Today: The King lives on - but he's not who you always thought
year 2005 contains two major anniversaries in american popular
music. It marks 50 years since 1955, when rock 'n' roll first
conquered the pop singles chart, and also what would have
been the seventieth birthday of Elvis Presley (who was so
young when he made his initial breakthrough that his father
had to co-sign his first contract with RCA Records for him).
Elvis, the timing was perfect.
in terms of my own appreciation of both occurrences, the timing
was completely off. My father was born the same year as Elvis
Aron Presley, and I came along a season or so after the King
returned from the Army. My dad was slightly too old to be
part of the demographic that made Elvis a superstar, and I
was too young to get it. When I was first starting to notice
pop music, in the 1970s, it was in a fallow period. I was
caught between disco and punk, and neither appealed to me.
'n' roll was music that my parents' generation liked. It meant
the Stones, the Dead, Hendrix, Dylan, and other figures whose
attraction still remains beyond my comprehension. (To this
day the only records I have by them are LPs from my late dad's
1977, the year both Elvis and Bing Crosby died, I had already
infiltrated my father's jazz stash and begun working forward
from Armstrong's Hot Fives and Bix through Duke Ellington,
Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane. Along the way I also discovered
Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and the great American songbook.
Rock 'n' roll remained for me a bizarre thing that held some
strange fascination for zillions of people but that I just
couldn't get started with. One thing that I did have in common
with most rock fans of my generation was that none of us knew
what to make of Elvis Presley.
the time of his death he was a joke to high school kids born
in the sixties and who listened to the Sex Pistols (whose
Sid Vicious savaged both Sinatra and Presley in his parody
of "My Way"), David Bowie, Kiss, or, in my case, Bing. Elvis
Presley seemed like a caricature in his last few years, but
a caricature of what we didn't know, since we had never experienced
him in his glory days (which had been only, in fact, a few
years earlier). With those capes and jump suits, he appeared
to belong with Liberace.
demotion from king to laughingstock was confirmed for me in
the eighties and nineties, when he was increasingly spotted
walking the earth, always by hayseeds: Elvis pumping gas,
Elvis driving a pickup truck, Elvis ordering a bucket of chicken
from the Colonel (Sanders, not Parker). But for years two
people I revered, the critic Gary Giddins and the writer and
editor Robert Gottlieb, kept telling me I was wrong to dismiss
Presley so offhandedly.
in the summer of 2004, I decided to see what all the shaking
was about. I got hold of RCA Records' four big Essential Masters
boxes. By the time I finished listening to them, I was completely
hooked. Seventeen CDs were hardly enough. I was amazed by
what I heard. After a lifetime of not getting it, I finally
experienced my very own Elvis epiphany, and the mystery of
why he is considered one of the great pop performers of all
time was revealed to me. It was a vision straight from Graceland
of a transcendental being, not in a white robe but in a white
jump suit, with guitar rather than harp.
perspective on Presley is therefore different from that of
most newcomers to his music. Most people look at him as the
beginning of something, from the vantage point of what came
after him. There's John Lennon's famous statement that "before
Elvis, there was nothing." Since my orientation was Frank
Sinatra and Louis Jordan, rather than the Beatles or the Kinks,
my long-delayed experience of Elvis and his music comes from
a completely different place. First of all, Lennon (who survived
Presley by only three years) was just plain wrong.
Elvis, there was plenty. Documentary histories of rock 'n'
roll generally write off pre-rock popular music as strictly
white bread, represented by Patti Page's bland love songs
and treacly novelties until Presley and the other first-generation
rockers came along and left America "All Shook Up." Yet even
if you ignore artists like Sinatra and Nat King Cole, whose
music was considerably more exciting than "How Much Is That
Doggie in the Window," it's plain that both rhythm and blues
(and black artists in general) and country and western had
been making significant inroads into the pop mainstream long
before the Presley explosion of 1956. He has almost nothing
in common, vocally, with later rock stars.
