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"Elvis at 70" -- A Jazz Critic's Take on Elvis

Sun Jan 03, 2010 2:15 am

Here is one of the finer articles on Elvis, written by a well-known Jazz critic. One might quibble with Friedwald about his opinions of individual songs, but overall his piece deepens one's historical understanding of Elvis and places him in a wider perspective than the standard Rockist interpretations. Friedwald also goes into invaluable detail on how much Elvis took from earlier pop singers--I agree that Elvis is far more understandable in the context of those artists than in the world of rock'nroll he helped unleash.


Elvis at 70
by Will Friedwald
American Heritage, Feb. 27, 2005

The year 2005 contains two major anniversaries in american popular music. It marks 50 years since 1955, when rock 'n' roll first conquered the pop singles chart, and also what would have been the seventieth birthday of Elvis Presley (who was so young when he made his initial breakthrough that his father had to co-sign his first contract with RCA Records for him). For Elvis, the timing was perfect. However, in terms of my own appreciation of both occurrences, the timing was completely off.

My father was born the same year as Elvis Aron Presley, and I came along a season or so after the King returned from the Army. My dad was slightly too old to be part of the demographic that made Elvis a superstar, and I was too young to get it. When I was first starting to notice pop music, in the 1970s, it was in a fallow period. I was caught between disco and punk, and neither appealed to me. Rock 'n' roll was music that my parents' generation liked. It meant the Stones, the Dead, Hendrix, Dylan, and other figures whose attraction still remains beyond my comprehension. (To this day the only records I have by them are LPs from my late dad's collection.)

By 1977, the year both Elvis and Bing Crosby died, I had already infiltrated my father's jazz stash and begun working forward from Armstrong's Hot Fives and Bix through Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane. Along the way I also discovered Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and the great American songbook. Rock 'n' roll remained for me a bizarre thing that held some strange fascination for zillions of people but that I just couldn't get started with. One thing that I did have in common with most rock fans of my generation was that none of us knew what to make of Elvis Presley. By the time of his death he was a joke to high school kids born in the sixties and who listened to the Sex Pistols (whose Sid Vicious savaged both Sinatra and Presley in his parody of 'My Way'), David Bowie, Kiss, or, in my case, Bing.

Elvis Presley seemed like a caricature in his last few years, but a caricature of what we didn't know, since we had never experienced him in his glory days (which had been only, in fact, a few years earlier). With those capes and jump suits, he appeared to belong with Liberace. His demotion from king to laughingstock was confirmed for me in the eighties and nineties, when he was increasingly spotted walking the earth, always by hayseeds: Elvis pumping gas, Elvis driving a pickup truck, Elvis ordering a bucket of chicken from the Colonel (Sanders, not Parker). But for years two people I revered, the critic Gary Giddins and the writer and editor Robert Gottlieb, kept telling me I was wrong to dismiss Presley so offhandedly. Finally, in the summer of 2004, I decided to see what all the shaking was about. I got hold of RCA Records' four big Essential Masters boxes.

By the time I finished listening to them, I was completely hooked. Seventeen CDs were hardly enough. I was amazed by what I heard. After a lifetime of not getting it, I finally experienced my very own Elvis epiphany, and the mystery of why he is considered one of the great pop performers of all time was revealed to me. It was a vision straight from Graceland of a transcendental being, not in a white robe but in a white jump suit, with guitar rather than harp.

My perspective on Presley is therefore different from that of most newcomers to his music. Most people look at him as the beginning of something, from the vantage point of what came after him. There's John Lennon's famous statement that 'before Elvis, there was nothing'. Since my orientation was Frank Sinatra and Louis Jordan, rather than the Beatles or the Kinks, my long-delayed experience of Elvis and his music comes from a completely different place.

First of all, Lennon (who survived Presley by only three years) was just plain wrong. Before Elvis, there was plenty. Documentary histories of rock 'n' roll generally write off pre-rock popular music as strictly white bread, represented by Patti Page's bland love songs and treacly novelties until Presley and the other first-generation rockers came along and left America 'All Shook Up'. Yet even if you ignore artists like Sinatra and Nat King Cole, whose music was considerably more exciting than 'How Much Is That Doggie in the Window', it's plain that both rhythm and blues (and black artists in general) and country and western had been making significant inroads into the pop mainstream long before the Presley explosion of 1956.

