Summer 7/1996 The 25 Most Influential Americans of the 20th Century: #5
ELVIS PRESLEYThe Bad, the Sweet and the Boogie
“Before Elvis,, there was nothing.” -John Lennon
The great irony of the twentieth century is how Americans north of the Mason Dixon Line have viewed their Southern brethren as often comical, less-than-hip hicks, far removed from the cutting-edge cultural hub wrestled so vigorously in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Yet, in this subtle bread basket of culture, the lines of musical, and consequently, societal challenge have been repeatedly drawn in the generational sands of America. And the man that will forever rise to the top of the legendary pioneers roll call is an ex-trucker from Memphis Tennessee named Elvis Aaron Presley.
Elvis Presley never wrote a published song, designed a stitch of clothing, sculpted a single hair style or invented one dance step; but the man forever known as The King certainly sang, modeled, coifed and hoofed his way to the pinnacle of fame and fortune the world over. Presley was the package: the swooping, greasy pompadour, sneering smile, the slightest shake of his pant leg and an indescribable, godly voice meshed in sweet tones and snarling grit, all added up to arguably the most recognizable personality in the history of pop culture.
Somewhere on the edge of black and white, male and female, young and old, innocence and evil; the skinny kid from nowhere still sits straddling the fence of genre, style and celebrity. With a name for the ages, and a look of an alien creature sent to earth on a twist of fate, Elvis Presley, by his mere presence, changed everything Americans knew or imagined about iconoclasm.
The country bumpkin image of Lil’ Abner, Hee Haw and the mellow world of Andy Griffith has forever defined the South as a vacuous, backward desert of culture and progress. These images usually followed the alarming pictures of a nation dependent on farms and old-fashioned tradition for life-blood. The core battle for civil rights and religious morals seemed to drag well behind what the times, and the rest of America, dictated. But the fact is for decades before and after World War II the warm simplicity of the American South produced nearly all of the country’s original music; Jazz, Country, Folk, and Rock-N-Roll. In towns like New Orleans, Louisiana, Memphis, Tennessee and Mobile, Alabama, simple “county folk” were tearing down the walls of musical expectation and setting the standards by which the rest of the country would copy for evermore.
The South produced Blues originators like Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, who were laying down the lyrical and musical bedrock for the future of modern music, folk legends like Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, who began to set the mood of the nation to three-chord ballads with a satirical twist, country icons such as Hank Williams, who wrote the Bible of musical musings, fore fathers of Jazz like Louis Armstrong and John Coltraine, who simply created the genre, and the young pistols of rock-n-roll like Buddy Holly and Little Richard, who influenced a billion-dollar legacy that has dominated the world.
When a 20 year-old Elvis Presley wandered into the now-famous Sun Studios, the eventual stable for rock-n-roll originals and now one of the most frequented tourist sights in America, he was not only unaware of the impact his voice, face, and demeanor would have for the future of modern celebrity, he hardly knew if he’d like the results of the visit himself.
It was the spring of 1955, and the affluent winds of modern America were blowing. The first wave of Baby Boomers were ready and willing to spend their daddy’s money on the Next Big Thing. The only son of Vernon Presley, an out-of-work ex-con, and his overly-affectionate, chubby wife, Gladys, Elvis quickly tired of wading through the sludge of poverty and busting his fragile back in the dust bowl of anonymity. All of his teachers, school mates and fellow Sunday gospel singers down at the local church had told him that he possessed a beautiful voice and a certain boyish, naive charm that could settle a song deep within his chest and pour over the ears like the molasses in their cuppards. So, he collected part of his measly weekly earnings driving a delivery truck and decided to record his untrained, lilting voice onto an actual vinyl disc.
Sam Phillips, owner and proprietor of Sun Studios, fancied himself a producer and manager of unknown local acts. His connection with disc jockeys and larger record companies made him a magnet for talented young boys fed up with their dead-end lives. Legend has it that Elvis walked into the waiting arms of fate by pure chance, that he wanted to record a song for his beloved mother’s birthday. But the young budding star knew full well what a stunning maiden performance could bring him, or more precisely, get him; far away for Memphis.
Phillips was mesmerized by the kid’s raw, yet surprisingly, refined talent. Presley’s impeccable punching of the notes, elastic range, and above all, natural ability to sound like a blues-based, old-time-gospel-hour black man, had the old pro’s wheels spinning. The man knew the goods and the dollar sign when he saw it. The very idea of a young, strange-looking white boy who could croon and bark like a country Negro could set the world on its ear and subsequently bridge the racial gap between the struggling, but eminently gifted, black songsters, and the ultra-conservative landscape of post-war America.
