The basic mistake that people make about Elvis was that he came along and got lucky. No, he didn’t get lucky. He worked hard and he created the music with great musicians. He had a drive that motivated him, and it was there from Day One.
-Ernst Jørgensen (Producer of the new two-part 2018 HBO documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher)
He was a light for all of us. We all owe him for going first into battle. He had no road map and he forged a path of what to do and what not to do. We should dwell on what he did that was so beautiful and everlasting, which was that great, great music.
The highlight of my career? That’s easy, Elvis recording one of my songs.
Before Elvis there was nothing.
It Was Almost As If I’d Been Waiting For It To Happen.
-Keith Richards (On hearing Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” on Radio Luxembourg)
He would lose himself in an artistic way in order for people to feel it. That’s called soul.
–David Porter (Songwriter’s HOF/”Soul Man”, “Hold On I’m Coming”)
A Day the Earth Stood Still. Momentarily.
Yes, we Americans celebrate every July 4th as our official national birthday, but on
the night of the next day, July 5, an event of epoch-altering cultural importance occurred within tiny Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, in the year 1954.
Now, I’ll grant you, The American Revolution and the birth of America were world changing events of the first order. No question. However, I’ll put July 5th, 1954 up against several other events that are ingrained in our heads. Caesar crossing the Rubicon. The Berlin Wall coming down. A man walking on the moon. Cleopatra’s encounter with an asp, all very celestial, important events, But the night I’m writing about was bigger. Much bigger. That’s the night Sam Phillips recorded Arthur Cruddup‘s “That’s All Right Mama” with Elvis, Bill Black, and Scotty Moore. To be fair, the historical session only took place because of the incessant pleadings to record young Presley by Sam’s assistant, Marion Keisker, who had met the eager lad a few months earlier when he came by to record a vinyl for this mother, Gladys (even back then Elvis had this mystical effect on women).
So much has been written about the magnitude and impact of that night, and on Elvis’ influence on American culture and style, which was like a musical wrecking ball from outer space. So, this humble music lover will just lay down some quotes that hopefully put into perspective the transformative nature of that night, and the 19-year-old singer who changed the world. Forever.
One Night that Changed the World.
“The first time Sam played it back for them, we couldn’t believe it was us,” said Bill Black. “It just sounded sort of raw and ragged,” said Scotty. “We thought it was exciting, but what was it? It was just so completely different. But it just really flipped Sam.”
“And the boy? By the end of the evening there was a different singer in the studio than the one who started out the night. For Elvis, clearly, everything had changed. Sam sat in the studio after the session was over and everyone had gone home. He was bone-weary, but he just wanted to savour the moment.
When he got home, he woke up his wife Becky, and, as she would always remember it, “he was excited, he was happy, and he announced that he had just cut a record [that was] going to change our lives. I didn’t understand at the time what he meant, but it did. He felt that nothing would ever be quite the same again.”
–Peter Guralnick (Author of Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley. From his book: Sam Phillips; The Man Who Created Rock ‘ N’ Roll
Three days later, on July 8th, after Sam Phillips had played the tape recording of his new singer for iconic Memphis disc jockey, Dewey Phillips (no relation), the excitable record spinner played the tape over the air, he couldn’t even wait for the song to be pressed onto vinyl. The switchboard at WHBQ lit up immediately with listeners wanting to know who this new artist was. Phillips played “That’s All Right Mama” over and over and tried to reach Presley on the phone. But Elvis was at the movies. His parents tracked him down there and brought him to the studio for his first radio interview.
That day proved Sam to be absolutely prescient.
Out of Tupelo, Mississippi, out of Memphis, Tennessee, came this green, sharkskin-suited girl chaser, wearing eye shadow — a trucker-dandy white boy who must have risked his hide to act so black and dress so gay. This wasn’t New York or even New Orleans; this was Memphis in the Fifties. This was punk rock. This was revolt. Elvis changed everything — musically, sexually, politically.
The Scribes Genuflect.
This is it, your perfect starting point to understanding how Elvis – as Howlin’ Wolf so aptly put it — “made his pull from the blues.” Modern day listeners coming to these recordings for the first time will want to reclassify this music into a million subgenres, with all the hyphens firmly in place. But what we ultimately have here is a young Elvis Presley, mixing elements of blues, gospel and hillbilly music together and getting ready to unleash its end result — rock & roll — on an unsuspecting world.
