Had he lived, Elvis Presley would have been eighty years old today.
Elvis’ artistic legacy is one that still hasn’t properly settled down. For the most part, to the extent that people under about the age of fifty are aware of him at all, it’s as an image, not an artist — either the young pompadoured sneering rebel in the pink jacket, or the fat, bloated, self-parody. The question of whether he was actually an artist of any stature seems to be beside the point — astonishingly so, for someone who sold over a billion records.
The problem is that Elvis was sui generis, he was “the King of rock & roll”, but in many ways he was the last of the pre-rock singers — a singer who didn’t write his own material, just performed. Even in the 50s this was starting to become less common — artists like Little Richard, Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, or Eddie Cochrane all recorded other people’s material, but also all wrote plenty of their own hits — but by the time Elvis turned thirty, there was already a growing fissure between those “artists” who wrote their own material, the Dylans, Beatles, and so on, and the “artistes” who performed other people’s material. For the fifty years since then, rock criticism has centred on the songwriter, and non-writing performers (except for guitarists who can play bitchin’ solos) have been ignored to the point that there is no rock-critical vocabulary for the pure performer.
And this has led to nonsenses like the claim that Elvis “stole” his music from black people. This is something I must see repeated at least once a week, and is based on an understandable confusion of two facts. The fact is, yes, Elvis performed some music by black songwriters, because he didn’t write his own material. And yes, there were white performers such as Pat Boone who made their living from performing insipid cover versions of records by black musicians who couldn’t get played on the white radio stations.
But Elvis was not one of them. Boone’s level of respect and understanding for his material can be summed up by the story that when he recorded Fats Domino’s Ain’t That A Shame he suggested changing the lyric to “isn’t that a shame?” instead, because “ain’t” was vulgar. By contrast, Elvis was, in the early years, singing the songs he knew and loved, no matter what the race of the original performer. That included people like Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup or the Ink Spots, but it also included Bill Monroe — in fact Sun Records, the label Elvis was on for the first two years of his career, had a policy of releasing his singles with a blues cover on one side and a country cover on the other. He was also recording songs from Broadway musicals, old folk songs, and gospel tunes, because that was the music he’d grown up listening to. His performances were influenced by black musicians — but as much by the Ink Spots as by B.B. King — but also by white gospel quartets and Dean Martin (probably the single biggest influence on his vocal style).
And those blues covers were his early recordings, not the records on which his career was based. Those records were written for him by Tin Pan Alley writers, some of whom were black (notably Otis Blackwell) but the vast majority of whom were white and usually Jewish (Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman). (In fact, the person who had most right to get annoyed at Elvis “stealing” his material was the country singer Carl Perkins, who was in a car crash just when his single Blue Suede Shoes charted, and was in hospital long enough that Elvis’ inferior cover version overtook it in the charts).
Yes, Elvis’ success was, in part, because he was a white man, and there were black artists making similar music who didn’t get the success he did — but he always did his best to acknowledge those artists, for example in a 1957 interview with the black newspaper Jet, saying “A lot of people seem to think I started this business, but rock & roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. Let’s face it, I can’t sing like Fats Domino can. I know that.” His music can’t be dismissed because he was a white man — after all, while his selling more than Chuck Berry or Little Richard or Fats Domino or Larry Williams or insert-black-artist-here might be down to pure racism on the part of the public and those publicising his music, his selling more than Bill Haley or Gene Vincent or the Everly Brothers wasn’t.
This seems like protesting too much (and being a clueless white man, the more I claim something isn’t racist, the more likely it is that it’ll be seen as exactly that), and I didn’t really want that to be the focus of this piece, but that’s the nature of this myth — there are generations of people now who *only* know Elvis as “the man who stole black people’s music”.
And like I say, this is because of the impossibility of proper critical analysis of performance in post-Rolling Stone rock criticism, where a non-writing performer is either a puppet or a thief.
