- Historic Sites
The King lives on—but he’s not who you always thought he was
February/March 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 1
He also shared several qualities with Louis Armstrong, not all of them positive. Each was the first and greatest, larger-than-life exemplar of a new kind of music, yet the majority of their output—everything but the earliest work—is almost universally dismissed. Somehow, a kind of radical, extreme purism has become the norm with regard to their music. Certain puritans apparently can’t stand the idea that Armstrong made music other than jazz or that by 1960 Presley, tired of doing one rehash of “Don’t Be Cruel” after another, was similarly broadening his horizons.
Presley’s early work shows that he was already capable of more diversity than previous pop stars at comparable points in their careers. Crosby and Nat Cole specialized in rhythm songs in their early years, while Sinatra primarily sang ballads. Yet Presley’s strength wasn’t necessarily that he could switch from Hank Williams to Big Joe Turner in a matter of seconds but that he was equally versed in doing fast, elemental rockers and in tearing his heart out in slow romantic songs. We could love him telling us about hound dogs, teddy bears, and hardheaded women, or we could love him tender.
He continued to grow as an artist after 1960, and to my ears his post-Army work continued to get better and better. The best elements of those early 12-bar blues rockers like “Long Tall Sally” and “Ready Teddy” remained part of his foundation, but considerably more got built on that foundation. In a broad sense, his exploration of different genres of pop was like Bing Crosby’s, embracing European songs (from “Muss I’ Den,” a.k.a. “Wooden Heart,” to adaptations of Italian folk and pop tunes), Hawaiian (starting with Crosby’s hit “Blue Hawaii”), a smattering of samba and bossa nova (“Viva Las Vegas”), Christmas hits (specifically “I’ll Be Home on Christmas Day,” learned from two of his heroes, Ernest Tubb and Billy Eckstine), and gospel albums, which represented probably his greatest work.
At about the time he upgraded from the Memphis independent label Sun Records to the multinational corporation RCA, a music publisher named Hill and Range set him up with his own publishing imprint. As his biographer Peter Guralnick discusses in detail, from that time on Presley practically never sang a song that wasn’t Hill and Range’s. Sinatra had also owned publishing houses, as had most big bandleaders. But unlike Presley, that hadn’t stopped Sinatra from consistently recording the best songs he could find.
YET LIKE SINATRA , and unlike sub sequent rock stars, Presley never made any claims for himself as a songwriter. The strength of both was that they could interpret a song written by someone else and make it into something considerably more magical, and even personal, than the guy who wrote it. Eddy Arnold was a first-rate country singer, but even he can’t touch Presley’s reading of his own “You Don’t Know Me.”
Unfortunately, Presley was importuned to waste too much energy making mediocre songs—which he usually owned a piece of—sound better than they were. One of the easiest ways to make money in publishing is to copyright something that already exists. People were always taking traditional melodies and folk songs, putting new lyrics and titles to them, and sitting back and collecting the royalties. Presley seems to have gotten stuck with more half-baked folk rehashes than anyone, yet he rarely failed to transform second-rate material into first-rate pop.
The upside, however, was that he could do a number of songs from Italian and other European folk sources, transformed via new words into a Hill and Range product. “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” “Surrender,” and “It’s Now or Never” are some of his finest ballads, all informed by his love of the great Italian crooners, starting with Enrico Caruso and including two singers who were culturally rather than genetically Italian, Bing Crosby and Tony Martin.
Likewise, there are all manner of buried gems among the sixties movie songs: “A House That Has Everything (Everything but Love),” which he croons to his costar, Shelley Fabares, in Clambake , is simple, direct, and beautiful, one of his most effective ballads ever, and he imbues it with a plaintive quality and a yearning that the finest male pop singers would have admired. It’s easy to single out the inferior songs in Presley’s films, but there are just as many minor classics, like “All That I Am” in Spinout , and “Almost in Love” in Live a Little, Love a Little , the latter a superior song that would have suited Tony Bennett. “Everything but Love” is one of the prettiest things Presley ever sang. It’s worth at least half a dozen of the three-chord rock numbers he was cutting 10 years earlier.