10 Songs About Elvis

Elvis.

PresleyPromo1954PhotoOnlyJust that first name alone conjures up so much imagery, so much cultural currency, so much good feeling for generations of people. Born in Tupelo, MS and raised in Memphis TN, Elvis was an eighteen year old who recorded a single at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio for his mum one day in 1953 on the occasion of her birthday as a gift to her; “My Happiness/That’s When The Heartaches Begin“. Who did he sound like? Well, he didn’t sound like nobody. From there, the landscape of popular music, and the barriers that existed between musical genres at the time, would be changed forever. From the cramped studios at Sun Records, to Hollywood movie sets, to Las Vegas residencies, to global satellite transmissions from Hawaiian stages, Elvis weathered all those changes besides.

What also changed was the man himself of course. By the end, he was no longer the earnest American boy with a singular talent for musical interpretation of anything thrown at him. He had become transformed into something more; a cultural avatar of almost religious stature. Those who came after him, carrying legendary mythologies of their own, all held him in the highest esteem. Even to his peers, he was The King; a messianic figure who stood above all of the trends, and enjoying the seemingly unconditional love of the masses up until his death at the young age of 42 on August 16, 1977; thirty-eight years and a day from today in the year that would have had him celebrate his eightieth birthday.

Since his passing, the mythology surrounding Elvis has endured in the imaginations and the works of many. Here are ten songs about Elvis, or at least ones that touch on his cultural importance. Some are down to earth and humourous. Some are profane. Others are almost Biblical in their veneration of that boy from Tupelo who made good. Overall, the range of songwriting styles and musical textures shows that even though he’s gone (or is he?), Elvis’ musical and cultural reach remains extensive even today.

*** Read more

Elvis Presley Sings “American Trilogy” From Aloha Hawaii

aloha_from_hawaii_via_satelliteListen to this track from rock ‘n’ roll Monarch, and Tupelo, Mississippi favourite son Elvis Aaron Presley. It’s “American Trilogy” as performed as a part of one of the first concert-length satellite broadcasts in history, and captured for posterity on the concert film Elvis – Aloha from Hawaii.

The show itself was one of the most expensive projects of its time, costing a whopping 2.5 million dollars (about 13.5 million in today’s money), and broadcast internationally on January 14, 1973, one week after Presley’s 37th birthday. The album was released a month later.

The show itself came out of the idea that Elvis couldn’t play every major city in the world, and that a satellite broadcast would make up for it. This show was broadcast from Honolulu, with the same crack backing band that had defined his show from the late ’60s, including James Burton on lead guitar, and backed up by gospel vocal group the Stamps.

This was an historic show technologically, and Elvis and his band rose to the occasion. But, in my books, it was historic for other reasons besides, and in a bittersweet sort of way. Read more

Elvis Presley Sings ‘I Got Stung’

elvis_gold_records_vol-_2_original_lp_coverListen to this track, a rollicking number from the King, Elvis Presley, who on this coming Saturday January 8th would have been 76 had he survived his battles with bad food, prescription drugs, and the Colonel. It’s one of my favourites of his pre-Army RCA days, “I Got Stung”, a double A-side to his 1958 single “One Night”, and a feature on the compilation record 50 000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong: Elvis Golden Records, Vol 2.

Only 1:51 long, it packs in the sex and violence just as effectively as any punk rock song, kids. It would be his last recorded song in the ’50s (June 11, 1958 to be exact), the end of an era for him, and perhaps too for everyone. He would be shipped to Germany  as a part of the U.S Army after this, and his early career would be over.

Elvis’ RCA period is often lost in the shuffle, when considering his cooler Sun Records period, and his decidedly un-cooler ’60s movie period.  Where I think the split here is not quite as sharply defined in those terms, some of Elvis’ best singles come out of this middle period, with this one being one of my favorites.  What we’ve got here is all the production sparkle of a bigger operation like RCA, along with Elvis’ still supple, youthful swagger that we hear on the Sun sides locked right in there.  He sounds like a badass on this. And what about that band?

