Today would've been The King's 80th birthday. For revisionists, Elvis is easy not to like. He stole black music. Didn't write his own songs. Couldn't act. The list of insults goes on. Billboard even went so far as to change the start of their record-keeping to August 4, 1958, which cheats Elvis out of his first years of achievements. His best. And guess where Elvis was at that time? In the army. For two years. If you think any of those criticisms are more important than what he accomplished, stop reading. I'm here to celebrate Elvis. His records won't last forever, others will outsell him, but nobody will ever be bigger.
"Before Elvis, there was nothing." - John Lennon.
Elvis' creation story is well-documented. Summoned to a meager studio in Memphis after having paid to record a few emotive demos, Elvis can't get any of the ballads (Dean Martin's, mostly) right. While on break, he and the boys bust loose on an amped-up version of an old blues song and get what they're after: a hillbilly who can sing and play with soul. For a year and a half, he tours the South, shouting his rhythm and blues and driving the teenage girls wild with his hips, before he's picked up by a national record label. Nobody has seen or heard anything like him. He floods the world. In the 60's, The Beatles are the Second Coming of Elvis. In the 80's, Michael Jackson is Elvis Born Again.
"Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail." - Bob Dylan.
Completed by his return from the army in 1960, the sanitizing of Elvis actually starts when he's moved to television. The black and white images don't do him justice. Not when he's wearing flashy pink and purple outfits and they're only willing to show him from the waist up. Not when the girls can't tear apart the stage. (During live shows, the musicians kept time by watching Elvis wiggle because they couldn't hear anything.) Throw in a subdued performance aboard a Navy ship, have him wear a tuxedo and sing to a nonplussed hound dog, and the electricity he exuded on stage (they called him the Atomic Powered Singer before the Pelvis) diminishes. But the damage is done. The sea of pop music has parted ways for rock'n'roll and the sexual revolution.
"He came along and whispered the same dream in everybody's ear." - Bruce Springsteen.
Elvis opens the door for white teenagers to buy black music. And their parents hate it! That's his biggest accomplishment, really. Ask Chuck Berry or Little Richard. The late James Brown (the only non-family member granted a private viewing at Elvis' funeral) said the same. Elvis starts singing "race" songs and paves the way. He was an integrator. Listen to "If I Can Dream." The most passionate sermon I've ever heard. He shares Martin Luther King's dream. "In the Ghetto" is another prayer. If only he'd taken artistic control more often, maybe he wouldn't have suffered so at the end.
"If it hadn't been for Elvis, I don't know where popular music would be." - Elton John.
Elvis played rock, country, soul, gospel, blues, rhythm and blues, a little funk, and even opera. We all know his hits. His parables. They're popular for a reason: the aggressive backbeat, the uninhibited rhythms, the fervent vocals. We also know that you have to sift through plenty of duds to find his best. Here are some less familiar essential songs that capture his brilliance as a recording artist.
"Is It So Strange?" (1957), "Wear My Ring Around Your Neck" (1958) - What Elvis does best in the 50's with both ballads and rockers: injects them with the holy spirit.
"Reconsider Baby" (1960) - Elvis returns from the army and produces the best studio album of his career - Elvis is Back!. This is the bluesiest of the bunch. The first Elvis song to feature a sax solo.
"One Broken Heart for Sale" (1962) - After hitting the Top Ten with 24 consecutive singles, Elvis peaks at #11 with this smooth pop song that reflects his more elegant sound of the early 60's.
"It Hurts Me" (1964) - Co-written by Charlie Daniels and buried as a B-side, this power ballad trembles with desire and desperation.
"Guitar Man/What'd I Say?" (uncut studio version - 1967) - Pure energy. Jerry Reed's finger picking supports a relentless country rhythm.
"Lawdy, Miss Clawdy," "Trying to Get to You" (live television versions - 1968) - Why everyone wanted to play the guitar. Unrestrained covers from his 50's catalog.
"Power of My Love," "Wearin' That Loved On Look" (1969) - Elvis gets lost in the desert and tempted by Hollywood. When he returns home, he produces the second best album of his career - From Elvis in Memphis. These funky, soul grooves underscore his haunting, scratchy vocals.
"That's All Right," "Mystery Train/Tiger Man" (live stage versions - 1970) - Elvis builds his temple in Las Vegas with live covers of his earliest recordings. Just as raw but even faster. The musicians and backup singers are his unapologetic disciples. Elvis at Sun is a must-have collection for all rockabilly fans.
"Where Did They Go, Lord?" (1970) - The gospel according to Elvis. A sorrowful tale of lost love.
"The Sound of Your Cry" (1970)/"We Can Make the Morning" (1971) - Elvis recorded more songs in Nashville than anywhere else. These wanton gems lure us with tender verses and then pound us with their driving choruses.
"I Got a Feeling in My Body"/"If You Talk in Your Sleep" (1973) - Two funk songs laced with gospel and recorded at the famous Stax studios in Memphis. Soulful propulsion.
"For the Heart" (1976) - The best country song from his famed Jungle Room sessions. Sexy, smooth abandonment. Elvis has come full circle.
It's not so much that I love and miss Elvis (as much as I could love and miss someone I never knew), it's that I feel cheated. I was only eight years-old when he died and didn't get to witness his impact firsthand. I remember hearing "Moody Blue" on the radio. That's it. Kinda sucks. Not perfect, he embodied everything I believe in: self-expression, desire, compassion, originality, generosity. I go to church every time I hear his voice.
"Whatever I will become will be what God has chosen for me." - Elvis Presley