I was hoping Steyn might have something to say about the King on Elvis Day, but didn’t really expect it. Imagine my surprise to find that, as The Man himself says:
Forty years ago today – August 16th 1977 – Elvis Aron Presley passed …into a stunningly successful new phase of his career. All this week at SteynOnline, we’re marking the anniversary, starting with my look at the early days and the man who invented Elvis.
Wow. Okay, now I’m REALLY excited; I didn’t figure Mark’s taste inclined in the direction of Elvis, not for a moment. So let’s just take a gander at that first installment here, shall we?
Rock’n’roll may be the most aggressively corporate branch of showbusiness ever invented but it’s still obsessed with being “raw” and “authentic” and “countercultural”. That’s where Sam Phillips comes in: he represents rock’s BC era – Before Corporate -before Elvis said goodbye to Sam’s Sun Records, in Memphis, and headed for RCA and Hollywood and Vegas. But back in 1954 it was Sam who told Elvis to sing the country song (“Blue Moon Of Kentucky”) kinda bluesy and the blues song (“That’s All Right”) kinda country, and, as Elvis was a polite 19-year old who obliged his elders, somewhere in the crisscross something clicked.
It’s the Phillips tracks that redeem Elvis for everything that came afterward. It’s “Mystery Train” and “That’s All Right” that the pop-culture historians are thinking of when they write about the rock’n’roll “revolution”. “The Ancien Régime fell in 1789 and once again a century and a half later,” declared Herbert London in Closing The Circle: A Cultural History Of The Rock Revolution. “Rock Around The Clock” is the most successful call to arms produced by the revolution, the one kids tore up movie seats over. But its composer, Jimmy DeKnight, wrote it as a fox trot, and its lyricist, Max Freedman, whose last hit had been for the Andrews Sisters, originally wanted to call it “Dance Around The Clock”. And Freedman was born in 1890. When he was a rebellious teenager, the big hits were “The Merry Widow Waltz”, Kipling’s “Road To Mandalay”, and “When A Fellow’s On The Level With A Girl That’s On The Square”. He may not have been exactly Ancien Régime, but he was certainly pretty ancien. And the regime itself – in the shape of RCA, Columbia, etc – proved far wilier survivors than Louis XVI.
That’s why Phillips’ moment is central to rock’s sense of itself, and why critics still insist that Elvis’s The Sun Sessions is the all-time greatest album. As Robert Hilburn put it, on the Sun set “you hear rock being born” – not to Tin Pan Alley hacks and big-time corporations, but in a one-story brick studio where a kid walked in off the street. Just as real revolutionaries watch the Revolution Day tank parade from the presidential palace and reminisce about the days when they were peasants with pitchforks, so fellows who spend eight months in a studio remixing a couple of tracks fondly reminisce about the days when Ike Turner’s amplifier fell off the car roof on the way to the studio and Sam Phillips stuffed the punctured speaker cone with paper and accidentally created a “wall of sound”. The Sun motto was “We Record Anything, Anytime, Anywhere” – including the men’s room, where the toilet served as the studio’s echo chamber. The conventional line on Phillips is that he’s the guy who encouraged Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison to “experiment”. “I’d try things I knew I couldn’t do,” Carl Perkins remembered, “and then have to work my way out of it. I’d say, ‘Mr Phillips, that’s terrible.’ He’d say, ‘That’s original.'”
The Sun Sessions, of course, didn’t actually become an album until much later; Elvis’s early Sun recordings were singles, which was the coin of the musical realm back in those days. A quibble, I know. But still.
And another: I actually DO remember where I was when I heard the news. But more important, maybe, I remember my initial response: no Elvis fan back then, I was more of a 70s hard rock kid, and AC/DC, KISS, Deep Purple, and Ted Nugent were more my metier. My reaction? “Elvis? Hey, didn’t he die a while back?”
I still have great affection for those 70s icons, but my appreciation for Elvis flowered when I first started digging into rockabilly, and has only grown since. If you have any interest at all in the true King of rock and roll, you really needed to grab yourself copies of Peter Guralnick’s two wonderful books on Elvis. I liked ’em so much I actually attended a lecture by Guralnick in Atlanta when I lived there, and hung around afterwards to have them autographed. Together they amount to THE definitive Elvis biography, and they’re extremely well-written, too.
But back to Phillips, a true eccentric genius without whom etc.
He knew Elvis before he was Elvis, before he was a star and then a parody. He knew Elvis when he was an 18-year old who parked his Ford pick-up outside the studio on Union Avenue and said he wanted to record a song for his momma’s birthday: “My Happiness”, a big hit for the Ink Spots. The teenage Elvis liked the Ink Spots, and Eddie Fisher. He wanted to sing like Dean Martin.
