“You know the landlord ring my front door bell” has to be one of the most memorable entrances Elvis ever made into a song.
His take on Money Honey is unique, unforgettable and unalloyed genius. It is also an object lesson in what you might call the misunderestimation of Elvis.
In this EIN Spotlight respected author Paul Simpson takes a close look at this classic track from Elvis' first album ...
“You know the landlord ring my front door bell” has to be one of the most memorable entrances Elvis ever made into a song. His take on Money Honey is unique, unforgettable and unalloyed genius. It is also an object lesson in what you might call the misunderestimation of Elvis.
You have probably read that Presley’s cover of Jesse Stone’s Money Honey is identical to the classic Drifters version, cut in 1953, with Clyde McPhatter on lead vocal, which reached No1 on the US R&B charts, selling two million copies. The familiar suggestion is, to use a technical term scholars of popular music don’t use often enough, rubbish.
All you have to do to refute this canard is listen to the respective versions back to back.
The Drifters’ performance is astonishing enough in its own right to earn the song the number 252 slot on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all-time. Despite McPhatter’s sublime vocal, it is more of an ensemble performance, with the other Drifters weaving their harmonies in the background, and a superb saxophone solo from Sam ‘The Man’ Taylor driving the song to a frenzied climax.
Inspired by a shared joy of discovery, McPhatter screams to encourage Taylor on. The significance of this scream is best described by Greil Marcus: “It’s the scream of surprise – the scream of a man watching a door blow out, the scream of a man who’s been to the other side and is ready now to reach back and pull everyone over.”
An 18-year-old truck driver called Elvis Presley was one of those who McPhatter pulled into a new world. As he told Sam Phillips: “You know, if I could sing like that man, I would never want for another thing.”
He acknowledged his mentor’s influence at four of the most creative recording sessions in his career: his first at RCA’s New York studios on 10 January 1956 (when he also recorded Heartbreak Hotel); at Radio Recorders in Hollywood on 6 September 1957 when he cut White Christmas; at Studio B Nashville, on 3 April 1960 when he worked wonders with Such A Night and, lastly, in January 1969 when he gave everything he had, vocally, in a soaring rendition of Without Love at American Studios.
His transformation of Money Honey is not as radical as his blistering take on Arthur Crudup’s My Baby Left Me, but it is certainly not a pastiche or a copy.
The tempo and the vibe are similar, but right from the start, Elvis’s vocal is more aggressive, challenging and cynical, as the landlord’s demand for “money honey” leads the narrator to discover that his mercenary girlfriend has replaced him with a richer man and concluding that, to avoid future complications with rent and romance, he will follow her example.
With Bill Black on bass, Scotty Moore on lead guitar, D.J. Fontana on drums and Floyd Cramer at his sharpest on piano, Elvis’s Money Honey rocks harder than the Drifters’ original. Moore’s guitar solo helps, driving the song forward with a mysterious force that mesmerized a young Keith Richards. As the Rolling Stone wrote: “I’d have died and gone to heaven just to play like that – how the hell was that done?” It’s possible that even Moore couldn’t say, as he recalled: “The solos were strictly ad lib. Even now I’ll go back and I can’t play note for note what I did back then.”
Another artist who had previously covered Stone’s most famous composition was Ella Mae Morse. Her energetic cover is also driven by a memorable saxophone solo but is let down by the backing vocalists who sound like bad Jordanaires impersonators.
A sassy, genre-transcending vocalist, hailed by Nick Tosches, no less, as one of the “unsung heroes of rock and roll”, Morse memorably cut House Of Blue Lights in 945, a performance that has, despite the dated arrangement, some of the soul Elvis wanted in his music.
The lyrics are certainly as direct as any rock and roll classic: “There’s an eight-beat combo that just won’t quit/ keep walkin’ till you see a blue light lit”. (Chuck Berry, one of rock and roll’s greatest lyricists, later covered the song.)
