What I Learned From Elvis Presley: An Appreciation

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I never met Elvis Presley. I never saw him perform. In fact, the one time I had an opportunity to attend a concert by the man, I passed. But that’s a tale of regret best saved for another time. I have been thinking about Elvis fairly often lately. Not so much because of his music, although that is, of course, the key to why he permanently resides in my head. These days the King comes to mind because of the way he carried himself during his uniquely troubled life.

Elvis’ recordings changed everything in popular music. “Before Elvis there was nothing,” John Lennon famously proclaimed. Various circumstances soon interfered with Elvis’ ability to demonstrate his talent to its fullest degree: the isolation dictated by his unprecedented popularity, the Army, Hollywood, and finally — and perhaps most devastating — a lack of quality songs to record. As the 1960s began, the Elvis Presley story had begun its sad downward spiral. His best recordings had already been released.

It is not surprising, then, that while growing up in the 1960s, my indifference toward Elvis was indicative of my generation’s attitude. The Elvis Presley records I heard on the radio during my late grade school and junior high days were restricted to the two oldies played per hour on KIOA in Des Moines, or on WHB in Kansas City and Chicago’s WLS. I knew they were great songs and I liked them, but I did not understand the historical importance of these records nor did I search out more by this artist. That would all come later.

My stronger connection to Elvis’ music came not through the occasional hit I would hear on the radio, but from the back bedroom of my aunt and uncle’s house in Marshalltown, Iowa. It was there that I unearthed a stack of 45 rpm singles and a small record player. When my family visited these relatives, I would repeatedly play these records. Most of the singles were unimpressive, but the few Elvis records were transcendent. I wore out the double-sided hit “Hound Dog”/“Don’t Be Cruel” and “All Shook Up.” There were a couple of Elvis purchases in the stack that seem surprising to me now: My uncle had both “Don’t” and “One Night.” I marveled at the sound of these records. I studied them.

Then, in February 1964, the Beatles sang a few songs on The Ed Sullivan Show, and my life was never the same. It has been said that the 1960s really began in earnest only when the Beatles arrived. Without question, they changed America’s musical landscape in a single Sunday night. One change that came for me after I watched the Beatles was the simultaneous widening and narrowing of my musical interests. My focus narrowed from the music of my father’s big band and movie soundtrack records to a fixation on the Beatles. But, unbeknownst to me at this time, my sphere was also widening to include the many influences that the Beatles were providing through their cover songs. These were artists that American radio had stopped playing: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Miracles, and Carl Perkins. Beatles on the record player and Top 40 on a radio was my musical diet.

I had not forgotten about Elvis Presley, but neither did I follow his career. I’m sure that all of his Hollywood movies of the 1960s played in Des Moines when they were released — they must have — but I don’t even recall seeing newspaper ads for them. They were never on my cultural radar, nor on anyone else’s I knew. I have memories of watching Elvis’ comeback special on NBC, but I only had a passing interest in it at the time. When this Elvis television special aired in December 1968, the Beatles’ White Album had been released the previous month. Musically, little else mattered.

The Wilson sisters from Heart have talked about how Elvis did not have a powerful influence on them, describing him as a huge but unapproachable figure from the past. Bruce Springsteen acknowledged Presley as “a small fire,” but one whose influence had diminished by the early 1960s. I think this feeling was widespread. Elvis’ hits were massive but, even by 1963, they seemed to have come from a very long time ago. In 1966, records produced only one decade earlier may as well have been recorded in 1929. The ensuing 10 years had already turned the decade of the 1950s into a dim, distant era. Blame the Beatles. Blame Oswald. Blame television. But it was true.

More years passed. I was ahead of the curve among my college group in a personal reawakening to Elvis Presley. In 1973, I bought Elvis’ Golden Records, “the greatest hits album by which all other greatest hits records must be measured,” to quote an accurate assessment in the All Music Guide. My college girlfriend laughed at me when I bought it, but I didn’t care. It’s a surprisingly generous collection of 14 songs, and each one is great. Many of these hits reminded me of the back room in Marshalltown, and soon I also loved the ones previously unfamiliar to me. I wondered: If these had all been big hits (and they had), why did radio only play three or four of them as oldies during my junior high years? I began to ponder the narrow-minded choices of radio programmers.

To demonstrate the lack of interest among young people of my generation: When Elvis died on August 16, 1977, I was in my last year of college. Walter Cronkite’s news bulletin interrupted an afternoon rerun of All In the Family. I was stunned, but I could not think of one person to call who would not mock his passing. When the news became widespread, tasteless jokes were everywhere. The worst were told by my musician friends. Maybe that’s understandable, since Elvis had transformed himself into a punch line long before his death. But it still unsettled me to hear mean-spirited disrespect gleefully heaped onto someone so important to popular music.

The 1970s ended; 1980 began. John Lennon was murdered in December. More cruel remarks about death, but these seemed to stick in the throats of even the most cynical speakers. Overnight, John became everybody’s lifelong favorite Beatle. Paul was suddenly unhip for being extremely popular as a solo performer. Prior to Lennon’s murder, some of McCartney’s younger fans had been unaware of Lennon’s existence; many marveled that Paul had been in a band before Wings. John’s death suddenly validated Lennon’s uneven solo career in a way that never happened for Elvis. The recordings that Presley made from the early 1960s until his death were routinely written off as dreck. It is only recently that Elvis’ post-Army canon has been examined with a serious eye, a crusade led by Roy Carr, Mick Farren, Ernst Jorgensen, and Peter Guralnick.

