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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Last Call 11/12/08

The further we get from Elvis' death, the more controversial he becomes. Unlike his predecessor Frank Sinatra or his successors the Beatles, Elvis' 21st century coolness factor is nil. He receives very little hipster love. Yet there is little argument that his '50s singles changed the world. The man's work embodies the rock n' roll revolution of pop culture, which we know today as the predominant global culture. In many ways, anti-modern religious fanatics are not fighting American imperialism or preserving the dignity of heterosexual marriage. They are fighting Elvis Presley and the forces he unleashed.

If you are in doubt of this look at the 1955 pop charts. They are dominated by artists like Frank Sinatra, Mitch Miller, and the Maguire Sisters. The black artists represented are the Penguins and the Platters-smoothed-over doo-wop that is most definitely NOT blues-based. The outliers are Bill Haley and Fats Domino- true r & b and what would become know as rock n' roll. In 1964, the pop charts are alive with rock n' roll and r & b, with Harry Mancini's 'Pink Panther Theme' marking the only real connection to the sound of mid-'50s America. The vessel of this revolution, the figure who brought white America to the race music party? None other than Elvis Presley.

Right. Where's the love, than? The quality of the Elvis catalog pales in comparison to the Beatles, and even to many of his own peers like Johnny Cash. His '70s studio work is in large parts pure rubbish. The worst thing that happened to Elvis was living. Elvis also is completely Southern. You can't separate him from his upbringing. Many of his early hits were covers of black artist's material. He capitalized on the work of black musicans and songwriters, so many young listeners take his contribution lightly because he didn't invent his sound. Also, he was at the right moment at the right time. Why not idolize Buddy Holly, who wrote his own music and presented a distinctive sound? Or Chuck Berry, who made the guitar the premier instrument of rock music? Aren't they just as responsible for rock n' roll's success?

No. Elvis was a force of nature. First, look at him. Look at that picture. The young Elvis was what Marlon Brando wanted to be after years of method-acting training. He was pure, raw, unbridled sensuality. The man could have given you that look while selling vacuums, and you wouldn't have any rugs left. Sex always had a place in pop music, but after Elvis sex was the dominant theme of pop music. Second, there was the voice. If you disregard the increasingly vanilla material RCA gave him to record, Elvis had the premier white voice in pop music. He brought the Church into pop music with just as much success as Ray Charles and Sam Cooke. Track down the From Elvis in Memphis album if you have doubts about this. The man loved race music, he loved gospel, and he loved country. Addictions and general ignorance robbed him of an opportunity to leave a greater artistic impact. In the end, he was a product- a product mishandled by his long-time manager Col. Tom Parker. But what a product it was.

Our track today is 'Don't Be Cruel'. The track opens with maybe the most famous bass riff of all time by Bill Black backed by basic rhythm support on the downbeat by drummer D.J. Fontana. Elvis comes in with the lyric, penned by Otis Blackwell, followed precisely by his back-up singers, the Jordanaires. Although Steve Sholes is listed as the producer by RCA, the musicians stated that Elvis himself produced these sessions, which included 'Hound Dog' as well. Elvis makes this into a doo-wop song with a country shuffle. Elvis plays piano on this track, and he inserts a Fats Domino influence in the mix as well. Right from the beginning you have pop, country, and r & b. Elvis' genius was never in writing or creating unique sounds, but in synthesizing what he heard on the radio and in honky-tonks. At 21, he already possessed an amazing ear and knew exactly how to deliver the sound he wanted. Piano, snare on the downbeat, and cymbal on the upbeat guide the Jordanaires through the melody. The song proceeds toward the bridge, where we get a descending rhythmic bar escorting Elvis' vocal. At the bridge, Elvis throws in a vocal "Hmmmmm." It was common in jump blues and gospel songs to add non-verbal vocal fills, but rare on white records. Finally, let's listen to the tone of Elvis' vocal. His vocal is strong but breathy, very emotive. Whereas Frank Sinatra would work toward a cool, easy register for his vocals which would allow the lyrics to be followed, Elvis placed the importance on delivering emotion, soul. He rises and drops through registers many times during the song. This reflects his Church roots, where ministers performed operatic vocal feats to fill members with the 'Spirit'. Near the end we get a stop-start, so common in r & b of the day, and Bill Black comes back with a bass line to usher us out.

Next time anyone accuses Elvis of being a 'redneck' or 'tool', fix them with a long stare and ask them who the Beatles' biggest influence was. Sure, someone else could have been Elvis, but he was. And there was only one.

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