The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #54: Jailhouse Rock by Elvis Presley (RS)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #54: Jailhouse Rock by Elvis Presley.

The story of the song, “Jailhouse Rock” is an interesting one which only has slightly to do with “The King”, himself. It is the story of Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame songwriters, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller being held “captive” in their hotel room until they produced the song. It is, also, the tragic story of what happened to one of Elvis’ main co-stars in the movie, “Jailhouse Rock” and how it caused Elvis to be unable to watch the movie after it was made. It is, also, the story of “Jailhouse Rock” became one of the first openly homoerotic songs ever recorded. Finally, it is the story of one of the most famous movie dance sequences ever filmed; a scene so engrained into the fabric of the song that it is almost impossible to think of the song without seeing the “inmates” dancing up a storm. So, let’s get right down to business, shall we? Here is the multi-layered story of one of Rock’s greatest songs…..”Jailhouse Rock”.

Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber were enormously successful songwriters and musicians during their heyday. They were responsible to such enormous hits as “Yakkety Yak” by The Coasters, “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King, “On Broadway” by The Drifters, as well as, “Hound Dog” and Jailhouse Rock” for Elvis. When Elvis decided to begin to diversify his career by starring in movies, “Jailhouse Rock” was one of his first ventures. The movie was originally called, “The Hard Way” because its’ plot involved Elvis being a prison convict who discovers his talent for singing while in jail and who, upon release, rehabilitates himself and becomes a star. Stoller and Leiber were contracted to create the soundtrack for the film. They were brought to New York City to write the score. However, they had never been there before (they were from L.A.) and, upon arrival, they did all of the tourist things such as seeing Broadway shows, going to night clubs, etc., and ended up accomplishing very little. The legendary story is that the assistant producer was sent to check on their progress and, upon finding them gallivanting around town, locked them in their hotel room, barred the door with a sofa and refused to allow them to leave their room until progress became tangible. Stoller and Leiber were professionals and knew they had overstepped their bounds. They got down to work and ended up creating four songs in one day. One of those songs was “Jailhouse Rock”. The songs were shown to Elvis. He loved “Jailhouse Rock” quite a bit right away. Once the jail house dance scene was filmed, everyone involved knew it was iconic and, as a result, the decision was made to change the name of the movie to “Jailhouse Rock” as well. There are many fans and critics, alike, who consider the dance scene from “Jailhouse Rock” to be Elvis’ greatest moment on screen.

When the song was released as a single, it raced to the top of the charts, where it stayed for more than a month. It was part of a stretch of time when Elvis absolutely ruled the charts with #1 hits such as “Hound Dog”, “Love Me Tender”, “Heartbreak Hotel”, #All Shook Up”, “Don’t Be Cruel” and “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You”.

The movie, “Jailhouse Rock” was not as successful for Elvis, as was the single. The movie made it to #3 on the box office list but ended up only being the 14th highest grossing movie of the year, when all was said and done. In the movie, Elvis’ character is eventually released from prison and begins to carve out a career for himself in music. He does so under the professional guidance of a young, female manager who, in real life, was known as Judy Tyler. Tyler was in her mid-twenties when she starred opposite Elvis. Prior to this movie role, she was best known for her on-going role on the famous “Howdy Doody” show. It was hoped that “Jailhouse Rock” was going to be Tyler’s big break and that future stardom awaited. Unfortunately, three months after shooting wrapped……and one month prior to the movie being released….Judy Tyler and her husband were killed in a car accident. Her death shook Elvis to his core because he thought that she was super nice and talented and was rooting for her success as much as anyone else. When she died, Elvis found that the Joy was completely sucked out of the movie for him and, as a result, he was unable to watch the movie ever again without breaking down.

Whether it was intentional or not, the song, “Jailhouse Rock” was one of the very first songs to ever openly mention the possibility of a homosexual relationship.

“Number forty-seven said to number three,

“You’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see.”

“I sure would be delighted with your company.”

“Come on and do the jailhouse rock with me.”

I once knew a woman who was an ex-prison guard. She spoke openly about the number of rough, tough men she witnessed become, in her words, “institutionally Gay” because their sexual impulses were so strong. Men who, in the outside world, would start a barroom brawl at the merest of hints that they were Gay or showed interest in another man. But, there it was in “Jailhouse Rock”, as plain as day. Even in the film’s dance sequence, two male back-up dancers pair off in a suggestive manner. So, it should come as no surprise that “Jailhouse Rock” sent a shockwave of electricity through the Gay Community which, at the time, was still mostly conducted in secret in our civilized society of the day. At a time when representation mattered a great deal, hearing those lyrics and seeing those male dancers pair off was a pivotal moment for a great many young men.

Just before we end this post, here are a few tidbits of trivia for you to toss out and about at parties and around the dinner table……did you know that there really was a “Purple Gang” in real life? In the song, Elvis sings about “The whole rhythm section was The Purple Gang”. Well, in the real world, The Purple Gang referred to a group of Prohibition Era Jewish mobsters who were contemporaries of Al Capone and who were said to have been the ones doing the shooting during the infamous “St. Valentines Day Massacre”. Elvis, also, mentioned a person named “Shifty Henry” who, as it turned out, was a real person and a terrific musician at the time of the song being written. In a different but, related note, the famous children’s television show, “School house Rock” was inspired by the song/movie title, “Jailhouse Rock”.

So, without further delay, here is the iconic jail house dance sequence from the movie, “Jailhouse Rock” starring Elvis Presley. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Jailhouse Rock” by Elvis Presley, can be found here.

The link to the video for the trailer for the movie, “Jailhouse Rock”, can be found here. ***Well worth checking out!

The link to the official website for Elvis Presley, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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