Elvis Presley, Elvis Presley
RCA Records, March 13, 1956
Track Listing: 1. Blue Suede Shoes, 2. I’m Counting On You, 3. I Got A Woman, 4. One-Sided Love Affair, 5. I Love You Because, 6. Just Because, 7. Tutti Frutti, 8. Trying To Get To You, 9. I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Cry (Over You), 10. I’ll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin’), 11. Blue Moon, 12. Money Honey, 13. Heartbreak Hotel, 14. I Was The One, 15. Lawdy, Miss Clawdy, 16. Shake, Rattle And Roll, 17. My Baby Left Me, 18. I Want You, I Need You, I Love You
As I was growing up, I could not figure out what the big deal was with Elvis. Since I was born in 1957, all I knew about Elvis was that he was a slightly uncomfortable guy with greasy hair that was in a lot of bad movies where he would often break out into a lip-synched performance of some lame song that had something to do with the movie. I had heard that Elvis was supposed to be this awesome singer who drove girls into a frenzy, but that just couldn’t be. He was so fabricated, so Technicolor, so stiff, so tame! The Beatles were cool. They had long hair. They shook their heads when they sang. They joked with interviewers. They were dreamy. Elvis was the complete opposite. I didn’t think a performer could be any phonier.
But then, on January 14, 1973, when I was 15, I just happened to turn on the TV and see a show entitled Elvis, Aloha from Hawaii, a live (via satellite!) concert from Honolulu. There he was, live on TV, in all of his white polyester jump-suited splendor, complete with a gold belt and bellbottoms. I had never seen anything like it before. (The only concert I had seen before was when my Dad took me to see Tommy James in the Shondells at the Steer Pier in Atlantic City when I was around 8 or 9.) Elvis was there on the stage with his band, wearing a lei, singing his hits, romancing the ladies in the audience. And that smile! What a handsome man! I was starting to figure out what made Elvis so popular, why he was important to rock and roll. When you look back at it now, it seems probable that Elvis was under the influence of some mind-altering substance during this concert, and his voice was not at its best. But I had never seen him in concert before, so I didn’t even notice. When he sang the dramatic “You Gave Me a Mountain” (a Marty Robbins song about a man whose mother died when he was born and whose wife divorced him and took his son away from him), I was mesmerized. He was dramatic. He was emotional. He was sexy!
So I now had some rudimentary idea of why they called him the King of Rock and Roll. However, his clothes were kind of tacky and he wasn’t making any new hit songs. I still loved the Beatles and Elvis was not even in their ballpark … yet.
Then, sometime during the next 15 years or so, I saw two film clips that without a doubt cement Elvis Presley as the forever-reigning King of Rock and Roll. This evidence is so watertight that it could hold up in a court of law. There is no way you can watch these two film clips of Elvis and not understand the phenomenon that was Elvis, and why he practically invented rock-and-roll (or at least introduced it to the world).
The first film clip is Elvis’ performance on The Milton Berle Show on June 5, 1956. I had always heard people say that when Elvis was on TV, they had to shoot him from the waist up, because his moves were too wild to show. But I had no idea what they were talking about! Even in his Aloha from Hawaii appearance, his moves were dramatic, but not shocking at all. Well, I guess this was one of his first TV appearances and the TV networks had not yet enacted their “waist up only” decree. This was a performance of the raw Elvis, the 21-year-old Elvis, the Elvis that only those people who were lucky enough to see him live in the 1950s were able to see, before Col. Tom Parker turned him into a commodity.
He sang “Hound Dog.” He had one hand on the microphone stand, no guitar, wiggling his hips back and forth, pointing at the audience, his black hair slicked back with a little piece loose, falling down in front of his eyes. A cool ’50s suit. The guys in his band were cool in a Daddy-O kind of way. There was an electric guitar player (who had a guitar solo!), a drummer, and a standup bass player. Elvis was absolutely loving it. If the word “cool” had not yet been invented, you would have had to invent it for this performance.
“You ain’t nothin but a hound dog
Cryin all the time
You ain’t nothin but a hound dog
Cryin all the time
Well, you ain’t never caught a rabbit
And you ain’t no friend of mine”
-from “Hound Dog”
He did some cool Elvis dance moves at the beginning of the guitar solo, and then went back to the song. BUT then, he really blew the lid off the place, off of popular music. You should have heard walls crumbling down. Just when he finished the line “And you ain’t no friend of mine”, it seemed that the song was over. BUT it was just getting started. He completely slowed down the tempo of the song and began singing the lyrics again but this time when he was gyrating his hips, and the drums were pounding, it looked as if he was making love to the microphone stand! There were gasps from the audience. The young girls were screaming, but the parents were gasping. They had never seen anything like it before. That is because it had never happened before, at least not on TV. It was shocking. Pat Boone didn’t dance like that! Frank Sinatra never danced like that! Elvis was feeling the music and dancing like it made him feel. This was rock and roll!!
Unfortunately Elvis went into the Army, and when he got back, Col. Tom Parker, his manager, turned Elvis into a joke. It wasn’t about the music any more. It was just about fame and money. Elvis said that he wanted to be an actor. But he was one of the best singers we have ever had the privilege of hearing. Someone should have told him that!
Finally, the second film clip that cements the greatness that was Elvis, and which will be forever preserved to show future generations how rock and roll got started, was Elvis’ performance on an NBC special on December 3, 1968. I don’t know for sure, but maybe his movie career wasn’t going so well, so he thought that he’d go back to the music. Elvis was sitting around in a circle with the members of his band. They had guitars, but no drums. The drummer was pounding on some kind of case. To say Elvis was handsome is an insult to the word handsome! He was more than handsome. He was like those guys in the Greek and Roman statues, perfect! Beautiful cheekbones, a perfect nose, pouty lips. He was wearing a black leather suit, had jet-black hair, and sexy sideburns. Sober and seemingly drug free. And that beautiful, beautiful smile had returned. He was sitting down playing guitar and singing into a microphone. I didn’t even know that he knew how to play the guitar! I thought that it was just a prop that he held once in a while. He was upping his level of coolness, when it was totally unexpected. He had a strong and powerful voice. He was singing raw, rock and roll … again!
The song that had the most impact on me was when he sang “Trying to Get to You,” a blues song from the early ’50s. If I had ever heard that song before, I did not remember it. (Elvis originally recorded it during the Sun Sessions and it was on his first album, Elvis Presley.) Elvis starts the song out strumming the guitar, singing that he’s been trying to get to you. Then the song rips open when he begins this verse:
“When I read your loving letter
Then my heart began to sing
There were many miles between us
But they didn’t mean a thing”
-from “Trying to Get to You”
The guys in the band are yelling and stamping their feet, and Elvis wants to stand up and shake it, but he can’t because the microphone stand is too short. He has to settle for a hand wave. Throughout the special, he keeps breaking back into this song. It was obvious that he loved singing it. He is 21 again. He is cool again. He is a rocker! He is taken back to the time before the bad movies, before Col. Tom Parker eviscerated him, before he was tempted to numb himself with pharmaceuticals.
This TV special is proof of the greatness that was Elvis. It is kind of sad because it reminds us of how much great music was lost when Elvis was robbed of his soul, when it was chipped away by his manager, by fame, by money, by drugs, by sadness, by pain. But at least Elvis got to feel the joy and passion of rock and roll one more time. He earned it.