The power of Elvis (part 1)

Here’s a little story to kick off Elvis Week that ought to tell you much of what you need to know about how great Elvis was. This might be the first in a series over the next couple of days; we’ll see.

My band (the Belmont Playboys) worked with a fellow named Mike Evans as our manager for years. Mike is a great guy, and we still stay in touch with him even though we parted ways in the business sense after some fairly decent-sized labels started showing a little interest in us. Nothing ever came of any of it, of course, but it was generally agreed that we were going to need someone who was a little more of an industry-insider type to take over management and booking if we were going to advance beyond the level of bar-band.

See, the thing about Mike was this: Mike was an old-school Southern good-ole-boy, honest as the day is long, hard-working, dedicated. He just didn’t deal well with some of the Yankees that we were running into in the music biz – I think he actually understood them fairly well, and some of them really liked him, but a lot of them had absolutely no idea how to take him. They didn’t get the jokes, they didn’t understand when he was being serious, and the worst was the women he dealt with. Mike is one of those guys who “honey’s” and “darlin’s” every female he talks to, and while that goes over big in these parts, it doesn’t go over well at all in New York and L.A. He didn’t mean anything at all by it, it was just his way of trying to be informal with people who he figured he’d be developing long-term relationships with, where a little informality would perhaps be called for. But women who have had to battle and fight their way up in a business not exactly known for its respectful treatment of women simply don’t want that sort of folksy informality, and they damned sure don’t want anything that smacks of flirty sexism. Mike was just trying to be friendly in a way that had been acceptable for his whole life in his time and place, but he got blindsided by other attitudes that he knew nothing at all about, and he never saw that train coming. After a few tries, many of them wouldn’t even return his calls anymore, no matter how much money they stood to make off the fact that we packed the house whenever we appeared at their joints. I myself was asked many times by female club owners and promoters if it would be okay for them to just do the booking through me so they wouldn’t have to deal with Mike anymore.

But Mike’s a good guy, and a good-hearted guy too. And the point I want to make here involves how Mike got into the music biz in the first place.

See, Mike had for years been an ad salesman at the local paper, the Charlotte Observer. He’d been very successful there, but it was never what he’d planned to “do with his life.” He was bored with it almost from the start, and as the Observer devolved into a more politically-correct, touchy-feely kind of workplace, his disillusionment grew. When they started requiring attendance at those group-retreat “sensitivity workshop” weekends more and more often, Mike started seriously thinking of getting out. And then came Elvis.

Understand, Mike had always thought of Elvis as something of a joke, when he thought of him at all. Mike was a high-school footballer when Elvis broke out big, and as a typical Southern jock-type he had Elvis pegged for some kind of long-haired sissymary and very little else. So later on, in the 70’s, Mike finally scores a date with some hot babe he’d had his eye on for a good long while. Imagine his chagrin when she asks him if he can get tickets to one of Elvis’ mid-70’s Charlotte Coliseum shows.

On reflection, his chagrin faded. Paul Buck, manager of the Coliseum, was a longtime friend and client of Mike’s, and Mike had a standing offer for free tickets to any event there. So getting in wasn’t going to be a problem at all. There were two shows that day, and Paul tells Mike that the thing was sold out long ago, but he could get Mike into the early show and put him and his date on some folding chairs on the side of the stage. This is the part where the chagrin vanishes like fog in the hot Southern sun, because Mike knows this girl is a big Elvis nut and if he can actually get her into the wings of an Elvis show, well, so much the better for his prospects later, if you know what I mean. So he agrees and lets the girl know that not only will they be at the Elvis show, they’ll actually be mere feet from him during the whole thing, with a possibility of getting backstage later. Needless to say, she’s thrilled, and Mike is looking forward to a memorable evening. What he wasn’t looking for was why it would turn out to be so memorable. Mike was about to get blindsided by another train he never saw coming.

Mike says that when the lights went down and the “2001”-theme intro music came up, he was still clinging to his original attitude towards Elvis, a sort of amused contempt he’d been wearing his whole life. But when Elvis took the stage and the place just simply exploded with energy, he was rocked back on his heels. He says he’s never felt anything like it in his entire life, an actual, palpable, physical thing. By the end of the show, as Elvis was walking off, Mike was out in the hall on the phone with Paul Buck, asking if he could please-please-pretty-please stay for the second show. He’d already called the cab that he planned to pack the dolly off in. He ditched the girl, stayed for the second show, and then followed the buses to the next three stops on the tour.

