Elvis Presley’s Impact on Popular Music
Elvis Presley 1935 - 1977
Music researchers seem to form two extremes in their placement of Elvis Presley in the history of popular music. One extreme pinpoints Elvis Presley as a turning point in the course of popular music and the other regards him as just another musician, one that happened to be in the right place at the right time. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. It is true that Elvis was not the first white musician to authentically perform African American music (Birnbaum, 2013: vii). But it is also true that his undeniable talent, boyish good looks, and shy manner combined paradoxically with his trademark hip thrusts made him unique.
The Man and His Music
According to Watson (2012), Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, the surviving member of a twin pair. His twin brother Jesse was stillborn. While Elvis was a baby, his mother Gladys carried him in a sack while she picked cotton alongside African Americans. As a result, he heard gospel, blues and old African chants from early days--perhaps a “blessing” of being poor in the south with a Cherokee mother and a father in prison.
When Elvis was 10, his father returned from prison, and the family moved from Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee. With its street blues singers, jazz clubs and record stores, Beale Street fascinated Elvis. In 1954, at age 19, he recorded an album at Sun Records in downtown Memphis. Sun owner Sam Phillips heard Elvis sing and recognized his potential but did not quite know what kind of song would showcase his talent. Phillips tried him on a few ballads, but did not hear what he sought until he asked Elvis what he would like to sing. Phillips heard the sound he was looking for when Elvis sang “That’s all right (Mama)” by black blues singer, composer and guitarist, Arthur Crudup. Elvis’ version was a unique blend of Black and White music--blues, gospel and country (Halberstam, 2012). To this list of elements, Birnbaum (2013) adds swing, with its dash of jazz and Boogie-Woogie.
Elvis made several more records with Sun throughout 1954 and 1955. Included in the Sun sessions were “Mystery Train”, Good Rockin Tonight” and “Blue Moon”. With these songs, according to Holden (2012: 23), “he virtually invented rockabilly”
At that point, due to maneuvering by his new manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, Elvis moved to the better known Capitol Records where he made the almost instant hit, “Heartbreak Hotel”. He made many more recordings with Capitol, and nearly 150 of his songs made it into Billboard’s Top 100, with 18 albums going gold (Watson, 2012: 10).
This is perhaps the place for a note about Tom Parker. He was not American; not a Colonel and not christened Tom Parker. He was Andreas Cornelius van Kuijk from Holland, and he was a master con artist. Reports on his percentage of Elvis’ proceeds vary from 25% to 50%, far in excess of the usual 10%. According to Nash (2003), it was because of Parker’s ego and Parker’s secrets that Elvis was limited to mediocre movies, did not perform in Europe, and was later enabled to continue his destructive drug habit.
However, it was largely through Parker’s negotiations that Elvis’ television appearances went from Jackie Gleason to Milton Berle to Ed Sullivan and then finally to Steve Allen, who held out, in spite of Elvis’ immense audiences, because he objected to Elvis’ hip gyrations (Wertheimer, 2010: 19). Audiences can testify that Allen “neutralized” Elvis by having only his top half show on the television screen.
Elvis also made a number of movies. They were widely regarded as mediocre except for the songs, which added to Elvis’ count of hits in the Top 10. They also promoted Elvis’ widely imitated aggressive guitar-wielding stance and style of dress: a pompadour with greased back ducktail, dress pants and bright shirts (Watson, 2012: 54).
Elvis went into the Army in 1958, which was the same year his mother died at 46 of complications due to alcohol. Elvis’ later addiction echoed his mother’s substance abuse. In fact, it was in the army in Germany that he began using amphetamines to control his weight and increase his energy. Soon after, he added sleeping pills and painkillers to counter the “upper” effects of the amphetamines (Watson, 2012: 65-70).
Elvis came home in 1960 and resumed making movies that were no better than before. His many public appearances, however, were wildly received. Writer Bobbie Ann Mason
(2012: 56) reports that his 1968 NBC special was a revelation; he had slimmed down, regained his old form and mesmerized his audience.
In 1969, Elvis began his Las Vegas career with a 4-week sold out engagement. For the next six years, he performed shows in Las Vegas and on the road. He and Priscilla, whom he had married in 1967, divorced in 1973. He did occasionally see his daughter Lisa Marie, between the thousand plus concerts he performed between 1960 and 1977. The concert schedule was grueling, and he had several doctors on payroll to keep supplied with drugs. Different reports about his death in 1977 attributed it to either heart attack or drug overdose. Buckley (2012: 119) cited autopsy results that revealed 14 different drugs in his system.
One of most touching tributes to Elvis, reports historian Douglas Brinkley (2012: 109) was from President Carter, who said, “Elvis Presley’s death deprives our country of a part of itself. He was . . . a symbol to people the world over of the vitality, rebelliousness, and good humor of his country.”
