Book Review:

Who is the greatest? Elvis or The Beatles



Shellans, Mike & Bill Slater. Who is the greatest: Elvis or The Beatles? Dorset Group, [ USA ] 2007. 223p. Pbk. ISBN 10: 0-9768021-1-2; ISBN 13: 978-0-9768021-1-2

Susan MacDougall assesses the merits of the latest academic approach to Elvis....and The Beatles

Who is the greatest: Elvis or The Beatles? is a worthwhile book because, as a university student text, it challenges and provokes the reader. The authors' objective is to sort out facts from myths and present them, along with statistical information, in a logical progression in order to generate informed discussion. In fact, the book is a good antidote to chat groups, which tend to generate strong opinions based on very little fact.

Although apparently not a university press publication, Who is the greatest: Elvis or The Beatles? is intended as a textbook for a Music History or Popular Culture survey course. It is suitable for high school/junior college or university level. Mike Shellans is a music professor at Arizona State University and Bill Slater is a video/film editor at Capella University.

The book is succinct and well organised with thorough background information about singers, instrumentalists, their careers, managers, producers, musical influences, performance styles. There are comparison charts, discographies, lists of movies and of television appearances.

Nor is this some stodgy textbook. It is easy to navigate and attractively set out, with coloured headings, photographs and text boxes of "Cold Facts". Each of the eight chapters has its own final summary or comparison. The authors' final conclusions are divided, with Shellans favouring Elvis and Slater favouring The Beatles.

At the same time, there is some repetition. For example, Elvis's 1968 Comeback Special is discussed in several chapters with similar introductory information. Nevertheless, redundancy is justifiable in a course textbook where each chapter can be used as a discrete module.

'Elvis versus the Beatles' is a topic that generates heated argument on chat and feedback sites. It has already been discussed in depth on the Elvis Information Network web site - see and no doubt elsewhere.

Our immediate reaction to this book must surely be: why do we have to prefer Elvis or The Beatles? Can't we admire them both? Are we comparing like with like? What does "greatest" mean - best singer(s), best entertainer(s), best musician(s), most innovative, most profoundly influential on popular music and popular culture, most popular with fans, highest sales figures, etc? All these popularity indicators must be factored in. If we must compare Elvis and The Beatles, then we need factual information about the various above-mentioned indicators.

That famous night: August 27, 1965 when The Beatles met Elvis!!!

In this book Elvis and the Beatles are compared and contrasted in various ways: personalities; life styles; music careers; movie careers; sales figures; number one hits; awards and honours; posthumous popularity; and, impersonators.

As mentioned on the EIN web site, such a comparison does not compare like with like. Elvis was on his own. The Beatles were a group. Elvis was an entertainer who interpreted other people's music, although he did have songs written especially for him. The Beatles were singer-song-writers. Does innovation include new interpretations of existing songs and creating new singing styles, or is it confined to newly written songs?

Sales figures on their own do not provide the whole answer. Data may be incomplete; sales can be manipulated and boosted by clever marketing and promotion. And how do you measure intrinsic musical value? Is popularity an indicator of value?

Various measurements can be applied, but in the end the crucial factor is personal preference, as we see from Shellans' and Slater's differing conclusions. These, in turn, could be related to fans' countries of origin and generation, which are discussed below.

If there were very few Elvis fans in Britain and very few Beatles fans in the USA, it would suggest a cultural preference. But the situation is far from clear cut. Both have considerable numbers of followers in Britain and the USA, as well as worldwide.

If the majority of Elvis fans were teenagers in the 1950s and the majority of Beatles fans were teenagers in the 1960s, it could suggest that fans related to the music of their formative years. But sales data can't tell us the ages of the customers.

As part of the generational argument, personal loyalties also still play a part. Elvis is dead but many fans of his generation are not. John Lennon and George Harrison are dead while Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are still alive. Fans of the 1950s and 1960s are still alive although more fans of The Beatles' generation are alive than of Elvis's generation.


If the generation argument is applicable, we might expect the stars' popularity to dwindle as there cease to be fans from those generations, firstly for Elvis and a decade or so later for The Beatles. As yet, it is too early to draw any firm conclusions about generational preferences.

Maybe a more apt question about who is ultimately the greater concerns whether Elvis and/or The Beatles have a lasting quality.

If Elvis and/or The Beatles are attracting new fans from younger generations, the generation argument doesn't apply and their music spans generations.

According to Shellars and Slater, new generations of fans are indeed purchasing "millions" of Elvis and Beatles materials - both music and memorabilia.

