Elvis turns 75
How does one who only knew the fat, sequined, goggle-sunglasses wearing Elvis give a damn for his 75th birthday?
Consider that Elvis, more than any other figure, is ground zero for rock and roll. He was the tipping point, the one who through his Sun recordings and RCA debut defined rock and roll for everyone that followed. His package of great looks, terrific voice, stellar backing band, uncanny song choice, and southern charm, was in stark contrast to less appealing packages who were his contemporaries. No other artist created a bigger stir on Tommy Dorsey, Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan, and Steve Allen Shows than the hip swiveling hillbilly.
Arguably, without Elvis, there is no Beatles. Lennon idolized Elvis. No Beatles, no rock and roll.
That being said, lets not forget the fact that while Chuck Berry was cranking out dozens of classic songs he composed himself, and Little Richard was bringing spiritual (and sexual) abandon to rock and roll, Elvis was busy being caught up in the hubris surrounding him which was only possible because he was white. He succeeded when whites had their own drinking fountains. Much of his success was due to his co opting for himself (and the white community) what African Americans has been doing for some time – making great music. If I were a member of the African American community, not sure I’d appreciate Elvis all that much.
Over time, and this is where the problem starts in his understanding his legacy, he proved himself more Pat Boone than Joe Turner or Mama Thornton. His post RCA debut is one of the most frustrating recording legacies in Rock and Roll. A couple decent tunes here and there, nothing cohesive – largely a catalog of overproduced crap. He created the nostalgia act long before PBS was rolling them out for pledge drives. The British invasion came, and Elvis was conspicuously absent busy making lame movies.
Many point to the Elvis 68 comeback special as being the moment he stepped out from the shadows and redeemed himself as “the King of Rock and Roll!” It is an entertaining show, and worth a view. It is a cultural moment. He looked amazing with his sideburns, black leather, and tan/teeth contrast. The highlight? The nostalgia of him sitting around with his original band recapturing some of the early magic.
In the Ghetto, Burning Love, and Suspicious Minds, his “hits” during rock and rolls real heyday in the 60’s, underscore Elvis’s weakness as an artist – all these songs were composed by someone else. While Elvis may have had input into the arrangements of his songs, any writing credits were largely the result of a bargain struck by his manager, the notorious Col. Tom Parker. Elvis would record some songs, only if he could share in the royalties through a songwriting credit (a common practice at the time). While Elvis was a gifted singer, it’s always the songs that make and sustain the true star. Elvis was fortunate in his early career to find songs composed by Otis Blackwell, Leiber and Stoller, and many others that turned out to be timeless. By the mid and late 60’s the well of great songs had dried up for Mr. Presley and a new precedent had been set in the music business.
The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson, and many others established a new norm that rock and roll artists need to compose their own music. This way the songs match the artist and come with them through their career. The game was changed and the bar raised. Elvis in effect became rocks first dinosaur unable to compete with those who compose for themselves.
This wasn’t his fault, he never was that type of artist. Nor was Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, or other crooners of the 50’s. He was that weird hybrid of being a crooner in the Bing Crosby tradition, but having the attitude of James Dean. Like Bing, and Frank, he never woodsheded on the craft of songwriting. It was never a thought. What he did was sing – and that he could do! Even toward the end, he still had a terrific voice which can be heard in the sometimes goofy but ultimately satisfying documentary, This is Elvis.
Elvis is to me the tragic figure in rock and roll. He was caught up in something bigger than himself he couldn’t control. He rode the wave. He was ill prepared to manage his own decisions, and the people surrounding him were no help. Col. Parker, in particular, comes across as a macabre and sinister figure. The Colonel kept “the King” on a treadmill of less-than-mediocre money making engagements – never stepping in to provide counsel as things unraveled. He sat on the sidelines while Elvis choked down handfuls of regularly over-prescribed medicines that ultimately led to his death at age 42.
When Parker was interviewed toward the end of life he was unaware his own sister had died several years earlier. In the end, it may be Parker, more than anyone that contributed to the tragic Elvis I and so many others grew up with.
Elvis became famous for being famous, long before there were paparazzi and tabloids. The endless money stream ensured by Parker’s management created a monster whose foolish decisions and posse of hangers on did him no favors. He dated a 14 year old who he later married, created Graceland and the Jungle Room, and still became a cultural icon along the way. Clearly he paved the way for Michael Jackson (who married Presley’s daughter), and also died of similar, pharmacologically induced death.
It’s impossible to escape Presley. He’s had US Postage Stamps and slot machines in his honor – impersonators and revival shows. He’s won Grammy awards. His home was the name of a Grammy winning album by Paul Simon. Spinal Tap talked at his grave how his death provided, “a little to f’ing much perspective.” He is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Somehow for me though, he’s a bit like Orson Welles. How could the rotund. wine-pitchman who regularly pontificated on the Merv Griffin Show be the same guy who made Citizen Kane? It doesn’t seem possible. How could this fried banana, bacon, and hot peanut butter sandwich eatin’ guy doing karate kicks while uttering “TCB,” be the same guy who stepped into Sam Phillips Memphis Studio and set the music world on fire with Mystery Train?
Well, that’s because he’s just like Kane, an enigma. As is life itself. Sometimes the dots don’t connect the way we want them to. With Elvis that is the case. Too bad.
Long live the King!