Read more

Elvis Lives On!

Elvis would have been 75 years old today. He was not just a singer.  He was a game-changer; a living, breathing icon of the 20th century.  Guest writer Geoff Moore explores the two poles of Elvis Presley, that of the R&B and country aficionado who burned it up on vinyl and on TV, as well as the merchandising industry he has become,a brand as kitschy as you please.  Of course,  there are plenty of juicy gray areas in between …

***

Elvis has been dead, or wandering anonymously through small, middle American towns scarfing doughnuts or living in outer space with the assistance of NASA, since 1977. January 8, 2010 is the 75th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s birth. If you did not know that, you will soon enough. The former Mrs. Presley, Priscilla, has her finger on the pulse of the marketing arm of Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE) and it will be flexing its meaty bicep shortly, perhaps while decanting a delightful Elvis 75 Merlot.

The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll is an industry now (Nasdaq ticker symbol CKXE), one based solely on the exploits and the existence of a single individual. An industry with a finite supply of decent, authentic product suffocating beneath an avalanche of kitsch and crapola. This is a business model that any sane banker would shred after reading, but there it is – pop culture’s first punch line is worth millions.

You can be sure that the minions of the recently deceased, self-dubbed, King of Pop, that delusional usurper, a spawn of MTV and a lamb to Internet slaughter, have taken notes. And you fear that similar cult of personality empires, Oprah’s and Martha Stewart’s for example, may best the Third Reich and actually exist for a thousand years.

But, you know what? A jukebox-shaped, lacquered, ’68 Comeback Special clock looks pretty cool hanging inside the garage by the door, provided you get the irony; provided you understand that all this junk, the commemorative album cover bathroom tiles, the McFarlane figurines, the wines, the shot glasses, the Pez dispensers, the tins of Valentine chocolates, the dashboard ornaments and the Christmas decorations comprise what might be pop culture’s first postmodern joke.

Lest we forget, beneath this heap of crud stickered with ‘official merchandise’ foil holograms there remains a strange, country cat with a cosmic voice: “I don’t sing like nobody.” He was prettier than most girls his age and he shook like a burlesque queen; television was in its infancy crying to be fed and the first wave of the baby boom was old enough to buy records. Circumstances colluded to forge the first of America’s 20th century pop culture avatars and their anointed sovereign.

RCA Victor’s Elvis Presley and Elvis both released in 1956 as long players may have established the music industry’s preferred format for selling rock ‘n’ roll to young people, a format which was to last some 30 years. Add From Elvis in Memphis (1969), recorded following the magical high of the ’68 Comeback Special, and there, arguably, is Elvis’s essential vinyl (don’t forget On Stage February 1970 as a classic post-60s live document – ed.) if you are comparing his album output to the must-haves in the catalogues of the greats who shadowed the pathfinder: Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, Springsteen… Elvis distilled to just three LPs? A woefully inadequate measure, because the King cannot be held to the same johnny-come-lately standards as the jester, the princes and the prophet.

First, foremost and above all, there are the earthquaking Sun sides recorded in Sam Phillips’s Memphis studio by a blonde truck driver. Glorious and primitive (and revisited with such obvious affection during the black leather performance portion of the ’68 Comeback Special), these songs – ‘Mystery Train,’ ‘Baby, Let’s Play House,’ ‘That’s All Right,’ ‘Trying to Get to You’ et al – are the very essence of Elvis, his core of greatness: “Hold it, fellas, let’s get real, real gone.”

His years in the wilderness of the Hollywood studio system make you wish he was managed by a cannier con man than Colonel Tom Parker, someone like Andrew Loog Oldham, maybe? Alas, what is done is done. Two Leiber-Stoller songs stand out among the soundtrack fodder, ‘Jailhouse Rock’ naturally and ‘Trouble,’ their brilliant send up of boastful 12-bar blues from King Creole (‘If you’re looking for trouble, look right in my face!’).

There are many more movie gems to be mined and heard, but like the diminishing returns of his 70s live and half-hearted studio album output (with their grotesquely unhip and uniformly cheesy cover art), you need to work at it a little bit. There are worse things to dig through. And many, many worse things to dig.