Elvis’s career after Phillips is regarded by rock critics as a ghastly sellout to commercialism and conformity, though there’s nothing obviously commercial or conformist about a ragbag like “Old Shep”, “Rock-A-Hula Baby”, “Peace In The Valley”, “No Room To Rhumba In A Sports Car”, plus adaptations of “O Sole Mio” and “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic”. Justin Timberlake’s minders would be unlikely to recommend any of ’em. Elvis had an extraordinary range – two octaves and a third – but not a consistent voice. He was a chameleon but unfocused, and when he wasn’t doing Dino he could sound like Al Jolson, Mahalia Jackson or an Irish tenor. The wacky eclecticism is the real Elvis. The “raw”, “authentic” Sun Sessions Elvis is the manufactured product. “I encouraged him to be real raw,” said Phillips, “because if he was artificial he wouldn’t be able to keep it up.” Au contraire: it was being raw he couldn’t keep up.
What Elvis wanted to be, and what he envisioned himself as from the beginning, was a singer of the Great American Songbook entire. He never had any wish to pigeonhole himself as merely a rock and roll singer, and the larger-than-life Rock Star persona he pioneered ended up being a trap, his ensnarement therein a large part of his eventual undoing. It wasn’t so much that he was unfocused as it was that he was determined to be bigger artistically than his fans would ever allow; he wished not to rule one small world in the musical universe, but to sample whole galaxies. The irony is that his success in that expansive endeavor is exactly what many critics would end up slamming him for.
Elvis was as serious and determined about his music as it’s possible to be, until his fame overran the music and got the better of him. The image of him that many people harbor—that of an ignorant country boy who really didn’t have a clue what he was doing and was weak-willed and self-indulgent enough to allow himself to be manipulated by nefarious handlers—could not have been further from the truth. Elvis knew from the start exactly where he wanted to go musically, and he allowed no one to deflect him from his chosen destination. That he ended up derailed and in the ditch anyway was not because of any lack of vision; it was that the vision was simply too big for any one man, even one as talented as Elvis surely was, to hold onto for very long.
Sam Phillips, a man nurturing a mighty vision himself, put the car in gear and showed Elvis how to steer. But as Phillips himself would later say, it was always Elvis in the driver’s seat.
If any of this interests you at all, my “The Power Of Elvis” trilogy of posts from years back (2002? SERIOUSLY?!?) can be accessed via the Greatest Hits page link above. Thinking about it now, I probably ought to do at least one Sam Phillips post sometime too; the man had a hand in the careers of more great artists than most people probably realize, and was very nearly as influential as Elvis himself was.
Update! Okay, okay, I just gotta include one of my favorite Elvis stories, an excerpt from The Power Of Elvis Part the Second:
When it came to the music, there is ample evidence that Elvis knew just what he was doing, and the music was the one thing he always refused to compromise on. This never really changed throughout his career – musically, Elvis was never anything but completely in charge, and if his vision faltered in the later years, well, it just points up how incredible his work was early on. Even as a kid of 19 or 20, working in the studio with seasoned pros from New York, LA, and Nashville, Elvis ran the show, no ifs, ands, or buts. When he recorded “Hound Dog” the day after the Allen show, he insisted on doing take after take, and the song evolved throughout from the bluesy grind of Big Mama Thornton’s version into the rollicking, savage romp we all know now. A tired and somewhat exasperated Steve Sholes (producer on the session) said after the twenty-sixth take that he thought they had it, but Elvis once again insisted that they keep rolling tape. They stopped after thirty-one. The one that ended up being released was number twenty-eight.
Seems like everybody has something to say about Elvis Presley these days; love him or hate him, acknowledge his gifts and his contribution to American popular music or consider him a low-order con artist, there really is only one voice in the whole cacophony of opinion about Elvis that really counts, as Peter Guralnick says at the end of his incredible Elvis bio. And that voice is the one that leaps off the old Sun .45’s, full of vitality and eagerness and fresh, wild exuberance, the one that started a musical revolution the likes of which the world has never seen before, and never will again.
And now that I look back, damned if Part Three isn’t the post on Sam Phillips I said I really ought to get around to doing someday. It’s somewhat of a relief to find that in fact I already did it…and somewhat alarming that I had forgotten I did it. No, I’m not going to make my usual Alzheimer’s joke here. I’m finding that shit a whole lot less funny these days than I used to, folks, and that’s the sad, sorry truth.
Updated update! Okay, okay, OKAY awreddy, I feel I just gotta include this too. Another of my personal faves. Especially that falling-down-the-stairs rat-a-tat-tat from drummer DJ Fontana that closes out the song. I don’t have the foggiest whose idea that was or how it came about it, but it’s dang cool. When you think about it, it’s really the only way to end the thing, and couldn’t be more perfect.
You go, Elvis; you ain’t forgotten quite yet, and hopefully never will be. Bassist Bill Black is of course long gone; I believe DJ Fontana is still kicking around out there somewhere, but guitarist Scotty Moore, bless his flinty old heart, only passed away last summer himself. So we’ll throw in a Rest In Peace for him too.
Update to the updated update! Steyn’s second installment is all about Rock-A-Hula Baby—admittedly never a song I could muster much enthusiasm for—and its co-writer Ben Weisman, “the man who’d written more Elvis songs than anybody else” (57 of ’em!). Even though the song is a dud as far as I’m concerned, the article is full of Steyn’s usual fascinating backstage backstories, and as such is definitely worth a look anyway. How he manages to have such voluminous knowledge of this stuff and keep it seemingly at his fingertips is a constant source of wonder to me.