Monday, February 28, 2011

Elvis Presley

Here is something else I wrote on BeatleLinks Fab Forum back in 2005. One of the forum members put forward the (not uncommon) idea that the two greatest acts in rock & roll history are the Beatles and Bob Dylan. A number of other members agreed with him. But this was my response:

Toss in the name of Elvis Presley along with the Beatles and Dylan as the three greatest rock & roll acts of all time, and I’ll agree with you.

If not for Elvis, rock music — and popular music in general — wouldn’t have been the same. Elvis didn’t write that many songs, but the dynamic way he performed them has become legendary. Just compare Elvis’ version of “That’s All Right (Mama)” to Arthur Crudup’s original or Elvis’ rendition of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” to Bill Monroe’s, and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Also, Elvis was the singlemost important inspiration to the Beatles. It can safely be said that if it hadn’t have been for Elvis, there wouldn’t have been any Beatles. Yes, John, Paul, George, and Ringo built more impressively upon the foundation that Elvis laid than Elvis himself, but Elvis’ influence was absolutely vital.

Unfortunately, after kicking down the door so brilliantly, Elvis barely crossed the threshold. After electrifying audiences, and the popular culture at large, with his daring mix of (white) country & western and (black) rhythm & blues, Elvis’ greatest concern seemed to be to appeal to the broadest audience possible with music that, for the most part, paled next to the full-blooded songs of his auspicious arrival. Where Dylan, the Beatles, and others took Elvis’ musical legacy forward, Elvis himself seemed determined to step backwards and become the next Frank Sinatra.

Today, the camp image of the paunchy, white-jumpsuited Vegas crooner of Elvis’ later years (he died in 1977 at age 42) has elcipsed the earthy, energetic, dungaree-clad hellhound-with-a-pompadour of 1956 and 1957. It’s unfortunate that Elvis’ career took the disappointing turn that it did. If he had associated himself more with Dylan, the Beatles, and the others who took his musical breakthrough to its next artistic level, Elvis might be thought of — as we think of Dylan and the Beatles — as one of the most crucial rock performers of the 1960s, the decade of rock’s greatest flowering. And the laughable Vegas Elvis might never have come to be. It’s amazing how one of pop music’s greatest performers ultimately became a parody of himself.

Thank goodness the same cannot be said of the Beatles.

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