- Historic Sites
The King lives on—but he’s not who you always thought he was
February/March 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 1
The early fifties also saw a number of mainstream pop stars who drew on some of the appeal of country music. Patti Page was best known in her day for straddling both the pop and country charts, and her “Tennessee Waltz” was a blockbuster because it appealed to New Yorkers and Okies alike. There was also Guy Mitchell, who had a vaguely Western sound and made hits out of manufactured folk songs. And Jo Stafford had a basically folkish timbre that sounded more rural than urban.
Presley’s innovation wasn’t that he sounded either black or like a hillbilly; it was the brilliant way he drew on all three strains of pop music: blues, country, and traditional “classic” pop (that of the crooners, big bands, and Broadway shows). And though the country and blues influences were probably what most attracted the teenagers of 1956, in retrospect Presley is clearly a crooner. He comes out of a very clear tradition of great male singers of the great American songbook, especially Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, Billy Eckstine, Dean Martin, and, to an extent, Frank Sinatra—as well as the leading crooners of the idioms of the blues, like Louis Jordan, and of country, like Eddy Arnold.
Presley’s most obvious roots lie in Dean Martin and Bing Crosby. If you start with Crosby, and you add occasional Italian curse words and mannerisms intended to suggest various states of inebriation, then you’ve got Dean Martin. Take away those Neapolitanisms, replace with a whole lot o’ shakin’, and essentially you’ve got Elvis.
Those gyrations, the physical ones more than the vocal, simultaneously thrilled teenagers, annoyed adults, and gave satirists grist for the parody mill. Crosby directly anticipates Elvis’s voice on his 1950 “Sunshine Cake,” and when Martin does folkish material, the similarities to Presley are unmistakable. On his 1956 “Memories Are Made of This” (by the folk-pop songwriter Terry Gilkyson) Martin sounds exactly like Elvis; when Presley sings “Angel” in his 1962 film Follow That Dream , he sounds exactly like Dino.
Whether he was drawing on Nashville, Mississippi Delta, or Tin Pan Alley traditions, Presley’s greatest strength lay in ballads and love songs, of both the country and the city varieties. It would be foolish to deny that he was the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, the idiom’s first and greatest superstar. Yet who, exactly, are his children? He has almost nothing in common, vocally, with subsequent rock stars. To me, he doesn’t sound anything like Ozzy Osbourne, David Bowie, Radiohead, or even the Beatles. But he does sound a lot like the previous generation of great male pop singers.
If there is a split between Presley and what came before him, it is mainly in the sense of demographics. Presley represents a point of demarcation in that his music was directed almost exclusively at kids. Except, strangely, when Presley was a kid himself. His first sessions, done for the Memphis independent Sun Records when he was 19 and 20, offer a fascinating vision of the Elvis that might have been. He sings mainly classic blues (“That’s All Right,” “Mystery Train”), country (“Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Just Because”), and pop (“Harbor Lights”). It’s hard to imagine anyone else doing both Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon” and Bill Monroe’s bluegrass classic “Blue Moon of Kentucky” within a heartbeat of each other.
It was only when RCA realized he was selling zillions of records to teenagers that a portion of his material was dumbed down to appeal to adolescents and no one else. Such ephemera as “Teddy Bear,” “Good Luck Charm,” “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck,” and many others represent the most forgettable aspect of his legacy. In my head I can hear Louis Jordan or Ray Charles doing “Blue Suede Shoes” but not “His Latest Flame” or “The Girl of My Best Friend.” These last titles are particularly puerile. It was part of the Presley legend that he was anointed to instigate the generation gap, but it didn’t have to be that way. Elvis’s longtime friend Larry Geller has written, “Contrary to myth, not every adult found Elvis shocking. I recall my parents watching him on Ed Sullivan and enjoying it quite a bit.”
Yet that was the very definition of rock ’n’ roll. What made it different from all other earlier kinds of pop was not the music itself but the marketing. Like big-band swing and Sinatraera pop, rock was aimed at young people, but unlike other kinds of pop, it was also specifically designed to annoy their parents. Nearly every television documentary on early rock or Presley devotes too much time to inflating the reaction of the older generation. In fact, rock bashing by church and school officials was mild compared with the hostility toward jazz in the twenties. Still, parents, teachers, and clergy did condemn rock ’n’ roll, and the more they excoriated it, the more the entertainment business embraced it as a way to make money. It was characterized as subversive, the sound of rebellion, while being enthusiastically underwritten by corporate America.
THERE WAS ONLY ONE KIND OF MUSIC THAT PRESLEY SANG WITH MORE CONVICTION THAN LOVE BALLADS: SONGS OF RELIGIOUS DEVOTION.
As for Presley, he never considered himself a rebel. Far from wanting to antagonize the grownups, he addressed everybody older than he was as “mister” and “ma’am.” He was a sweet-natured, levelheaded boy, before prescription medications screwed him up, and he deported himself more like Perry Como than like Jim Morrison.