Phillips, who owned and operated Sun Records and more than
anyone deserves credit for "discovering" Elvis Presley, is
supposed to have said that he could make a fortune if he could
find a white man who sang black. Actually, there were already
all manner of white singers who patterned themselves after
black R&B singers. The pop-music historian Arnold Shaw quotes
Frankie Laine as saying that he wasn't going to make it in
this business until he started "singing like a spook."
Johnnie Ray was a white singer who enjoyed a brief vogue for
a vocal style that simultaneously anticipated rock 'n' roll
and caricatured it. The early fifties also saw a number of
mainstream pop stars who drew on some of the appeal of country
music. Patti Page was best known in her day for straddling
both the pop and country charts, and her "Tennessee Waltz" was a blockbuster because it appealed to New Yorkers and Okies
was also Guy Mitchell, who had a vaguely Western sound and
made hits out of manufactured folk songs. And Jo Stafford
had a basically folkish timbre that sounded more rural than
urban. Presley's innovation wasn't that he sounded either
black or like a hillbilly; it was the brilliant way he drew
on all three strains of pop music: blues, country, and traditional "classic" pop (that of the crooners, big bands, and Broadway
though the country and blues influences were probably what
most attracted the teenagers of 1956, in retrospect Presley
is clearly a crooner. He comes out of a very clear tradition
of great male singers of the great American songbook, especially
Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, Billy Eckstine, Dean Martin, and,
to an extent, Frank Sinatra - as well as the leading crooners
of the idioms of the blues, like Louis Jordan, and of country,
like Eddy Arnold. Presley's most obvious roots lie in Dean
Martin and Bing Crosby.
you start with Crosby, and you add occasional Italian curse
words and mannerisms intended to suggest various states of
inebriation, then you've got Dean Martin. Take away those
Neapolitanisms, replace with a whole lot o' shakin', and essentially
you've got Elvis. Those gyrations, the physical ones more
than the vocal, simultaneously thrilled teenagers, annoyed
adults, and gave satirists grist for the parody mill. Crosby
directly anticipates Elvis's voice on his 1950 "Sunshine Cake,"
and when Martin does folkish material, the similarities to
Presley are unmistakable. On his 1956 "Memories Are Made of
This" (by the folkpop songwriter Terry Gilkyson) Martin sounds
exactly like Elvis; when Presley sings "Angel" in his 1962
film Follow That Dream, he sounds exactly like Dino.
he was drawing on Nashville, Mississippi Delta, or Tin Pan
Alley traditions, Presley's greatest strength lay in ballads
and love songs, of both the country and the city varieties.
It would be foolish to deny that he was the King of Rock 'n'
Roll, the idiom's first and greatest superstar. Yet who, exactly,
are his children? He has almost nothing in common, vocally,
with subsequent rock stars.
me, he doesn't sound anything like Ozzy Osbourne, David Bowie,
Radiohead, or even the Beatles. But he does sound a lot like
the previous generation of great male pop singers. If there
is a split between Presley and what came before him, it is
mainly in the sense of demographics. Presley represents a
point of demarcation in that his music was directed almost
exclusively at kids. Except, strangely, when Presley was a
kid himself. His first sessions, done for the Memphis independent
Sun Records when he was 19 and 20, offer a fascinating vision
of the Elvis that might have been. He sings mainly classic
blues ("That's All Right," "Mystery Train"), country ("Blue
Moon of Kentucky," "Just Because"), and pop ("Harbor Lights").
is hard to imagine anyone else doing both Rodgers and Hart's "Blue Moon" and Bill Monroe's bluegrass classic "Blue Moon
of Kentucky" within a heartbeat of each other. It was only
when RCA realized he was selling zillions of records to teenagers
that a portion of his material was dumbed down to appeal to
adolescents and no one else. Such ephemera as "Teddy Bear,"
"Good Luck Charm," "Wear My Ring Around Your Neck," and many
others represent the most forgettable aspect of his legacy.
my head I can hear Louis Jordan or Ray Charles doing "Blue
Suede Shoes" but not "His Latest Flame" or "The Girl of My
Best Friend." These last titles are particularly puerile.
