Today marks what would have been Elvis Presley’s 75th birthday if he hadn’t come to an untimely end in his bathroom on in August 1977 (Can you imagine what the news coverage would have been like if we’d had the Internet and 24-hour news channels back then? Oh yeah, just think about the circus surrounding Michael Jackson’s death).
I was born after Presley’s heyday. My memories of him in real time are very scant, other than he was some bloated joke in a tacky white jumpsuit. That all changed in the mid-1990s when I read Peter Guralnick’s astonishing thorough and totally captivating “Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley.” He examines Presley’s birth and rise through his induction in the Army in 1958. Guralnick’s remarkable feat is he writes so compellingly about Presley’s journey and his hopes and desires in such a riveting, of-the-moment way that as Presley starts to pursue his career in music--- beginning with cutting an acetate for his mom’s birthday at Sun Studios—you are rooting for him as if you don’t know whether he’ll make it or not. It is mandatory reading for anyone who considers him or herself a music fan (as are Guralnick’s other books).
Reading the book started a serious love affair for me with Elvis that included a pilgrimage to Memphis to go to Graceland and Sun Studios. I began reading every book I could get my hands on, including the tacky ones written by Memphis Mafia, his sycophantic entourage long before most artists had them. Nothing was too detailed, but eventually I started to get skeeved out by knowing that Presley allegedly never slept with Priscilla Presley again after she gave birth because of his Madonna/Whore complex and that he liked girls to wear white panties. After that I decided to focus solely on his unparalleled talent (but just try to get those two facts out of your head now, I dare you). I don't know if anyone has ever matched it. Michael Jackson may come close, but Presley is singularly the most important pop artist of the 20th century.
For anyone who hasn’t delved into Presley’s music, start with the early stuff. It’s the best. The 1954-1958 years are his rawest and most energetic. Presley gains power and confidence with each hit. His voice is a marvel, soft as a paramour’s touch on “Love Me Tender,” swaggering on “That’s All Right,” achingly gorgeous on “Love Me Tender.”
But equally important—and vital viewing—is the 1968 Comeback Special. It’s brilliant, but only because Presley, after going downhill and rapidly becoming a total has-been, cleaned himself up enough (although clearly not completely) to put on one of the most spectacular performances ever captured on film. You don’t even have to watch the whole thing. Just watch the part where he’s in the black leather jacket and pants. It’s the essence of rock and roll. He’s feral and completely in control. He’s like a panther. The rest of the special is fine, but it’s that black leather outfit that created a turnaround and indeed a comeback to set up his later years.
Here’s a list of essential Presley taken from throughout his career—all of them are hits, so you’re probably are already familiar with them, but it’s a nice refresher. If you dig these, delve deeper. His gospel recordings are inspirational and heartfelt. Or check out The Million Dollar Quartet—Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash—and their 1956 recordings.
*”Can’t Help Falling in Love”: Simple chord changes, spare arrangement and pure romance. We should all be such fools. The song, which Presley used as a show closer for years, builds on an 18th century French song, “Plaisir D’Amour.” No wonder it sounds so timeless.
* “That’s All Right”: Presley at his confident, sultry best as he reinterprets Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right, Mama.” He’s still developing as an artist, but his delivery here is so full of promise, it’s exhilarating to hear him.
*“Don’t Be Cruel”: Everything about this song is perfect, from the Jerry Lee Lewis-ish shudder after the first verse to the slap bass to the doo-wop backing vocals.
*“Are You Lonesome Tonight”: I know, I know. A lot of folks find this song so cheesy that they can’t even listen to this song. For me, it’s all about his powerful-yet-restrained melancholy delivery accompanied by only the barest of backing vocals. Okay, the talking in the middle will always be laughable, but the rest of it is priceless. If the talking is too much, skip straight to “Love Me Tender.”
*“Mystery Train”: Originally recorded as a B-side in 1955, this rockabilly track (co-written by Sun Records’ founder Sam Phillips) features Presley in one of his most loose-limbed vocal performances and a killer guitar solo by Scotty Moore.
*“Baby, Let’s Play House”: Like with “Mystery Train,” this early-era Presley is fascinating to listen to, simply for his great vocal delivery and the potency of his band. Despite the lighthearted title and rockabilly beat, it’s hardly all fun and games here, as Presley sings “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man.”
*“Jailhouse Rock”: Presley’s appropriately ragged vocals here fit the song and the story. A great rock song. Plus, the performance of the song in the movie of the same name is one of the best music videos ever. Brilliant.
*“Lawdy Miss Clawdy”: Presley shows he can sing anything when he takes on this Lloyd Price hit. Check out his stripped down, bluesy, totally fierce version on “The ’68 Special.” Also check out “A Mess of Blues.”
*Little Sister”: Elvis Presley meets Dick Dale. Great surf-rockabilly. Sexy and sinister in all the right way Although “she’s mean and she’s evil like that old boll weevil” may be one of the worst lines ever written. Dwight Yoakam’s cover is also fantastic.
“Suspicious Minds”: His first major hit after “The ’68 Comeback Special,” it’s a honey of song: sweet, jangly guitars dramatically building to describe a tempestuous love affair’s end. The perfect pop song except for the weird, very long fade out. Yoakam also recorded a great cover of this one.
On a slightly separate note: Let’s face it, most of Presley’s movies are crap. His manager, Col. Tom Parker kept him on a treadmill of pushing out schlock because they were fast and easy to do. But there are two that I hold very dear and that I would say are actually excellent, entertaining movies:
“Jailhouse Rock” (1957): If it were only for the performance of “Jailhouse Rock,” that would be enough, but Presley’s charisma throughout this movie as Vince Everett, a bad boy who wants to be good, is breathtaking. You can’t take your eyes off him. Plus, it’s a fine movie. It’s no “Face in the Crowd,” which mines slightly similar territory, but it’s not as bad as most folks say it is.
“Viva Las Vegas” (1964): Just watch Elvis and Ann-Margret shimmy, shake and circle around each other from their first scene together and you can practically figure out the moment their affair started. It’s all played out on film. Every bit of it. Awesome.