Forever the King
August 16 marked 40 years since Elvis Presley died. In the years since his music has been packaged and repacked, remastered, remixed, and re-released in so many ways it can sometimes be difficult to believe he actually died.
I’ve always loved Elvis. His was one of the first voices I heard as a child. His music and legend is as tightly woven into my life as anyone can be and along with the Beatles and Beach Boys, Elvis forms a sort of Holy Trinity of music. They lay the foundation upon which everything I love is built. Everything seems to branch off from there.
Yet, for a variety of reasons, Elvis continues to be thought of as a caricature. Kitschy memorabilia, horribly cheesy impersonators, bad Halloween costumes, tasteless jokes about his final hours, and a growing denigration of his contributions to rock and roll have all contributed to a very inaccurate image of who Elvis was, the incredible role he played in music and culture, and his phenomenal talent.
I can’t count how many times I’ve encountered someone who says “uh, I just don’t get it. He was just a fat guy…he didn’t ‘invent’ rock and roll anyway….he made all those crappy movies, and those jumpsuits! Ugh!”
It’s quite unfortunate and a lot of it has to do with the way his legacy and music has been treated by those entrusted to protect it. But, that’s another topic for another day.
Rather, I’d like to talk about what matters most, his talent and his music. Let’s strip away all the noise and let’s just talk music.
Go back and listen to some of those early recordings. In 1956, Elvis recorded “Blue Moon”, a song originally written in 1934. Give it a listen…listen close to That Voice, the delivery. Against a sparse almost non-existent musical arrangement, Elvis’ vocal range is on full display, gently lilting between his gorgeous baritone and a dulcet falsetto. The song is both haunting and romantic.
Three years later Elvis seems to channel is inner Buddy Holly with the release of “I Forgot to Remember to Forget”. With Scotty Moore, Bill Black, and Johnny Bernero providing the instrumentation Elvis sings:
Made myself a promise
That I’d soon forget we ever met
But something sure is wrong
‘Cause I’m so blue and lonely
I forgot to remember to forget
Anyone watch the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?
Elvis of course ran off a seemingly endless string of hits throughout the late 50s and into the 60s. Songs like “Heartbreak Hotel”, “That’s All Right Mama”, “Teddy Bear”, “Jailhouse Rock”, and “It’s Now or Never” were blaring out of transistor radios and through TV sets around the world. By the time the early 60s arrived, the Colonel had thrown The King into the movie business and it didn’t take long for Elvis to become increasingly frustrated both with the quality of the film as well as the quality of the music born of those movies.
So, enter 1968. This is the year Elvis decided to remind the world just who the hell they were dealing with.
The famed Comeback Special, actually titled “Elvis” aired on NBC on December 3, 1968. It has a bit of late 60s schmaltz in terms of production and choreography but Elvis’ voice was stronger than it had been to that point in his career, and he oozed with a sexuality and confidence that betrayed the stage fright and insecurity with which he entered the project.
The highlight for me, and most others, is the stripped down performance with DJ Fontana, Scotty Moore (both original band members), as well as Alan Fortas, Charlie Hodge, and Lance LeGault.
At his core, Elvis was a gospel, rhythm and blues singer. This performance puts those influences on display with growling, sweaty renditions of some of his early hits. The best of which are “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”, “Tryin’ to Get to You”, and “Baby What do You Want Me to Do”. I watch these clips on a regular basis (no doubt providing the missus with more than a bit of frustration ha-ha) and I’m constantly in awe. Gorgeous, confident when singing, shy when speaking, and That Voice this is Elvis in command, Elvis in most pure form.
The show also included what would become one Elvis’ most lasting songs, “If I Can Dream”. Perhaps the closest he would get to a “political” statement in his music, the song features one of his best vocal performances. Against the social and political turmoil of the times, he sings:
There must be lights burning brighter somewhere
Got to be birds flying higher in a sky more blue
If I can dream of a better land
Where all my brothers walk hand in hand
Tell me why, oh why, oh why can’t my dream come true
There must be peace and understanding sometime
Strong winds of promise that will blow away the doubt and fear
If I can dream of a warmer sun
Where hope keeps shining on everyone
Tell me why, oh why, oh why won’t that sun appear
We’re lost in a cloud
With too much rain
We’re trapped in a world
That’s troubled with pain
But as long as a man
Has the strength to dream
He can redeem his soul and fly
Deep in my heart there’s a trembling question
Still I am sure that the answer gonna come somehow
Out there in the dark, there’s a beckoning candle
And while I can think, while I can talk
While I can stand, while I can walk
While I can dream, please let my dream
Come true, right now
Let it come true right now
I quote the full the song because it has a renewed significance given today’s social and political climate.
A few months later Elvis would begin the next and last phase, of his incredible career. Backed by a new band anchored by the incomparable James Burton on guitar and Ronnie Tutt on drums, the “TCB Band” would perform with Elvis until his death. He set up shop and crafted an entirely new show where he would feature old and new hits as well as reimaginings of contemporary songs by likes of Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, and Neil Diamond. 1972 brought him to Madison Square Garden, which was released as a live album and the following year gave us the seminal Aloha from Hawaii broadcast and album. This period saw Elvis at the peak of his vocal power. There was nothing he could not sing. Legend has it that he wanted to sing in an opera, or at least a duet, but the Colonel did not thing it meshed with The King’s image or appeal to his fans.
This period also features two of my all time favorite recordings. Elvis’ gospel-fueled interpretation of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” and the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody.” His voice grew stronger with time, his command and range were never better, and he showcased it with these and countless other songs and his emphasis on his gospel roots became more prominent as he moved towards the end.
By 1976 and certainly into the early months of 1977 Elvis’ emotional struggles, the stress of financially supporting such a large army of musicians, family members, friends, and hangers-on, the loss of his mother, as well as his increasing discomfort with fame and the resulting isolation.
His gorgeous frame struggled to maintain the increasing weight. The medications his doctors pushed upon him in order to keep him up for performances and then bring him down to sleep, as well as to stabilize his moods clouded his once sharp wit and intellect. There’s plenty of unfortunate footage of him slurring his words or forgetting lyrics but that shouldn’t be the lasting image anyone has of this once-in-a-lifetime talent. His legacy should be his voice, his cultural impact, and contributions to American music.
So, I hope you all click a few of those links, listen to the music, and watch the performances. My hope is that I’ve perhaps provided a different perspective than what you may have had on Elvis Presley. He’s The King and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!
Until Next Time,
Be Well and Kind,