Wed Jan 11, 2006 9:18 am
Other Voices: Elvis is long gone, but his music is still moving us
By MARK AILSWORTH
January 7, 2006
In case you've forgotten, Sunday is the King's birthday. Had he not left us in 1977, Elvis Aaron Presley would be 71 years old tomorrow.
It is difficult to overstate the impact that Elvis had on American popular culture. Discovered in the early 1950s by legendary Memphis recording impresario Sam Phillips, he arrived on the pop music scene at a moment when commercial radio was reinventing itself in response to television's ascendancy. A half-century ago radio was a medium in search of a new message. Thanks to Presley, it found rock 'n' roll, and nothing has truly been the same since.
As his star rose, particularly following his 1956 appearances on Ed Sullivan's television show, Elvis was vilified by self-appointed defenders of decency for his "suggestive" gyrations and his penchant for what was then called "race music." No matter, the kids loved it. Thus were the first shots fired in a culture war that endures today.
His music also helped open some closed minds. However unintentionally, the singer who had learned his chops on Beale Street and at all-night Memphis gospel sings built a bridge that encouraged whites to embrace black music and musicians. The Rev. Al Green acknowledged the same when he said of Elvis, "He broke the ice for all of us."
The musical genre that Elvis spawned became the common currency of post-war baby boomers. We claimed rock 'n' roll as our own and employed it as a vehicle to test boundaries and inspire change. We constantly listened to it on the radio, bought the records and played it in our garage bands, blissfully unaware that "our music" was in fact an omelet made up of Delta blues progressions, gospel harmony and traditional country music rhythms.
Along the way, a handful of its practitioners made music for the ages. Lennon and McCartney, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, to name but a few, owed their success in part to the man who first served up the omelet to the masses. Fifty years on, the social, political and economic impacts of rock 'n' roll continue to reverberate throughout the land.
Presley's demise has been well chronicled. Indulgence begat addiction, and toward the end he became a caricature of the persona that millions had found so endearing. The handsome, engaging performer with the benignly menacing smile was slowly buried beneath the detritus of unprecedented commercial success. Regrettably, he was unable to free himself and come up for air. He was 42 when he died.
Why, then, do we continue to remember this rockabilly renegade as a cultural icon? I suspect it is because we sensed that behind Elvis' facade of stardom lurked the substance of goodness. His longtime manager, Tom Parker, cultivated and promoted an image of Elvis that grossed millions, but we recognized the image as the illusion it was. When Elvis sang we could hear the voice of an innocent boy who merely wanted to make his mama and daddy proud. We heard a frightened man with feet of clay. Indeed, we heard ourselves.
For most of us north of 50, the name "Elvis" still conjures memories of songs like "Love Me Tender," "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock," their melodies and lyrical hooks indelibly imbedded in the hard drives of our minds. Yet what we really need today is not Elvis' music, but his heart. In an age when racial and religious intolerance threatens global security, we would all do well to reflect upon and respond to this prescient observation from the King of Rock 'n' Roll:
"Everybody comes from the same source. If you hate another human being, you hate a part of yourself."
Amen, Elvis, and give Ray Charles our regards.
Ailsworth is an attorney and a resident of Newport News.
Wed Jan 11, 2006 6:27 pm
Another nice piece. Thanks for the post.