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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
The Year 2005 contains two major anniversaries in American popular music. It marks 50 years since 1955, when rock ’n’ roll first conquered the pop singles chart, and also what would have been the seventieth birthday of Elvis Presley (who was so young when he made his initial breakthrough that his father had to co-sign his first contract with RCA Records for him). For Elvis, the timing was perfect. However, in terms of my own appreciation of both occurrences, the timing was completely off.
My father was born the same year as Elvis Aron Presley, and I came along a season or so after the King returned from the Army. My dad was slightly too old to be part of the demographic that made Elvis a superstar, and I was too young to get it. When I was first starting to notice pop music, in the 1970s, it was in a fallow period. I was caught between disco and punk, and neither appealed to me. Rock ’n’ roll was music that my parents’ generation liked. It meant the Stones, the Dead, Hendrix, Dylan, and other figures whose attraction still remains beyond my comprehension. (To this day the only records I have by them are LPs from my late dad’s collection.)
By 1977, the year both Elvis and Bing Crosby died, I had already infiltrated my father’s jazz stash and begun working forward from Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Bix through Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane. Along the way I also discovered Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and the great American songbook. Rock ’n’ roll remained for me a bizarre thing that held some strange fascination for zillions of people but that I just couldn’t get started with. One thing that I did have in common with most rock fans of my generation was that none of us knew what to make of Elvis Presley. By the time of his death he was a joke to high school kids born in the sixties and who listened to the Sex Pistols (whose Sid Vicious savaged both Sinatra and Presley in his parody of “My Way”), David Bowie, Kiss, or, in my case, Bing.
Elvis Presley seemed like a caricature in his last few years, but a caricature of what we didn’t know, since we had never experienced him in his glory days (which had been only, in fact, a few years earlier). With those capes and jump suits, he appeared to belong with Liberace. His demotion from king to laughing-stock was confirmed for me in the eighties and nineties, when he was increasingly spotted walking the earth, always by hayseeds: Elvis pumping gas, Elvis driving a pickup truck, Elvis ordering a bucket of chicken from the Colonel (Sanders, not Parker). But for years two people I revered, the critic Gary Giddins and the writer and editor Robert Gottlieb, kept telling me I was wrong to dismiss Presley so offhandedly. Finally, in the summer of 2004, I decided to see what all the shaking was about. I got hold of RCA Records’ four big Essential Masters boxes.
By the time I finished listening to them, I was completely hooked. Seventeen CDs were hardly enough. I was amazed by what I heard. After a lifetime of not getting it, I finally experienced my very own Elvis epiphany, and the mystery of why he is considered one of the great pop performers of all time was revealed to me. It was a vision straight from Graceland of a transcendental being, not in a white robe but in a white jump suit, with guitar rather than harp.
MY PERSPECTIVE on Presley is therefore different from that of most newcomers to his music. Most people look at him as the beginning of something, from the vantage point of what came after him. There’s John Lennon’s famous statement that “before Elvis, there was nothing.” Since my orientation was Frank Sinatra and Louis Jordan, rather than the Beatles or the Kinks, my long-delayed experience of Elvis and his music comes from a completely different place.
First of all, Lennon (who survived Presley by only three years) was just plain wrong. Before Elvis, there was plenty. Documentary histories of rock ’n’ roll generally write off pre-rock popular music as strictly white bread, represented by Patti Page’s bland love songs and treacly novelties until Presley and the other first-generation rockers came along and left America “All Shook Up.” Yet even if you ignore artists like Sinatra and Nat King Cole, whose music was considerably more exciting than “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window,” it’s plain that both rhythm and blues (and black artists in general) and country and western had been making significant inroads into the pop mainstream long before the Presley explosion of 1956.
HE HAS ALMOST NOTHING IN COMMON, VOCALLY, WITH LATER ROCK STARS.
Sam Phillips, who owned and operated Sun Records and more than anyone deserves credit for “discovering” Elvis Presley, is supposed to have said that he could make a fortune if he could find a white man who sang black. Actually, there were already all manner of white singers who patterned themselves after black R&B singers. The pop-music historian Arnold Shaw quotes Frankie Laine as saying that he wasn’t going to make it in this business until he started “singing like a spook.” Likewise, Johnnie Ray was a white singer who enjoyed a brief vogue for a vocal style that simultaneously anticipated rock ’n’ roll and caricatured it.
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.
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.
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.
Most important, both Sinatra and Presley were their own tastemakers. Joe Esposito, leader of Presley’s entourage, the “Memphis Mafia,” has described how Elvis would work with his recording engineers to mix his own master tapes. He would have a one-off acetate pressed of his mix and later compare it with the mix that RCA released. When the label tampered with his intentions, he’d be annoyed, but rarely to the degree that he did anything about it. He was constantly irked by the idea that the people he worked with on films and record sessions were unimportant because all the audience cared about was Elvis. Like Sinatra before him, he wanted to work only with the best actors and musicians and with superior songs. The difference between him and Sinatra was one of temperament. Sinatra, like Ray Charles, constantly made his own opportunities, and heaven help you if you got in his way. Perhaps Presley was too nice and civil a guy. Perhaps to stick to your standards in Hollywood, you had to be something of a gangster.
Unlike Sinatra’s, Presley’s recorded output looks meager when compared with what it could have been. There are so many songs he should have done: “There Must Be a Better World Somewhere” (a Doc Pomus song for B. B. King that’s far superior to anything he wrote for Presley), “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” “A Rainy Night in Georgia,” “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool,” Louis Jordan’s “Early in the Morning,” “What a Wonderful World,” “Empty Bed Blues,” “Stand by Me,” “On Broadway,” “I Pity the Fool,” Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “Work Song,” “Señor Blues,” “Don’t Go to Strangers,” “At Last,” “Teach Me Tonight,” Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail.” He could have sung entire songbook albums of the works of Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, and Hoagy Carmichael, three old-school songwriters who also bridged the worlds of jazz, pop, and country music.
When the Elvis sightings of the early nineties reached a peak, I couldn’t help wondering how much interest there would be when he really left the building. His death obviously left a gap that no one has been able to fill. And after all these years it seems clear that Elvis Presley was not the beginning of something but the end. John Lennon had it the wrong way around: After Elvis, there was nothing.