Elvis Presley | A Musical Prodigy
November 29, 2018
Elvis Presley was a genius. He didn't express himself the way the middle classes do, which is with wordplay and being able to explain his actions and reactions. He acted on gut instinct and expressed himself by the way he held the microphone, by the way, he moved his hips, by the way, that he sang down the microphone.
That was his genius ... I believe the essence of any performer is gut instinct ... Because it's in everyone, it's instinct. That's what Elvis Presley's about ... and Elvis Presley could say more in a single performance of somebody else's song than anyone could say in an entire book.
Elvis won three Grammy Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy for the Recording Arts and Sciences.
And this is the thing about Rock 'N' Roll music, this is what music has that makes it better than all that: It is instinctive ... And isn't that the way it should be? Elvis had the wisdom that makes wise men look foolish.
Elvis Presley's talent as a musical artist was double barrelled and more; he was an exceptional vocalist and a unique stage performer with instinctive, natural ability in both areas. It appears from available recollections that Presley was born with a love of music.
Elvis Presley's voice was extraordinary for its quality, range, and power. Although he burst onto the American stage singing rock 'n' roll, Elvis' powerfully gospel songs and ballads were his personal favourites (He won three Grammy Awards for recordings of sacred songs). The quality of his voice is most often described as soulful. It had an 'aching sincerity ... and an indefinable quality of yearning ... virtually impossible to pigeonhole'.
Elvis Presley's three-octave vocal range was exceptional, 'very narrowly all at once a tenor, baritone, and bass'. A 1987 article in the Village Voice included an assessment of his voice in classical terms, categorizing it as a 'lyric baritone ... [but with] unexpectedly rich low [notes] ... and astounding high notes'. It also discussed the power of Elvis' voice, which it termed 'microphone singing', while also noting that it was 'hard to think of an opera singer who could match it' According to Jerry Leiber, 'He had an incredible, attractive, instrument that worked in many registers. He could falsetto like Little Richard. He could sing. The equipment was outstanding ... His sense of timing and rhythm was second to none'. Elvis was 'the master of a wide and diverse range of vocal styling's and ventriloquistic effects, from the clear tenor of his country-western heroes (Roy Acuff, Eddy Arnold, Jimmie Rodgers) to the exaggerated vibrato of the gospel singers he loved'. (Jake Hess, J. D. Sumner).
The following assessment comes from Myrna Smith, a member of the vocal group the Sweet Inspirations, who performed with Presley for a number of years during the last phase of his career. Smith has also performed with Aretha Franklin and other exceptional vocalists.
'When Elvis was in true form, he was fabulous. He had so much energy. His voice was a lot more remarkable than it ever came off on record, and his vocal pitch was much better than it came off on record. He was just a much better singer than could ever be captured. There are a lot of singers like that: You can't capture truly what they sound like.
Kiri Te Kanawa: The young Elvis Presley, without any doubt
Some great singers' voices are just too big. Elvis was like that'. (New Zealand soprano Kiri Te Kanawa about the greatest voice she'd ever heard, probably expecting her to name Luciano Pavarotti or Maria Callas, but she said: 'The young Elvis Presley, without any doubt').
Elvis Presley's Vocal Range
Elvis Presley has been described variously as a baritone and a tenor. An extraordinary compass- the so-called register -, and a very wide range of vocal color have something to do with this divergence of opinion. The voice covers two octaves and a third, from the baritone low-G to the tenor high B, with an upward extension in falsetto to at least a D flat. Elvis' best octave is in the middle, D-flat to D-flat, granting an extra full step up or down. Call him a high baritone. In 'It's'now or never', (1960), he ends it in a full voice cadence (A, G, F), that has nothing to do with the vocal devices of R&B and Country. That A-note is hit right on the nose, and it is rendered less astonishing only by the number of tracks where he lands easy and accurate B-flats. Moreover, he has not been confined to one type of vocal production. In ballads and country songs, he belts out full-voiced high G's and A's that an opera baritone might envy. He is a naturally assimilative stylist with a multiplicity of voices - in fact, Elvis' is an extraordinary voice or many voices. (Henry Pleasants, in his book 'The Great American Popular Singers' 1974).
The Vocal Range of Elvis Presley (12:20)
On his live versions of songs like 'How Great Thou Art' (1975), 'Unchained Melody' (1976) and 'Hurt' (1977), you will be able to hear how high he can go; but, it is essentially on 'What Now My Love' (sang live at his 'Aloha from Hawaii' global telecast, which reached 1 billion viewers when first aired in 1973), where he goes up three octaves at the end of the song, that you can really hear his true vocal power. (Cory Cooper on Elvis Presley's vocal range, as published allexperts.com, February 4, 2005).
Elvis' initial hopes for a music career involved singing in a gospel male quartet. His favourite part was bass-baritone, and he himself had an almost 3-octave vocal range... Yet to posterity's surprise, such a superlative and magnetic natural talent always remained humble -- perhaps too humble to keep performing forever. (IMDb's review of his appearance in Frank Sinatra's 1960's 'Welcome Home Party for Elvis Presley' TV special).
Sam Phillips originally drafted Elvis to replace an absent ballad singer but, after pairing him with ambitious guitarist Scotty Moore and his upright bass-playing friend Bill Black, the music quickly veered in another direction entirely; the SUN Sessions began as an impromptu jam, the absence of drums being purely incidental given it was a small studio, but the light echo the producer used to compensate, inadvertently had an effect on Elvis' own voice which was far more interesting; Elvis himself was a raw talent, but his singing prowess was immediately apparent, with a vocal range of roughly three octaves, perfect control and ability to jump between bass, baritone, and tenor with the greatest of ease; over fifty years after the fact, we can see that what teenagers saw in him, was a genuinely brilliant vocalist that could just as easily convey a soft ballad, as it could a wild rock song; as a rule, the importance of an album is completely separate from its actual quality but, invariably, albums this influential are influential because they're genuinely great recordings, and 'The Sun Sessions', though not formally compiled until 1976, were certainly great, great classic recordings. (Dave De Sylvia reviewing 'The Sun Sessions', and Elvis' vocal abilities, for SPUTNIK Music, on June 1, 2006).
