A favorite show of mine growing up, and one that I really wish would come out on DVD, is the short-lived 1990 ABC series Elvis-Good Rockin’ Tonight. It only lasted for 10 episodes with three unaired episodes, and was later edited into one long, (4 hours) film Elvis: The Early Years. It follows a young Elvis from his days in Tupelo to the end of his days at Sun Records. The series stared Michael St Gerard, (Link in the original Hairspray), Jesse Dabson, Blake Gibbons, and Millie Perkins, (The Diary Of Anne Frank). I’m posting this here because I always hear people say “well, they’ve made Walk The Line, and Ray, why has there never been a production on par with those two for Elvis? Well, there has! This is Elvis: Good Rockin’ Tonight!
First, a little background: The series was pitched in 1988 by Rick Husky to Priscilla Presley. Originally considered for the role of Elvis was Matt Dillon and Scott Valentine of Family Ties. Then Michael St. Gerard, fresh off of Hairspray and Great Balls Of Fire (in which he played Elvis), came in. lip-synced to “Baby Let’s Play House”, got the part, and flew to Memphis the next day to start filming. Michael St Gerard made a career of playing Elvis-Great Balls of Fire, Quantum Leap, Heart Of Dixie– he looks so much like him it gives you that “fly on a wall” view on Elvis’ life, much like Jamie Fox did as Ray Charles. Instead of using Elvis’ masters for the soundtrack they used famed sound-alike Ronnie McDowell. This is one of my favorite aspects of the series as you hear a few songs Elvis never actually recorded but might of played live. Songs like Ray Charles’ “Mess Around”, and Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You Baby” give you the impression of a young Elvis putting together a live act in the early days considering he only had one or two records out. One last thing before I get into the episodes, an interesting casting choice was made for Elvis’ mother Gladys, Millie Perkins who was the real Elvis’ love interest in the 1961 film Wild In The Country.
1) Money Honey– In the first episode Elvis records his first demo “My Happiness”. His father hurts his back and forces Elvis to support the family, a year has past and Sam Phillips calls to have Elvis come back into Sun Records, and work with some musicians Scotty Moore & Bill Black. This is a good place to open the series, we get a small intro in which we see Elvis as a child watching his father get arrested for altering a paycheck. It gives you a sense of the extreme poverty that was much of Elvis’ early life.
2) The Storm– This episode opens with another flashback of young Elvis, this time witnessing the tornado that devastated Tupelo in the late 30’s. We then clip to Elvis trying out a few songs at Sun Records which leads to the recording of his first record “That’s All Right Mama”. By the end of the episode the record gets played on the air and Elvis’s life is about to change. I like the symbolism in this episode starting with the tornado, and ending with Elvis saying to his mother after the record is a success, “There’s a storm coming, Mama”. Very simple, but perfect.
3) The Locket-Again we begin with a flashback. While this does happen quite a bit, every episode is related in way to show an event in Elvis’ childhood having an effect on him in later years. Here we see Gladys and child Elvis visiting Vernon in prison, and we see that Gladys is there for a conjugal visit. It means the episode will be based around sex. Here we have Elvis performing his very first show. He opens with a ballad, and then tears into “Good Rockin’ Tonight” shaking his hips, driving the crowd wild. His girlfriend fearing all the attention gives him a locket. Elvis then goes on the road where he sleeps with a groupie. This episode is great for the music, the rerecording of Elvis’ hits sound great here, and the song “Since I Met You Baby” sounds great arranged as an early Sun-era Elvis ballad.
4) Bel-Air Breakdown-The first episode without a flashback, and an interesting take on Elvis’ early fame. The episode revolves around the troubles three guys have touring the country as the first rock & roll group. What I love about this show is that what are usually considered minor characters in an Elvis bio-pic, are here considered major characters. I’m talking here of course about Scotty Moore & Bill Black Elvis’ sidemen. The actors have such great chemistry that they are believable not only as musicians, but as friends.
5) Hole In The Pocket-We open with a flashback of Elvis at ten years old taking third place in a singing contest at a state fair. Young Elvis wants to use his prize money to buy a raffle ticket for a bike. This does a great subtle job at hinting about Elvis’ spending habits. We then clip to the main story. This one revolves around Elvis getting his first royalty check and spending it on the, now famous, pink Cadillac. One highlight of this show is when they introduce the caddy they clip back and forth between shots of Elvis driving it to a very cool vintage Cadillac commercial which perfectly shows the excitement that was a 1950’s Caddy!
6) Roots-The first of my three favorite episodes. When asked what era of Elvis do you like, people say the 50’s, 60’s or 70’s. For me it’s his formative years, and that’s what this one is about. There’s something poetic about the image of a young Elvis learning about the blues. Here Elvis & the boys get a show in Tupelo. Elvis meets up with old friends and sits in at a all black blues club after his show at the local white high school. Now this may not have happened, but it doesn’t matter it successfully portrays the negative reaction to Elvis’ music, and the ugliness of segregation.