–Cub Koda (All Music Review of The Sun Sessions)
It was pentecostal. We were cheering before we had fully comprehended what had happened, and by the time it was over, one critic was standing on her chair and the publicity assistant from RCA was shrieking in a most unflacklike manner. Every sclerotic scene-maker in the room evinced a comparable nutsiness. Elvis was fantastic. His clothes were stylish but not showy. His sideburns swept forward, and his hair was just long enough. His baby-fat jowls had disappeared. And his material was perfect, ranging from “That’s All Right, Mama” to “Yesterday” but concentrating on the rock and roll. Most of the time, the orchestra was silent–one guy in the back tapped time on his cello throughout the performance–and Elvis’s own band carried the music. Most important, Elvis proved that he was not just a greaseball–he showed a precise, humorous sense of himself. He had lived long enough with the rocking and sentimental sides of his persona to understand that there was a sense in which each negated the other. Every time he wiggled his hips or lowered his eyelids, women screamed, but he knew they were screaming as much for a memory as for a presence, and we knew he knew.
–Robert Christgau (Reluctant fan, reviewer, and writer for the Village Voice, on seeing Elvis for the first time in Las Vegas)
Elvis was the King of rock & roll because he was the embodiment of its sins and virtues: grand and vulgar, rude and eloquent, powerful and frustrated, absurdly simple and awesomely complex. He was the King, I mean, in our hearts, which is the place where the music really comes to life. And just as rock & roll will stand as long as our hearts beat, he will always be our King: forever, irreplaceable, corrupt and incorruptible, beautiful and horrible, imprisoned and liberated. And ﬁnally, rockin’ and free, free at last.
–Dave Marsh (Author of Elvis)
Elvis was not a “phenomenon.” He was not a “craze.” He was that perfect American symbol that would outlive us all.
Greil Marcus (Author of Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music)
The “Godfather” of Soul Reflects.
Elvis and I are the only true American originals. I love him and hope to see him in heaven. There’ll never be another like that soul brother.
– James Brown. (1933 -2006) R.I.P.
The “Greatest” Recalls.
Elvis was my close personal friend. He came to my Deer Lake training camp about two years before he died. He told us he didn’t want nobody to bother us. He wanted peace and quiet and I gave him a cabin in my camp and nobody even knew it. When the cameras started watching me train, he was up on the hill sleeping in the cabin. Elvis had a robe made for me. I don’t idolize nobody, but Elvis Presley was the sweetest, most humble and nicest man you’d want to know.
– Muhammad Ali.
The “Boss’s Man Confesses.
He sings like an angel and moves like a ballerina, and he left me struck dumb.
–John Landau (Producer of Elvis Presley: The Searcher and Bruce Springsteen’s manager, upon seeing Elvis for the first time.)
The voice is so melodious, and – of course, by accident, this glorious voice and musical sensibility was combined with this beautiful, sexual man and this very unconscious – or unselfconscious stage movements. Presley’s registration, the breadth of his tone, listening to some of his records, you’d think you were listening to an opera singer. But…it’s an opera singer with a deep connection to the blues, which leads me to the role of the great enunciator because he delivered us the greatest cultural boon. Nobody ever did more for the American people. He gave them the great present of black music transmitted through his own sensibility, his own sensitivity. Of course Elvis was a different kind of white purveyor of black music because it was naturally black and it was real, and he was a conduit. And America was really changed. I’m talking about American music and our culture in general. We owe far more to Elvis Presley than all the British groups put together.
–Jerry Wexler, co-founder of Atlantic Records, whose bid of US $30,000 came up short of the US $35,000 offered by RCA, for the purchase of Elvis’ contract with Sun Records in November of 1955.
The Kids Think He’s Alright.
Misfits singer and eventual solo artist Glenn Danzig is often referred to as ‘Evil Elvis’ for his King-esque vocal tones and is even working on a ‘Danzig Does Elvis’ album if I’m not mistaken. But seriously, the vocal resemblance is uncanny. Listen to “American Nightmare” by the Misfits and tell me that does not sound just like Elvis damn Presley singing about murdering some chick. Elvis’ legacy is everywhere, you’ve just gotta look for it
– Jaide Alicia (From her 2018 Blog – Teen writer for Center Stage )
The Legendary Almost Famous Character.
The Only Credible Explanation is That Elvis Was from another Planet.
Photograph by Alfred Wertheimer
(For my neighbor Jumping Joe – Elvis aficionado, awesome bud, and a great American)