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The King lives on—but he’s not who you always thought he was
February/March 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 1
He recorded what might be his greatest ballad at his second session after coming home from Germany. To me, it makes perfect sense that “Are You Lonesome Tonight” was a holdover from an earlier generation (it was actually old-fashioned even in 1927), and a waltz to boot. In Elvis lore, “Lonesome” is regarded as the first song that Colonel Parker recommended to his client—especially notable since they didn’t own the publishing rights. Parker (and his wife, Marie) had apparently grown to love “Lonesome” because of his first client. Gene Austin, the biggest-selling vocalist of the 1920s. Accordingly, Presley sings it in a tenor voice very much like Austin’s (Presley occasionally employed a falsetto register that was even higher, in the tradition of Bill Kenny of the Ink Spots, as in “I’m Yours”). Yet other aspects of Presley’s arrangement, such as the use of the choir and the placement and editing of the monologue, strongly suggest that he learned the song from Al Jolson’s 1950 recording. The spoken recitation was included in the original sheet music, but Jolson seems to have been the first singer to record it, and Presley’s conviction while both singing and reciting recalls no one so much as Jolson at the very top of his game.
There’s only one kind of music that Presley sang with more conviction than love ballads: songs of religious devotion. The two central expressions of African-American music are the blues and gospel, and they are flip sides of each other. In their purest forms, blues deals with the darkness and gospel with the light, blues with the flesh and gospel with the spirit, blues with the earth and gospel with the sky. Presley unfailingly said that gospel was his favorite music, and as a teenager he assumed that the highest he could possibly go in showbiz was to join a first-rate quartet like his heroes the Blackwoods.
HE AND SINATRA WERE KINDRED SPIRITS, BOTH THEIR OWN TASTEMAKERS.
The expected trajectory of a successful blues-and-pop singer in the mid-twentieth century was out of the church and into the jukebox: from Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan in the forties, and Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls in the fifties, to Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight in the sixties. But it would be hard to think of another singer, black or white, who became a star in mainstream pop before beginning to concentrate on spiritual music. In that aspect of his career, Presley is like Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein, who began exploring their spiritual sides later, rather than earlier, in their careers.
PRESLEY’S GOSPEL recordings represent perhaps the most consistently excellent work of his entire career. He made three albums of gospel songs, nearly all of which are on the essential two-CD package Amazing Grace—His Greatest Sacred Performances . He hadn’t grown up thrilling his fellow parishioners—he rarely sang in church as a child—yet this was the music that was the most real and tangible to him. He heard the blues, country, and urban pop over the radio, but gospel he could reach out and touch.
Presley brings to singing the praises of the Lord both a conviction and an intensity unmatched almost anywhere in his work. He takes religious songs from every sub-tradition: white, black, even Broadway show tunes, among them a gospel treatment of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (which he once called his favorite song) that uses countrified chord substitutions that would have horrified Rodgers and Hammerstein. It’s impossible not to feel the spirit when he sings, and he does more than convince you that he believes; he makes you yourself believe.
Frank Sinatra’s daughter Nancy was a good friend of Presley and costarred with him in the 1968 film Speedway . She once reported a conversation she had about Elvis with her father. Frank Sinatra disparaged Elvis not on the basis of his talent or his taste but because he felt he’d never grown as an artist. Nancy protested that the people around Elvis wouldn’t let him grow. Sinatra rejected that excuse. From his perspective, we can’t blame him. The old man would have never let anybody stand in his way in terms of choosing a song or finessing an arrangement or a recording mix to perfection. And this conversation represents a rare occasion in which Frank Sinatra discussed Presley as even potentially an equal or kindred spirit. But he was. They both were only children who demanded the company of an entourage around them when they grew up; they both were extremely devoted to their mothers; they were among the relatively few singers who attained superstardom in Hollywood; and they both had a lot of comebacks.