My generation has always had an interesting problem with The King of Rock ‘N’ Roll.
When the thought of Elvis arises, Generation X and Y’ers seem to conjure up fat old men in sparkling-spandex suits, oversized 70’s glasses, saying “Thank’er very much” a little too much ( A fried banana/peanut butter sandwich may also be in the same image, depending on your music trivia education). It’s no new thought that Elvis is definitely an icon and remnant of the baby boomer generation. Presley’s death on August 16, 1977 pre-dates many of our arrivals on the planet, so a certain amount of cultural disassociation is certainly expected. When exposed to “early Elvis”, the youth response usually has to do with “sounding old” or “out of date” ….the later Vegas-Elvis era is met with laughs and a certain “are you for real?” mentality with certain curiosities on why your Aunt Helen is such a die hard fan of this dead guy. My generation, as a whole, just doesn’t get the whole Elvis thing and has summed up the experience to the parodies that modern culture has spun in the past forty years.
Thirty years ago today, my family took a trip to Memphis to visit a friend of mine who had recently moved to Tennessee. My father, not being shy about reminding us what state he was driving the Griswold Family Truckster to – and what gate to what famous house he was going to pull up to – and what Jungle Room he was going to visit – played a 1986 mix tape of Elvis’ music on the 6 hour drive (oddly, this tape also included “Amazed and Confused” by Neil Diamond as well as “My Baby Takes The Morning Train” by Sheena Easton – oh 80’s mix tapes). Unbeknownst to the kids in the car (me and my sister), we were heading to the rock ‘n’ roll promised land ofGraceland on what is known as “Elvis Week” – the week of August 16, Memphis is packed with thousands of Elvis fans commemorating his death, complete with a candle light vigil. We were, indeed, shouting halleluliah for the promised land about every five miles via the rewind button and “The American Trilogy.”
Our Chevy Blazer didn’t exactly pull up through the gates of Graceland as the glory prophecy foretold, but we did get a nice spot in the visitors parking lot. Our first stop was the “Lisa Marie” – or the personalized 1972 private jet that sits across the property from the house. To a six year old, a jet at a house in the middle of the city is pretty darn cool, no matter how many jumpsuits you own (Adam West, aka TV’s Batman, wore a jumpsuit – must have been a thing then – this is the deductive reasoning of a six year old child). Our family took the tour of the mansion afterwards…and walked right through the esteemed gates of Graceland. The insides of this 1950s-built mansion are preserved to the way Elvis saw it the night he passed away – so there was a lot of 1970s out-of-date looking stuff in there, even by the 1986 standard. The mirror stairwell, the six televisions sunk into the wall, and (yes) The Jungle Room itself seem to be from a forgotten time before the dinosaurs (Again, six year old thoughts).
The tour concludes at the grave of Elvis. “Who gets buried as his own house!?!”
The one thing I did walk away from my Graceland remembering was the sheer amount of fans flocking to see anything Elvis related in Memphis. What was the big deal? This was (likely) my first experience with any kind of die-hard fans – they were dressed up, singing his songs on the corner, wearing pins, showing concert tickets, telling the stories, etc. You couldn’t go a foot without seeing an image of Elvis in Graceland – and in the city of Memphis during that week. The images of that trip and the fans stuck with me for years. While I can’t say that I walked out of Memphis a changed-forever-Elvis-6-year-old fan, I did file the experience under the “figure this whole Elvis thing out later” department.
When my teenage years set in, my worship at the temple of the guitar was a daily ritual. Between the ages of thirteen ….and now…. all I wanted (want) to do was (is) play guitar. When the music journey REALLY began, and I started to learn about who played what on what record – and I really began my quest to hear everything (I wanted to hear EVERYTHING having to do with rock ‘n’ roll and blues)…all signs pointed to Elvis. All roads led to Graceland.
Let’s go through some famous guitar players (and my favorites). My preliminary research in guitar magazine after magazine, book after book: “Mr. X, who’s first inspired you to play music?”
