Why Elvis matters
Source: Elvis Australia
January 20, 2003
As David Brinkley said as part of his memoriam for Elvis, much of what they called jazz at the time wasn't. The late forties had seen the, mercifully, short rise and passing of be-bop, a jazz whose most significant contribution to music was Dizzy Gillespie who later went on to things more worthy of his talents. To be sure, there was great jazz being produced but it was largely underground. The long format, lasting 25 and even 30 minutes per side, of the 33&1/3rpm record gave opportunities for extended improvisation that singles, 78 and 45rpm, just did not offer. Duke Ellington's best work was in the past but Dave Brubeck's legendary 'Time Out', the first major experiment in different time signatures, was to come as was John Coltrane's, Miles Davis' and Herbie Hancock's. But jazz was no longer a force in the pop market, if true jazz ever really was. Personally, I'm inclined to dismiss most of the big bands' work as not true jazz.
In literature, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and others were re-combining poetry, prose, fiction and non-fiction and taking them in directions that appalled the establishment. On Broadway, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim were to collaborate musically with writer Arthur Laurents to produce West Side Story but the music, though great, was still standard. It was not a break with tradition. Jackson Pollock developed pop art which was. Music was waiting for something new to happen.
Blues had developed in the South, as did every other American musical form up to that time. Everyone I knew thought of it as a type of jazz. I've never heard W. C. Handy's 'St. Louis Blues' played other than in a jazz, almost dixieland, style. Singers like Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and Sophie Tucker with her theme 'Some Of These Days' left most of us with the impression that blues was a lament for female singers. But while no one was looking, there were changes happening to it. You just had to know where to look.
Blues had split into several branches. There was the traditional delta acoustic guitar and harmonica folk type of blues that was played by Robert Johnson and Leadbelly. The female singers had given it a jazz flair with a backup consisting of drums, piano, trombone, bass and maybe a clarinet or saxophone thrown in.
But it was to be the another type, the electric guitar based urban blues that would provide the source for the rock and roll revolution. From Memphis to Chicago and jumping off from there to all the other great cities, the revolution brewed. Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Otis Spann and others made different recipes. Independent record labels such as Stax, Sun, Atlantic, King, Chess and Specialty were the serving dishes. The large record manufacturers maintained smaller labels like Okeh and Brunswick for 'race records'.
Artists like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Coasters, Chuck Berry, LaVerne Baker, Little Richard and Fats Domino produced hits that left the young tapping their feet and dancing. These artists were all black and the records were intended to appeal, primarily, to black audiences. Articles in the newspapers, letters to the editor and Sunday sermons all warned of the dangers of this new devil's music. Blues had become rhythm and blues but us white kids called it rock and roll. We only knew that we enjoyed it. Many elders called it rot and roll and predicted its quick demise. That was to be a calculation akin to booking a round trip on the Titanic.
It was obvious that something was happening and that it was only a matter of time before a white artist would bring the music to the larger white audience. Many attempted it but it would fall to Elvis. Boyd Bennett had a hit with a song entitled 'Seventeen' which told of hot rods, juke box babies and peroxide blondes and hinted at an underlying sexuality and rebellion. But Boyd Bennett was a little too much country and western which came out in his later records.
Carl Perkins made a run at it as a singer-composer with 'Blue Suede Shoes' which sold over two million for Sun Records, Elvis' first label, in early 1956. By that time Elvis had already switched to RCA and cut a version for that label but Perkins had the hit, even though many today associate the song more with Elvis. Carl Perkins may have done it but for a few problems.
First, he was very much married which diminished his sex appeal. Second, not too long after the record was released, he was involved in a near fatal car accident which took him out of commission for quite a while. So, Carl had to settle for being a great also ran. He continued with a great career as one of rock and roll's very first singer-songwriters. The Beatles later covered more of his songs than they did of any single composer other than themselves.
The other possibility was Bill Haley and the Comets. They scored big with several tunes, including 'Crazy Man, Crazy', 'Shake, Rattle and Roll' and 'Rock Around the Clock' that to this day is the single biggest selling rock and roll record of all time and the second largest seller in history behind only 'White Christmas'. They played good cut loose music and Bill Haley today is called the Father of Rock and Roll. But again, Bill Haley had some problems.
First, he was a little rotund. He had that ridiculous spit curl down the middle of his forehead. If he ever played anything that could remotely be called a love song or ballad, I never heard it. Later, he began recording songs with rhyming titles like 'See You Later, Alligator', a legitimate R&B number. But then he released 'Lean Jean, Seventeen' and 'Skinny, Minnie'. He wound up being reduced to irrelevancy.
Ironically, 'Shake, Rattle and Roll' was the very first song that Elvis sang on his first national network television appearance on the Dorsey Brothers' 'Stage Show'. It was that appearance that catapulted him to national stardom in January of 1956.
Elvis' contract with Sun records had just been bought by RCA in November, 1955. He had been with Sun since July of 1955. Those sixteen months have been mytholgized. The myth is that RCA and Col. Tom Parker combined to sanitize Elvis into a more mainstream singer, tearing him from his natural blues, gospel and country and western roots.
