ELVIS PRESLEY HAD A WHALE of a year in 1956, recording four number-one hits, including the year’s top two Billboard singles, “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” His appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” drew the largest single audience in television history. He even made a movie, Love Me Tender.
How does Elvis at twenty-one compare with Samuel Colt or Steve Jobs at the same age? Some would say he doesn’t, that you can’t compare a rock and roller with a gun-maker and a computer genius. They’re just too different.
Me, I enjoy apples-and-oranges comparisons. For starters, you can never be wrong. In this case, it all hinges on how you define “best year.” Some would go with the most culturally significant year, but even that’s a judgment call. I lean toward the wildly subjective “wow” factor. At twenty-one, Colt invented his famous six-shooter, which made little folks with sharp eyes and fast reflexes superior to brutes. That gets a “wow,” for sure. But there have been other, nearly as impressive youthful inventions. Then there’s 1956 Elvis. No single pop performer (the 1964 Beatles don’t count; there were four of them) has ever had a year that compares. That gets a massive “wow” from me.
Check out these age-related accomplishments and see who gets your vote. If you like, you can rank them one to five.
- Sarah Frye Egerton. Writes feminist poem “The Female Advocate.” 1684
- Phillis Wheatley. Writes first published poem by an African American. 1767
- Joseph Smith. May have seen vision that will result in Mormon religion (right). 1820
- Philo Farnsworth. Develops concept for electronic television scanning. 1921
- Bobby Fischer. Wins the U.S. Chess Championship. 1958
- Louis Braille. Invents reading-and-writing system for the blind. 1824
- Sonja Henie. Wins first of three Olympic golds in figure skating. 1928
- Anne Frank. Makes last entries in Diary of a Young Girl. 1942
- The Little Rock Nine (average age: 15). Integrate Arkansas high school. 1957
- S.E. Hinton. Writes The Outsiders, a young adult fiction classic. 1966
- Edward the Black Prince. Commands wing of English army to victory over France. 1346
- Eliza Lucas. Begins experiments with South Carolina indigo. 1739
- Sacagawea. Accompanies Lewis and Clark expedition. 1805
- George S. Parker. Invents and sells his first game. 1883
- Patty Duke. Wins Oscar, debuts “The Patty Duke Show (right).” 1963
- Marco Polo. Begins historic voyage to China. 1271
- Joan of Arc. Leads French army, lifts siege of Orleans. 1429
- Artemisia Gentileschi. Paints Susanna and the Elders. 1610
- Felix Mendelssohn. Composes overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 1826
- Bob Mathias. Wins gold medal in Olympic decathlon. 1948
- Mary Shelley. Writes Frankenstein. 1816
- Joyce Clyde Hall. Starts business that will become Hallmark Cards. 1910
- Maureen Connolly. Wins tennis grand slam. 1953
- Françoise Sagan. Writes Bonjour Tristesse. 1953
- Jim Henson. Debuts Muppets on “Sam and Friends.” 1955
- Marquis de Lafayette. Joins Revolutionary War effort as general. 1777
- Josh Gibson. Hits a reported 75 Negro League home runs. 1931
- Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster. Create comic-book character Superman. 1934
- Debbie Reynolds. Stars in Singin’ in the Rain. 1952
- Bill Gates. Co-founds Microsoft with Paul Allen. 1975
- Frederick Douglass. Escapes from slavery. 1838
- Anne Sullivan. Teaches Helen Keller to read. 1887
- Rudolph Dirks. Debuts the “Katzenjammer Kids” comic strip, one of the first to use a frame sequence and speech balloons, in a supplement of the New York Journal. 1897
- Audie Murphy (right): Kills or wounds fifty enemy soldiers in combat. 1945
- Wilma Rudolph. Wins three Olympic gold medals in track. 1960
- Levi Strauss. Sells first pair of jeans. 1850
- Samuel Colt. Patents Colt Revolver. 1835
- Elvis Presley. Records first four number one singles. 1956
- Steve Jobs. Incorporates Apple Computer. 1976
- Tiger Woods. Wins Masters by record twelve strokes. 1997
- Samuel Slater. Establishes America’s first successful cotton mill. 1790
- Grace Darling. Becomes media heroine after rescuing nine shipwreck survivors. 1838
- Cyrus McCormick. Invents the reaper. 1831
- Jesse Owens. Wins four gold medals at Berlin Olympics. 1936
- Mark Spitz. Wins seven gold medals in swimming at Munich Olympics. 1970
- George Fox. Begins ministry that
will result in The Society of Friends (Quakers). 1647
- Issac Newton. Develops laws of motion, theory of gravitation. 1666
- Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit. Introduces the alcohol thermometer and develops the Fahrenheit temperature scale. 1709
- John Keats. Wrote five great odes, including “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” 1819
- Ted Williams. Hits .406 for Boston Red Sox. 1941
- William Randolph Hearst. Takes over the San Francisco Examiner, launches media empire. 1887
- John T. Scopes. Challenges the Butler Act, which prohibits the teaching of evolution in Tennessee schools. 1925
- Joe Louis. Knocks out Germany’s Max Schmeling. 1938
- Chuck Yeager. Breaks the sound barrier. 1947
- James Dean. Makes Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. 1955
- Alexander the Great. Conquers Persia. 331 B.C.