Phillips almost immediately set Presley up with three local musicians; guitarist, Scotty Moore, drummer, D.J. Fantanna, and bass player, Bill Black. Between the quartet and Sun’s cramped, muggy studio with its old microphone hanging from the dusty ceiling, they created a sound dripping with jazzy turns, bluesy riffs and biting country-folk drawl. Yet, the music was as new and compelling as the tightly wound figure of angst and rebellion who would eventually bare its name.
Elvis Presley, and his tight, little group, recorded over twenty songs for Mr. Phillips’ tiny Sun Records, went on small tours of the South and appeared on local television and radio shows for the next year. Presley’s impact was immediate and far reaching. Before 1956 was over, he would hook up with the notorious and pompous Colonel Tom Parker, appear on enormously popular variety network television shows including Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan and sign a lucrative contract with the largest record company in America, RCA.
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Elvis Presley was truly an overnight success story of epic proportions,. the American Dream of fortune and fame unchained. Not only was he recognized as the next teeny bopper pin-up boy in the mold of Frank Sinatra, but his uncanny and innate ability to cause a stir through his constant gyrations while singing, coupled with his long, greasy crop of hair and baggy, colorful clothes simultaneously served as a figurehead for the look of the rest of the decade and the early part of the next.
Although he never expected it, Presley became the quintessential figurehead for the evils of music and frivolity in the young, restless hordes of the post-war generation bloated with dreams and time their parents never knew. The strange, hypnotic rhythms of black country blues and the raw sexuality of the performance literally sent shock waves through the core of a patently conservative America. For the first time since WWII, young Americans thumbed their noses at their parents’ beliefs and ideological foundation. All the freedom provided by the country’s post war boom had given the spoiled, wild youth the avenue to search for figures of rebellion. The solid temple of values and tradition, of growing up, working hard and raising a family, gave way to unbridled, unabashed boogie woogie, “feelin’ fine” mantra of the next generation. And standing in the crossfire as the shining symbol of this uncharted path was Elvis Presley.
It mattered little that Presley spent the remainder of his career defending his old-fashioned, God-fearing, momma’s-boy Southern background. The image of the young Elvis; mean and strong, standing in the defiant spotlight was, by definition, the very essence of the American cultural rebellion experience. James Dean, Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis were all heroes, and in some cases, influences on Presley. But they eventually took a back seat to him. Elvis was the product of a brand new wave of popularity and revolution, one he would eventually come to represent as its most royal participant.
Rock-n-roll, this new and exciting musical amalgamation of sped-up blues and raucous country-folk, sweeping the nation from the streets of Cleveland and Detroit to the skyscrapers of New York and Philadelphia, rode the crest of radio and household record players. Unlike movies or even television, any kid could own a transistor radio, spin a 45 record or run down to the local skating rink or sock hop and dance their adolescent troubles away. It was raucous simplicity coming in compact and movable forms, just like the evolving world all around. Not unlike the power and impact of the automobile and fast food, these quick two-minute songs, singing the praises of young love, lost love, and the frustrations of mommy and daddy’s world succinctly set to dance patterns provided the soundtrack for an era, a generation and the genesis of modern American music. All of these points would have been harder to slip into the mainstream, or might not ever existed in quite the same way or reached quite the same number of people, if not for Elvis Presley.
His contemporaries, especially the talent-laden black artists, who invented and authored the anthems of the time, like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, often complain about Presley’s legacy as the King of rock-n-roll. Berry’s bouncy four-bar blues set in different keys, curved in counter rhythms, and laced with searing solos that surrounded the biting and witty lyrics of good times and wild rides has been adopted as the living primer for modern American music. He was the poet of middle class dreams and fears. However, Chuck Berry, with all his shining smiles and cutesy charm was still an aggressive, egotistical black man with a stud-like aggression. His art was far too alien and threatening for lilly white Johnny Blue Jeans or Lucy Curls, who made up the bulk of the record buying public. If Elvis doesn’t smooth the road and chop down the brush of fear and resentment, ignorance and bigotry so prevelant in the mid-1950s’, brilliant artists such as Berry might have floated in relative obscurity, forced to keep his music within the sociatal boundaries of “his own kind.”