The fact is, though, that there were very good reasons for Elvis’ success. Even leaving aside his stage presence (and my *GOD* that man had a charismatic smile, which probably sold him fifty million records or so by itself), he was born with an extraordinary voice, and also had an amazing artistic sense. Just listen to his 1954 take on Blue Moon, which I think may still be the best recorded solo vocal performance in history. He strips the song down to the first two verses only, singing them in a gorgeous baritone, before going into wordless falsetto “wahs” of the kind that Harry Nilsson would later build a career on, and then the song sort of decays, with him repeating the first verse over and over, but singing less of the lyric each time, replacing more and more of the lyric with a keening falsetto howl. Not for Elvis the middle eight and the turnaround in the protagonist’s fortunes, no moon turning to gold, just a descent into wordless agonising loneliness.
That’s the 19-year-old Elvis, in one of his first recording sessions, doing something about as far from the rock and roll he’d become known for as is possible (the only similarity to his more famous records being the massive amounts of slapback echo added by Sam Philips). Even at that age, the man had a miraculous sound.
But of course, it’s easy to defend early Elvis, at least to those who don’t immediately say he was a racist thief. Early Elvis was *cool*. He was young and handsome and had long hair and wore ridiculous clothes and swung his hips in a way the old people thought was pornographic. But “Elvis died when he went into the army”, right? John Lennon said so, so it must be true.
Well, up to a point.
The very first music Elvis made on his return from the army was actually some of his very best. The recording sessions that led to Elvis Is Back! and the contemporaneous singles saw him finally in complete control of his voice, and branching out, so he was covering everyone from Al Jolson to Lowell Fulson, singing light opera (It’s Now Or Never, an English reworking of O Sole Mio), girl group songs (Soldier Boy) and jazz-blues (Fever). At this point he could jump from a rumbling bass to a light, airy, tenor in the space of a single note, with a precision that is quite breathtaking. Where his early recordings had been all about youthful energy, here he could marry that energy to an almost unparalleled vocal precision.
Unfortunately, he didn’t get the chance to build on that. For the next few years, Elvis’ career was entirely in the hands of his manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, one of the most greedy men ever to work in the music industry, which is saying something. Parker, along with Elvis’ father Vernon Presley, pulled Elvis into a series of ridiculous contracts designed solely to put money in Parker’s pocket, and obliging Elvis to record ever-more-awful songs, eventually getting to the point where songs were deliberately chosen as insults to Elvis (Yoga Is As Yoga Does, a song that mocks Eastern mysticism, was chosen because the people around Elvis disapproved of his interest in non-Christian religions).
This started to change in 1966, when Elvis recorded a rather lovely album of gospel songs, and slowly over the next few years he reasserted control over his own music, with the help of producer Felton Jarvis, but the damage had been done.
Most critics will at least give a grudging respect to Elvis’ 1968 TV “comeback special” and the album From Elvis In Memphis which followed and which teamed Elvis and Jarvis with the great Chips Moman, but pretty much none will give any credit at all to the music Elvis did in the 70s.
Well, almost none. I still remember, 20 years later, reading Charles Shaar Murray’s review of the Essential 70s Masters box set in Mojo. I think this is word-for-word — “the seventies were when Elvis finally got good. He was fat, and lonely, and crippled inside, and making music for the fat, the lonely, and the crippled inside.”
I couldn’t agree more, and I remember that so well because it was the first time I’d ever seen a critic who agreed with me on that.
In the 70s, Elvis finally had the artistic control he wanted. He had a live band consisting of some of the finest session musicians in the world, including most of the same people used by Gram Parsons among others, he had two great groups of backing vocalists — JD Sumner and the Stamps, for the gospel quartet sound he loved, and the Sweet Inspirations, Aretha Franklin’s backing group, for soul. And the music he created was something utterly unique — a combination of swamp rock, 70s divorce rock, Spectorian wall of sound, soul, and country, topped with Elvis’ vocals. Even though Elvis didn’t write the material, he would take everything from My Way to Proud Mary and turn it into his own artistic expression.