There can be no doubt that they were Elvis' natural turf but an examination of the songs that he cut when he was with Sun gives the lie to the myth, for Elvis, right from the beginning, had a much more universal musical interest. He cut versions of 'My Happiness', 'Harbor Lights and 'Blue Moon'. All had been long time standards. Elvis always said that his favorite singer was Dean Martin, as mainstream as they came. Even though Dean Martin did have a number of C&W hits, most people remember him for songs like 'I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm', 'That's Amore', 'You're Nobody Til Somebody Loves You' and 'Everybody Loves Somebody, Sometime'. And if he ever did a blues, I never heard it, either.
The myth is further demolished when you examine the titles that Elvis covered during the period with RCA until he went in the army. Virtually every title was either an R&B, a C&W or a variant. It wasn't until after he came out that he began a true musical odyssey.
Which brings us to the time after he came out of the army. This is the time period that the critics cite as evidence that Elvis truly sold out. The score from his very first film, 'G.I. Blues', had at least two songs that were classic melodies with words added, 'Tonight Is So Right For Love' and 'No More'. They were hints of what was to come. 'It's Now Or Never' was a reworking of 'O Solo Mio' and 'Surrender' a reworking of 'Come Back To Sorrento', both Italian love songs, the latter having been a hit by Vic Damone. Still later, his version of 'You Don't Have To Say You Love Me' made a lot of people forget about Dusty Springfield's and that was no small feat. Dusty Springfield's dusty voice was one of the best and most sensuous ever to come from a record groove. This was at a time that many dismiss as his schlock and glitz period of Las Vegas. He recorded Tony Bennett's old hit 'Rags To Riches' and Andy Williams' 'Are You Sincere?'. Many critics dismiss this as a sellout and further evidence that Elvis lost it after he left Sun. I disagree.
Throughout all of the RCA years, Elvis always drew from C&W, R&B, blues and gospel. There is no doubt that he extended his repertoire but he never forgot those roots. James Taylor composed 'Steamroller Blues' but Elvis' version is much gutsier and far better. It seems to confirm Tin Pan Alley's old taboo that composers shouldn't sing their own material. For further evidence, just listen to 'Always On My Mind', 'Walk A Mile In My Shoes' and 'Polk Salad Annie'.
'Are You Lonesome Tonight?'was a standard long before Elvis sang it. It was recorded by Jaye P. Morgan earlier in the fifties. Even with its melodramatic interjected speech, not too many artists since have seen fit to cover it which should give an idea of how formidable it must seem to any singer to try. Which brings us to another point. How many of Elvis' big songs have ever been covered later by other artists? Leon Russell did 'Heartbreak Hotel' and Cheap Trick 'Don't Be Cruel' and so did Bill Black's Combo but I don't even remember it. The actor Richard Chamberlain cut a version of 'Love Me Tender' and another singer had a version of 'Jailhouse Rock' in the early sixties but I couldn't even find mention of it on the internet. Does anyone remember them? How many other attempts at covers of his hits have there been? It's almost like Vladimir Horowitz at the piano. Once he did it, few would even try it for fear of the comparison.
No discussion of Elvis' importance could be complete without mentioning the Singer NBC Special of December 3, 1968 which has come to be called the Comeback Special. Recently, TV Guide named it as one of the most important musical events in television history. The timing was hardly optimistic for Elvis. He had just finished his string of movies which were his only connection with his audience for most of his post-army career. They had been almost universally panned and the critics had been as cruel to them as they had always been to him. His last number one hit was 'Good Luck Charm' from 1962. Many thought that he had lost his edge because of the army and the movies. The British Invasion with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who was in full swing. Along with Bob Dylan and a host of other later American rockers, they had transformed rock and roll to rock. Many wondered if Elvis could still do it. Right from the very beginning of the show, all of the questions were answered.
Only Elvis Presley could have had the audacity to wear that black leather outfit and get away with it. It heightened the air of sexual danger that underlay all of rock and roll and especially his appeal. The setting struck me and many others as unusual, a central square stage, with him and an original back up band that included D. J. Fontana and Scotty Moore from his earliest days, Bill Black having died. He roamed the stage like a caged animal and roam he did, transfixing everyone. But the setting is now acknowledged as a forerunner of MTV's Unplugged. He launched into a medley of hits and threw every fibre of his being into them with a determined fierceness that wasn't present in his previous or subsequent television appearances. It was almost as if he knew that this might be his only chance to re-establish his star in the musical sky. And re-establish his star, it did. He showed his unique combination of shyness, smart-assed confidence, impish sexuality, vulnerability, earnestness and the soul of an artist pleading for acceptance. When it was over, the King had returned to claim his throne. There could be only one King and all others were just pretenders. It was one of the most highly rated shows of the year and after that Elvis decided to return to live performing.