When Elvis co-starred with Mae on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956, he told her that she had taught him how to sing. Like Presley, she has subsequently been accused of ‘stealing’ black music, although her interpretations are a world apart from Pat Boone’s antiseptic Little Richard covers.
Elvis may well have heard Morse’s cover of Money Honey but he does not sound directly influenced by it. He sounds, as he told Marion Keisker at Sun, like nobody. It’s hard to calculate how many syllables he stretches “on” in “on his mind” into. He punctuates the chorus with those famous enigmatic “uh uhs”.
And then there are the hiccups – especially the first time he sings “asked” – the vocal mannerisms Gene Vincent borrowed to launch his career. When Gladys Presley first heard Be Bop A Lula, Vincent’s breakthrough hit, on the radio, she congratulated Elvis on his new single. Vincent obviously felt guilty about it. When the singers met later, Elvis recalled laughing: “Before I even said anything, he came up to me and said straight out ‘I wasn’t copying you man’.” Presley congratulated Vincent, predicting, rightly, it would be a big hit – it reached No7 on the Billboard hot 100.
The sneer in Elvis’s voice on Money Honey would be retrospectively interpreted as a harbinger of punk. As Dylan Jones recounts in his idiosyncratic book Elvis Has Left The Building, the announcement of Presley’s death on 16 August 1977 at the Vortex, a London club for punk fans, provoked five minutes of cheering. Enraged, Danny Baker, the future writer and broadcaster, jumped on stage and, despite being hit in the head by a bottle, told the crowd: “Elvis was the first punk. Without him, none of you would be here tonight.” Backstage, shaking and crying with anger, Baker looked up to find John Peel, the legendary British DJ, with tears streaming down his face, so upset by Presley’s death he could barely speak.
"Elvis was the first punk"
British punk had a complicated relationship with Elvis – decrying him as a dinosaur while also paying homage. The Clash’s third album cover aped the pink and green lettering of Elvis’s debut LP and Sid Vicious, the self-destructive Sex Pistol, bought a gold lamé jacket that didn’t fit him because he believed, mistakenly, it had once belonged to Elvis.
To play Elvis’s 1956 recording of Money Honey is to be reminded of the exhilarating sense of freedom he brought to popular culture, a feeling that, in the repressed 1950s, seemed revolutionary in itself – even if you couldn’t see his hips swinging suggestively and subversively.
His affection for the song is reflected in live performances from 1954 and 1955 – some of which are on the new compilation A Boy From Tupelo – on the Dorsey Brothers show in March 1956 and, in the 1970 Las Vegas rehearsals, when he sang a snatch of it.
Scottish rocker Alex Harvey, front man of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, recorded Money Honey, fusing it into a rocky, screaming rendition of The Impossible Dream, the title track of the group’s 1974 album (Click here to YouTube). Harvey had started out in the late 1950s performing covers of Elvis, Bo Diddley and Ray Charles, even winning a contest as Scotland’s answer to Tommy Steele (who was, briefly, sold as the British Elvis). The combination of these two songs – from different stages of Presley’s career – certainly sounds like Harvey’s homage to his idol. (By tragic coincidence, McPhatter, Presley and Harvey all died of heart attacks while young – 39, 42 and 46 respectively – casualties, in their differing ways, of a rock and roll lifestyle.
Like Robert Johnson’s blues recordings, Elvis’s cut of Money Honey seems to exist in its own time and space. Recorded more than six decades ago, it still sounds fresh, outlandish and vaguely menacing – as if we’re unsure who the narrator’s sneer is aimed at. It could be directed at himself, his landlord, his former girlfriend, or us – who need, like the narrator, to heed this cynical lesson. That ambiguity only adds to a meisterwerk that, more than any other track, explains why Baker rightly hailed Elvis as “the first punk”.
Spotlight written by Paul Simpson (design/ images by Piers Beagley) -Copyright EIN September 2017
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