I knew I’d have to deal with Elvis sooner or later, and since I’ve been building up my inventory of 1950’s reviews recently, sooner seemed better than later.
Though I loathe almost everything he did after he entered the U. S. Army, I love the Elvis of the Sun and early RCA years. That Elvis was a young man whose entire body and soul became electric when playing the music he loved. His many biographers describe a kid who everyone else considered a little weird, carrying his guitar wherever he went and singing to no one in particular. When he tried to hook up with bands in Memphis, he was rejected by several who told him he’d never make it as a singer.
You may think that the musicians who rejected him were out of their minds, but not really. Elvis was an original. He didn’t fit the mold of a singer at that time. He synthesized the feel of gospel and blues with a rockabilly kick and a love of Hank Snow, so you couldn’t peg him to any of the existing genres. What made him seem even more alien was that he had to move while singing, something that would later drive the recording engineers at RCA up a wall because the bastard kept moving off the spot they had marked for him. Finally, they gave in, surrounded him with mikes and let Elvis be Elvis.
He wouldn’t have made it that far had it not been for a lucky accident. Sam Phillips of Sun considered him little more than a possible ballad singer until, at the end of an unfruitful recording session, Elvis and his boys started playing around with “That’s All Right” and Sam heard exactly what he’d been looking for: a white guy who captured the sound of the black guys.
To his credit, Elvis always gave the black guys the credit they deserved.
Elvis had a tragic flaw, though. He was clearly a submissive person. You see this in his relationship with his mother and later in his relationship with Colonel Parker and the U. S. Army. The word submission implies weakness in our macho culture, but that’s based on a one-dimensional view of power. A submissive person is one who manifests strong devotion to a cause or to a person. Mother Teresa was certainly a submissive, and she was certainly no wimp. The fact that Elvis demonstrated incredible perseverance during the years when everyone thought he was an odd duck is clear evidence that Elvis wasn’t a wimp either. What happened to Elvis was he picked the wrong object of devotion to manage his career. Once Colonel Parker arrived on the scene, the songs started to get cute, the delivery more polished and that marvelous kinetic energy faded into memory. A stint in the military only served to strengthen his devotion to conformity, and while he still topped the charts for a while and made oodles on his movies, the thrill was gone.
This album captures the real Elvis, the Elvis consumed by the music, the outcast with the guitar. The first rock ‘n’ roll album to top the charts, it represents a very special moment in musical and cultural history. I’m reviewing the original release, not the extended version that appeared in the 90’s. That release really pissed me off because the powers that be chose to open the extended version with “Heartbreak Hotel,” which lacks the revolutionary impact of the original opener, “Blue Suede Shoes.”
Imagine you’re a teenager in the 1950’s, and puberty is starting to rear its hairy head. You haven’t paid much attention to music because the music your parents play is pure elevator music. You know if you hear Patti Page singing “Doggie in the Window” one more time you’re going to throw some bricks through the window of the local pet store. You’re hanging around in your room after dinner, thinking about how much you hate the frozen peas you had to eat to earn a scoop of Neapolitan for dessert. You know you should do your homework, but you just don’t feel like it. While you’re suspended in this state of Sartrean nothingness, your mother yells down the hall that one of your friends is on the phone. “Wanna go to the malt shop?” “Yeah, sure.” You lie about having done your homework and head down to get a malted fix from the soda jerk. Your friend sidles up to the jukebox and says, “Wait until you hear this,” drops a dime into the slot and presses a couple of buttons. This is what you hear:
You feel every cell in your body come alive and get a dawning sense of why you’ve been having funny sensations in your nether regions. You can’t help it: you’ve got to dance. When it’s over, you reach for a dime to play that song one more time. After about five more spins, you see it’s time to go home because your mother would kill you if you missed watching Uncle Milty with the family. You arrive in time, fling yourself on the floor in front of the bulbous tube, and lo and behold! Uncle Milty is introducing . . . Elvis Presley!
Look at that sucker move! How does he make his legs go every which way? You consume the visuals in a way you’ve never consumed green peas, greedily taking in the way he combs his hair, the clothes, the shoes, that guitar he’s banging like there’s no tomorrow. Man, this is it! This is what I want to be! I want to make music and drive those people wild!
“Blue Suede Shoes” is a hell of an opener, in large part because of the shock of the stop-time opening where Elvis belts it out with maximum intensity. While I love Carl Perkins’ version, and bemoan the fact that he rarely gets credit for his contributions to rock, Elvis’ version is so much sexier. The best rock ‘n’ roll has the curious effect of lifting our spirits and fanning our flames, and Elvis was one of the first to work that kind of magic.
