By: Gary "The Hillbilly Cat" Gold
It was Elvis' birthday a few weeks ago. While this fact usually only piques the interest of a few misguided Teddy Boys overseas at this terribly late stage in the game (or, as "they" would have us believe, their middle-aged, gap-toothed brethren south of the Mason Dixon line), January 8, 1999 got me to thinking, probably for the first time ever, WHY Elvis?
I mean, Why should ANYBODY, ANYWHERE care anymore?
Well, in a word or 997 I believe, HERE'S Why! Ready?
First of all, if it hadn't been for Elvis, we simply wouldn't be sitting here reading this here nonsense right now. Really! Think about it: If you're under 50, and if you like and/or make music, Elvis -- indirectly or not -- is the reason why.
Into those Beatles or their ilk instead, for example? Fine then, BE that way. But just remember there would have BEEN no Beatles without John Lennon, and John's on permanent record as admitting to the world that, and I quote, "Before Elvis, there was nothing." NOTHING. Huh! He's right, of course.
Sure, there was Hank and Chuck, not to mention Jimmie Rodgers and Jimmy Reed, Bill Haley and James Brown, and of course Bill Monroe and Ray Charles. In other words, two mighty musical rivers they called Country and Rhythm ?n' the Blues, flowing strongly -- but SEPERATELY -- cross their chosen ways over this great wild land of ours.
Indeed then, it WAS only a matter of time before those waters were foreverafter intermingled to surge forward as one unstoppable force, deep, strong and pure. But for those who simply think it was Elvis' first recordings for the tiny Sun label in A.D. 1954 (downright bizarre -- and for their time near-blasphemous -- readings of Arthur Crudup's "That's All Right" and the aforementioned B. Monroe's "Blue Moon Of Kentucky") which bridged those two waters -- just the inevitable musical accident waiting to happen, as it were -- then think again (again), mister:
Elvis' first record was, in fact, the sweat-soaked, blood-stained result of unimaginably fraught MONTHS spent searching for that ever-elusive, brand new, and (this was the scary part) COLORLESS "sound." A sound that would, given time, somehow change the very world we live in from that moment hence (or, as Sun mastermind Sam Phillips had been saying for years already by that point, "if I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.") Just listen to RCA's new compilation of these and Elvis' other recordings from +54 and +55 called SUNRISE: Two indisputably essential discs which reveal just how painstakingly Phillips guided Elvis and his brilliant accompanists, Scotty Moore and Bill Black, towards that tantalizing, all-encompassing, hitherto unchartered "sound." These are recordings which should, nay, MUST be heard by all, as they form no less than the blueprint upon which every musical thought of the past half century is inextricably based.
Too bad Sam missed out on his billion dollars though.
Then again, something's STILL missing here, isn't it? Again, you (and I) may well ask: WHY ELVIS?
Why not (off the top of our head) Jerry Lee? Johnny Cash? Carl Perkins or even Sid King for that matter? All of these were artists possibly the equal of Presley, each also slumming around the American Southlands during the early Fifties, recklessly exploring similar musical hybrids. But, you see, it was ELVIS -- and He alone -- who ultimately succeeded where these and countless others failed (or simply became legends as opposed to gods). Because Elvis, like the All American Boy he lived and died as, absolutely slogged and fought -- night and day for YEARS, it's now apparent -- for his richly deserved fame and fortune. And against every conceivable form of adversity, both musical AND social, it's extremely important to remember.
SUNRISE certainly captures on tape one side of his struggle to be King, yes, but Elvis damn well wore his fingers (and his band) to the very bone in order to break out of the South (off of Sun and onto RCA too, by the way) in his quest Upwards and Onwards towards global stardom and damn-near universal immortality. Yep, here's one boy who unfailingly "yes ma'am"ed and "no sir"ed all the right people, deigned to sing at a hound dog (not to mention kissed Ed Sullivan's black and white ass) in order to get himself, and his legs, onto TV -- and in doing so, spread his beautiful madness irreparably and irrevocably around the globe, only to seemingly toss it all away and spend the entire 1960's doing time on the silver screen while his proteges in all their manifest forms (Bob Dylan, the British Invasion, Jimi Hendrix even) took over the public airwaves. For a while anyways, that is. (One hour of Prime Time just before Christmas of '68 was all it took for Presley to forever regain his throne).
Of course, as all martyrs to their various causes must, Elvis Presley ultimately sacrificed himself and his career upon the unforgiving altar of public opinion, taking that one last dive off his Memphis toilet just as a slew of his ex-bodyguards were nailing him to the cross with a sordid little book called "Elvis, What Happened?" For most out there, all that soon remained of Elvis was the bloated, sap-bellied, pill-saturated National Enquirer coverboy who seemed content to sweat, mumble, and at times even "moo" his way into the realm of truckstop immortality (witness, if you must, videos of his final concerts of 1977: gut-wrenching and ultimately heart-breaking footage of apocalyptic artistic decline. Less painful by far, however, is Peter Guralnick's supremely authoritative book on post-Army Elvis entitled "Careless Love: The Unmaking Of Elvis Presley," from those good folk at Little Brown & Co). Ahh, my.
In the bitter end then, there's really not that much left to say when looking at this man's life and career, from Tupelo to Hollywood to the inevitable bathroom floor, other than God Bless gawddamn America, right? Here's ONE guy who not only dreamed, but actually DID it all, and in the holy name of apple pie, motherhood, and Uncle Sam to boot. Or was that Colonel TOM? Sorry! I almost digress.
But, dernnit, God Bless Elvis, too! He really WAS The One. There's never been another like him. There never will be. In fact, there honestly doesn't HAVE to be anymore, does there? He did -- and, most importantly SANG -- it all. For me. Even for you.
Think about it. And while you're at it, remember to wish Elvis a Happy Birthday yourself sometime, okay? Thanks.