It was part of the Presley legend that he was anointed to
instigate the generation gap, but it didn't have to be that
way. Elvis's longtime friend Larry Geller has written, "Contrary
to myth, not every adult found Elvis shocking. I recall my
parents watching him on Ed Sullivan and enjoying it quite
that was the very definition of rock 'n' roll. What made it
different from all other earlier kinds of pop was not the
music itself but the marketing. Like big-band swing and Sinatra-era
pop, rock was aimed at young people, but unlike other kinds
of pop, it was also specifically designed to annoy their parents.
every television documentary on early rock or Presley devotes
too much time to inflating the reaction of the older generation.
In fact, rock bashing by church and school officials was mild
compared with the hostility toward jazz in the twenties. Still,
parents, teachers, and clergy did condemn rock 'n' roll, and
the more they excoriated it, the more the entertainment business
embraced it as a way to make money. It was characterized as
subversive, the sound of rebellion, while being enthusiastically
underwritten by corporate America.
was only one kind of music that Presley sang with more conviction
than love ballads: songs of religious devotion. As for Presley,
he never considered himself a rebel. Far from wanting to antagonize
the grownups, he addressed everybody older than he was as "mister" and "ma'am."
was a sweet-natured, levelheaded boy, before prescription
medications screwed him up, and he deported himself more like
Perry Como than like Jim Morrison. He also shared several
qualities with Louis Armstrong, not all of them positive.
Each was the first and greatest, larger-than-life exemplar
of a new kind of music, yet the majority of their output -
everything but the earliest work - is almost universally dismissed.
Somehow, a kind of radical, extreme purism has become the
norm with regard to their music.
puritans apparently can't stand the idea that Armstrong made
music other than jazz or that by 1960 Presley, tired of doing
one rehash of "Don't Be Cruel" after another, was similarly
broadening his horizons. He and Sinatra were kindred spirits,
both their own tastemakers. Presley's early work shows that
he was already capable of more diversity than previous pop
stars at comparable points in their careers.
and Nat Cole specialized in rhythm songs in their early years,
while Sinatra primarily sang ballads. Yet Presley's strength
wasn't necessarily that he could switch from Hank Williams
to Big Joe Turner in a matter of seconds but that he was equally
versed in doing fast, elemental rockers and in tearing his
heart out in slow romantic songs. We could love him telling
us about hound dogs, teddy bears, and hardheaded women, or
we could love him tender. He continued to grow as an artist
after 1960, and to my ears his post-Army work continued to
get better and better. The best elements of those early 12-bar
blues rockers like "Long Tall Sally" and "Ready Teddy" remained
part of his foundation, but considerably more got built on
a broad sense, his exploration of different genres of pop
was like Bing Crosby's, embracing European songs (from "Muss
I' Den," a.k.a. "Wooden Heart," to adaptations of Italian
folk and pop tunes), Hawaiian (starting with Crosby's hit
"Blue Hawaii"), a smattering of samba and bossa nova ("Viva
Las Vegas"), Christmas hits (specifically "I'll Be Home on
Christmas Day," learned from two of his heroes, Ernest Tubb
and Billy Eckstine), and gospel albums, which represented
probably his greatest work.
about the time he upgraded from the Memphis independent label
Sun Records to the multinational corporation RCA, a music
publisher named Hill and Range set him up with his own publishing
imprint. As his biographer Peter Guralnick discusses in detail,
from that time on Presley practically never sang a song that
wasn't Hill and Range's. Sinatra had also owned publishing
houses, as had most big bandleaders.
unlike Presley, that hadn't stopped Sinatra from consistently
recording the best songs he could find. Yet like Sinatra,
and unlike subsequent rock stars, Presley never made any claims
for himself as a songwriter. The strength of both was that
they could interpret a song written by someone else and make
it into something considerably more magical, and even personal,
than the guy who wrote it.