He has almost nothing in common, vocally, with later rock stars.

Sam Phillips, who owned and operated Sun Records and more than anyone deserves credit for 'discovering' Elvis Presley, is supposed to have said that he could make a fortune if he could find a white man who sang black. Actually, there were already all manner of white singers who patterned themselves after black R&B singers. The pop-music historian Arnold Shaw quotes Frankie Laine as saying that he wasn't going to make it in this business until he started 'singing like a spook'. Likewise, Johnnie Ray was a white singer who enjoyed a brief vogue for a vocal style that simultaneously anticipated rock 'n' roll and caricatured it.

The early fifties also saw a number of mainstream pop stars who drew on some of the appeal of country music. Patti Page was best known in her day for straddling both the pop and country charts, and her 'Tennessee Waltz' was a blockbuster because it appealed to New Yorkers and Okies alike. There was also Guy Mitchell, who had a vaguely Western sound and made hits out of manufactured folk songs. And Jo Stafford had a basically folkish timbre that sounded more rural than urban.

Presley's innovation wasn't that he sounded either black or like a hillbilly; it was the brilliant way he drew on all three strains of pop music: blues, country, and traditional 'classic' pop (that of the crooners, big bands, and Broadway shows). And though the country and blues influences were probably what most attracted the teenagers of 1956, in retrospect Presley is clearly a crooner. He comes out of a very clear tradition of great male singers of the great American songbook, especially Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, Billy Eckstine, Dean Martin, and, to an extent, Frank Sinatra--as well as the leading crooners of the idioms of the blues, like Louis Jordan, and of country, like Eddy Arnold.

Presley's most obvious roots lie in Dean Martin and Bing Crosby. If you start with Crosby, and you add occasional Italian curse words and mannerisms intended to suggest various states of inebriation, then you've got Dean Martin. Take away those Neapolitanisms, replace with a whole lot o' shakin', and essentially you've got Elvis.

Those gyrations, the physical ones more than the vocal, simultaneously thrilled teenagers, annoyed adults, and gave satirists grist for the parody mill. Crosby directly anticipates Elvis's voice on his 1950 'Sunshine Cake', and when Martin does folkish material, the similarities to Presley are unmistakable. On his 1956 'Memories Are Made of This' (by the folkpop songwriter Terry Gilkyson) Martin sounds exactly like Elvis; when Presley sings 'Angel' in his 1962 film Follow That Dream, he sounds exactly like Dino.

Whether he was drawing on Nashville, Mississippi Delta, or Tin Pan Alley traditions, Presley's greatest strength lay in ballads and love songs, of both the country and the city varieties. It would be foolish to deny that he was the King of Rock 'n' Roll, the idiom's first and greatest superstar. Yet who, exactly, are his children? He has almost nothing in common, vocally, with subsequent rock stars. To me, he doesn't sound anything like Ozzy Osbourne, David Bowie, Radiohead, or even the Beatles. But he does sound a lot like the previous generation of great male pop singers.

If there is a split between Presley and what came before him, it is mainly in the sense of demographics. Presley represents a point of demarcation in that his music was directed almost exclusively at kids. Except, strangely, when Presley was a kid himself. His first sessions, done for the Memphis independent Sun Records when he was 19 and 20, offer a fascinating vision of the Elvis that might have been. He sings mainly classic blues ('That's All Right', 'Mystery Train'), country ('Blue Moon of Kentucky', 'Just Because'), and pop ('Harbor Lights'). It's hard to imagine anyone else doing both Rodgers and Hart's 'Blue Moon' and Bill Monroe's bluegrass classic 'Blue Moon of Kentucky' within a heartbeat of each other.

It was only when RCA realized he was selling zillions of records to teenagers that a portion of his material was dumbed down to appeal to adolescents and no one else. Such ephemera as 'Teddy Bear', 'Good Luck Charm', 'Wear My Ring Around Your Neck', and many others represent the most forgettable aspect of his legacy. In my head I can hear Louis Jordan or Ray Charles doing 'Blue Suede Shoes' but not 'His Latest Flame' or 'The Girl of My Best Friend'. These last titles are particularly puerile. It was part of the Presley legend that he was anointed to instigate the generation gap, but it didn't have to be that way. Elvis's longtime friend Larry Geller has written, 'Contrary to myth, not every adult found Elvis shocking. I recall my parents watching him on Ed Sullivan and enjoying it quite a bit'.