The legacy of Presley’s recordings was sometimes hindered by the King himself. During a rare 1971 press conference, Elvis was asked about his first records, made for Memphis’ Sun Records label. Elvis chuckled and said that those singles now “sound kinda funny” to him. In spite of Presley’s own casual dismissal of his early work, these were the records prized by his most devoted fans –that “kinda funny” sound found only in the Sun Records studio of Memphis. If Presley could be so cavalier about some of his greatest recordings, maybe the artist had truly lost his sense of musical direction.

When John Lennon met Elvis, Lennon suggested that Presley make some records like those from his days at the Sun label. This was probably not the best topic for a first meeting But had Elvis countered, asking John why he didn’t still record songs like “She Loves You,” Lennon would probably have been livid. This was, after all, late summer 1965. The Beatles were already into their acoustic, Dylan-influenced Rubber Soul era. Speaking of Bob Dylan, during the rehearsals for the Bangladesh charity concert of 1971, George Harrison asked Dylan if he planned to sing “Blowin’ In the Wind” during the concert. Dylan supposedly replied to Harrison, “Are you going to sing ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’?” Maybe Colonel Parker was right when he said: “You don’t sell your past.”

OK. So, what have I learned from Elvis Presley? How he treated everyone with respect: Elvis Presley was nice to the people he met. I have no doubt that exceptions can be found. But when one reads the many tales of people’s personal encounters with the man, what comes through time and again is how Presley actually talked to each individual fan as if that fan were the most important person in the room, if not on the entire planet. If you could get to him, Elvis didn’t try to rush away. He was engaged; he would listen.

Chet Atkins tells how he was almost “sir-ed” to death by Elvis in the early days of their studio work together, but Atkins also stresses that Elvis always seemed to be sincere during these exchanges. One biography describes an episode where Presley chastised his entourage for not being nice enough to the media and to his fans. Elvis reprimanded them: “If I can do it, you can do it.” He probably only had to say this once. I find these episodes as impressive as they are inspirational. In fact, when somebody is talking to me about a topic I have no interest in, I try to be nice. I am thinking about how Elvis Presley would handle it. Probably with patience.

What else have I learned? I fear that as early as 1960, the King of Rock and Roll had stopped listening to music. Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis documents how Elvis’ session musicians were forbidden to discuss music with Presley. Colonel Parker insisted on complete control over what Elvis recorded; any input from outsiders was taboo. Guralnick recounts how a session musician was once threatened for suggesting an appropriate song to Elvis.

Dolly Parton talks about how excited she was to learn that Elvis was planning to record her song, “I Will Always Love You.” However, shortly before the session she received a phone call from Colonel Parker. He told her that Elvis required publishing rights to all of the material he recorded. Parton said “no” to the Colonel. She had regrets that Elvis would not sing her song, but she had better economic sense than to trade away the rights to one of her compositions. I am guessing that this is not an isolated incident, just a high profile one.

I do not need to keep my ears tuned for potential songs to record, but I do strive to expose myself to new music. I wonder again if Elvis simply stopped listening. I don’t recall any biographies discussing Elvis tuning-in to late night radio. Multiple television screens were reportedly his constant companion at Graceland, not radio. I also don’t remember reading of any instance when Elvis sought out record shops.

The King would lead treks to jewelry stores in the middle of the night, when he was assured of privacy, and it seems that the Memphis movie theater was permanently on call for his nocturnal screenings. But nothing is said about covert trips to Memphis record stores. Had the King purchased (and listened to) new records in the way he bought new Cadillacs, had he encountered songs on the radio he liked enough to insist on recording, if trusted friends had recommended appropriate material, his later recording career could have been very different. I think Elvis became distracted and cut himself off from his own life blood: Music.

I do not make records; I listen to records. But parallels emerge. The few regretful music memories I have are clustered around various opportunities I was given, but did not embrace. Either I thought that I had no interest a certain style of music, or (worse) I thought I was above it. This attitude has caused me to miss some fine performers. Still, as I look back, it’s hard for me to get despondent about shows I didn’t attend. I have been very fortunate to have seen many impressive concerts and to have listened to a lot of great music. Even so, I wish the scales had fallen from my ears a bit earlier. I now strive to keep my mind musically alert and my ears open to new sounds. It’s a full-time job.

What did I learn from Elvis Presley? Try to be nice to everybody and stay open to all forms of music. I can handle that.

This appreciation of the late Elvis Presley was excerpted from Tom Wilmeth’s new book ‘Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening.’ It’s available now from Muleshoe Press via Amazon.


Tom Wilmeth

Tom Wilmeth

Tom Wilmeth, an English faculty member at Concordia University-Wisconsin since 1991, has given presentations and published widely on the topics of literature and music. Author of 'Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening,' he earned a Ph.D. at Texas A&M in College Station. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Tom Wilmeth
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