- Queen Elizabeth I. Succeeds Mary Tudor as queen of England. 1558
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Writes “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “Kubla Khan.” 1798
- Charles Lindbergh. Completes solo plane trip from New York to Paris. 1927
- Werner Heisenberg. Develops the uncertainty principle. 1927
- Joseph Black. Discovers carbon dioxide, a gas he calls “fixed air.” 1754
- Alexander Cartwright. Establishes the rules and plays in what is regarded as the first modern baseball game. 1846
- J.C. Penney. Launches retail giant with first store in Kemmerer, Wyoming. 1902
- Albert Einstein. Introduces theory of special relativity and the equation e=mc2. 1905
- Walt Disney. Debuts Mickey Mouse in “Steamboat Willie.” 1928
- Elias Howe. Invents and patents the first automatic sewing machine. 1846
- Guglielmo Marconi. Introduces wireless communication. 1901
- Sergei Eisenstein. Directs The Battleship Potemkin. 1925
- Yuri Gagarin (right).Becomes first man in space aboard Vostok 1 1961
- Sarah Weddington. Successfully argues Roe v. Wade before Supreme Court. 1973
- Henry VII. Defeats Richard III to winthe War of the Roses. 1485
- Eli Whitney. Invents the cotton gin. 1794
- F. Scott Fitzgerald. Publishes The Great Gatsby. 1925
- Bobby Jones. Wins Grand Slam of golf. 1930
- Jackie Robinson. Breaks baseball’s color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers. 1947
- Michelangelo. Completes his thirteen-and-a-half-tall statue of David, one of the masterpieces of the Renaissance. 1504
- Alexander Graham Bell. Introduces the telephone. 1876
- Emily Bronte. Publishes Wuthering Heights. 1847
- Karl Marx. Co-authors The Communist Manifesto with Friedrich Engels. 1848
- Berry Gordy. Launches Tamla and Motown records. 1959
- John D. Rockefeller. He and his associates found the Standard Oil Company of Ohio. 1870
- Henry Morton Stanley. Discovers Dr. Livingstone in on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. 1871
- Alvin York. Captures 132 enemy troops in WWI. 1918
- Melvin Purvis (right). Eliminates John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd. 1934
- Ray Charles. Records “Georgia on My Mind,” “Hit The Road Jack” in one calendar year. 1960-61
- Hannibal. Defeats Romans at Battle of Cannae after crossing the Alps on elephants. 216 B.C
- Mozart. Debuts “Don Giovanni,” widely regarded as the greatest opera ever composed. 1787
- Jimmy Stewart. Appears in four classic films in one calendar year (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Destry Rides Again, The Shop Around the Corner, The Philadelphia Story). 1939-40
- Raoul Wallenberg. Begins rescuing an estimated 100,000 Hungarian Jews from certain death in Nazi crematoriums. 1944
- J.K. Rowling. Publishes first Harry Potter book. 1997
- John Paul Jones. Wins “I have not yet begun to fight” battle with British. 1779
- Herman Melville. Publishes “Moby-Dick.” 1851
- Thomas Edison. Invents the light bulb. 1879
- Fidel Castro. Topples Cuban regime of Fulgencio Batista. 1959
- Oprah Winfrey. Debuts massively popular talk show. 1986
- Jesus of Nazareth. Christian savior crucified, resurrected. ca. 37 A.D.
- Thomas Jefferson. Writes Declaration of Independence. 1776
- Arthur Miller. Debuts “Death of a Salesman.” 1949
- Pete Rozelle. Becomes NFL commissioner. 1960
- George Lucas. Releases Star Wars. 1977
- Henry Cavendish. Becomes first person to distinguish hydrogen from other gases. 1766
- Florence Nightingale. Begins Crimean War nursing mission. 1854
- George Eastman. Patents Kodak camera. 1888
- Wily Post. Becomes first to fly solo around the world. 1933
- Martin Luther King. Delivers “I Have a Dream” speech. 1963
- Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha). Attains enlightenment. ca 528 B.C.