Yet that was the very definition of rock 'n' roll. What made it different from all other earlier kinds of pop was not the music itself but the marketing. Like big-band swing and Sinatra-era pop, rock was aimed at young people, but unlike other kinds of pop, it was also specifically designed to annoy their parents. Nearly every television documentary on early rock or Presley devotes too much time to inflating the reaction of the older generation. In fact, rock bashing by church and school officials was mild compared with the hostility toward jazz in the twenties. Still, parents, teachers, and clergy did condemn rock 'n' roll, and the more they excoriated it, the more the entertainment business embraced it as a way to make money. It was characterized as subversive, the sound of rebellion, while being enthusiastically underwritten by corporate America.

There was only one kind of music that Presley sang with more conviction than love ballads: songs of religious devotion.

As for Presley, he never considered himself a rebel. Far from wanting to antagonize the grownups, he addressed everybody older than he was as 'mister' and 'ma'am'. He was a sweet-natured, levelheaded boy, before prescription medications screwed him up, and he deported himself more like Perry Como than like Jim Morrison.

He also shared several qualities with Louis Armstrong, not all of them positive. Each was the first and greatest, larger-than-life exemplar of a new kind of music, yet the majority of their output-everything but the earliest work-is almost universally dismissed. Somehow, a kind of radical, extreme purism has become the norm with regard to their music. Certain puritans apparently can't stand the idea that Armstrong made music other than jazz or that by 1960 Presley, tired of doing one rehash of 'Don't Be Cruel' after another, was similarly broadening his horizons.

He and Sinatra were kindred spirits, both their own tastemakers.

Presley's early work shows that he was already capable of more diversity than previous pop stars at comparable points in their careers. Crosby and Nat Cole specialized in rhythm songs in their early years, while Sinatra primarily sang ballads. Yet Presley's strength wasn't necessarily that he could switch from Hank Williams to Big Joe Turner in a matter of seconds but that he was equally versed in doing fast, elemental rockers and in tearing his heart out in slow romantic songs. We could love him telling us about hound dogs, teddy bears, and hardheaded women, or we could love him tender.

He continued to grow as an artist after 1960, and to my ears his post-Army work continued to get better and better. The best elements of those early 12-bar blues rockers like 'Long Tall Sally' and 'Ready Teddy' remained part of his foundation, but considerably more got built on that foundation. In a broad sense, his exploration of different genres of pop was like Bing Crosby's, embracing European songs (from 'Muss I' Den', a.k.a. 'Wooden Heart', to adaptations of Italian folk and pop tunes), Hawaiian (starting with Crosby's hit 'Blue Hawaii'), a smattering of samba and bossa nova ('Viva Las Vegas'), Christmas hits (specifically 'I'll Be Home on Christmas Day', learned from two of his heroes, Ernest Tubb and Billy Eckstine), and gospel albums, which represented probably his greatest work.

At about the time he upgraded from the Memphis independent label Sun Records to the multinational corporation RCA, a music publisher named Hill and Range set him up with his own publishing imprint. As his biographer Peter Guralnick discusses in detail, from that time on Presley practically never sang a song that wasn't Hill and Range's. Sinatra had also owned publishing houses, as had most big bandleaders. But unlike Presley, that hadn't stopped Sinatra from consistently recording the best songs he could find.

Yet like Sinatra, and unlike subsequent rock stars, Presley never made any claims for himself as a songwriter. The strength of both was that they could interpret a song written by someone else and make it into something considerably more magical, and even personal, than the guy who wrote it. Eddy Arnold was a first-rate country singer, but even he can't touch Presley's reading of his own 'You Don't Know Me'.

Unfortunately, Presley was importuned to waste too much energy making mediocre songs--which he usually owned a piece of--sound better than they were. One of the easiest ways to make money in publishing is to copyright something that already exists. People were always taking traditional melodies and folk songs, putting new lyrics and titles to them, and sitting back and collecting the royalties. Presley seems to have gotten stuck with more half-baked folk rehashes than anyone, yet he rarely failed to transform second-rate material into first-rate pop.

