26th March, 1960. The night that swing and rock ‘n’ roll collide. Two rivals who happen to be the joint titans of 20th century pop culture. In a sense, they are the same man, separated merely by time. And tonight, as they prepare to join the stage together, they are both terrified.
The feud begins with verbal sparring, off-hand jabs made to the press. Frank resents the new generation, describing rock ‘n’ roll as the “music of every side-burned delinquent on the face of the earth.” The “most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear.” Targeting Elvis specifically, Frank remarks: “Presley has no training at all. When he goes into something serious, a bigger kind of singing, we’ll find out if he is a singer.” Elvis retorts: “If I remember correctly, he was also part of a trend. I don’t see how he can call the youth of today immoral and delinquent. […] It’s an American development, just like crooning was a few years back.” Despite his fans anointing him The King, Elvis spends much of his career in Frank’s shadow.
No one predicts that a duet is on the cards. But they need each other. Presley, returning after two years in the army, is afraid the public has moved on. Frank desperately needs a ratings boost for his TV specials. The answer? A performance of the ages from the two musical icons of the day: The Voice and The King. Much to Frank’s chagrin, Elvis is paid a record amount to appear for just 8 minutes – more than Frank is paid for hosting the entire show. But Frank takes it in his stride.
That night, according to Frank’s daughter Tina, the two were “shaking in their boots”. When the heavyweight bout finally arrives, they sing each other’s hits, ‘Witchcraft’ and ‘Love Me Tender’. “Man, that’s pretty” Frank says in disbelief, almost stunned by how beautiful their voices sound together. They smile and dance. Frank calls Elvis ‘buddy’. For a moment, any rivalry or resentment fades, it is a bridging of genres and generations. It becomes clear that it was always about a love of the music, and music’s tremendous capacity to connect people.
After that night, the two struck up an unlikely friendship. Frank’s daughter Nancy starred in one of Elvis’ films, and Frank let Elvis borrow his private jet to fly to his Las Vegas wedding. Elvis even befriended other members of the Rat Pack – Sammy Davis Jr once rated Elvis 11/10. If there was any winner in the battle between Elvis and Frank, it was music. Put on any of their songs and you are immediately transported. As Frank sung in ‘New York, New York’, they were ‘number one, top of the list, king of the hill’. Decades later, The King and The Voice still have us feeling the same way.