The King of Rock and Roll
IN three days; it will be forty years since Elvis Presley…
left the world. Fortunately, I was not alive to hear that sad news because God knows how extraordinary and life-changing it would have been for the people – not only his fans but those who did not recognise his music! One cannot celebrate and talk about Presley without talking about him as a phenomenon. Nearly every other musician who has ever lived could be seen as such: that is not the case with Presley. I guess the only other musician death that would have had that biblical impact as John Lennon. I feel, unlike Lennon, Presley stewarded in and invented what we understand to be Rock. His Rock and Roll/Blues mixtures were unheard of and completely revolutionary. With the likes of Chuck Berry; he helped put Rock and Roll into the mainstream and reinvented music of the time. That is not an exaggerated and one cannot underestimate the importance of his debut album, Elvis Presley. Before I go on, as an overview and distillation unfamiliar with Presley’s birth and rise, a Wikipedia summary of his life:
“Elvis Aaron Presley[a] (January 8, 1935 – August 16, 1977) was an American singer and actor. Regarded as one of the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century, he is often referred to as the "King of Rock and Roll" or simply "the King".
Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, and relocated to Memphis, Tennessee with his family when he was 13 years old. His music career began there in 1954, when he recorded a song with producer Sam Phillips at Sun Records. Accompanied by guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, Presley was an early popularizer of rockabilly, an uptempo, backbeat-driven fusion of country music and rhythm and blues. RCA Victor acquired his contract in a deal arranged by Colonel Tom Parker, who managed the singer for more than two decades. Presley's first RCA single, "Heartbreak Hotel", was released in January 1956 and became a number-one hit in the United States. He was regarded as the leading figure of rock and roll after a series of successful network television appearances and chart-topping records. His energized interpretations of songs and sexually provocative performance style, combined with a singularly potent mix of influences across color lines that coincided with the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement, made him enormously popular—and controversial.
PHOTO CREDIT: Gillian G. Gaar (from the book, Elvis: The Legend)
In November 1956, Presley made his film debut in Love Me Tender. In 1958, he was drafted into military service. He resumed his recording career two years later, producing some of his most commercially successful work before devoting much of the 1960s to making Hollywood films and their accompanying soundtrack albums, most of which were critically derided. In 1968, following a seven-year break from live performances, he returned to the stage in the acclaimed televised comeback special Elvis, which led to an extended Las Vegas concert residency and a string of highly profitable tours. In 1973, Presley featured in the first globally broadcast concert via satellite, Aloha from Hawaii. On August 16, 1977, he suffered a heart attack in his Graceland estate, and died as a result. His death came in the wake of many years of prescription drug abuse.
Presley is one of the most celebrated and influential musicians of the 20th century. Commercially successful in many genres, including pop, blues and gospel, he is one of the best-selling solo artists in the history of recorded music, with estimated record sales of around 600 million units worldwide. He won three Grammys, also receiving the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award at age 36, and has been inducted into multiple music halls of fame”.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty
That is, of course, a brief biography – the webpage gives a lot more detail and depth – but it is a pretty good assessment of a true legend. Many call Presley the King of Rock and Roll – I cannot argue against that! To me, he is someone I appreciate retrospectively and vicariously. I was not alive during his lifetime so did not get to experience the brilliance and rush of his musical genius. The artwork to Elvis Presley’s debut album has been much-copied – The Clash on London Calling, for example – and it was a record that spent ten weeks at number one on the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart. In 1956, there were rumblings of Rock and Roll. People had heard of Buddy Holly but there was nobody who propelled the genre into the spotlight and helped changed the landscape of modern culture.
The young, beautiful and peerless talent of Presley was a fire-breath of revelation at a time where there were so much beige and ‘old-fashioned’ sounds. Here, a cool and swaggering God created the first million-selling album of the genre. No denying how necessary and universal his album was. Heartbreak Hotel was a monster hit for Presley so, following that success; RCA wanted its promising star to put an album out. Presley and his band sojourned to the studio but, before they did, penned moments and lines that would appear on that decade-defining record. In the 1950s, today I guess, there was that pressure to release the ‘best’ songs as singles and have ‘lesser’ tracks as album material. The record company wanted those big songs that appealed to the young – to get the dancefloors moving and the diners/clubs jumping. The recording of that debut was not that smooth. Presley had a few smashes to put in but, requiring a minimum length of time/amount of songs forced The King to put five unreleased songs onto the record – including Just Because and Trying’ to Get to You. Covers formed the album but the reason Elvis Presley was such a landmark was the way it transformed the original material.