Elvis: rocker, soul man, crooner, country singer and gospel shouter is best explored and experienced on a song by song basis. He was the ultimate singles artist, and as such, is uniquely poised to be rediscovered and appreciated once again in this ADD age of iPod shuffles and YouTube shorts. Perhaps the EPE generated hype surrounding the upcoming 75th anniversary of his birth will create a modest convergence of music and media, of old and new, of analog and digital, introducing the King to an entirely new generation of listeners; renewing the focus on his music and reminding all of us that the branded schlock available on the toy and home decor aisles in Wal-Mart was never ever what Elvis Presley was all about.

***

Geoff Moore is a writer who lives in Calgary, and who I’m sure has a collection white, sequined jumpsuits in his closet.

Happy Birthday, Elvis! Here’s ‘That’s Alright, Mama’ From 1968

Here’s a clip from Tupelo’s favourite son and birthday boy (Elvis would have been 74 today!), Elvis Presley with the ’68 Comeback special version of his 1954 hit, “That’s Alright Mama”, as written and previously recorded by R&B artist Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup whom Elvis had heard and admired as a young R&B fan.

The ’68 Comeback special was actually not called that (it was just Elvis, aired on December 3).  But that’s what it was. Elvis spent most of the 60s doing mediocre movies and putting out the songs – some good, some not –  on the soundtracks as singles.

But somewhere along the line, the King had lost his crown to a new generation of beat groups, all of whom still revered him.  But, it was clear the man had something to prove to himself, and this live  ‘jam session’ part of the show proved that he still had the juice, that he was still interested and able to deliver rock ‘n’ roll to the people who clamoured for it from him.

Just look at him!  He’s a god in black leather, a tanned, raven-haired Adonis in human form, but clearly irradiating something otherworldly too.  I have my own personal alternate history of Elvis in my mind, of course, since he soon became a parody of himself in the ensuing years.

Among other things, I wish he’d cut the Colonel loose.  I wish he’d toured the world, sampled other cultures, and expanded his mind a bit.  I wish he’d changed his diet, kicked drugs, and found a personal code for living.  Then, he could have let the music take him where it wanted him to go.  Then, he could have had a big tribute concert by the 1990s, singing with all of his fellow musicians and admirers.

But despite how history did unfold, I have to say this is my favourite Elvis period, from the Comeback special in 1968 to Aloha Hawaii concert in 1973.  He became more than a singer in these years.  He became divine, a paragon of untouchable artistic virtue.  But, he flew too near the sun.

Happy birthday, Elvis!

Enjoy!

Eddie Rabbitt and Mavis Staples Sing ‘Suspicious Minds’ (!?)

Here’s a clip of country-pop songwriter Eddie Rabbitt and gospel-soul first lady Mavis Staples with a version of “Suspicious Minds”, bringing together at least three disparate elements of music I love – soul, country-without-hats, and Elvis –  yet in very strange packaging.  This is seemingly taken from an Elvis Presley tribute show, and  Rabbitt starts the clip with his song ‘Kentucky Rain’, a  hit song he wrote for Elvis in 1970.  And then (oddly) Mavis joins him from the middle-eight of “Suspicious Minds”.  Still, any excuse to hear Mavis sing…

I suppose in some ways it’s not entirely strange to see these two together, although I still think this is a great example of unexpected musical collaborations.  Still, Mavis’ solo material often bordered on country (‘A House is Not A Home‘), and Rabbitt’s often bordered on smooth R&B (‘Suspicions‘).  And because this is an Elvis tribute, I suppose the idea was to show just how blurry the lines are.

Ultimately, this kind of an odd musical pairing reveals that classifying music into genres shouldn’t be the be all and end all of understanding where the music actually comes from.

Enjoy!

Elvis Presley sings Jerry Reed’s ‘Guitar Man’

Listen to this track –  Elvis singing the Jerry Reed-penned country hit ‘Guitar Man’, a hit for Reed and a great cover for Elvis who performed it for the legendary ’68 Comeback special.  This is, of course, in honour of the very underrated Jerry Reed who was one hell of a picker and who recently passed away at the age of 71.