Conclusion: Influence on Popular Music
According to Smith (2009: 6-7), Elvis Presley’s Sun recordings planted a seed that would change the face of music. Smith further states that Elvis’ “ influence would be felt around the world, from starry-eyed young Buddy Hollys and Jerry Lee Lewis’s in his own back yard to Beatles and Stones across the ocean a touchstone for all that rock’s future held.”
Smith (2009: 135-136) also claims that 1977, the year Elvis died, might have marked the final death of rock and roll, but also brought forth little “stepchildren” such as punk rock and disco.
As John Pareles said of Elvis,
His death in 1977 came at the moment when punk rock, one of his impudent children, was making itself loudly known. For a while the late Elvis was allegedly turning up at convenience stores in out-or-the-way places. Then he started showing up in bands: Glenn Danzig of the heavy-metal band Danzig, Jon Spencer of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and lately Jack White of the White Stripes all recycle Elvis’s image and mannerisms (p. 137).
It seems to this writer that as long as there are Elvis impersonators who try to look like and sing like Elvis, rock and roll in general and Elvis in particular are still alive. Mark Alan Stamaty (2010) wrote and illustrated the story of how his parents gave him a radio for his eighth birthday and changed his life. He imitated Elvis’ “howling thunder” voice, hair style and dance moves (using a tennis racket as a pretend guitar). Years later, having acquired some fame as an Elvis impersonator (as well as a cartoonist and writer) he presented has act in the Oval Office to an appreciative audience of President Clinton and Vice-President Gore.
In another president story, Beschloss (2012: 126) tells of the then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visiting Graceland with President Bush. To the delight of his audience, “Koizumi mugged like the King and crooned ‘The Impossible Dream’”.
On the subject of Graceland, several writers mention the millions of people who have visited over the years. In particular, Buckley (2012: 119) noted that six hundred thousand people visit Graceland every year, and half of them are under 35.
Whitaker’s (2013) recent news item concerns a 16-year old French-Canadian David Thibault http://theboot.com/teen-elvis-presley-blue-christmas-video/16-year-old David Thibault was recorded performing the Presley Christmas classic at Quebec radio station CKOI, a French language Top 40 station. The news article states that David has no trace of a French accent and sounds just like Elvis; however, his moves need work.
Evidence that Elvis still lives on exists in the many active Elvis fan clubs, not just in the US but also in the UK, especially one very energetic (Elvis Australia, nd) in Australia.
Not exactly evidence but a different way of keeping Elvis alive is the 2002 movie “Bubba Ho-Tep”, a cult classic with its own website http://www.bubbahotep.com/. In it, Bruce Campbell plays Elvis, who did not die, but took advantage of an impersonator’s death in order to escape the exhausting merry-go-round of his life. In the movie, he is old, infirm (with dark glasses) and lives in a nursing home along with his friend Jack, played by Ossie Davis. Jack almost steals the show, believing as he does that he is actually John F. Kennedy, whose assassination was faked by Lyndon Johnson and who had him dyed black and abandoned to whatever fate might befall him. Through some terrifying and heroic adventures, the two save their fellow residents from an on-tour, escaped evil mummy that Elvis calls Bubba Ho-Tep.
It seems we just do not want Elvis to be gone!
Beschloss M (2012) It wasn’t all just giving pink Cadillacs to his friends. In: Blount R (ed.) Elvis All Shook Up. New York: Sterling, 125-128.
Birnbaum L (2013) Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Toronto: Scarecrow Press.
Brinkley D (2012) I got a call from Elvis Presley. In: Blount R (ed.) Elvis All Shook Up. New York: Sterling, 107-109.
Buckley W (2012) Elvis Forever! TV Guide. In: Blount R (ed.) Elvis All Shook Up. New York: Sterling, 117-120.
Elvis Australia at www.elvis.com.au/
Halberstam D (2012) The start of a revolution. In: Blount R (ed.) Elvis All Shook Up. New York: Sterling, 1 -16.
Holden S (2012) An intuitive master of provocation. In: Blount R (ed.) Elvis All Shook Up. New York: Sterling, 21-26.
Mason B (2012) Turned loose again. In: Blount R (ed.) Elvis All Shook Up. New York: Sterling, 53-60.
Nash A (2003) The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Pareles J (2012) Something for everybody. In: Blount R (ed.) Elvis All Shook Up. New York: Sterling, 133-138.
Smith C (2009) 101 Albums that Changed Popular Music. New York: Oxford University Press.
Stamaty M (2010) Shake, Rattle and Turn that Noise Down: How Elvis Shook up Music, Me and Mom. New York: Knopf
Watson, S. (2012) Elvis Presley: Rock and Roll’s King. Minneapolis: ABDO.
Wertheimer A (2010) Elvis 1956. New York: Welcome Books.
Whitaker S (2013) Amazing Teen Sounds Exactly Like Elvis Presley Singing ‘Blue Christmas’. Available at: http://theboot.com/teen-elvis-presley-blue-christmas-video/?trackback=tsmclip.