The problem is, it was Elvis‘ artistic expression, and Elvis was, fundamentally, uncool.
There is a huge classism in most rock criticism. There’s a worship there of the working class, but it’s in the same way that the Socialist Workers’ Party worship the working class — from afar, and with no desire ever to meet a real one. Their idea of working class music is punk — a musical form that came from art schools and was inspired by situationism. Which is no criticism of punk, of course.
But Elvis was a fat, divorced, forty-year-old, ex-truck driver on prescription medication, and he was making music for fat, divorced, forty-year-old truck drivers. It was big and bombastic and schmaltzy and dealt with divorces and custody battles and the pain of everything going wrong in one’s emotional life, and did so in simple terms with a giant string section backing.
That’s not something that’s ever going to appeal to critics — and to be honest, I have a hard time with some of it myself. My reflexive cynicism and my aversion to simplicity and emotion mean that when Elvis sings “Daddy, you’ve still got me, little Tommy/Together we’ll find a brand new Mommy”… well… I can’t say I’ve never sneered at that.
But fat, divorced, truck drivers need music that speaks to them at least as much as middle-class graduates who work in the media and think of themselves as rebels do, and probably a lot more. And Elvis delivers this with utter, complete, conviction. When Sinatra sang My Way, you could always hear the sneer in his voice, the contempt for the material showing through even with his perfectionism. Elvis, on the other hand… he means it, man. Taken on their own terms, Elvis’ 70s recordings are the perfect expression of the Silent Generation just then entering early middle-age, wishing they were young enough to have some of this sex and drugs the younger people had, and having their marriages break down at the same time it looked like the country they grew up in was disappearing forever. It’s the same audience Neil Diamond or (a little later) Barry Manilow were appealing to, but with an emotional honesty and artistic integrity neither of them ever had.
But it’s music that has no real descendants. Elvis’ 50s music influenced everything that followed, to the extent that the difficulty when listening to it is appreciating how revolutionary it sounded at the time, so thoroughly have its innovations been absorbed and normalised. Elvis in the 70s, though, was up a musical dead end — a fascinating one, but one where no-one else followed. And it’s one for which we don’t have a critical, or even appreciative, vocabulary any more — it’s very, very hard for anyone who grew up in the decades since Elvis’ death to appreciate music which has absolutely no sense of irony, self-awareness, or distance whatsoever. We don’t have the context. It’s too big, too bombastic, too much.
But there are ways into it, usually when the performance is stripped down. Take a look at this:
That’s Elvis, alone at the piano, on stage, six weeks before he died, performing Unchained Melody. He’s clearly ill — not just fat, but *bloated* (you can be healthy at any weight, but that’s clearly water retention, a sign that his kidneys were packing up), with his hair obviously dyed to hide the grey, and sweat dripping from his face onto the microphone. He can’t breathe properly, and you can hear him gasp. He’s completely lost the top end from his voice, and he can’t control it the way he could even a year earlier — he’s having to rely on vibrato and sheer power to get through the song, rather than any kind of subtlety.
But watching the video, his voice still sounds amazing, deteriorated as it was. But more to that, I find myself awed at this sick, dying, man, pushing this song out of himself. It’s a battle between his physical limitations and his sheer will to get the song performed, and I find myself feeling tight-chested myself, as if my own breathing’s restricted, gasping every time he inhales, willing him on to finish his performance, to complete this task which would have been so simple to him so recently before, but which now seems to be almost superhumanly difficult. Go on, E, you can do it.
And he gets to the last note, and manages to gasp out something approaching the right note in falsetto, and then as he slams out the final chords on the piano, he lets out a yell, half angry at himself for not *quite* getting the note, but half triumphant that he did it at all. He turns to the camera and grins, and for a moment twenty years and seven stone drop off and he’s Elvis again. Just as this video cuts out (you can see it better on the full show from which this is taken) he raises his arms in the air in victory.
He did it.
He was still the King.