Arnold was a first-rate country singer, but even he can't
touch Presley's reading of his own "You Don't Know Me."
Presley was importuned to waste too much energy making mediocre
songs - which he usually owned a piece of - sound better than
they were. One of the easiest ways to make money in publishing
is to copyright something that already exists. People were
always taking traditional melodies and folk songs, putting
new lyrics and titles to them, and sitting back and collecting
the royalties. Presley seems to have gotten stuck with more
half-baked folk rehashes than anyone, yet he rarely failed
to transform second-rate material into first-rate pop.
upside, however, was that he could do a number of songs from
Italian and other European folk sources, transformed via new
words into a Hill and Range product. "Can't Help Falling in
Love," "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me," "Surrender," and
"It's Now or Never" are some of his finest ballads, all informed
by his love of the great Italian crooners, starting with Enrico
Caruso and including two singers who were culturally rather
than genetically Italian, Bing Crosby and Tony Martin.
there are all manner of buried gems among the sixties movie
songs: "A House That Has Everything (Everything but Love)," which he croons to his costar, Shelley Fabares, in Clambake,
is simple, direct, and beautiful, one of his most effective
ballads ever, and he imbues it with a plaintive quality and
a yearning that the finest male pop singers would have admired.
easy to single out the inferior songs in Presley's films,
but there are just as many minor classics, like "All That
I Am" in Spinout, and "Almost in Love" in Live a Little, Love
a Little, the latter a superior song that would have suited
Tony Bennett. "Everything but Love" is one of the prettiest
things Presley ever sang. It's worth at least half a dozen
of the three-chord rock numbers he was cutting 10 years earlier.
recorded what might be his greatest ballad at his second session
after coming home from Germany. To me, it makes perfect sense
that "Are You Lonesome Tonight" was a holdover from an earlier
generation (it was actually old-fashioned even in 1927), and
a waltz to boot. In Elvis lore, "Lonesome" is regarded as
the first song that Colonel Parker recommended to his client
- especially notable since they didn't own the publishing
rights. Parker (and his wife, Marie) had apparently grown
to love "Lonesome" because of his first client, Gene Austin,
the biggest-selling vocalist of the 1920s.
Presley sings it in a tenor voice very much like Austin's
(Presley occasionally employed a falsetto register that was
even higher, in the tradition of Bill Kenny of the Ink Spots,
as in "I'm Yours"). Yet other aspects of Presley's arrangement,
such as the use of the choir and the placement and editing
of the monologue, strongly suggest that he learned the song
from Al Jolson's 1950 recording. The spoken recitation was
included in the original sheet music, but Jolson seems to
have been the first singer to record it, and Presley's conviction
while both singing and reciting recalls no one so much as
Jolson at the very top of his game.
only one kind of music that Presley sang with more conviction
than love ballads: songs of religious devotion. The two central
expressions of African-American music are the blues and gospel,
and they are flip sides of each other. In their purest forms,
blues deals with the darkness and gospel with the light, blues
with the flesh and gospel with the spirit, blues with the
earth and gospel with the sky. Presley unfailingly said that
gospel was his favorite music, and as a teenager he assumed
that the highest he could possibly go in show biz was to join
a first-rate quartet like his heroes the Blackwoods.
expected trajectory of a successful blues-and-pop singer in
the mid-twentieth century was out of the church and into the
jukebox: from Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan in the forties,
and Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls in the fifties, to Aretha Franklin
and Gladys Knight in the sixties. But it would be hard to
think of another singer, black or white, who became a star
in mainstream pop before beginning to concentrate on spiritual
music. In that aspect of his career, Presley is like Duke
Ellington and Leonard Bernstein, who began exploring their
spiritual sides later, rather than earlier, in their careers.
