Week in Rock History: Elvis Makes His Film Debut

Plus: Michael Jackson dangles his baby from a balcony

November 14, 2011 3:10 PM ET
elvis love me tender
Elvis Presley on the set of the film 'Love Me Tender' in Malibu, California.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

This week in rock history, Elvis Presley made his film debut, Diana Ross begged for racial understanding before the Queen of England, Nirvana recorded their MTV Unplugged set, George Harrison’s attacker was found not guilty by reason of insanity and Michael Jackson dangled his baby from a balcony.

November 15, 1956: Elvis Presley's first movie, Love Me Tender, premieres in theaters
By the fall of 1956, "Introducing Elvis Presley" was an entirely unnecessary statement. The 21-year-old was already a star: His single "Heartbreak Hotel" had sold more than a million copies, pushing him to the forefront of the burgeoning rock & roll movement in America. Yet his first film, Love Me Tender, billed him as such at the bottom of its poster – a nod to the fact that his part had originally been minuscule yet was completely rewritten during shooting to accommodate the singer’s exploding fame.

Love Me Tender, a Civil War-era drama with occasional musical numbers, fared respectably at the box office, grossing approximately $4 million in its opening months. Teen girls flocked to theaters and screamed hysterically though each of Presley’s appearances – although the same demographic had proven inconsolable during test screenings when Presley’s character died in gunfire at the end of the movie. To console his fans, Presley shot an additional closing scene in which he reprises the title song, and it was added to the film before wide release.

November 19, 1968: Diana Ross pleads for racial understanding before the Queen of England during the Supremes’ Royal Variety Performance
The annual Royal Variety Performances, a holiday tradition in the United Kingdom, have fostered an unusual intimacy between entertainers and the monarchy for decades. Founded in 1912, the gala series is attended by the royal family of Britain, who often get more than they bargained for: It was during the Beatles’ 1963 RVP performance that John Lennon made his notorious quip, "For our last number, I'd like to ask your help: Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, just rattle your jewelry."

In 1968, the Supremes performed at the RVP at the London Palladium at the request of the royals – who, again, were treated to a surprise when lead singer Diana Ross used her spotlight as a political forum. In an unscripted speech that transpired between several of the top girl group’s songs, Ross eulogized the recently assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr., and begged for increased interracial understanding, both in the United Kingdom and in America. Her impassioned comments received a two-minute standing ovation from the audience, although Queen Elizabeth II rose only after Ross sang "Somewhere," from the musical West Side Story.

November 18, 1993: Nirvana record their MTV Unplugged special in New York

Nirvana’s appearance on the MTV Unplugged series belied the title, as singer Kurt Cobain insisted on feeding his acoustic guitar through effects pedals and amplifiers. Ever the contrarians, the band also displeased MTV executives by straying from its catalogue of grunge hits; it performed mostly deeper album cuts and covers of David Bowie, Lead Belly and Meat Puppets songs.

Yet the evening was a terrific success. It scraped away the distortion and overt aggression that had come to define Nirvana’s sound (which was somewhat less prominent in their recently released In Utero) and, in doing so, captured the brilliant pop songwriting at the band’s core. Cobain’s emotive vocals captured his fragility and pure talent; he, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl (plus a few guest instrumentalists) shot the entire set in one take, an unusual feat for the Unplugged series.

Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance found extra poignancy after Cobain’s suicide the following spring; the live album was the band’s first posthumous release and won a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album.

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“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

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