The upside, however, was that he could do a number of songs from Italian and other European folk sources, transformed via new words into a Hill and Range product. 'Can't Help Falling in Love', 'You Don't Have to Say You Love Me', 'Surrender', and 'It's Now or Never' are some of his finest ballads, all informed by his love of the great Italian crooners, starting with Enrico Caruso and including two singers who were culturally rather than genetically Italian, Bing Crosby and Tony Martin.

Likewise, there are all manner of buried gems among the sixties movie songs: 'A House That Has Everything (Everything but Love)', which he croons to his costar, Shelley Fabares, in Clambake, is simple, direct, and beautiful, one of his most effective ballads ever, and he imbues it with a plaintive quality and a yearning that the finest male pop singers would have admired. It's easy to single out the inferior songs in Presley's films, but there are just as many minor classics, like 'All That I Am' in Spinout, and 'Almost in Love' in Live a Little, Love a Little, the latter a superior song that would have suited Tony Bennett. 'Everything but Love' is one of the prettiest things Presley ever sang. It's worth at least half a dozen of the three-chord rock numbers he was cutting 10 years earlier.

He recorded what might be his greatest ballad at his second session after coming home from Germany. To me, it makes perfect sense that 'Are You Lonesome Tonight' was a holdover from an earlier generation (it was actually old-fashioned even in 1927), and a waltz to boot. In Elvis lore, 'Lonesome' is regarded as the first song that Colonel Parker recommended to his client--especially notable since they didn't own the publishing rights. Parker (and his wife, Marie) had apparently grown to love 'Lonesome' because of his first client, Gene Austin, the biggest-selling vocalist of the 1920s. Accordingly, Presley sings it in a tenor voice very much like Austin's (Presley occasionally employed a falsetto register that was even higher, in the tradition of Bill Kenny of the Ink Spots, as in 'I'm Yours'). Yet other aspects of Presley's arrangement, such as the use of the choir and the placement and editing of the monologue, strongly suggest that he learned the song from Al Jolson's 1950 recording. The spoken recitation was included in the original sheet music, but Jolson seems to have been the first singer to record it, and Presley's conviction while both singing and reciting recalls no one so much as Jolson at the very top of his game.

There's only one kind of music that Presley sang with more conviction than love ballads: songs of religious devotion. The two central expressions of African-American music are the blues and gospel, and they are flip sides of each other. In their purest forms, blues deals with the darkness and gospel with the light, blues with the flesh and gospel with the spirit, blues with the earth and gospel with the sky. Presley unfailingly said that gospel was his favorite music, and as a teenager he assumed that the highest he could possibly go in show biz was to join a first-rate quartet like his heroes the Blackwoods.

The expected trajectory of a successful blues-and-pop singer in the mid-twentieth century was out of the church and into the jukebox: from Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan in the forties, and Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls in the fifties, to Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight in the sixties. But it would be hard to think of another singer, black or white, who became a star in mainstream pop before beginning to concentrate on spiritual music. In that aspect of his career, Presley is like Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein, who began exploring their spiritual sides later, rather than earlier, in their careers.

Presley's gospel recordings represent perhaps the most consistently excellent work of his entire career. He made three albums of gospel songs, nearly all of which are on the essential two-CD package Amazing Grace--His Greatest Sacred Performances. He hadn't grown up thrilling his fellow parishioners--he rarely sang in church as a child--yet this was the music that was the most real and tangible to him. He heard the blues, country, and urban pop over the radio, but gospel he could reach out and touch.

Presley brings to singing the praises of the Lord both a conviction and an intensity unmatched almost anywhere in his work. He takes religious songs from every sub-tradition: white, black, even Broadway show tunes, among them a gospel treatment of 'You'll Never Walk Alone' (which he once called his favorite song) that uses countrified chord substitutions that would have horrified Rodgers and Hammerstein. It's impossible not to feel the spirit when he sings, and he does more than convince you that he believes; he makes you yourself believe.

