Elvis Presley would have been 75-years-old on January 8 and it’s a tribute to his ongoing popularity that the anniversary has been so widely reported and celebrated in the media. To mark this occasion, I’m going to veer away from summarising the familiar rags to riches tale (as this is well covered elsewhere), and instead discuss a factor that has been very important to his ongoing popularity, namely his great musical versatility.
|Elvis is commonly known as the King of Rock ‘N’ Roll, although this wasn’t a title he was particularly fond of. However, there was much more to Elvis Presley than a straight rock ‘n’ roll singer. One of the reasons he continues to sell so many records is that he was such a versatile artist. Elvis could convincingly perform rock ‘n’ roll, blues, country, gospel and pop music and seemed equally at home in all these genres. As such, there is an Elvis song to cater for most tastes. To illustrate this, I’m going to highlight some of his best performances within these genres.||
Elvis Presley in 1968
Elvis the Rocker
Some argue that Elvis’ recording of “That’s Alright” in July 1954 sparked the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. That is a little too simplistic, but Elvis was certainly one of the founding fathers of rock ‘n’ roll and without doubt the most popular and influential early rock ‘n’ roll performer. His early work with Sun Records in 1954/55 rightly receives great critical acclaim, but it’s not at Sun that he rocks hardest. Following his move to RCA in 1956, Elvis beefed up his sound, adding more members to his band and generally looking for a more explosive approach. The result was performances such as Hound Dog, which jump from the speakers as powerfully today as they did in 1956.
Among the three songs from the 50s that best illustrate Elvis’ prowess as a rock ‘n’ roller are “Good Rockin’ Tonight” from the Sun Records days, and “Jailhouse Rock” and “Big Hunk O’ Love” which he recorded at RCA. It was performances like these that led Bob Dylan to say “Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.”
“Good Rockin’ Tonight”
Recorded September 11, 1954 at Sun Studio, Memphis, TN
Recorded April 20, 1957 at Radio Recorders, West Hollywood, CA
“Big Hunk O’ Love”
Recorded June 10, 1958 at RCA Studio B, Nashville, TN
In 1968, eleven years after the excellent studio original, Elvis rocked the house with a powerful version of “One Night” during the recording of an informal section of the Elvis television special. Any discussion of Elvis the Rocker wouldn’t be complete without a clip from this special.
Live recording from June 27, 1968 at NBC Studio 4, Burbank, CA
Elvis the gospel singer
Gospel music was perhaps Elvis’ first love. As a teenager, he would regularly attend gospel shows and had actually auditioned for gospel quartets before making his first record at Sun.
Elvis made his first gospel recordings for RCA in 1957 and these featured on the Peace in the Valley EP. He had performed the title track in January on the Ed Sullivan show. A stand out performance on this EP was “Take My Hand Precious Lord.”
“Take My Hand Precious Lord”
Recorded January 13, 1957 at Radio Recorders, West Hollywood, CA
Elvis would return to gospel throughout his career. One of his first steps after getting out of the army was to record a gospel LP entitled “His Hand in Mine.” This was a triumph from beginning to end, with Elvis in superb voice. “Milky White Way” was one of the great tracks on that LP.
“Milky White Way”
Recorded October 30, 1960 at RCA Studio B, Nashville, TN
In 1965, Elvis scored a worldwide hit, including number one in the UK, with “Crying in the Chapel, which had been recorded five years before for the “His Hand in Mine” album, but was left off that release. The success of “Crying in the Chapel” prompted Elvis to record the album “How Great Thou Art” in 1966. This was another critically and commercially successful venture and proved that Elvis always rose to the occasion with gospel material. A live performance of the song “How Great Thou Art” from 1974 earned Elvis a Grammy and it was a showstopper until the end.
“How Great Thou Art”
Recorded May 25, 1966 at RCA Studio B, Nashville, TN
Other gospel highlights in Elvis’ career included the gospel medley in the 1968 television special, and the 1972 album “He Touched Me”, which was Elvis’ third and final album devoted exclusively to gospel music.
Elvis the country singer
Elvis Presley was always a fan of country music and grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry. He performed songs written by country artists from the start of his career, but generally offered a unique interpretation that wasn’t always favoured by purists. “Blue Moon of Kentucky” may sound innocuous now, but it was a huge departure from the original bluegrass waltz performed and written by Bill Monroe. Other tracks recorded for Sun, such as “I’m Left, Your Right, She’s Gone” and “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” had a definite country flavour, with the added rockabilly fervour that made them new and exciting. It’s sometimes suggested, rather ignorantly, that Elvis’ early work was merely watered down R&B. In fact, Elvis’ Sun recordings owed as much to country as any genre.