Money Honey (Jessie Stone) and I’m Counting on You (Don Robertson) were turned into near-religious experiences in Presley’s hands. He showed he could tackle R&B, Rock and Roll and Blues and craft his own unique voice. Even a cover of Little Richard’s Tutti Fruitti sounded new and reborn – some honour given the stature of its creator. The entire album was released as singles - which meant the public has full exposure and access to that incredible release. At the time, the debut album was a revolution and revelation. Today, there is literally no way of quantifying the effect and influence that single album has had on the modern landscape. In the way it changed the 1950s and popular culture: that, in turn, influenced 1960s artists and the biggest artists of the time – that has passed through the generation and brought music to where it is today.
PHOTO CREDIT: Gillian G. Gaar (from the book, Elvis: The Legend)
Subsequent albums like Elvis (1956) – with the likes of Rip It Up and Long Tall Sally included – it was another smash and commercial hit for the Presley. In 1956, Presley was the first artist to see both of his albums hit the number one spot in the charts. The fact he managed to produce two albums in the space of a year would seem almost alien today – quite a few artists had that productivity in the 1950s and 1960s. One could argue there was an immense aesthetic appeal to the young singer. Today, Presley would have to battle through hordes of iPhone-wielding teens – not giving him any eye contact – but, back in the 1950s, he was an absolute sensation. It was not only his natural beauty but the incredible voice that hooked in the fans. There has been nobody that has managed to rival that mix of husky depth and youthful vigour. There are few ‘unique’ singers today – most sound like someone to an extent – but Presley certainly had no equals. Couple that with a stage presence and hip-swivelling allure that topped off that true Rock package and one had a ready-made icon. It seemed to happen right from the off. So many contemporaries had to work hard to get the same kind of success but Presley was thrust into the limelight.
The young star grew up inspired by Gospel music and, according to his mother, from the age of two, the boy would dance in the aisles of the Assembly of God church in Tupelo. He attended all-night Gospel sing-alongs later and this all cumulated in Presley’s initial musical incarnation as part of The Statesmen – emotive and thrilling singing from lads dressed in dapper and eye-catching suits. It is unsurprising Presley’s stage demeanour would captivate and move as easily as it did. That spiritual and religious affinity flowed through the blood (and groin) of the legend. During the 1950s and 1960s, of course, there was segregation, race riots and racism – look at the news today and we have not progressed that far! – so it was quite unconventional for artists to back black artists and show a love of genres like Gospel and R&B. That race ‘issue’ materialised when Presley would conduct radio interviews. Many would call thinking he was a black artist – given segregation and racial tensions; that was a no-no – and that might seem flattering to many. Luckily, Pressley was not as ignorant as many of his fellow Americans and showed his respect and support of the black community.
This openness and universal love were reciprocated and, before long, Presley was a big film star getting roles in Jailhouse Rock (1957), G.I. Blues (1960) and Blue Hawaii (1961). The fact the musician was having films written for him is something we could not imagine in this day and age – there is no star that has that demand and popularity. If Presley’s acting chops were impressive (if not on a par with James Dean) he certainly had the same cool and command as the Hollywood idols of the day. His early-1960s albums might not have been as meteoric and popular as his debut – still commanding enormous respect – but his 1960 album, Elvis Is Back! can be considered one of his finest. Fever, The Girl of My Best Friend and Like a Baby, like his debut, was ground-breaking and conic.
IN THIS PHOTO: Presley in Jailhouse Rock (1957)
If his 1956-debut was marked by its fusion and progression of Rock and Roll: Elvis Is Back! bonded more to Pop and was the start of a more Pop-driven period for Presley. It was this album where Presley’s voice hardened and the arrangements became more sophisticated; he was tackling a wider range of songs and experimenting with new genres – performing ballads and love songs alongside the megahertz-thrill one heard four years earlier. It seemed like the album title was not ironic: it was very much a comeback and regeneration. Aside from film soundtracks – Blue Hawaii and G.I. Blues in the early-1960s – there was not a lot of studio action from Presley before the 1970s. That film stardom and increasing popularity drew his attention elsewhere and, conceivably, started a course that would end in tragedy.