The book discusses greatness from the point of view of popular music and popular culture but not the increasing religious aura surrounding Elvis. This facet is intimately tied up in his music, especially his gospel songs. Fans may emulate not only the outward appearance of their heroes, but also their inner values. Some people have been sufficiently influenced by Elvis to set out on a spiritual search. Madeleine Wilson of Elvis Gospel confirms that "many people were and still are being drawn to Jesus through Elvis" (e-mail, May 23 2008) but has no information about anyone being drawn to other religions, such as Buddhism, because of him.

Who is the greatest: Elvis or the Beatles? is well worth reading for its detailed, factual background to Elvis and The Beatles and the controversy it raises about comparing these 20th century idols. We can imagine long, heated discussions in university tutorials. Most of the discussion revolves around quantifiable data, which is the only way comparisons can effectively be made. Anyone who feels strongly that one or the other must be the best will find ample ammunition for their own cause.

Lasting fame and greatness depend on the test of time. In the meantime, there is no definitive answer to the question "Who is the greatest, Elvis of The Beatles?" because a more subjective and intangible factor is at work - personal taste.

Susan MacDougall

June 2008

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Reader's Feedback

Monika (Germany): Your words about the thema spoke right out what I thougt at the last years.

I'm a "child" of the sixties (born 1948 in West-Germany) and a huge Beatle-Fan. For me/us the Beatles brought fun and exitment in our live. Yes we heard Elvis and on my wall was a pic from Elvis too. Nobody of my friends, neither me, watched an Elvis-Film - I can't remember....

The Videotimes are passed on me, because I didnt had an Videorecorder.... About 3 years ago my son gave me a christmasgift - an DVD-recorder and a friend an Beach-Boys-DVD. I was so exitet to have a "concert" in my livingroom.... Now I startet to looking for other conerts and I learnd on Amazon..... - I remembered on an concert about Elvis at the German Television and so I was looking for "Elvis" - and I found the 68-comeback special (68... had my attantion, because 1968 in Germany was a very special year....). What can I say - I saw right then Elvis at the first time performing - and from one to anogher second I fell in love to him.... - isnŽt it amazing, that succeded more than 25 years after his dead..... - yes: The Beatles brought us fun and freespirit and they  are no sexsymbols. Ok I prefered Paul and John more, but not in an sexualway... - but Elvis - whou - he had this voice (that I knows) and he looked and presentet pure Sex!!! - And of course his live is very intensive and interesting - Last year I stayed in Memphis by the 30t anniversery and I was overthelmed about all the love what brings the fans from all over the world to him... me too...

Your story is full of respect to both performers and Idols our generation - unfortunately they didn't perform together.....

With my best wishes to you.......from Heidelberg / Germany

PS: My birthday is the day when Gladys an Vernon married (17. June) and I was born in the year when the Presleys moved to Memphis Memphis (1948)  I visited Memphis in 2007. A travel who touched my emotional and intellectual soul....

Patsy Davis: Who Is The Best? Elvis or the Beattles? ELVIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Christopher Tyler: We’ve been over this time and time again and while I enjoy your even handed approach to asking why we need to decide on who’s greatest, I guess we really don’t, but the topic posted on your page certainly is asking for people’s opinions on the matter and hence I have mine loving both Elvis and the Beatles.

And I could run through all of the various criteria we could use to compare them, but a strong enough case can well be made that Elvis was both King of the Charts and King of The Movie Screen – most definitely against the Beatles - when it comes to the latter.  For in both England and the United States, Elvis’ overall chart success is better than the Beatles.  Joel Whitman covers that in his extensive Top 40s research and shows that Elvis was really way out ahead.

As to the movies, Elvis – despite not reaching his potential – was still nonetheless a bonafide movie star who still lives on through his movies which are shown quite regularly today.  There are also far more impersonators – like them or not – for Elvis than as with the Beatles and imitation is the greatest form of flattery.

Elvis has also sold way more records than the Beatles and while Nigel constantly tries to argue this point anyone with a semblance of common sense, when looking at the research Ernst Jorgenson has done on the subject, can see that is the case. 

And we also have the fact of the Beatles’ idolizing the King and not having near his longevity or versatility when it came to types of songs sung.  Nor did one of the Beatles, even come close to having the vocal range of Elvis nor the good looks or charisma.  And one could go on day in and day out as I’ve learned more than clearly from my business trips throughout the world that EVERYONE knows who Elvis is, but many of the kids thought I was talking about bugs when referring to the Beatles.

















































































































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