7) & 8) Grand Ole Opry/Sun Sessions-My second favorite episode. Here we get an idea of Elvis’ country influence as we see a young Elvis listening to the Grand Ole Opry while strumming his guitar. In the main story Elvis & the boys get the offer to perform at the Grand Ole Opry where after their heads swell a bit, they go over like a lead balloon. They go back to Memphis with their tails tucked between their legs and struggle to record their next record. The second half of the episode is very cool as you get to see Elvis trying out different songs, that Elvis really did try out on Sun but the real tapes have been lost. They get it together by the end, and on we go.
9) Four Mules-This is one of three unaired episodes. It’s focus is on Elvis & the boys booking the Louisiana Hayride, a major radio show that gave Elvis his start, the subplot revolves around all of the characters being as stubborn as mules. The fourth mule being Sam Phillips. Not much to say here, I have the real audio of Elvis at the Louisiana Hayride so it’s cool to see it re-created here. Also, very cool to see David Graff, Tackleberry from Police Academy, as Elvis’ second manager Bob Neal.
10) The Old Man-This is the second of three unaired episodes. This is a “Scotty Moore episode” not much of Elvis here but still very interesting to see. Here Scotty struggles as Elvis’ manager and guitar player, by the end of the episode Bob Neal becomes their manager so Scotty can focus on the music. It’s an interesting episode in it shows how fast Elvis was becoming a star.
11) Moody’s Blues-My favorite episode. The whole episode is a flashback. Here we see Elvis in high school learning the blues from a Beale St. street musician. Beale Street looks great in this episode. My favorite part being both the music in the episode and the line, “that’s your problem boy, the blues is complaining!” You really get the feeling of how Elvis soaked up his surroundings like a sponge and created something new from it. This is one for those who say Elvis “stole from the black man.” You can tell he had a deep respect for the blues. This episode captures that perfectly!
12) Bodyguards-This episode is kind of sad in a way. It shows why Elvis needed all those bodyguards he had in his later years. We see the fans going crazy, jealous boyfriends. There’s no upside to this episode, you see Elvis as a man who longed for freedom but could never have it. There’s a lot of what he became here.
13) Let It Burn-The last episode. I feel like this episode was a foreshadowing episode too. Elvis is on the rode, he cheats on his girlfriend, and she catches him. By the end of the episode Elvis hires his own bodyguards, and Scotty & Bill become nothing more then sidemen. The upside here is the music. It’s really cool to hear what it would have been like if Elvis had covered Mess Around by Ray Charles. The arrangement is so cool in fact I learned how to play it. The end of the episode has Elvis driving his Caddy on bad wheel bearings and it catches fire. Elvis says “let, it burn”. As in leave the past behind. I only wish the series went into his early RCA period, but unfortunately it seems people were flipping over to Fox for their brand new hit show The Simpson’s which held the same time slot as Elvis.
In conclusion, this show is fantastic! The locations a beautiful, the costumes, and period cars take you to the early 50’s in Memphis, and unlike the awful 2005 Jonathan Rhys Myers mini series Elvis, Michael St Gerard lip syncs very well and has Elvis’ moves down cold. If you remember this show or would like to see it I urge you to send requests to Elvis.com to get this on DVD. They may not own the rights but if they get enough requests I’m sure they’ll find out who does!!
Recently I was able to get in contact with actor Jesse Dabson who played Scotty Moore on the show, and he agreed to an interview. Thank you Jesse, and I hope everyone here enjoys it…
1) When did you first become an actor, and why?
If you ask my parents they will tell you that I have always been an actor. At least that is what I think they mean by the term “little ham” as I was never over weight as a child. I grew up in a great story telling family that had a tremendous sense of humor and the performing part of things always came quite naturally to me. I couldn’t say when I actually made the decision to become an actor, perhaps it was in 2nd grade when they asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. However, I can tell you that after doing a few plays in High School, I started at Knox College with a double major in Economics and Philosophy intent on becoming a Lawyer. Fall term of my Freshman year I auditioned for a play on whim and by the end of 4 years I was bitten by the bug, finishing college with a double major in Economics and Theater. I received a scholarship to Northwestern University where I pursued Graduate work in Theater and after a couple of years in Chicago I decided to move to L.A. to give acting a shot. Knowing full well that I needed a back up plan I took the LSAT test in L.A., was accepted into Law School and fortunately or unfortunately never quite made it there because after only 8 months in L.A. I was cast in my first film role which was in a movie entitled “The Hanoi”.
2) Were you an Elvis fan prior to landing the role of Scotty Moore in the television series?