I think one aspect of Elvis’ music that made him a bit more palatable to the mass audience than Little Richard or Chuck Berry had nothing to do with race, but with his willingness to sing tender ballads. Practically speaking, if you can make mothers all over America love you, then they’re more likely to let their kids have some fun with the rougher material. While that kind of marketing mentality would never have occurred to Elvis, his balladeering did the trick. “I’m Counting on You” allows him to show his softer side and demonstrate that his voice can be sweet as well as rough. His vibrato is superb and his range combined with his feel for the song make it a keeper.
Now that he’s made it safe for us to proceed, Elvis kicks in with a rockabilly version of Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman.” His breathy vocal in the stop-time verse is killer, and makes me forgive him for the “she knows her place” message in the lyrics. Elvis sings this one with trembling restraint, slight cockiness and flashes of power. The classic wrap-up coda is a kick! Next up is “One-Sided Love Affair,” a bouncy honky-tonk boogie number with Shorty Long having a great time on the ivories. This is where Elvis shows his command of tone and phrasing, creating syllables like “you-ah”, “co-ohs” and “love-ah” while occasionally echoing the cadence of a pulpit preacher. The coda features three different approaches to the final line, all expressing a different mood: head-shaking, coy and finally, determined.
“I Love You Because” opens with whistling and acoustic guitar before Scotty Moore introduces a rather complex counterpoint to Elvis’ crooning. The effect is rather charming. The song is quite simple, but flows better than the rather stiff “Love Me Tender” that helped launch his forgettable movie career. The boys get moving again with “Just Because,” where Scotty shines with that oh-so primitive sounding electric guitar that captures a magic that the software of today can never emulate.
Elvis’ version of “Tutti Frutti” can’t touch Little Richard’s original, and he almost sings it like he knows it and can’t wait to get it over with. He does much, much better with “Trying to Get to You,” where his varied phrasing and dynamics can really shine. He really lets it go on the bridges, growling it out at a comfortable spot in his high range, and what he does with the word “true” (something like true-ooh-uh-ooh-ooh flittering over the scale) is Elvis at his best. I love the way he returns to the higher register to belt out that closing line.
The low-register Elvis opens “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You),” a rockabilly number enhanced with a flurry of blue notes on the piano and a solid attack on the ride cymbal during the bridges. Once again, the combination of Elvis’ deft movement through the scale and his delightfully twisted drawls are the high points. It’s followed by a sweet country song, “I’ll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin’)” where Elvis sings in a soft, almost meek voice over Scotty’s mandolin-style guitar picking . . . until they kick it up a notch and add some toe-tapping rhythm to the mix. The rhythmic shift doesn’t really work very well, but who knows—maybe they just got antsy playing the slow stuff.
Elvis takes on that hoary classic, “Blue Moon,” a song I loathe no matter who’s doing it. What I like about this track, though, is that the sound is terribly primitive, as if recorded in someone’s living room with a tape recorder that could have used some extra head cleaning fluid. The original album ends with the criminally ignored “Money Honey,” clearly the equal of Clyde McPhatter’s original chart-topper. The chord slide that runs through the song (like what you hear on Dave Clark’s “Catch Us If You Can”) is fabulous, and D. J. Fontana has his best outing on the entire album with his drum work, demonstrating command of both the high hat and the good old-fashioned drum roll. Everybody’s on fire on this cut: Floyd Cramer on piano, Scotty with an unusually dissonant guitar solo and of course, Elvis, who works this one as more of a band member than a front man.
When the album is over, you know you’ve heard something very special that captures one of the exciting moments at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. You couldn’t have invented anyone as perfect as Elvis Presley to serve as the point man for the rock revolution—and that’s not because of his race. His race gave him a huge advantage with the mass market of the time, but that’s certainly not his fault. He wouldn’t have even made a tiny dent into that market if he had been a run-of-the-mill white guy offering the same old slop. It was his stark originality, his devotion to his music and his insistence on singing in his unique style that made him a star.
The question of his influence is another story. While Elvis inspired millions to pick up a guitar, his musical influence is actually quite limited. His vocal approach is so singular that when people try to emulate it, the sound is a weak shadow of the original. More importantly, he wasn’t a songwriter, making him dependent on other people to supply the music. While he worked with some great craftsmen like Lieber and Stoller, that set-up could never lead to a Revolver or a Village Green Preservation Society. The deliberate destruction of his talent at the hands of Colonel Parker further weakened his impact. From the standpoint of musical influence, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and Little Richard had far more. Elvis’ real influence came from his unrestrained enthusiasm and the feeling that you get from listening to his early work that he was truly, genuinely and unmistakably into his music.
Most of the people in my generation consider Elvis a joke. They were brought up on stories of the bloated Elvis, the drugged-up Elvis, the strange recluse living in a strange house in Memphis. His sad decline and the legions of impersonators make Elvis as much an object of derision as an object of worship today. Personally, I’d rather remember him as the kid on this album, playing his heart out with exuberant joy and helping create a whole new universe of music without even trying.