Presley's gospel recordings represent perhaps the most consistently
excellent work of his entire career.
made three albums of gospel songs, nearly all of which are
on the essential two-CD package Amazing Grace - His Greatest
Sacred Performances. He hadn't grown up thrilling his fellow
parishioners - he rarely sang in church as a child - yet this
was the music that was the most real and tangible to him.
He heard the blues, country, and urban pop over the radio,
but gospel he could reach out and touch. Presley brings to
singing the praises of the Lord both a conviction and an intensity
unmatched almost anywhere in his work.
takes religious songs from every sub-tradition: white, black,
even Broadway show tunes, among them a gospel treatment of "You'll Never Walk Alone" (which he once called his favorite
song) that uses countrified chord substitutions that would
have horrified Rodgers and Hammerstein. It's impossible not
to feel the spirit when he sings, and he does more than convince
you that he believes; he makes you yourself believe. Frank
Sinatra's daughter Nancy was a good friend of Presley and
costarred with him in the 1968 film Speedway. She once reported
a conversation she had about Elvis with her father.
Sinatra disparaged Elvis not on the basis of his talent or
his taste but because he felt he'd never grown as an artist.
Nancy protested that the people around Elvis wouldn't let
him grow. Sinatra rejected that excuse. From his perspective,
we can't blame him. The old man would have never let anybody
stand in his way in terms of choosing a song or finessing
an arrangement or a recording mix to perfection. And this
conversation represents a rare occasion in which Frank Sinatra
discussed Presley as even potentially an equal or kindred
spirit. But he was.
both were only children who demanded the company of an entourage
around them when they grew up; they both were extremely devoted
to their mothers; they were among the relatively few singers
who attained superstardom in Hollywood; and they both had
a lot of comebacks. Most important, both Sinatra and Presley
were their own tastemakers.
Joe Esposito, leader of Presley's entourage, the "Memphis
Mafia," has described how Elvis would work with his recording
engineers to mix his own master tapes. He would have a one-off
acetate pressed of his mix and later compare it with the mix
that RCA released. When the label tampered with his intentions,
he'd be annoyed, but rarely to the degree that he did anything
about it. He was constantly irked by the idea that the people
he worked with on films and record sessions were unimportant
because all the audience cared about was Elvis.
Sinatra before him, he wanted to work only with the best actors
and musicians and with superior songs. The difference between
him and Sinatra was one of temperament. Sinatra, like Ray
Charles, constantly made his own opportunities, and heaven
help you if you got in his way. Perhaps Presley was too nice
and civil a guy. Perhaps to stick to your standards in Hollywood,
you had to be something of a gangster.
Sinatra's, Presley's recorded output looks meager when compared
with what it could have been. There are so many songs he should
have done: "There Must Be a Better World Somewhere" (a Doc
Pomus song for B. B. King that's far superior to anything
he wrote for Presley), "I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,"
"A Rainy Night in Georgia," "Everybody's Somebody's Fool,"
Louis Jordan's "Early in the Morning," "What a Wonderful World,"
"Empty Bed Blues," "Stand by Me," "On Broadway," "I Pity the
Fool," Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," "Work Song,"
"Don't Go to Strangers," "At Last," "Teach Me Tonight," Robert
Johnson's "Hellhound on My Trail." He could have sung entire
songbook albums of the works of Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer,
and Hoagy Carmichael, three old-school songwriters who also
bridged the worlds of jazz, pop, and country music.
the Elvis sightings of the early nineties reached a peak,
I couldn't help wondering how much interest there would be
when he really left the building. His death obviously left
a gap that no one has been able to fill. And after all these
years it seems clear that Elvis Presley was not the beginning
of something but the end.
Lennon had it the wrong way around: After Elvis, there was
Friedwald is the jazz reviewer for the New York Sun and the
author of seven books on music and popular culture.