I can’t say that I was an avid fan but, that wasn’t my fault. My parents listened to more Sinatra, Martin and big band music and by the time I really got into music it was more of the Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, Queen variety. After having done the series though, I can honestly say that I garnered a deep appreciation for the man and his music and would today call myself a fan.
3) You, and Jordan Williams, (as Sam Philips), were the only ones in the cast in which their characters real life counter-parts were still alive at the time of production. Were you able to meet with Scotty Moore, and if so what did he tell you to help you be him?
I did indeed meet Scotty in the course of doing the series and to this day it is one of my cherished memories. He has become a friend and I have had the privilege getting to know him over the years. he is a tremendous guy who in my estimation got somewhat short changed in the whole Elvis phenomenon. He did do some consulting on the series and I have had occasion to get advice from him, usually over a glass of scotch while listening to him play, but the only advice I can remember him giving me about portraying him was “make me look good”.
4) As to be expected there was quite a lot of competition for the role of Elvis, (even Matt Dillon was considered according to Elvis: His Life From A To Z), can you explain your auditioning process a bit? When the three of you were brought together, (Michael St Gerard as Elvis, Blake Gibbons as Bill…), did you become friends? You seem to have a great chemistry with them.
Indeed we did become friends. I would say that Micheal and I were more friends of circumstance and unfortunately I haven’t been in touch with him in probably 12 years but, Blake and I became good buddies and still keep in touch to this day. And with regard to the chemistry, I would say that it quite naturally mimicked what I know of the group dynamic in those days.
5) I’ve read in Scotty Moore’s book “That’s All Right Elvis”, he was upset with the way Bill Black was portrayed. Was he on set a lot to see how certain events were played out, what did he have to say?
I would never presume to speak for Scotty but I think the feelings he expressed in his book have some merit. I believe Bill’s character may have departed from the actual man that Scotty knew in some ways and I presume that the departure served the storytelling needs of the series.
6) What was your favorite episode in the series, and why?
I guess it would be cheating to say all of them but, truly, each was a revelation and joy. How do you pick among your children. I can tell you this though, my favorite part of every episode was the performance we did that week. Lights on, music up, extras screaming and playback. It is as close to being a Rock Star as I will ever get and I revel in the memory of it still.
7) Sadly the series only lasted 10 episodes, with three unaired episodes later edited into the TNT airings of the show, what factors do you think contributed to the series not becoming more of a success? Were any scripts written for the next season, which I assume would have covered Elvis’ first year at RCA Records?
I believe that the demise of the series was probably three fold. First, it was an experiment in form. There were no dramas of the time that were a 30 minute format shot with one camera in a cinema style. The 30 minute format was for sitcoms so I think people were a little cautious of embracing it because it didn’t fit the mold. Secondly, as fascinating as it was, it wasn’t about the lurid “fat years” and it portrayed the more innocent initial years of a legend that had a lot of water under the bridge in the mind of the general public so their baser curiosity wasn’t satisfied. And thirdly, who knew we were going to get trounced in the ratings by a cartoon. Our original time slot was on Sunday nights right opposite “The Simpson’s”. One legend was effectively slain by the budding of another.
8) Are you still in touch with Michael St Gerard, or Blake Gibbons? Was Michael St Gerard upset over being typecast, (as he played Elvis in this series, Great Balls Of Fire, Heart Of Dixie, and an episode of Quantum Leap?
I’m still in touch with Blake, not with Micheal. As I remember, Michael occasionally expressed some concern as an actor that he might be type cast but, he also felt a tremendous responsibility in his portrayal, did a great job and knew that he had a fantastic gig.
9) What is your fondest memory from making Elvis? What was it like filming on location in Memphis?
I have many fond memories of my time doing the series but, two stick out. One was Steve Miner letting me direct a second unit shot. I felt like Spielberg. And the second was having my parents come to Memphis to see me shoot and talking them into being featured extras in one of the episodes. My father kept asking “what do all these guys do?” As to the second part of your question, we were shooting a series about the “King” in his hometown with hundreds of extras each week at the concert scenes…I will let your readers fill in the adjectives.
10) Last year you took part in the Larry The Cable Guy movie “Witless Protection”, how was that experience? What projects of yours can we look for now and in the future?
That movie was an absolute riot. Two of the funniest days I have ever had. Larry is one of the nicest, most considerate and funniest comedians that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing and I have known my fair share. As to what is coming up, I wish I had something definitive to tell you. I still audition for things as the opportunity arises and primarily do commercials anymore. Living in the Chicago area has changed the nature of the business for me but, as I was an actor as I child, I imagine I always will be.
Thank you so much Jesse for answering my questions, I wish you the best!!!
*Update: Currently Jesse Dabson is starring in a very funny parody of reality television called “Sex House”, which is produced by The Onion. It’s available now on You Tube. Check it out!