A sound legacy
[Times photo: Bob Moreland 1956]
A young and nimble Elvis rocks St. Petersburgs Florida Theatre in 1956.
By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 15, 2002
Forget the pop culture kitsch. Elvis is still the King, the man who blazed a mainstream trail for rock 'n' roll.
In case you haven't noticed, the Elvis machine is all shook up.
The latest commercial checklist: a movie soundtrack (Disney's Lilo & Stitch), a slick 600-page coffee table book (Elvis: A Celebration), an upcoming CD anthology (Elvis: 30 No. 1 Hits), a remixed single (A Little Less Conversation), a Nike commercial (featuring the aforementioned tune) and a glitzy assortment of other products all swirling around the 25th anniversary of his death Friday.
In one of his first films, Jailhouse Rock, Elvis scored perhaps his best screen performance.
Clearly, the landmark date -- Presley died at 42 on Aug. 16, 1977 -- provides an ideal springboard for corporations that hope to cash in on the legendary singer's legacy and create a new audience of youthful fans and consumers.
But the current marketing blitzes and hype prompt a fundamental question: After 25 years, why does Elvis Presley still matter to so many?
We discussed that topic with two experts: Dave Marsh, a renowned rock critic who was Rolling Stone magazine's records editor in the 1970s, and whose books include two biographies of Bruce Springsteen; and Rob Bowman, a professor of popular music at Toronto's York University. A scholar of the Memphis sound, Bowman won a Grammy in 1996 for best album notes, writing about The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles, Vol. 3 -- a work he also coproduced.
Of course, there are no shortage of reasons for the staying power of Presley, the only artist to be inducted into all three Halls of Fame -- Rock 'n' Roll, Country and Gospel.
He changed the way popular music was presented from behind a stage mike. He raised fan devotion and mania to new heights. He opened doors for scores of other performers. He etched his place in pop culture both as a serious artist of the '50s (Thin Elvis) and sequined caricature of the '70s (Fat Elvis).
But, say our experts, he also matters for reasons that run deeper.
Rock and race
||A sound legacy
Forget the pop culture kitsch. Elvis is still the King, the man who blazed a mainstream trail for rock 'n' roll.
Lovin' him tenderly
A seven-hour tribute to the King of Rock 'n' Roll will include 25 local bands performing acoustic rock, rockabilly, Zydeco, industrial gothic and more.
What they said about Elvis
"I'm just a singer. Elvis was the embodiment of the whole American culture." -- Frank Sinatra
Some other Elvis tribute events
Royalty Theatre -- Rich Purnell, Elvis Hawaiian Tribute with Napua Polynesian, 8 p.m. Sat. and 2 p.m. Sun. 405 Cleveland St., Clearwater. $15. (727) 441-8868.
To Marsh, Presley's enduring presence is easy to understand and has nothing to do with the hoopla of a big anniversary.
"Elvis was an icon when he left, and he's been one for 50 years," he says by phone. "There's nothing surprising about it. What's surprising is that some people don't understand that on a day-to-day basis. It's surprising that it takes a round-number anniversary to get (the media) to understand it. The crowds at Graceland are there every year.
"This is all just an excuse for middle-class people to look at Elvis' audience and do what they've been doing for 50 years. Essentially, that's to sneer and write them off as weirdos, and not try to understand what Elvis was -- the exemplar of the white American working class, and one of the towering figures of integration in American culture."
Presley has certainly been the target of resentment from African-American artists, largely because he was hailed as the King of Rock 'n' Roll, a genre created by black performers such as Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown, Joe and Jimmy Liggins and Louis Jordan. They had a heavy influence on a young Elvis.
Pioneering rocker Bo Diddley, reached this week at his North Florida home, said this of Presley: "I opened the door and everybody else ran through it. And I'm still holding onto the knob. Elvis ripped me off more than anybody -- the leg wiggling, and all the shaking and carrying on."
Marsh, however, gives Presley high marks for always acknowledging the black influences in the music he brought into the American mainstream.
"He openly talked about it, that he came out of black music and the Pentecostal church," he says. "White people still talk about him. The black people of my age all talk about him. Little Richard loved him. That isn't to say that anybody -- including Elvis -- wouldn't acknowledge he didn't get more than his share because of skin privilege. Of course he did.
"On the other hand, you go look at the way Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones dealt with credits. With Elvis, it's clear as a bell every time: 'This is where I got this.' He would explain it to you all the time, saying, 'Black people have been doing this a long time.' Still, it's an impossible position for him."
Marsh is careful to consider the black-white issue when assessing Presley's overall impact:
"It would be hard to think of any white person who could stand as his equal in American popular music, with all the doors he kicked open. But having said that, it's real important to note that artists like Louis Armstrong and James Brown are his equal. People get into all this 'King' nonsense. I don't know what the purpose of rock 'n' roll was if we needed to re-institute royalty."