- William Shakespeare. Writes Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Hamlet. 1599
- Cesar Chavez. Founds United Farm Workers Union. 1962
- Walter Gropius. Founds the Bauhaus school of design in Germany. 1919
- Tim Berners-Lee. Launches World Wide Web. 1991
- Johann Sebastian Bach. Composes Brandenburg Concertos 1721
- Walt Whitman. Publishes Leaves of Grass, his most acclaimed book of poetry. 1855
- Wilbur Wright. Launches first powered flight with brother 1903
- Maria Montessori. Opens first Children’s House. 1907
- Johnny Carson. Debuts on “Tonight Show” 1962
- Henry David Thoreau. Publishes Walden. 1854
- Margaret Sanger. Establishes America’s first birth control clinic. 1916
- David O. Selznick. Produces Gone With The Wind. 1939
- Alan Shepard Jr. becomes the first American in space by piloting the Freedom 7 mission. 1961
- Dave Thomas. Opens first Wendy’s. 1969
- Vasco Da Gama. Sails from Portugal to India. 1498
- Thomas Paine. Publishes Common Sense, an influential pamphlet that advocates American independence from Great Britain. 1776
- Peter Sellers. Appears in Dr. Strangelove, The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark. 1964
- Neil Armstrong. Takes first step on the moon. 1969
- Ted Turner. Launches Turner Broadcasting System. 1976
- William the Conqueror. Conquers England at Battle of Hastings. 1066
- Godfrey of Bouillon. Achieves renown during the First Crusade and is named “protector of the Holy Sepulchre” following the siege of Jerusalem (1099).
- Ferdinand Magellan. Begins around-the-world voyage. 1519
- Henry Ford. Founds Ford Motor Company. 1903
- Dan Brown. Publishes The Da Vinci Code. 2003
- Muhammad ibn Abdullah. Founds Islam. 610 A.D.
- Robert the Bruce. Wins Scotland’s independence with victory over English at Battle of Bannockburn. 1314
- D.W. Griffith. Directs Birth of a Nation. 1915
- James Joyce. Publishes Ulysses. 1922
- Lucille Ball. Debuts on “I Love Lucy.” 1951
April 15, 1848: Teenagers Mary and Emily Edmonson, four of their brothers, and seventy-one other slaves attempt to escape on the Pearl to Chesapeake Bay and freedom in New Jersey. Emily was thirteen and Mary was fifteen. After the escape was thwarted, the Edmonson sisters were purchased by an abolitionist group and freed from slavery. They campaigned with Henry Ward Beecher for an end to slavery.
In 1965, Patti McGee, nineteen, became the first National Girls’ Skateboarding Champion.
I started milking our family cowS at age thirteen. Around country kids, I would’ve heard, Ooh! That’s girls’ work. You must be a girl! On lots of farms, young women do the milking. But I got bused to a junior high school filled with suburban kids who thought milk just magically appeared in Darigold cartons. If I’d admitted to milking a cow, I would’ve heard …
Ooh! You touch a cow’s boobs!
You want to marry your cow. Admit it!
You suck! Just like a baby cow sucks a mother cow!
So I kept silent about my cow milking, except when I was doing it. Then I got loud. Something about the squish-squish percussion of the fluid splashing in the bucket and the acoustics of our barn made me raise my voice in song. Some people sing in their showers, I sang in a barn while my fingers danced on bovine nipples.
OK, that sounds icky, even to me.
My first milk cow, a brown Swiss-Guernsey mix that Mom named Swiss Miss, twitched a lot while I sang. I liked to think she was shaking her hips in rhythm to my dulcet notes, except my singing is best described as enthusiastic. Translation: loud and tuneless.
Poor Swiss Miss. Morning and night, she had to endure a grubby kid howling like a gutted hog while massaging her milk handles. That can’t be comforting, especially when you consider the soundtrack. Washington Post music critic Tim Page has called 1974, the year I started milking, the worst year ever for popular music. That was the year of “(You’re) Having My Baby,” “Billy Don’t Be a Hero,” and “The Streak.”
I rarely sang those songs, but I often howled “Rock The Boat,” “The Night Chicago Died,” “Seasons in the Sun,” and “Takin’ Care of Business.” Bad songs, maybe, but they sure were catchy. When other people sang them.
I should’ve crooned country tunes, seeing as my milk cow related more to green pastures and cheatin’ lovers — i.e., bulls — than bubblegum pop songs. In 1974, Dolly Parton had country hits with “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You,” and Merle Haggard climbed the charts with “If We Make It Through December,” one of his finest recordings. It was a decent year for the Nashville sound.
Only problem: My mom and dad liked country music. No self-respecting kid should like the same songs as his parents. My thirteen-year-old daughter makes gagging noises when she hears my favorite songs, and I salute her for that.
Somehow, Swiss Miss survived my Top-40 caterwauling, as did a second cow named Fern. Then came Beauty, a no-nonsense Guernsey I started milking at age fifteen in 1976. Beauty put her foot down over my singing, and when that didn’t work — I held the milk pail between my knees where she couldn’t step in it – she unleashed the most vicious, disgusting, and accurate scourge of all time.