Frank Sinatra's daughter Nancy was a good friend of Presley and costarred with him in the 1968 film Speedway. She once reported a conversation she had about Elvis with her father. Frank Sinatra disparaged Elvis not on the basis of his talent or his taste but because he felt he'd never grown as an artist. Nancy protested that the people around Elvis wouldn't let him grow. Sinatra rejected that excuse. From his perspective, we can't blame him. The old man would have never let anybody stand in his way in terms of choosing a song or finessing an arrangement or a recording mix to perfection. And this conversation represents a rare occasion in which Frank Sinatra discussed Presley as even potentially an equal or kindred spirit. But he was. They both were only children who demanded the company of an entourage around them when they grew up; they both were extremely devoted to their mothers; they were among the relatively few singers who attained superstardom in Hollywood; and they both had a lot of comebacks.

Most important, both Sinatra and Presley were their own tastemakers. Joe Esposito, leader of Presley's entourage, the 'Memphis Mafia', has described how Elvis would work with his recording engineers to mix his own master tapes. He would have a one-off acetate pressed of his mix and later compare it with the mix that RCA released. When the label tampered with his intentions, he'd be annoyed, but rarely to the degree that he did anything about it. He was constantly irked by the idea that the people he worked with on films and record sessions were unimportant because all the audience cared about was Elvis. Like Sinatra before him, he wanted to work only with the best actors and musicians and with superior songs. The difference between him and Sinatra was one of temperament. Sinatra, like Ray Charles, constantly made his own opportunities, and heaven help you if you got in his way. Perhaps Presley was too nice and civil a guy. Perhaps to stick to your standards in Hollywood, you had to be something of a gangster.

Unlike Sinatra's, Presley's recorded output looks meager when compared with what it could have been. There are so many songs he should have done: 'There Must Be a Better World Somewhere' (a Doc Pomus song for B. B. King that's far superior to anything he wrote for Presley), 'I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone', 'A Rainy Night in Georgia', 'Everybody's Somebody's Fool', Louis Jordan's 'Early in the Morning', 'What a Wonderful World', 'Empty Bed Blues', 'Stand by Me', 'On Broadway', 'I Pity the Fool', Sam Cooke's 'A Change Is Gonna Come', 'Work Song', 'Senor Blues', 'Don't Go to Strangers', 'At Last', 'Teach Me Tonight', Robert Johnson's 'Hellhound on My Trail'. He could have sung entire songbook albums of the works of Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, and Hoagy Carmichael, three old-school songwriters who also bridged the worlds of jazz, pop, and country music.

When the Elvis sightings of the early nineties reached a peak, I couldn't help wondering how much interest there would be when he really left the building. His death obviously left a gap that no one has been able to fill. And after all these years it seems clear that Elvis Presley was not the beginning of something but the end. John Lennon had it the wrong way around: After Elvis, there was nothing.

Will Friedwald is the jazz reviewer for the New York Sun and the author of seven books on music and popular culture.

Re: "Elvis at 70" -- A Jazz Critic's Take on Elvis

Sun Jan 03, 2010 2:47 am

I read this a few years ago but never could find it since then. Thanks for posting ! A very good article.
I'm glad that he mentioned this:

Each was the first and greatest, larger-than-life exemplar of a new kind of music, yet the majority of their output-everything but the earliest work-is almost universally dismissed. Somehow, a kind of radical, extreme purism has become the norm with regard to their music. Certain puritans apparently can't stand the idea that Armstrong made music other than jazz or that by 1960 Presley, tired of doing one rehash of 'Don't Be Cruel' after another, was similarly broadening his horizons.

Re: "Elvis at 70" -- A Jazz Critic's Take on Elvis

Sun Jan 03, 2010 5:58 am

THEMEMPHISFAN wrote:Revelator posted / Elvis at 70
by Will Friedwald
American Heritage, Feb. 27, 2005 -
"The two central expressions of African-American music are the blues and gospel, and they are flip sides of each other. In their purest forms, blues deals with the darkness and gospel with the light, blues with the flesh and gospel with the spirit, blues with the earth and gospel with the sky."
This made me think of Elvis' 1974 single (with contrasting sides) - If You Talk In Your Sleep / Help Me


"His death obviously left a gap that no one has been able to fill. And after all these years it seems clear that Elvis Presley was not the beginning of something but the end. John Lennon had it the wrong way around: After Elvis, there was nothing."
Maybe this helps to explain why so many of us still cherish Elvis' last few years of work even though he was far from his best.