[Photo: Paramount Pictures]
Elvis real-life military service provided inspiration in 1960s G.I. Blues.
'Opening those doors'
The sentiment is echoed by Bowman. "Elvis didn't invent rock 'n' roll -- that's a racist misnomer that was part of the early histories of rock," he says.
"But what is really important is that he was the first white person to combine black rock 'n' roll with country elements and pop elements, and create a new hybrid. He was an inventor, arguably, of the style called rockabilly."
Presley paved the way for young stars such as Buddy Holly, explains Bowman:
"Buddy was aware of R&B from hearing it on the radio, and he loved it, but at that point in America, Buddy had two options. He could be a country musician or a pop musician. Something called rock 'n' roll played by white people did not exist.
"There was R&B, played by black people, and there was a strain of R&B referred to as rock 'n' roll, when it was consumed by white kids. There was not a third option. So Buddy was going to be a country artist, until he saw Elvis Presley perform in Northeast Texas. And Buddy was like, 'Hey, I can do this, too.'
"So many artists talk about that moment. It was like a light went off when Elvis did this new (rockabilly) sound. He proved that there was an audience that was rabidly interested in a white person doing a hybrid of that kind of music. And it had a huge effect on acts like the Everly Brothers, who had a huge effect on groups like the Beatles."
Bowman notes that the Beatles were influenced by black contemporaries of Presley's, such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard. "That's clearly a huge part of their roots, but so is Elvis," he says. "And from (the Beatles) on, Elvis had an inordinate influence on white mainstream rock 'n' roll."
For all his impact, Presley's musical importance is tied to his first four years of recording, 1954-58, says Bowman. "Elvis first signed with Sun Records in '54, and didn't have his first national chart hit until '56, and from there through '58, he was like a meteor shot, exploding the possibilities in popular music. After that, he went into the Army. And, as John Lennon put it not so tactfully when Elvis died in 1977, 'Well, for me, Elvis died when he went into the Army."'
The string of singles began in '54 with That's All Right and Blue Moon of Kentucky. But after signing with RCA in 1955 (Sun Record's Sam Phillips sold Presley's contract for an unheard of $35,000), the 21-year-old Elvis released Heartbreak Hotel on Jan. 27, 1956. The single sold more than 1-million copies, and the album, Elvis Presley, became the first pop album to surpass more than $1-million in sales.
Viva Las Vegas with Ann-Margret lived up to the Elvis film formula of the 1960s: singing and swinging.
Chart-toppers such as Don't Be Cruel, Hound Dog and Love Me Tender followed, and at one point in '56, Presley had as many as 10 singles in the Top 100 at the same time. Presley did score some big hits after his return from the Army in 1960, such as Are You Lonesome Tonight (1960), Can't Help Falling in Love (1961), Good Luck Charm (1962).
But his sound was more refined, and he was soon overtaken by the British Invasion of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and the singer-songwriter wave led by Bob Dylan.
For the most part, the Elvis of the '60s and '70s -- with his string of mediocre movies and slide into Las Vegas eccentricity -- had little impact on music (Suspicious Minds hit No. 1 in '69, Burning Love No. 2 in '72.). But he had an immense influence on popular culture. His death, though at an early age, came at a much different stage of his career than that of other rockers who died young, such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin or Jim Morrison.
"They died in the thick of credible careers," Bowman says. "When Elvis died, he had become a caricature. But before he died, that caricature had become an unbelievably marketable icon to middle age, mainstream, white America."
By May 1977, just a few months before his death, Elvis had created the image that would launch a thousand impersonators.
Many teenagers from the '70s, who had absolutely no interest in Elvis, are now in their 40s and have "caught on to this Elvis, post-life kitsch icon."
That's been a boon to countless Elvis imitators.
"Do they imitate the young, virile Elvis?" says Bowman. "No, everybody does the Vegas Elvis. It's clearly because he's no longer being consumed as a musician, and hasn't been for a long time. The latter-day Elvis is the one who's celebrated in death week and birth week in Memphis each year.
"It's curious when you think about it. Here's a man who was way over the top in his display and spectacle. He had his silly karate moves. He was patriotic but in a very overwrought sense. He was middle-aged and fat. He was like a child who never had to grow up, with his absurd lifestyle -- whether it was fried peanut butter-and-bacon sandwiches in ridiculous excess, or shooting out TVs in hotel rooms because he didn't like the programming, or not wanting to make love with a woman who'd had a baby because of his mother hang-up.
"All those things have not punctured his iconicity the way (eccentricity has) destroyed Michael Jackson."
Excess is part of what killed Presley, who had become addicted to pills before dying of a heart attack. "There was nobody who could or would do anything about it, because that would stop the gravy train, which fed on all this stuff," Bowman says.
In the end, his place in the annals of quirky Americana is safe. But so is a vital musical legacy.
"Arguably," says Bowman, "every white artist who's playing rock 'n' roll is partially there because of Elvis Presley opening those doors."
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