GIVE TIL IT HURTS!

A look back

At the man who helped make Elvis the once and forever King.

On the day Sam Phillips died, the crowd at the world’s (alleged) all-time biggest rock concert, in Toronto, booed and threw bottles at teen heartthrob Justin Timberlake, of the boy band ‘N Sync. Master Timberlake was said to be too “plastic” and “manufactured” for the taste of rock fans there to see Rush and AC/DC. This is the fellow to whom, as she revealed this summer, Britney Spears surrendered her much-advertised virginity, which suggests that letting the suits in the head office mold your identity is not without its compensations. But young Justin sportingly said he thought the bottle-hurling was “understandable”.

And so it is. 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.

No, no, a thousand times no. Or not quite, anyhow. Contrary to popular belief, Elvis allowed himself to be wheedled, cajoled, or otherwise manipulated by absolutely NOBODY when it came to his music. As Peter’s Guralnick’s brilliantly-done two-part biography of him makes abundantly plain, Elvis knew exactly what he was doing from the very beginning, only losing his way both musically and personally after succumbing to various excesses and overindulgences in the early 70s.

Phillips’s nevertheless crucial role in one Elvis Aron Presley’s (Aron pronounced “AY-ron,” the better to sync with the name of his stillborn twin Jesse Garon, actually) journey ever upwards from rawboned aspiring singer and interpreter of the Great American Songbook, which is how Elvis saw himself and was all he ever dreamed of being, was that of a collaborator and partner, not a Svengali.

It’s the Phillips tracks that redeem Elvis for everything that came afterward.

Not necessarily. Can even a remotely credible contention be made that these stellar vocal performances somehow need to be “redeemed”?

No sir, it can NOT. Onwards. Seeing as how my music posts tend to run a bit, um, long, and also that Elvis, Phillips, and rock and roll generally are subjects I’ve spent most of my “adult” (allegedly) life studying closely, I’ll tuck the rest of this one below the fold.

Continue reading “A look back”

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Happy birthday

To one of the greats, a true American original.

Berry Gordy: The Visionary Who Made Motown

A company that was started with a loan of $800 went on to help shape the sound of the 20th century. We could only be talking about Motown Records, founded on January 12, 1959 by Berry Gordy Jr, who was born in the city he helped make synonymous with soulfulness, Detroit, on November 28, 1929. Unfailingly spritely, just ahead of his 90th birthday, Gordy announced his retirement at the Hitsville Honours ceremony, safe in the knowledge that his achievements will last forever.

Gordy built his empire on his early success as a songwriter, notably of “Reet Petite,” “Lonely Teardrops” and others for perhaps the pre-eminent black music entertainer of the late 1950s, Jackie Wilson.

“Of the late 1950s”? RUFKM? Try: of all time, it’s a much better fit. Don’t believe me?



Jackie was so incredibly, unbelievably good that a young Elvis Presley, on his first time seeing him perform in Vegas, was so blown away by the show he asked to come backstage to visit with “Mr Excitement” in the green room, to which request Wilson graciously acceded. Elvis made his obeisances to a man he recognized as one of the most awe-inspiring vocalists the world has ever seen or ever will see before solemnly swearing that he would never, not EVER, willingly follow Jackie onstage.

Smart fella, that Elvis.

The two nascent legends shared a few laughs and hung out awhile just shooting the familiar old road-dog breeze, then Wilson explained one of his own stage tricks to Elvis: gulp down a bunch of salt tablets and drink a gallon or two of water before going out onstage, so as to make oneself sweat profusely during the show, something any audience just loves to see from a singer; as Wilson told E at the time, “the chicks love it.”

Elvis used the trick forever after, there being but one minor little problem with the technique—it’s just liable to kill ya from a heart attack or stroke eventually. In fact, it was almost certainly a contributing factor in Jackie Wilson’s own debilitating heart attack a few years on down the road, a setback from which he never really recovered.

On September 29, 1975, Wilson was one of the featured acts in Dick Clark‘s Good Ol’ Rock and Roll Revue, hosted by the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. He was in the middle of singing “Lonely Teardrops” when he suffered a massive heart attack. On the words “My heart is crying” he collapsed on stage; audience members applauded as they initially thought it was part of the act. Clark sensed something was wrong, then ordered the musicians to stop the music. Cornell Gunter of the Coasters, who was backstage, noticed Wilson was not breathing. Gunter was able to resuscitate him and Wilson was then rushed to a nearby hospital.

Medical personnel worked to stabilize Wilson’s vital signs, but the lack of oxygen to his brain caused him to slip into a coma. He briefly recovered in early 1976, and was even able to take a few wobbly steps, but slipped back into a semi-comatose state.

Wilson’s friend, fellow singer Bobby Womack, planned a benefit at the Hollywood Palladium to raise funds for Wilson on March 4. Wilson was deemed conscious but incapacitated in early June 1976, unable to speak but aware of his surroundings. He was a resident of the Medford Leas Retirement Center in Medford, New Jersey, when he was admitted into Memorial Hospital of Burlington County in Mount Holly, New Jersey, due to having trouble taking nourishment, according to his attorney John Mulkerin. Elvis Presley covered a large portion of Wilson’s medical bills. Wilson’s friend Joyce McRae tried to become his caregiver while he was in a nursing home, but he was placed in the guardianship of his estranged wife Harlean Harris and her lawyer John Mulkerin in 1978.

Wilson died on January 21, 1984, at the age of 49 from complications of pneumonia. He was initially buried in an unmarked grave at Westlawn Cemetery near Detroit.

So sad. But all this got me to revisiting a few of my personal all-time Motown faves on YewToob, a list which would necessarily have to include this slice of pure musical genius on it.



Pay especial attention to what the aptly-named Miracles are doing behind Smokey here; it pulls the entire song together in a way most non-professionals will never even notice at all—a thing often striven for by tunesmiths, but seldom achieved except in the verymost brilliant compositions.

And yes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles were also on Motown, of course. Actually, Robinson himself was the label’s VP from 1972 until 1990, two years after the company had been sold.

So yeah, happy 93rd birthday to the great Berry Gordy, who brought us so very much wonderful, wonderful music on the Motown label. Thanks for that, sir, and God bless you.

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