It is hard to say how linked increased fame was to his untimely death but there was a lot of pressure on his shoulders. Growing larger – in terms of success and girth – meant health problems and creative dips followed. The world had never experienced a phenomenon like Elvis Presley – and have not since – so it was understandable the megastar took advantage of the acclaim and demands. Back to his debut years and it important to note just how needed Presley’s introduction to music was. Artists like Little Richard praised how Presley let black music through. At a time, when there was segregation and homogenisation in the music industry – certain genres being heard by black audiences; other genres reserved for white people – Presley broke barriers and helped put R&B into the wider arena. President Jimmy Carter recognised his pioneering music and how his rebellious attitude electrified people of the time and turned him into an instant icon.
IN THIS PHOTO: Graceland
That blend of sexuality, showmanship and explosive music was the catalyst for a social change and betterment. It is hard to say how influential Presley was with regards changes in attitudes to black Americans but it is clear his music transformed the world. If early albums like A Date with Elvis (1959) and For LP Fans Only (1959) showed how prolific and consistent he was in the 1950s: the years that followed saw less music but no real slowing of his popularity and work. Presley was putting more time in his film career and live gigs. The 1972 album, He Touched Me, was, debatably, the most-successful album of Presley’s 1970s. His third and final Gospel album showed a focus and quality previous albums lacked and his final album, Moody Blue, contained some pearls. I have not even mentioned Presley’s famed and hallowed home of Graceland. It has seen millions of tourists flock in worship; Paul Simon talked about it on the Graceland album – it is the most-revered and iconic musical home ever (more so than Prince’s Paisley Park and Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch).
IN THIS PHOTO: The ‘Jungle Room’ at Graceland - where Presley and friends recorded music/PHOTO CREDIT: Gillian G. Gaar (from the book, Elvis: The Legend)
It is a monument to an artist who managed to transform music in ways we cannot fully appreciate. I shall not go into his final hours – for they are grotesque and appalling sad – and his romances and celebrity lifestyle. It is the music, image and magic that elevated a promising young singer to the King of Rock and Roll. That incredible debut ignited and sparked a Rock and Roll riot; later albums helped popularise and evolve Pop and Gospel – at every stage, in every decade, Presley was transforming music and breaking boundaries. That incredible personality helped bring physicality, emotion and incredible candour to the music. Listen to songs like In the Ghetto and one gets shivers and shocks – it is a marvellous and haunting rendition that showcases how tender and transcendent the master could be. The fact Presley could awe when talking about social poverty as he could something as (relatively) shallow as jukebox joints and young romance – how many of today’s artists can say they managed that?!
Live albums such as 1970’s On Stage showed what a captivating and accomplished live performer Presley was. From his Vegas period through to his return to that Memphis sound: the King of Rock and Roll managed to cast himself as that casino showman or pastor without much strain. He had these guides and period that reflected his progression from the Rock and Roll innovator to this glitzy showman. Maybe the Vegas era did have a hand in his addiction to food and drugs; that pressure and fame meant Presley self-medicated and self-destructed to an extent. There is something sad and tragic realising he was only forty-two when he died. Who knows how far he could have gone and where he would reach was he better safeguarded and advised. It is those live shows, in my mind, that perfectly demonstrated why Presley is an icon whose importance and legacy cannot be disputed. In a few days, we will mark forty years without him in the world: a timely reminder of all the terrific music he left behind. From Hound Dog and Love Me Tender (1956) to Jailhouse Rock (1957); It’s Now or Never (1960) and Crying in the Chapel (1965) – such a range of iconic tracks and wonderful moments. Strip away Colonel Parker and the Aberbachs – great band name, by the way! – and the control they exerted over Presley’s career (and, how, that could have led to his untimely demise) and the 'Memphis Mafia' – the group of friends who Presley discovered in the early-1960s and opened his world to excess and degradation – and let’s focus on the music and legacy. I feel nobody has left a bigger mark on the world than Elvis Presley.
IN THIS PHOTO: Presley in Jailhouse Rock (1957)
From that monumental debut to his incredible raft of number-one singles: nobody has done more to push music forward. That can be contested but I stand by that assertion. Regardless of your appreciation of the music: you cannot ignore the importance of Presley and what he did to music. It would be hard enough breaking boundaries now: in the 1950s, against a tide of racial segregation, he managed to, in a way, unify black and white communities but de-segregation music. That was noted by politicians and legendary peers; in a way, it gave people like Paul Simon the courage to do likewise in the 1980s – when he performed with Ladysmith Black Mambazo during Apartheid-era South Africa (for the Graceland album). He has sold more than a billion records; broken more than a billion hearts but, in sheer terms of numbers…
THERE is no one as spectacular and influential as him.