From then on, Mike knew he wanted to be in the music business, and he abandoned an 80-grand a year job, back when 80 grand was really Big Money, to do just that. He finagled his way into the management slot for a fairly successful Charlotte country act, who later became one of the first bands to tour behind the Iron Curtain and got nominated for a Grammy on Mike’s watch too. But the important thing to remember here is that the power of the Elvis show that changed Mike’s life was nothing more than a pathetic, twisted shadow of the power that made Elvis ELVIS in the first place. By the time Mike saw him for the first time, Elvis was already half dead, and would be all the way dead in just a couple of years. But even in Elvis’ sorry state at that time, he retained the power to send a confirmed skeptic reeling out into the hallway to find a way to rid himself of a woman whose company he had very much looked forward to enjoying and stay for the second show instead. Pretty damned impressive no matter how you slice it.

And if Elvis managed to retain a shred of that power to the end, imagine what it must have been like in 1956. Think about what the music world was like then: in ’56 Elvis appeared on the Dorsey Brothers’ TV variety show opposite Perry Como, who at the time had the number-one hit in the nation with an inane song called “Hot-Diggity Dog-Diggity” (“Boom! what you do to me – when you’re holding me tight” – ugh). Elvis bounced out onto the stage, a hot-wired bundle of nervous energy, already sweating, eyes smeared with makeup, hair falling loose from a tight pomp, with enough Black & White pomade in it to lubricate a fleet of diesel engines and enough wax left over to keep a Catholic rectory lit for months. He ripped into a version of a blues tune called “Baby Let’s Play House” and the whole effect to this day makes me think of one thing: “the aliens have landed.” There just simply was not ANYthing around at the time that sounded anything like he did. I’ve often said to people over the years that there’s a direct line linking all real rock and roll like a strongly-binding rope, and this here is one of the threads – those of you old enough to remember when the Ramones came out, just think back to how completely bizarre they looked and sounded next to the pseudo-rock and roll heroes of the day: Bowie, Queen, Genesis, Yes, whoever. Same thing with Elvis. The boy just was not right.

But the little girls understood, just like they always have. There’s something about the happy appeal of that bouncing rockabilly rhythm, something that bypasses every known intellectual center and heads straight for the gut; or, truth to tell, about half a foot lower. And for some strange primal reason I’ve never understood, the girls always get it first. Even with the BP’s shows, we’ve often remarked on how frequently we’ve seen the front row crowded with smiling, dancing women while the more insecure of their boyfriends pout and sulk off to the side, clutching their beer bottles by the neck like weapons. It’s kinda funny, and sometimes it’s even dangerous. I’ve nearly gotten clouted unawares more than once by some guy who didn’t know why it was he didn’t like us, he just didn’t. But his girlfriend did. I can assure you all it wasn’t because of our looks.

And the one rule we always knew about in this business is this: if the chicks dig it, the guys will follow eventually. And they damned sure did with Elvis. Elvis’ early stuff was so raw, so basic and spare, and just so damned much fun to listen to that you’d really have to have some sort of subconscious axe to grind not to enjoy it. And it still is. Elvis came along at just the perfect moment, back in the days when the record labels still sent out talent scouts instead of sitting in their offices in New York or LA or Nashville and tossing demo after godawful demo in the trash basket. Back in the days when there was such a thing as having a regional hit, back when the music biz was run mostly by people who actually knew and cared about music instead of accountants and consultants, before the hype machine and the demographers got really good at convincing us that chicken shit was really chicken salad. Back when a guy like Dewey Phillips, a bona-fide nut with a real ear for creativity who did maybe more than anybody to launch Elvis in the first place, could be a hugely popular and influential Memphis DJ. Nowadays no radio station anywhere would even let ol’ Dewey in the front door, much less anywhere near a microphone. And that’s too bad, because what it means is that we’ll never have another Elvis again.

August 16th, 1977 is the day the music died. Well, really, it had died a long time before that, but it’s the day I choose to recognize the fact and remember how things used to be. I always considered it more than a bit ironic that the year Elvis died was also the year that punk really took off. A more fitting passing of the torch I just can’t conceive of. Look for more of this kind of stuff throughout the week from me. And I’ll go ahead and recommend Peter Guralnick’s two-part bio of Elvis, “Last Train To Memphis” and “Careless Love,” to anybody who gives a damn about rock and roll and how it eventually got killed off. Those books are simply beyond belief – incredibly good stuff. Even if you think you know all there is to know about Elvis, read ’em – I assure you you’ll come away from it absolutely desperate to throw on a copy of the Sun Sessions, and I further guarantee that no matter how many times you’ve heard “Mystery Train” or “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” you’ll hear ’em with new ears. And that’s always a Good Thing.

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