Introducing someone to Elvis can be a tortuous process. The inevitable reaction from Joe or Joanna Public whenever Elvis is mentioned is to crinkle their lip and mumble 'Uh-uh-uh'. To get to the real Elvis, you have to clear away all the dross - the Burger King jokes, the jibes about impersonators and movies - and persuade people to listen to his work afresh.
It's not enough to play them the immortal hits. Greats like All Shook Up are too familiar for most people to really hear them. In Britain one in three households probably owns at least one permutation of his greatest hits. That's why 'A Little Less Conversation' was always - even before it became the theme for a TV ad - more likely to zoom up the charts than a re-release of, say, 'Suspicious Minds' even though the latter is a much greater song. 'A Little Less Conversation', an oddity plucked from the late 1960s, was almost like having a real new Elvis single. And 'Rubberneckin', though it hasn't topped the charts in the same way, benefitted from a similar unfamiliarity to the general public and the casual fan.
The most seductive records, I've found in the course of two decades of campaigning on Elvis' behalf, are From Elvis In Memphis and any album of the Sun sessions. For too many people, the Sun sessions are a - if not the - defining moment in rock history but a defining moment they haven't actually heard. When they hear the voice of the last century at its innovative, eerily confident, best, most admit grudgingly that there's more to Elvis than first meets the ear. For some, the Sun sessions is the beginning and end of a journey. For some, the mere presence of that voice will be enough to intrigue them no matter how good or bad the songs. Others may restrict themselves to a handful of Elvis' finest albums and a greatest hits compilation.
The other great starting point is From Elvis In Memphis. Elvis sings, throughout, with a soul, a passion, an aching need, yet a control, and a purity of tone which can overwhelm even the most hardened cynic. The mannerisms which made his voice famous are conspicuous by their absence. Instead, it's as if Elvis has poured more of his soul into this album than any other. It is, as Woody Allen would say, a travesty of a mockery of a sham that this album isn't better known in the non-Elvis world; as a country/soul album it has few peers, as a collection of strong songs sung by a great singer, it must surely be one of the finest vocal albums of all time.
Sometimes, I'll mention that their idol liked Elvis - almost every rock or pop act from Dylan to Led Zeppelin to Robbie Williams had paid homage to him - which can help challenge people's prejudices. The 1968 TV special, the original MTV Unplugged concert long before MTV was invented, comes in useful, the power of the performance impressing even rock music snobs who hated the King's ballads. Sometimes, I just slip a track on the office computer - the other day, El's version of Words stunned a twenty-something whose musical tastes had hitherto only gone as far back as the Smiths.
Some tin-eared souls will never get Elvis and, if none of this works, move on. It's their loss, after all. I have my own compilation of lesser known cuts which has, over the years, served to intrigue, titillate and captivate sceptics. My personal 12 track selection is as follows: Long Black Limousine, Reconsider Baby, Tomorrow Is A Long Time, Money Honey, I'm Leavin', Whole Lotta Shakin Goin' On, It Hurts Me, Promised Land, Tryin' To Get To You (the original Sun version), His Latest Flame, Lawdy Miss Clawdy, An American Trilogy. Bonus track: He Touched Me.
One friend, after listening to this anthology, said with admiration - he was into angry loud rock music - 'That Whole Lotta Shakin Goin On is really heavy, like something by the Lemonheads'. I nodded sagely, not knowing who the Lemonheads were but glad that from now on, some part of his record collection would be forever Elvis. Won over, many new fans then listen to the classic hits anew, picking up every nuance in his voice.
It's never too soon to start the campaign. My eight year old son Jack now sings the chorus 'Return To Sender' and 'Hi Heel Sneakers', although he's also besotted by Madonna. The other day, working at home, I caught him, unawares, singing 'A hunk a hunk a burnin' love' and rocking forward in the chair as if his life depended on it. This victory is only temporary - in five years, as a teenager, he'll despise dad's music. But he may return to Elvis later. The seeds, at least, have been planted.
- More articles by Paul Simpson