By merely being Caucasian, Presley, like an eager salesman, was able to make his noisy stand by sticking his foot in the door before it closed . The black artists and song writers, who penned a great deal of Presley’s hits were lucky he truly loved their work with an unique passion. Instead of stripping the melodies and rawness of their thump and pop, his interpretations exploded from the depths of its meaning. While Pat Boone and Perry Como were busy “whitening” the kick and bellow of their craft, Elvis Presley was doing it justice.
By virtue of his unprecedented rising popularity, the thousands of gold records, millions of dollars in merchandising and image conscious pruning, Elvis Presley stands as the father of all pop stars. Frank Sinatra merely stepped to the beat of the current times, wearing the proper attire of any dapper man of his era. Sinatra fit his world like a glove. Presley looked like someone dropped out of a spaceship. The crossover sexuality of the hot pinks and jet blacks, thin ties, baggy pants and white shoes that would hang from his lithe body like a uniform of peculiarity were the precursor of every pop star who followed him from the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix of the 60s’, to Elton John and David Bowie of the ’70s, to Boy George and Prince of the 80s’, and finally almost every musical figure rounding out the century. Elvis was America’s first male freak– mainstream and macho– yet effeminate and docile. He was the inspiration for a generation of rock stars who took misfit alienation to new levels. Before Elvis there were codes and standards by which unknown acts had to capitulate or be sent back to obscurity. Within months of his explosion on the national scene, Presley became the standard.
He might not have been the century’s only marketable personality, but Elvis Presley was certainly the biggest. His likeness has donned almost every product know to humankind. Toward the end of his short life it was widely understood that Elvis was the most photographed person in history. Even today his face is used to sell more junk the world over than anyone. In an odd way, his image transformed the way celebrities are sold to the public. Today a look or image is imperative to a performer, in most cases more influential than the music itself. For good or bad, Elvis Presley became a legend beyond the reach of his talents. The wave of pretty boys and glamour queens that dominated the record business for the following decades relied heavily on the selling of Elvis.
For all the impact and influence on his time, the future of music and celebrity, Elvis Presley’s star burnt as quickly as it did brightly. By 1959 Elvis was becoming more of a movie star than trend setter or musical force. Within a year he would join the army, followed by the passing of his beloved mother and his doomed marriage to Priscilla. In the process, the young pistol gave way to the savvy, cute Hollywood hunk. He would never again be a significant voice in the landscape of popular music.
By the time Elvis Presley returned to the stage in the mid-60s’, the generation he had borne would be well ensconced in the pop fabric. The Beatles and Bob Dylan had taken the torch of rebellion to another, more intellectual place. They paid homage to his lasting influence by simply admitting that the only motivation for picking up a guitar in the first place and setting their own fates in motion was to simply be the next Elvis.
Had Presley never sung a note he might have still caused a stir, but sing he did. Along with serving as a conduit of musical styles and bridging the chasm between black artists and a hit-dominated record industry, the simple greatness of his original voice puts him at the top of any century list.
Watershed hits such as “Heartbreak Hotel”, “All Shook Up”, “Hound Dog”, “Jailhouse Rock”, and “Are You Lonesome Tonight” were eminately Presley’s from the moment he put his stamp on them. His jagged, bubbly highs and Southern baritone jump from those recordings like spirits from a cauldren. Elvis crooned romantically, then screeched relentlessly; always pouring his heart into the lyric and melody. His blood, sweat and tears are on each and every song he recorded, even those less-recognized for their influence. His range of emotion and excitement speak honestly about the singer. After Elvis, the male vocalist could no longer just sing a song, especially in the new world of rock-n-roll. The “feel” of a performance far out-weighed the perfection of the take.
Moreover, there is a timeless quality to those early songs, and yet they also bring us back to a more innocent age when being wild and free meant that the world was an open book for the young. It was a time when America boomed economically and the rest of the world looked to our shores for support and guidance.
The true measure of Elvis Presley’s impact on society and memory is his indelible link to the expansive decade of the 50s’. All the politicians, inventors and celebrities pale in comparison. Although he was so young, and his time had come later in the decade, Elvis still stands as the defining figure of his time. And his legacy continues to effect and influence the music business today. Every year RCA delivers a new package of his hits, the sound and fury of the performances have a similar ring. Many of today’s artists, even those who write their own material, have learned a thing or two from The King’s passion in expressing the message of a song, and the infinite marriage it holds for its singer.
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