I am taking a break from my own saga, to comment on some of my heroes. I will begin with Elvis Presley.
Some of my earliest memories are of Elvis. Both my sisters were huge Elvis fans when I was a baby, and on into adulthood. So I heard Elvis constantly, went to see his movies, and saw him live, once. He is one of the greatest artists of all time, in my opinion, as well as one of the absolute worst artists of all time. Let me make my case. If you mention Elvis today, you first have to clarify if you are talking about Costello or Presley. (Elvis Costello is another one of my heroes, for which I would also say he is the best and the worst.). Then when you say Presley, they think of the fat turd in a jumpsuit, singing crappy songs on stage, who died on the toilet due to a drug overdose. They don’t get the big deal. He is a joke to a lot of young people today. But there are sub-groups that know better. There are those that are devoted to the earliest Elvis. The young man who virtually created rockabilly. They will contend that those five singles were the best thing he ever did, and the only Elvis you really need to bother with. Another group expands this appreciation of the younger Elvis by including all of Elvis’ music and movies from the fifties. But they would agree that Elvis died when he went into the army. There are a few people that focus on his comeback period of 1968-69, saying that is Elvis in his prime. Finally you have the crowd that like the unintentionally campy movies and music Elvis made throughout the sixties, the cornier the better. There are even those that prefer the seventies period, such as LIsa Marie, his daughter. Of course, that was when she knew her daddy. Each of these different versions of Elvis are distinct from each other, and it boggles the mind that the same young stud who recorded All Shook Up was also the geek who recorded Barefoot Ballad.
Elvis is a mystery. He wasn’t a hillbilly (or a country bumpkin, as he pointed out once when someone asked if he wanted to record “Country Bumpkin”). He wasn’t stupid. He wasn’t a genius. He wasn’t particularly macho in the beginning, preferring to avoid that sort of thing, but in the seventies he had become macho and overbearing at times. He allowed himself to be used for profit by Colonel Tom Parker, ruining his career in the process. It didn’t look that way from Parker’s point of view, because his movies, and soundtracks made a lot of money, at first. But it prevented Elvis from becoming the kind of artist he could have been if he had had a manager that pushed him to do his absolute best. Elvis could be very lazy, and in the seventies he just recorded songs he liked that he heard on the country rock radio station, without regard to quality.
It is hard to put across to someone who wasn’t there at the time (like myself), but when Elvis appeared on the scene in 1956, his look, his style, his performance, was revolutionary. I don’t buy this nonsense that he just ripped off the black artists. He did record a number of Little Richard hits, and songs by Ray Charles, Joe Turner, Lloyd Price, Winonie Harris, and of course, Arthur Crudup, a little known blues artist, but he acknowledged his sources, never making it appear that the songs were his own. But, more importantly, he did the songs in his own style, not copying the style of the original. The sound of the Blue Moon Boys (the original name for Elvis, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black), was a unique blend of country and blues, which opened the door for rock n’ roll. (Of course, there were other influences as well. In fact, much of Scotty’s guitar sound was inspired by Bill Haley and the Comets). I still consider that music some of the most exciting music ever recorded. I don’t agree that only the early Sun record recordings were brilliant. That same sound carried over into the music he made for RCA Victor. There is a joy, a sense of freedom, courage, and precociousness to that music which, sadly, Elvis never really recaptured. You can hear the same infectious youthful enthusiasm in both early Elvis and early Beatles. There was a decline in quality when Elvis began recording songs for his movies (with significant exceptions in Jailhouse Rock and KIng Creole). But this was nothing compared to the catastrophic collapse in quality which would come in the sixties.
There is a silly, campy, sort of tongue in cheek, quality to much of Elvis music in the sixties, but, let’s face it, it stinks!! There was some good music made. particularly in the beginning and the end of the decade, but the real schlock is from 1963-67. His movies became so bad that I dare anyone to be able to actually sit through some of the worst ones, such as Easy Come Easy Go, Speedway, or Charro. What the hell happened? I think Elvis truly lost interest in his career. He began to look at it as only a job, a job he hated. The amazing thing is that even when Elvis was left with crap to record, he managed to do as fine a job as was possible under the circumstances. The songs are sung well, they just aren’t good songs. Then at the end of the sixties he came on strong, with a tv special which blew everyone away. He sang with a gutsy quality which wasn’t even there in the fifties. His voice had deepened, allowing a more soulful delivery. You could tell he was pouring himself fully into the performances. That is, indeed, some of his best work. He developed an interesting sound, contemporary r & b with a slight Memphis country touch. His singing is extraordinary on songs like Suspicious Minds and Any Day Now. He only had that sound for a brief period, basically only in 1969 and 1970. He never looked better. He had redeemed himself, but it didn’t last long.
The seventies Elvis is a bad dream, which descends into nightmare. Elvis started out well enough. The music was cheesy, and the performances were repetitive, milking away whatever merits the songs might have had in the beginning. The way he sang his old fifties songs was a crime. He tossed them off as if he didn’t give a damn. He didn’t. He sold his entire catalog for a few million dollars, and thought he had earned a ton of money doing nothing, when in fact, he was a big fat idiot. He did not see himself as a legend, or as one of the best artists of all time. Some of the music from the seventies is unbearable. On many of the recordings he doesn’t sing well. However, there are a few stand outs, in which his voice is strong and rich. His version of Danny Boy is a masterpiece. But it didn’t happen often. It is amazing, as well as disgusting, that a tv special was filmed of what turned out to be Elvis last concert. That Colonel Parker would allow his ‘boy’ to appear on tv as a horribly sick, fat slob, bearly able to walk, much less perform, is mind boggling. At the time he died, he was unable to move his bowels. Hamburgers were jammed tight into his colon. He didn’t need a drug overdose, just the attempt to move his bowels was enough to generate a heart attack. What a sad way to go. But it feels like an appropriate comment on the American Dream, He died of cheeseburgers up his butt.
Elvis Presley’s ghost haunts us still. He confidence, his exquisite beauty (he had the profile of Apollo), his humor, but also his mediocrity, the incredible disappointment he became not once, but twice! For some, he is a big phony. For others, he is the real deal. Both are correct, depending on which Elvis Presley you mean. When I was in high school I tried to dress like him, to disastrous effect. I had joined a very long line, including John Lennon, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, and countless others. Their results were better. His influence within my family was so great, that my oldest brother said losing Elvis was like losing a family member. We weren’t alone. I will try to post something about some other heroes of mine. Elvis is my hero because he was totally original (unlike what some would have you think), even though he was influenced by James Dean, Marlon Brando, and even Tony Curtis and Dean Martin, he managed to take all his influences and create something truly unique to him. At his best, no one could touch him. He was the most exciting. He was the best looking. He felt like Freedom! At his worst, well let’s not go there…….I will leave you with a video of Elvis when he was igniting a revolution. His first television appearance on Tommy Dorsey in 1956. Here are four of his Dorsey show appearances. I know it’s a lot but I want you to let yourself be transported back to that time and see how wild Elvis actually was.