long as the police were paid off properly. When Prohibition was finally repealed, a large ball called the “Return of John Barleycorn,” was thrown on New Year’s Eve to celebrate.
By the end of the 1950s, RCA converted the building into their East Coast recording studio and called it the “Webster Hall Studios.” That’s where Elvis Presley came through the doors, following his TV appearance, to record his songs.
On the off chance you don’t know Elvis
Elvis Presley was famous for fashioning a fusion of country and rhythm and blues music that became a big part of what rock and roll was about. He was also renowned for his dance moves, his TV and movie acting skills, his charisma, his fashion, his lavish and kitschy home Graceland, and for so many other reasons.
Elvis Aaron Presley was born on 8 January in 1935 in Mississippi. His father Vernon Presley was a carpenter and his mother Gladys was a housewife. The family was very poor – Elvis was born in a two-room shack. Like so many, Elvis first sang in the context of his church. As he developed his skills, he participated in many talent contests.
In 1955, his first album ‘That’s All Right Mama’ was released to acclaim, with the single ‘Mystery Train’ topping the Billboard charts that year. Elvis became a star, an overnight legend. From 1956 through 1958 he completely dominated the best-seller charts and it’s said that he single-handedly ushered in the age of rock and roll, opening doors for both white and black rock artists. He dominated the pop culture of the 60’s and 70’s — even the Beatles said that Elvis was an inspiration to them.
Elvis married Priscilla Presley, and they had a daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, who herself is a singer-songwriter. When Elvis died of heart disease on August 16, 1977, a world of fans felt deep sorrow, and immediately began thinking of ways that he might not have really died.
In 1986, Elvis was one of the first inductees into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, alongside Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly, Ray Charles, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Fats Domino.