Despite recording country-inspired material all the way through his career, Elvis only recorded one country album. This was “Elvis Country – I’m 10,000 Years Old” in 1970 and is generally regarded as one of his finest and certainly most cohesive albums. One track I particularly enjoy from this album is “It’s Your Baby, You Rock It.”
“It’s Your Baby, You Rock It”
Recorded June 5, 1970 at RCA Studio B, Nashville, TN
Elvis had also put his unique spin on country standards such as “I’m Movin’ On” and “Gentle on My Mind” the previous year while recording in Memphis. The imaginative reworking of “Gentle on My Mind” was particularly noteworthy and sounds as fresh today as when it was recorded.
“Gentle on My Mind”
Recorded January 15, 1969 at American Sound Studios, Memphis, TN
Throughout the 1970s, Elvis continued to record popular country songs of the day and even used the old Hank Williams’ classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” during the Aloha from Hawaii worldwide satellite broadcast in 1973. Three memorable country performances from the 1970s were “I Really Don’t Want to Know” from 1970, “Susan When She Tried” from 1975 and “She Thinks I Still Care” from 1976.
“I Really Don’t Want to Know”
Recorded June 7, 1970 at RCA Studio B, Nashville, TN
“Susan when she tried”
Recorded March 11, 1975 at RCA Studio C, Hollywood, CA
“She Thinks I Still Care”
Recorded February 2, 1976 at The Jungle Room Graceland, Memphis, TN
Elvis the blues man
Elvis and B.B. King, Dec 1956
|Elvis Presley lived in the home of the blues, Memphis TN, and was clearly influenced greatly by the music that surrounded him.
His first single was a reworking of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s Alright” and some of his most inspired moments in the studio throughout his career where when he cut loose and jammed on blues-based material.
In 1960, Elvis could seemingly do no wrong in the studio. He had emerged from the army as a more polished and confident vocalist, although it’s often argued that he had lost some of the rawness and fire that made him explode onto the scene with such force several years earlier. One thing that cannot be disputed is the great versatility he showed in his first recording sessions in this year. One of Elvis’ finest blues recordings, “Reconsider Baby,” was recorded the same night as one of his sweetest pop ballads, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”. The classic, pseudo-operatic “It’s Now or Never” and the pop favourite “Girl of My Best Friend” had been recorded the day before. Not a bad 24 hours by anyone’s standards!
Recorded April 4, 1960 at RCA Studio B, Nashville, TN
Although the reliance on 60s soundtrack material meant Elvis’ blues output was disappointingly restricted in this period, his work with the great Jerry Reed in 1967 did produce a superb cover of Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man.” Elvis would return to this song during the 1968 television special and sporadically in live performances throughout the 1970s, but the arrangement and musicianship would never match the studio version.
“Big Boss Man”
Recorded September 10, 1967 at RCA Studio B, Nashville, TN
Elvis also jammed several times on Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do” during the informal segment of the ’68 special.
The recordings Elvis made at the American Sound Studios in Memphis in 1969 would include several blues-inspired tracks. “Stranger in My Own Home Town” is the track that would most definitely fall into the R&B category and is a fine example of Elvis’ natural feel for this genre.
“Stranger in My Own Home Town”
Recorded February 17, 1969 at American Sound Studios, Memphis, TN
The best blues track Elvis recorded in the 1970s was “Merry Christmas Baby” in 1971, which was the finest recording on an album that failed to match the vitality of his original 1950s Christmas album.
Most Elvis compilation albums will focus mainly on the hit records, which is to be expected as they are aimed primarily at those who will want Elvis’ most famous recordings in their collection. The hope is that those who obtain the greatest hits will then be prompted to explore the catalogue. An excellent new four-disc set, “Elvis 75: Good Rockin’ Tonight,” does present a more substantive overview of Elvis’ career, including a number of the tracks I have highlighted above. It offers nothing new for the diehard fans and collectors, but is a good introduction for those wanting to go beyond the familiar number one hits. Just go and make some coffee when “Adam and Evil” comes on!
The importance of Elvis Presley and his music to 20th century popular culture was enormous. Though John Lennon was exaggerating to make a point when he said “Before Elvis, there was nothing,” there was no other artist for whom he could have made such a claim. The quality of Elvis’ best work is sometimes overshadowed by the inane stories of his personal life and ridiculous myths that have built up around him, but ultimately it’s the music that Elvis will be remembered for. Leonard Bernstein said it well:
“Elvis is the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century. He introduced the beat to everything, music, language, clothes, it’s a whole new social revolution – the 60’s comes from it.”
Happy Birthday Elvis.
Recommended Elvis Presley releases:
You can’t go wrong with any of these fine releases.
Tags: Elvis 75, elvis at 75, Elvis Presley, elvis presley albums, Elvis Presley birthday, elvis presley gospel, elvis presley greatest hits, elvis presley king, good rockin' tonight, king of rock n roll
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