Thursday, June 16, 2016

Elvis is still the "King"

While most people who claim that a particular genre of music is the “greatest” from personal opinion or simply because it is the only thing they listen to, I feel my taste in music in somewhat eclectic. My musical education came courtesy of Casey Kasem’s American Top Forty radio show from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s. It was here that you could hear great songs (particularly R&B) that received little or no airplay on the local “hits” radio stations (when I was young those were the AM stations WOKY in Milwaukee and WLS in Chicago) that were “hits” in other markets. You knew that the local “favorites” were out of kilter with the overall picture when Barry Manilow’s “Somewhere in New England” was the number six hit of the year locally when it didn’t even make Billboard’s top 100 nationally. 

Thus I liked anything that is tight and tuneful; I particularly liked production with orchestration, which in turn tuned me into classical music. What current “musicians” and “producers” don’t understand is that string arrangements can add emotional weight to an otherwise flat, tuneless “song”; but then again it costs money to hire an orchestra, and why waste money on art when you can “produce” a “song” on a computer for practically nothing? 

But while my taste in music is wide (that is, what I consider real “music,” not today’s god-awful noise), I have to confess that there was a gaping hole somewhere. I liked much of the music from the 1960s, particularly the Beatles (certainly the greatest “pop” band of all time) and my music collection included everything I considered “essential” from that decade. But I didn’t care for the music from the early days of rock and roll, mainly because musical production (save maybe for the Platters) was a bit too “primitive” for my taste. Thus outside a few Buddy Holly or Everly Brothers songs, I ignored the 1950s completely.

That was a mistake, because I allowed myself to have a huge hole in my musical appreciation: Elvis Aaron Presley. Oh sure, I was familiar with the guy who was running on the fumes of past “greatness,” but he was just some bloated, garishly outfitted caricature of something I was wholly unfamiliar with, who sang in the over-the-top lounge act way that most people now identify as the personification of “Elvis.” I recall reading a review of one of his concerts in a local newspaper, where the writer noted his unfortunate habit of forgetting the lyrics to songs he had sung hundreds of times (The This is Elvis documentary includes a shocking, embarrassing clip of him stumbling and mumbling badly on “Are You Lonesome Tonight”). When he died from a combination of heart failure and drugs, it was front page news across the country, but I thought it no more significant than Howard Hughes’ passing; they were both “strange” characters who had become national curiosities.

But there would come a time (in fact, in the past few months) when I looked at my collection of CDs and decided that there something wrong with having nothing at all of Elvis, and maybe before I pass on I should at least give him a chance. I purchased the 80-song Hitstory and the 40th Anniversary Legacy edition of From Elvis in Memphis, which includes all of the recordings from those fabled Memphis sessions. It certainly seemed like a daunting task to force myself to listen to all these songs of someone I didn’t particularly like save for a few hits from the Memphis sessions (“Suspicious Minds,” “Kentucky Rain,” etc.), but I steeled myself to listen to all these songs for a whole week from my mp3 player.

I listened to nothing but Elvis non-stop for a week. Then two weeks, and then three and four. All of a sudden I realized that not only did I like Elvis’ music much better than I thought I would, but he might actually turn out to be my favorite musical artist of all-time, even more than the Beatles. In fact, I know I like his music more than I do the Beatles’. Sure, the Beatles wrote their own songs, but something should be said for songs that actually speak to people, rather than merely experience them.

I suppose this needs some explanation. Elvis’ artistry is devalued by some because they say he just sang, and didn’t write his own material or was particularly proficient as an instrumentalist—or worse, he “stole” black music. But anyone who listens to his first national hit, “Heartbreak Hotel” should know that Elvis’ writing credit that his manager, Col. Tom Parker, forced on the original writers, was entirely justified. For the final result was Elvis’ personal vision and nothing like what was envisioned by the original writers; no one but Elvis could have turned what might have been a forgotten, dime-a-dozen throwaway into a rock & roll classic that lit a fire in many future superstars, particularly in the UK. In short, no one had heard anything like it before. 

It is also a mistake to assume that Elvis was merely “shaped” by producers. In his early “classic” years, Elvis was in control of the sound he wanted to convey. Sam Phillips at Sun Records was searching for a “sound,” and it was Elvis who gave it to him. There was no one like Elvis before (or since). You can hear Buddy Holly “hiccups” before there was Holly, and you can hear Creedence Clearwater Revival’s spare rock arrangements in “Little Sister” years before CCR became the biggest American rock act of its time. But it was acts like Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, whose members were mesmerized by the vision of being the idle of millions of screaming teenagers (particularly teenage girls) simply by being a rock & roll musician. And why did that piano arrangement on the 1966 top-20 hit “Love Letters” sound so familiar to me? Because John Lennon copied it almost note-for-note on his ballad “Love” four years later on first post-Beatle solo album?

