Tuesday, September 10, 2013
A while back, I was emailing with my buddy Jim. I worked with him at the lab, and he’s the guitarist for Cornerstone Blues Band. If I recall, this was before we went to see the Stones in Chicago, so I was in full-blown Stonesmania. I believe I said something about requesting a Stones song next time we see them play, and he told me they didn’t know any Stones songs, and he was just never that much into them. I was like what-WHAT?! Dude, you play in a BLUES band, how can you not do any Stones songs?! (I believe they have been working on one since then...we shall see if they play it next time we’re out to see them!) He then went on to tell me that he thought Elvis Presley is one of the most over-rated performers ever.
I was like, “Man, are you trying to get me to end our friendship? What’s next, you don’t like Johnny Cash?!” We had a good laugh about it, and of course, I would never end our friendship. But I will work on getting him to come around about the Stones, and with this entry, I’m going to try to get him to see reason on Elvis. This is prompted by a couple of the videos I watched for my History of Rock course today, in which the guy talked about “The Rise of Elvis.” I wish I could include the video here, but it is part of the course and not embeddable or linkable. I’ll try to summarize.
Elvis was basically a super-talented guy who was in the right place at the right time. Born in Mississippi, raised in Memphis, he was influenced by all three musical genres that converged in rock and roll: mainstream pop, country & western, and rhythm & blues. His first record was “That’s All Right (Mama),” a blues song sung with a country twang, and the B-side was “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” the famous Bill Monroe bluegrass song, sung with an R&B feel to it. He was really the first artist to blend these sounds together, paving the way for the explosion of rock and roll. There is a case to be made that he took black music and made it acceptable to whites, but this was not an exploitation of the music. He simply loved the music, and it influenced his style. There is a big difference between ripping off an artist and their music, and genuinely loving the music and having it influence you.
Elvis was the first artist to have hit records on all three Billboard charts: pop, C&W, and R&B. This is a remarkable achievement, and it shows the convergence of these styles into a new and powerful type of music.
Elvis did not write his own songs, so there is some disparagement of him for that. Unwarranted disparagement, in my book. He was emerging from an era in which many mainstream pop artists did not write their own music, and his talent was in being a charismatic performer with a great voice, like Sinatra.
I think it’s important to keep in mind the time frame here, too. Rock and roll was just beginning to be a force; white teenagers were listening to black music; teenagers themselves were finding a new niche as they began to rebel and decided that they wanted to make their own fun. Enter Elvis, with his dark good looks, that mop of hair hanging in his face, that bad boy sneer, the southern drawl, and those swiveling hips. Once people got a look at him on TV, he was an immediate star. His somewhat dangerous, smoldering sexuality made teenage girls swoon—literally. Perhaps his performances seem outdated to some now, but not to me. He has a raw power that just leaps out at the audience. THAT is charisma, and he had a ton of it.
I mean, look at him. Just LOOK at him. Good grief.
This clip of Elvis performing “Hound Dog” on “The Milton Berle Show” is worth a watch. It will make you think, “And people thought Milton Berle was funny because..?” Although I did catch the “You don’t want a girl...you want a Miltown” reference. Miltowns were kind of like quaaludes. Interesting that they got a mention on this show! What is impressive here is that young Elvis just OOZED sex appeal. When he slows down the band and does a raunchy bump n' grind to the song, I guarantee that teenage ovaries were exploding all across America. I bet a few Mom ovaries were exploding, too! He was condemned by parents everywhere for his dancing and performance, which only made him more attractive to America’s youth. He was dangerous. Elvis’s power and ultimate talent was to harness this incredible energy that was emerging in America, and channel it back to the audience in his performances. I honestly can’t watch this without getting chills, because this is basically the birth of rock and roll. Many musical elements converged in rock and roll and in Elvis’s performances, but HE was the one who brought it to the masses. HE was the one who broke it open for subsequent performers, and got radio stations to play this emerging force in music.
I maintain that Elvis was the performer who made it all possible, and brought rock and roll to the forefront of music. No Elvis...no rock and roll. At least not as we know it. And that’s a world I wouldn’t want to live in.
I rest my case.