Spotlight on The King: the influence of Roy Hamilton

Continuing our series on artists that influenced Elvis' musical and performing style we look at the impact of the incomparable Roy Hamilton.

Roy Hamilton, born on April 16, 1929 in Leesburg, Georgia, was one of those singers with an instantly recognizable voice.

It was big, booming and able to 'sob' with the best. Roy could convincingly deliver a rocker like Don't Let Go or gently build the tension of a dramatic ballad like Unchained Melody. It was these qualities that would attract and influence Elvis Aron Presley.

Elvis and Roy shared common musical roots, which would shape their eventual singing styles: the combination of prevalent gospel music during their early years and the pervasive presence of rhythm and blues in their local neighborhoods.

There was another similarity between the two men. While Elvis was a white man who sounded like a black man, Roy was a black man who sounded like a white man.

Many of Roy's hits came from 'white' Broadway shows (for example, You'll Never Walk Alone and If I Loved You, both came from Carousel). The attraction of Roy's singing style to Elvis is reflected well in Mark Marymont's observation about Hamilton, an observation that could also have been said about Elvis:

"That experience in the church was evident in his later singing style, but he also blended that spiritual feeling with a strong sense of rhythm and blues, even when he was singing the corniest pop or Broadway ballads."

Roy Hamilton's early years were characterized by regular appearances in the church choir and success in sports. As a teenager he became a Golden Gloves boxer and spent five years with Jersey City's Searchlight Gospel Singers.

Not surprisingly, Roy, like Elvis, entered local and area talent quests and played local clubs and theatres. In 1953 Hamilton secured a regular job at the 21 Club in Bayonne, New Jersey. It was here that he met Bill Cook, his future manager, producer and occasional songwriter. Cook is generally credited as being the first black disc jockey and television personality on the East Coast.

In late 1953 Cook arranged a one year recording contract for Roy with Epic Records, a subsidiary of industry giant Columbia. Roy's first single You'll Never Walk Alone (the title track for one of Elvis' RCA Camden albums) became a major hit. Despite a strong operatic style it topped the Billboard R&B chart and made the top 20 of the Hot 100 (pop) chart.

The 'B' side was I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You) which would become one of Elvis' early recordings for RCA. Hamilton scored more hits with a string of singles: If I Loved You promptly went Top 10 on the R&B chart and also became a respectable Pop hit; Ebb Tide was followed by Hurt and Unchained Melody, while later hits included the magical You Can Have Her, I'll Come Running Back To You and the great Don't Let Go.

Unfortunately after 1958 none of Roy's singles repeated his earlier success. His last single to chart was You're Gonna Need Magic, the similar sounding follow up to You Can Have Her. Musicologist, Barney Hoskyns described Roy Hamilton as having a "'pseudo-operatic' style firmly in the category of 'sobbers and Doo-woppers".
Hamilton himself was quoted as saying: "My style is fifty percent Gospel, thirty percent popular, and twenty percent semi-classical with a touch of R&B." 'Handsome Roy's' success with You'll Never Walk Alone, Unchained Melody and Ebb Tide resulted in Sinatra style hysteria between 1953 and 1956.

In heavy demand as a live performer but with minimal professional experience in this regard, Bill Cook ensured Roy received 'quick stage presence' training in order that he could hold his own with veterans including Duke Ellington and Ruth Brown.

The Roy Hamilton influence on Elvis is well demonstrated by the fact that Elvis not only recorded several of Roy's hits (primary examples being You'll Never Walk Alone, Hurt and Unchained Melody), but importantly he also adopted Roy's semi-operatic style and pacing.

Worth and Tamerius in their substantial work, Elvis His Life From A to Z, note that:

"Elvis greatly admired Hamilton's singing ability and style and performed a number of his ballads in Hamilton's style."

While the Righteous Brothers version of Unchained Melody was a bigger hit, it was Roy Hamilton's version on which Elvis based his rendition. Elvis and Roy also recorded Pledging My Love while Elvis sang You Can Have Her in concert in 1974-75. Joe Esposito notes the connection between Elvis and Roy in his book Good Rockin' Tonight:

"Elvis epitomized a generation that was struggling to carve an identity separate from the mainstream post-war society enamored of modern assembly line production, grey flannel suits, and coolie-cutter suburban lifestyles. Conformity was the buzzword of the day. But the rebellious among the youth were discovering music as a break from conformity, particularly intensely visceral R&B artists like Roy Hamilton, Bo Diddley, and their white imitators".

Another Memphis Mafia member, Marty Lacker, has said that Elvis stated his musical influences as including Roy Hamilton, Brook Benton and Jake Hess among others. A reviewer of Roy Hamilton albums on MainSeek.com stated: "When I hear Elvis sing it is so clear to me that's he's trying his darndest to sound like Roy Hamilton on some records and then The Ink Spots on others. But Elvis loved Black people and Black music - a fact that was suppressed back then and is still suppressed even today".

In 1969 Elvis and Roy met at the American Sound Studios in Memphis. Both were being produced by Chips Moman - Elvis at night and Roy during the day. Elvis would sometimes arrive early to listen to Roy.

It was during their meeting in July 1969 that Elvis offered Roy the Barry Mann - Cynthia Weill song Angelica. The result was a soaring, dramatic rendition that unfortunately struggled to find radio airplay.It also turned out to be Roy's last single.

Sadly, on 20 July, 1969, the distinctive voice of Roy Hamilton was silenced when he died following a stroke. While receiving his Jaycees award as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of America in 1971, Elvis recited part of Roy's 1955 recording Without A Song:

"I learned very early in life that without a song the day would never end Without a song a man ain't got a friend Without a song the road would never bend Without a song. So I'll keep singing the song."

References:

  • Elvis His Life From A to Z, Fred L. Worth and Steve D. Tamerius
  • "E" is For Elvis, Caroline Latham and Jeannie Sakol
  • Elvis Presley: A Life In Music (The Complete Recording Sessions), Ernst Jorgensen
  • From A Scream To A Whisper (The Great Voices of Popular Music), Barney Hoskyns
  • Good Rockin' Tonight, Joe Esposito and Elena Oumano
  • Last Train To Memphis (The Rise of Elvis Presley), Peter Guralnick
  • Roy Hamilton - For Collectors Only (2CD), Liner notes by Mark Marymont
  • Walk A Mile In My Shoes, in Goldmine, (19 January, 1996), William Ruhlmann

This edition of Spotlight On The King was prepared by Nigel Patterson. It was originally published in Elvis Monthly #451. 1997, 2004

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