I lived in Philadelphia at the time and didn't read a positive review. One critic said that Elvis and his sidemen were as moronic as the ongoing exchanges between him and them during the first part of the special, adding that the humor was apparent to no one other than them. He was wrong. Elvis fans recognized everything that they were bantering about. This very same critic fawned over a Bridget Bardot special that was on right after it. Hers has been long forgotten while Elvis' is a classic.
Which in turn gets us to the whole question of the critics. Right from the beginning, the critics dismissed rock and roll in general and Elvis in particular. I know of only one musical authority who took it seriously at the beginning. Leonard Bernstein recognized it as being descended from blues. For innovation, jazz was the intellectuals' and the critics' music of choice.
As an example, Playboy Magazine, for all its hedonism, always was simply a survival manual for those who aspired to be part of the in crowd. Throughout the fifties and early sixties, the magazine held an annual poll of favorite musical artists. They called it the Annual Jazz All Stars Poll, which gives you an idea of what they regarded as worthwhile. The poll would list categories such as trumpet, clarinet, trombone, piano, drums and vocals.
For each category, they'd list suggestions such as Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Pete Fountain, Maynard Ferguson and Buddy Rich. Among vocalists they'd list Frank Sinatra, Ella FitzGerald, Steve Lawrence, Peggy Lee and others, all greats. Only occasionally would Elvis appear in their list. The highest I ever saw him listed was 17 and I don't think that he ever won during that time period. More often than not, it seemed, it was Frank Sinatra.
As a further example, in 1958, Elvis, Little Richard, the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Buddy Holly were tearing up the charts with one hit after another. The Grammy for Record of the Year was awarded to 'Volare' by Domenico Modugno. In short, rock and roll just was never intellectually acceptable and Elvis, especially, wasn't. Eventually, that all changed but the critics were never ahead of the curve and that should be remembered four and five decades later when the critics lambaste Elvis for having abandoned his roots. The critics back then often referred to him and other rockers as 'singers(?)', quotation marks and all. You can't rely on them.
What are the critics but another group of people who have opinions about things, in this case, the performing arts? They showed themselves to be cemented in the establishment with their attitude toward the single most important post war musical trend and the single most important artist in that trend. They did not recognize innovation. While the critics were deriding Elvis and the other rock and rollers, a musical revolution was occurring right under their noses and they didn't recognize it. These were serious artists. Ultimately, the critics are the customers who plunk down their hard earned dollars to have some moments of enjoyment.
At this juncture, it's difficult to envision the uproar surrounding Elvis. Elvis was controversial, for the music he performed and his stage act. It was bad enough that the music was black and 'the devil's music'. His movements sent shrieks of horror through all layers of society. Ministers and nuns denounced him. Religious magazines had articles that argued that Elvis Presley was sent by Satan for our moral destruction, an ironic contention given that he was steeped in the southern religious tradition and always voiced the desire to quit popular music and join a gospel group. Vituperation was heaped upon William F. Buckley, Jr. when he wrote in a column that, for all the hullaballoo, Presley had a nice singing voice. Roy Orbison saw Elvis in Lakeland, Florida and said that there was just no point of reference for his stage act. In that same audience, was Tom Petty who decided then and there to make music his career.
(There's an interesting sidelight here. Elvis was given the nickname 'Elvis the Pelvis'. When Dick Gregory was asked about it, he said, 'Thank God his name isn't Enos').
When the Beatles came over from England, American critics fell over themselves fawning on them and it galled a number of America's original rockers. (America has always had an inferiority complex when it comes to things British.) When they asked the Beatles who their inspirations were, they mentioned Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly. Ringo said that without Sun records, the Beatles would never have been. It still took the critics years to realize what home grown treasures we had. So much for the critics.
So, not only doesn't the argument the argument that Elvis abandoned his roots stand up to examination, but it's specious anyway. Elvis was always more than a just a bluesman or C&W wailer. Even at the beginning, he was musically much more catholic in his tastes than the myth has suggested.
And so what if he did stray from his roots? He was raised in the southern musical stew of blues, gospel and C&W and it was natural that his primary thrust would be blues but southern music, while great, is limited. In this light, Sam Phillips was right to sell Elvis' contract to allow him to go to a venue more suited to his full potential. He was above all, a singer and could he ever sing. He had a two and a third octave range, almost operatic and rarely was off pitch. Remember that next time you listen to his renditions of 'Softly, As I Leave You', 'Memories', 'Love Letters' and 'Until It's Time For You To Go'. It's not clear whether Sun Records could have given Elvis the opportunity for such gems.
During the time of the twenty fifth anniversary commemorations, David Bowie revealed that at the time of his death, Elvis and he had been discussing a joint project which shows just how far he had brought his music and himself. It also shows how abreast of things Elvis kept. So then we come back to the whole original idea of bringing blues and country and western music to the masses. By mixing them up with other types and getting people to accept all that he offered, isn't that exactly what Elvis did?
My kids know that I've been a Elvis fan and they say that they like 'A Little Less Conversation'. They think Elvis is cool. That says lot and that's why, twenty five years after his death, Elvis still matters.
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