What Do the Lyrics to Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” Mean?

Released in 1957, “Jailhouse Rock” has since become one of Elvis Presley’s signature songs. Partly because of how much he rocks and wails on the track and partially for the iconic music video of him shaking his hips with his black, greased hair falling just so over his eyes.

But what is the song, released for the soundtrack for the film of the same name and has since been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, actually mean? What is it getting at? What is a “jailhouse rock,” anyway? Let’s dive in.

The Song’s Subtle Meaning
From one look at the music video and you know something hidden but amorous is going on. A group of cells full of men smattered with a few police officers watching unapprovingly. Elvis slides down a pole. Then in verse three, Presley sings,

Number 47 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”

Since the song’s writing, gender studies scholars—including Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood and Gary Thomas in the 2006 book, Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology (p. 363)—have noted that the song, which was written at first as a joke but sung by Presley with a charging and earnest bent, is “famous” for its “reference to homoerotics behind bars.”

“‘Jailhouse Rock’ was always a queer lyric, in both senses,” music writer Garry Mulholland said of the song in the 2010 book, Popcorn: Fifty Years of Rock’n’Roll Movies.

The Characters Mentioned
Written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who also penned “Hound Dog” and “Yakety Yak,” the “Jailhouse Rock” lyrics included the names of real people. A well-known Los Angeles musician, Shifty Henry, though was not a criminal. The Purple Gang was an actual mob. The list goes on.

The Movies

As music fans likely know today, at the height of his fame, Presley appeared in many movies. Jailhouse Rock was another and the movie’s songwriters thought they’d take a humorous tone. The plot of that movie, according to IMDB, is, “After serving time for manslaughter, young Vince Everett becomes a teenage rock star.”

But Elvis, who had rocketed to stardom just a few years earlier in the mid-1950s, sang the title track like a rock ‘n’ roll warrior.

The Party
While the song didn’t seem to have any real intentional meaning other than to elucidate the happenings of what a party in jail would look like, there is a subtler undertone.

That aside, however, the rest of the song is just a juke joint romp. Warden threw a party, the band began to wail, and everybody in the cell block rocked, from Spider Murphy on his horn to Little Joe, the drummer boy, the purple gang, inmates 47 and 3, Sad Sack, Shifty Henry and Bugs.

And, of course, Elvis.

Dancin’ to the Jailhouse Rock, dancin’ to the Jailhouse Rock
Dancin’ to the Jailhouse Rock, dancin’ to the Jailhouse Rock
Dancin’ to the Jailhouse Rock

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