Paul McCartney …..”Elvis Presley” … “It was like seeing the Messiah on television”
John Lennon ….”Elvis Presley”
George Harrison …. “We all loved Elvis”
Eric Clapton ….”Elvis Presley”
Jimmy Page ….”Elvis Presley”
Jeff Beck ….”Elvis F*king Presley”
Stevie Ray Vaughan … “It started with Elvis”
….You mean the guy in the spandex?
When 99.9% of your music heroes point due north to Elvis, it was time to take a closer look at the man they called “The King Of Rock N Roll.” I dug deep into the Elvis catalog and wanted to look at the era of music that inspired so many artists. I ignored the Vegas years and went back to the pre-army recordings…before the films and the soundtracks. It’s at the start of Elvis’ career…with the “Elvis Presley”album…. that we, as an enlightened society, can attempt to piece together the first beginning history of Rock N Roll.
This brand new combination of blues, country and R&B found a home at Sun Studios in 1956 when a 21 year old Elvis Presley recorded what would have been his stage show at that time. There were no horns. No string sections. No orchestras. No big band sound from WWII that continued to plug away at the radio waves into the early 1950s. There was one guy, a guitar, and a three piece band backing him up – it was Elvis vs. the world. These recordings that I discovered were unpolished and raw — totally UNLIKE what I had heard on Dad’s mix tape of Elvis’ later work. Above all else, there was an undeniable energy that carried the music to a new level. This energized youthful spirit was captured on this first album – which is why I consider it the true first album of rock ‘n’ roll.
After reading the history behind these sessions and realized that no one else up until that point had successfully pulled off a stunt like this – it opened my eyes to how different Elvis must have been to a kid in 1956. He wasn’t a bandleader, but he was the leader of the musicians on stage. He wasn’t a stage show, although he was upfront and entertaining. He wasn’t a dancer, but he somehow pulled off enough moves to get him as the first act censored on television for lewd moves. There was no way to pigeonhole Elvis into any one job title or genre, which was a unique situation in 1956.
At the center of everything is THE voice – the raw, screamed out, gospel-tinged talent that seemed to have no limits on this first album. With such minimal accompaniment, Elvis’ voice did all of the heavy lifting. The one thing that Elvis was, without a shadow of doubt, was a uniquely talented singer who could blend styles of any particular influence. While his voice always remained his trademark, I found that vocal tracks like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “One Night With You” are a dangerous showcase of his talent — not that “My Way” and “Suspicious Minds” are sung poorly, but his early material seemed to be where his spark was found.
I had to go through many of these early recordings, while understanding the history of the era and what else was going on, before I could realize why Elvis was (and is) considered the King. The guitar playing of Scotty Moore – and later James Burton – was another huge draw for me as a young player. Both of those guitarist are a window into the early days of Rock N Roll, as well as a peak into country and western guitar as it should be played. There are no guitar effects – maybe some slap-back echo – the amplifiers were small combos. Like Elvis, all they had was themselves and a guitar – and they had to keep up. Both Moore and Burton are huge influences on me today (May Scotty R.I.P.).
By the age of 15, I was finally able to piece together what I experienced at Graceland a decade earlier. I understood where Elvis’ place was in music history. I understood why he is as important as he is. I understood that he is the genesis point for an entire genre of music. I understood that his music and career followed a curve that would change with the times from 1956 until his death in 1977.
I still don’t understand the whole jumpsuit thing, but “who died and made me Elvis?”
I will always gravitate to the early days of Elvis for my preferred listening, back “when the world was new.” I continue to enjoy tracing the evolution of this music from that point to what we have now. Before all of the current Top 40, before Drake, before Justin Timberlake, before GaGa, before Outkast, before Maroon 5, before Nirvana, before Aerosmith, before The Beastie Boys, before George Michael, before Madonna, before Cyndi Lauper, before Zeppelin, before Pink Floyd, before Fleetwood Mac, before The Beach Boys, before The Beatles, before Buddy Holly……
“Before Elvis….there was nothing.”
All roads lead to Graceland.