Jerry Reed’s version was a top 20 country hit in 1967, featuring his specialized picking technique on a nylon-stringed guitar – his trademark.  Elvis recorded the song soon after, although he was unhappy initially with the way the takes were sounding.   Elvis’ producer Felton Jarvis called Reed in a bid to find out how best to get the Reed sound on the record.  Jerry Reed answered simply, and logically, that the best way to get the Jerry Reed sound was to get Jerry Reed to play on the track.  So, that’s what happened.

Jerry Reed The Essential Jerry Reed
Reed developed an idiosyncratic style of playing guitar while in his teens. His guitar teacher instructed him to unlearn it. Reed dumped the teacher and got a recording contract instead.

You can read the full story here, along with more information about this gifted musician.

Reed was of course a singularly talented guitarist, admired by his peers which included the celebrated country music innovator and picker in his own right, Chet Atkins, with whom Reed often performed.

In addition to being a musician, he was an actor too.  His most memorable and beloved role may well be that of “The Snowman” in the Smokey & The Bandit films. I remember seeing him on TV variety shows in the 70s (a long lost television genre which is bound to reappear…), not to mention kids shows like Scooby-Doo, where we got to see an animated Jerry Reed.

In addition to all of this, he was purportedly a man who enjoyed a laugh, simple pleasures, and who was endowed with a sense of perspective to offset his considerable talents that kept both of his feet in the Georgia mud.

RIP Jerry.

For more music, check out this footage of Jerry Reed showing off his picking prowess with Chet Atkins.

Enjoy!

Happy Birthday Elvis Presley and David Bowie!

Today is Elvis Presley’s birthday! He would have been 73. Or he is 73 today, depending on your opinion about his death. It’s also David Bowie’s birthday today, which is a nice parallel. He’s 61 – 61!

There is story concerning the two artists; that Bowie, during his Ziggy Stardust period, showed up late at an Elvis Presley concert held at Madison Square Garden in full Ziggy regalia and sat near the front row to everyone’s distraction. What a time the early 70s must have been for shows like that, when members of the audience could outdress those on stage, even if the one on stage happens to be Elvis!

Here’s a recollection from Bowie on the matter:

“[Elvis] was a major hero of mine. And I was probably stupid enough to believe that having the same birthday as him actually meant something. I came over for a long weekend. I remember coming straight from the airport and walking into Madison Square Garden very late. I was wearing all my clobber from the Ziggy period and had great seats near the front. The whole place just turned to look at me and I felt like a right idiot. I had brilliant red hair, some huge padded space suit and those red boots with big black soles. I wished I’d gone for something quiet, because I must have registered with him. He was well into his set.”

– Bowie (1996) (Read more from the source of this quote here…)

And what must Elvis have thought? I’d like to think it was something like, “look what’s come of everything I helped to start!”

Happy birthdays, guys!

To celebrate, here are a couple of clips

To view the clips, hover over each of the images and click the ‘play’ icon. Enlarge the viewing window by clicking on the magnifying glass icon.

Enjoy!

Elvis Presley On Stage

David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust

About the Clips

The first one is Elvis during his earliest Vegas residency at the very beginning of the 1970s, which I think is an underrated period in his career. He performs Tony Joe White‘s ‘Polk Salad Annie’, a standard in Elvis’ set at the time, and featuring the scorching guitar work of the great James Burton. This tune graced Elvis’ live album On Stage February 1970 , which remains to be a favourite of mine, and one of the earliest records I remembering heatring. Dad is a big Elvis fan from way back.

The second clip is Bowie performing as Ziggy Stardust around the same time, this time on an historic appearance on Britain’s Top of the Pops show performing his song “Starman”. The performance polarized a nation, with one half seeing a new world of fashion, expression, and a new approach to rock performance, and the other thinking that the world had gone mad, causing many to seek a refund of their TV licenses.