Ooh, that tail! Freakishly long, it dragged in the mud and manure all day long, making it damp, foul, and deadly.
At first, I took no notice of Beauty’s back-end lash. I was too happy with the ease of milking her. With some cows the milk ejects grudgingly, resulting in aching human hands and an under-filled bucket. With Beauty, though, the slightest of squeezes brought forth thick streams of rich white liquid.
As my pail filled with milk, my heart filled with song. I started to croon a tune that would rank twenty-fifth on Billboard’s Year-End, Hot 100 singles of 1976 — The Eagles’ “Take It To The Limit.”
Something thick and wet exploded on my left cheek. It stung! And it was dung! I felt muck and mud on my mouth and chin and dripping off my face. I spit out the awful offal and started to yell …
“Beauty! You —”
I stopped. Beauty had coiled up her tail for what looked like another strike. You never want to make a milk cow mad, especially one with a pitiless weapon dangling from her backside
“Don’t do that again,” I said in a voice dialed down to a ragged whisper. “Please?”
I milked silently after that. Beauty’s tail flickered a few times, which kept me on guard. It seemed to be sending a “do not disturb” signal, much like an angry cat’s twitching tail. I’m not the type to defy such signs, especially when a lack of compliance brings about a stinging, sloppy, pie-in-the face penalty.
I should’ve learned my lesson but I forgot myself one day and launched into “Fooled Around and Fell in Love.” Maybe Beauty liked Elvin Bishop; she didn’t smack me right away. But when my singing got louder, I got another thwap!
“Sorry, Beauty. I’ll be quiet.”
I was awed by her accuracy. Beauty never looked back and rarely stopped munching the oats and hay in her stanchion, yet she never missed. You’d think she’d sometimes land a slightly high or low blow, but no, she always blasted my left cheek.
She must’ve had radar back there.
It took awhile to break my singing-while-milking habit. Lifting my voice in shrieking glee had become a habit, like breathing and picking at that one perpetual nose pimple. I couldn’t just shut it off because one cranky cow thought she was the 1976 bovine version of Simon Cowell. The mean judge from the first seasons of “American Idol,” Cowell told lots of people that their singing stunk, but he didn’t make them stink by smacking them with poo. Only Beauty did that.
After a couple of months of milking Beauty, I discovered I could tuck the tip of her tail under my left knee. With my legs in a squatting position, like a baseball catcher, the thigh and upper calf made a vise that kept the tail in place. If I sang, I could feel her try to yank that weapon free.
Ha! She couldn’t do it! I’d won!
Except it wasn’t fair, and I knew it. Cows need their tails to swat flies as well as to smack off-key kids like me. Disabling Beauty’s tail was as cruel as snatching the comb from Todd G. a conceited classmate who raked his stiff black mane 600 times a day. So I compromised with my cow. On days when the tail dripped with slop and feces, I’d pin it under my leg. I didn’t want the goop to splatter my face or splash into the milk bucket. The rest of the time, I let the tail be free.
While a bit more hygienic, a cow’s tail can harden in the sun like an unwashed paintbrush, resulting in a smack that feels more like a bare-knuckle punch than a wet, open-handed slap. So the threat was far from gone when Beauty’s back-end cudgel turned from mushy oatmeal to stiff cement. I endured more than one dry thump that all but knocked me off my stool.
Still, I found that I could live with that and Beauty could live with my singing, as long as I kept it quiet and steered clear of Nazareth’s “Love Hurts” and Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself,” 1976 songs that bring out the ear-piercing lounge singer in the best of us. Yet even with the smoothest of tunes, I knew that it only took one overly shrill note and
Beauty’s tail would do some singing of its own.
On this date (April 1) in 1932, Debbie Reynolds was born in El Paso, Texas.
Perhaps the hardest thing Reynolds ever did was make dancing with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor look easy in Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Playing the object of Kelly’s affection, the nineteen-year-old Reynolds had to dance as well as sing, which proved challenging because 1) she had never danced on screen before, and 2) Kelly was a perfectionist who drove her hard. “I was practicing and rehearsing all the time, my feet were bleeding,” Reynolds told the Associated Press 50 years after the movie’s release.
The hard work resulted in a splendid performance in the musical comedy about the changeover from silent to sound movies. Reynolds played a young woman with a lovely voice who charmed Gene Kelly’s Don Lockwood and incurred the wrath of Jean Hagen’s Lina Lamont, a silent-screen star with a grating voice. Critic Pauline Kael of The New Yorker called Singin’ in the Rain “perhaps the most enjoyable of all movie musicals.” In 2006, the American Film Institute ranked Singin’ in the Rain as the best ever U.S. movie musical.