In early blockbusters like “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel” one can well imagine how an older generation weaned on predictable phrasing, singing hog-tied by perfectly enunciated words and commonplace sentiments found the defiance of convention and a propulsive energy that allowed young listeners eager to escape the shackles of ordinary existence “threatening.” But perhaps “worse” was  how Elvis could harness latent sexuality, not just in his infamous pelvic gyrations onstage, but in songs like “Love Me Tender,” “Don’t” and “One Night.”

To those more familiar with his later “voice,” this early Elvis would be a complete mystery. Elvis’ singing style would change almost at the same time as he started recording in stereo (“Stuck on You” in late 1959 was his first single released in stereo), apparently influenced by a couple of singers he admired, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin; within a few years would begin the nadir of his musical life. As the 1950s ended, Elvis became more “pop” oriented into the early 1960s, although the songs of that period are perhaps his best-remembered, like “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” “Return to Sender” and  “(You’re the) Devil in Disguise,” mainly because they received the most airplay on “oldies” stations. But as usual, Elvis continued to be adept at anything he tried, even for a song like “Wooden Heart,” a German folk tune complete with accordion and few lines sung in German.

His last major hit before the British Invasion was “Devil in Disguise,” and after that he sounded like he just wasn’t motivated by the material he was forced to sing. Through the control of Col. Parker, his career was channeled exclusively through films and soundtracks; from 1964 to 1968 Elvis didn’t record a single dedicated studio album (outside a gospel-inspired record or two), recording exclusively substandard soundtrack records to his own movies. So far out-of-step with the times was he that his most memorable singles released during that period was recorded in 1960 or earlier (such as his only top-ten hit, “Crying in the Chapel,” which fit in with other soft pap of the time, like the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love”).

But even Elvis realized that he was becoming a bit of a joke, if not a complete fraud, and he needed to do something about it to restore his credibility. The first step was the 1968 “Comeback Special” on NBC, in which he reminded viewers why he still deserved the crown of “King” of rock & roll. The next step was the American Sound Studio in Memphis, where he recorded 30 tracks, which as a whole to my ears is one of the greatest combinations of songs, musical production—and most of all, singing—in modern times. Elvis was not only on his A-game, but he had never sung with such authority, passion or range—and that is saying something for a vocalist who was at home in almost any genre or style. Anyone who listens to “I Hold You in My Heart” with any honesty has to come away with the thought that anything that passes for “great” singing today (and that includes Beyonce and Adele) should bow its head in shame. All those fake “singers” who depend on Autotune should be embarrassed out of existence. Even his cover of “Hey Jude” would have surpassed the original if he had taken the recording half-seriously (he can be heard chuckling to himself at several points in the song).  

The Memphis sessions are a milestone in the Elvis’ career because he was finally able to express himself as a “serious” artist who could sink his teeth in material that dispensed with ordinary banalities. “Long Black Limousine” and “In the Ghetto” were obvious examples, but also songs like “Power of my Love” and “Stranger in My Own Home Town” were potent jam sessions that proved that Elvis could still rock-out as well as anyone—and sing better than anyone. 

During the 1970s Elvis preferred almost non-stop touring to making serious records; his albums generally contained a two or three good songs and the rest barely tolerable by his new over-the-top delivery. The closest he came to reaching number one on the singles chart was number two—when “Burning Love” was kept out of the top spot when Chuck Berry’s silly bathroom-humor novelty song “My Ding-a-Ling” spent an incomprehensible second week at number one. But although Elvis didn’t dominate the charts like Elton John or Paul McCartney, it wasn’t for want of trying: at the time of his death in 1977, Elvis had more singles in the top-40 than any other artist in the previous 7+ years. 

Elvis did record a few listenable songs as his life dissipated away; “Burning Love,” wasn’t my favorite, but a song like the Chuck Berry-penned “Promised Land” proved he could still rock with the best, and “Moody Blue” and “Way Down” were songs that I didn’t recall ever hearing when they were released, but decided that they were pretty good songs anyways.  However, after Elvis died there were the uncomfortable stories about his ongoing dissipation, and some tried to sully his memory, such as the early gangsta rap group Public Enemy, the recordings of who by the way are now almost completely forgotten, as might be predicted. 

But the music was the measure of the man, not his personal life. Because Hitstory quickly dispenses with Elvis’ “lost” years, his matchless vocal powers make every song highly listenable; I never felt any song was so forgettable that I had a strong desire to skip over it. For someone whose orientation is toward the pop single (at least until the early 1990s), for me that is the measure of someone who must be truly great, and only the Beatles come close to that. Mariah Carey and Madonna might have “matched” his total of number one hits and top-ten hits respectively, but the idea of even considering that the combination of the both of them is equal to Elvis only makes today’s soulless and musicless music that much more of a fraud, a mere shadow of what once was.

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