'Elvis' lowest effective note was a low-G, as heard on 'He'll Have To Go' (1976); on 'King Creole' (1958), he growls some low-F's; going up, his highest full-voiced notes were the high-B's in 'Surrender' (1961) and 'Merry Christmas Baby' (1971), the high-G at the end of 'My Way' (1976 live version), and the high-A of 'An American Trilogy' (1972); using falsetto, Elvis could reach at least a high-E, e.g, as in 'Unchained Melody' (1977), so, it was very nearly a three-octave range, although more practically two-and-a-half'. (George Barbel).
When healthy and serious, he was flat-out the world's greatest singer. In his voice, he possessed the most beautiful musical instrument, and the genius to play that instrument perfectly; he could jump from octave to countless other octaves with such agility without voice crack, simultaneously sing a duet with his own overtones, rein in an always-lurking atomic explosion to so effortlessly fondle, and release, the most delicate chimes of pathos. Yet, those who haven't been open (or had the chance) to explore some of Elvis' most brilliant work - the almost esoteric ballads and semi-classical recordings - have cheated themselves out of one of the most beautiful gifts to fall out of the sky in a lifetime. Fortunately, this magnificent musical instrument reached its perfection around 1960, the same time the recording industry finally achieved sound reproduction rivaling that of today. So, it's never too late to explore and cherish a well-preserved miracle, as a simple trip to the record store will truly produce unparalleled chills and thrills, for the rest of your life; and then you'll finally understand the best reason this guy never goes away. (Mike Handley,'The Jim Bohannon Show', Westwood One Network).
Elvis' range was about two and a quarter octaves, as measured by musical notation, but his voice had an emotional range from tender whispers to sighs down to shouts, grunts, grumbles and sheer gruffness that could move the listener from calmness and surrender, to fear. His voice can not be measured in octaves, but in decibels; even that misses the problem of how to measure delicate whispers that are hardly audible at all. (Lindsay Waters, Executive Editor for the Humanities at Harvard University Press. From his essay 'Come softly, darling, hear what I say').
In 1956, even the youngest of his fans knew that the 21-year-old Elvis Presley was unquestionably the whole package; and, obviously, his great three octave tenor voice, with a lower register close to bass, seemed to vibrate on the inner scale of every teenager in America; they loved the high tenor, but when he 'got down' with that lower register, fans exploded; Elvis translated this into his moves on stage. So it was a 10.0 assault on the senses. (Sugarpie Productions essay on Elvis Presley, as published in Clay's. Daily.Double.com)
Lesson #1 is that rock music is in the fighting spirit, not in the amperage of the guitars; indeed, some of the toughest rocking has come from all or mostly acoustic bands; Elvis presented a primer lesson from the famous Sun sessions, with a simple blues song through the most famous faux false start in rock history; he and the boys start out all slow and bluesy, before stopping the band cold and calling it out like the hippest beat poet: 'Hold it, fellas. That don't... move me. Let's get real, real gone for a change'. Then they did, let it loose, turned every bit of intensity in their beings into a jumping arrangement, much faster and more rhythmically nuanced a performance than the opening. Much of the intensity is in the fast and furious, but precisely laid out detail work; there is a strong sense of spontaneity and discovery, but what ultimately makes this a hall-of-fame performance is the vocal performance; Elvis doing tricks, making sudden octave wide jumps. 'If you see my milkcow...' There is a charismatic determination of spirit that Nietzsche would no doubt have recognized as the will to power; when the King got through with it, it was no longer anything to do with a high calcium drink, but about the singer's assertion of his place in the universe. (Review of 'Milkcow Blues' (1954), Elvis third single for the Sun Records Label, by MoreThings.com)
Read more about Elvis Presley's vocal ability ...
Elvis' musical style, as a musician and impact as a vocalist and stage performer. Included below are over 100 comments currently available either on the internet, in reference guides, encyclopedias, or books, made by:
'Elvis' lowest effective note was a low-G, as heard on 'He'll Have To Go' (1976); on 'King Creole' (1958), he growls some low-F's; going up, his highest full-voiced notes were the high-B's in 'Surrender' (1961) and 'Merry Christmas Baby' (1971), the high-G at the end of 'My Way' (1976 live version), and the high-A of 'An American Trilogy' (1972); using falsetto, Elvis could reach at least a high-E, e.g, as in 'Unchained Melody' (1977), so, it was very nearly a three-octave range, although more practically two-and-a-half'.
No wonder Elvis is responsible for the sale of so many records, for who could do that, by sounding the same.
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Never before have we seen an Elvis Presley concert from the 1950's with sound. Until Now! The DVD Contains recently discovered unreleased film of Elvis performing 6 songs, including Heartbreak Hotel and Don't Be Cruel, live in Tupelo Mississippi 1956. Included we see a live performance of the elusive Long Tall Sally seen here for the first time ever. + Plus Bonus DVD Audio.
This is an excellent release no fan should be without it.
The 'parade' footage is good to see as it puts you in the right context with color and b&w footage. The interviews of Elvis' Parents are well worth hearing too. The afternoon show footage is wonderful and electrifying : Here is Elvis in his prime rocking and rolling in front of 11.000 people. Highly recommended.
Tupelo's Own Elvis Presley DVD Video with Sound.