THEMEMPHISFAN



TMF, spot on on both!

Re: "Elvis at 70" -- A Jazz Critic's Take on Elvis

Sun Jan 03, 2010 6:09 am

Image

We had quite a bit of discussion about this cover feature when it came out a few years ago. I was lucky enough to find a copy on the newstand. Unfortunately, I think some of those FECC threads appear to be gone. I did find Likethebike's comment from this thread:

Interesting irony about Elvis' gospel music

viewtopic.php?f=29&t=15717&start=0&hilit=Friedwald

likethebike wrote:In the Will Friedwald article that ran in "American Heritage" he made an interesting observation about how Elvis differed in his approach to gospel music than other great artists with roots in the church. Unlike other artists like Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin and others Elvis did not make his start in gospel music and then switched to pop. Instead, Elvis established himself as a pop artist and then began to explore religious themes on record.

This was a very interesting point I thought and to me one of the most interesting and unlikely sidenotes of Elvis' career. When Elvis laid down his first gospel sides in 1957, RCA could not have been very happy about it. Elvis' rock and roll sides were selling in the multi-millions and the idea of throwing out sides on a niche music must not have seemed like a waste. The same execs that doubted "Heartbreak Hotel" must have doubted they would sell ten copies. After all this was a guy who many people were painting as an instrument of the devil. It was reasonable to think there wasn't much of a market for a gospel market. On the plus side it was a chance to test the hardcore market and as some damage control for that evil image. Really though it was probably done just to appease their top artist.

It turned out to be a qualified success. The record moved less than half of what Elvis' rock records moved which was in comparison to the rest of industry a pretty decent number. The label probably assumed that it was the hardcore fan base. Or was it? At any rate it paved the way for an entry into the Christmas market which was even more successful.

When Elvis got back from the army in 1960, it was indulgence time again. "His Hand in Mine" was Presley product but probably not the product the label wanted. It did well but not nearly so well as the pop albums of the era charting much lower and for half as long. Then a very interesting thing happened. After the album fell from the charts, it kept moving copies eventually piling up numbers that eclipsed all but a few non-greatest hits pop albums.

It sold so well that a followup was demanded. In 1966, Elvis gave them one in "How Great Thou Art" which featured some of his most personal music. The following year RCA dumped the album on the market and it started to move by of all things word of mouth and in an absolute turnaround the record moved in a way his pop records didn't. And in a way that his pop records didn't this record made him a respected pop institution winning Elvis his first major industry awards.

The followup went back to the initial formula of slow but consistent movement.

Slowly but surely Elvis established this alternative career and to a certain extent an alternative fan base. A few year back Ernst Jorgensen told a magazine that Elvis' most consistent sellers were his gospel releases. The sale figures validated that claim. Two of Elvis' gospel releases "How Great" and the two CD set were certified double platinum. He was the only artist to achieve this distinction. Given the other gospel releases that either went gold or platinum, Elvis is probably the top selling artist in the gospel field without even counting a single pop record. The consistent success of these records says to me that when the average American wants to hear gospel music or get musically in touch with his spiritual side, he or she is most likely to get there with Elvis Presley.

This is an amazing turn of events. Who in 1957 could have predicted that the man scandalizing the nation would years later serve as the country's spiritual balm? That's a pretty good record for what started as a superstar perk.

Re: "Elvis at 70" -- A Jazz Critic's Take on Elvis

Mon Jan 04, 2010 12:53 am

What a great article. I remember how bad he wrote of elvis in the superb Sinatra book "The Song Is You!". It is good what an "elvis listen" can do..... And btw, it also shows how Elvis is too often judged WITHOUT listening to his music.

Re: "Elvis at 70" -- A Jazz Critic's Take on Elvis

Mon Jan 04, 2010 4:12 am

frus75 wrote:What a great article. I remember how bad he wrote of elvis in the superb Sinatra book "The Song Is You!". It is good what an "elvis listen" can do..... And btw, it also shows how Elvis is too often judged WITHOUT listening to his music.



True. Often the myth is just so big, that people won't listen and have opinions they believe in, because it is what they did read somewhere.

BTW what did he say about Elvis in the Sinatra book?

Re: "Elvis at 70" -- A Jazz Critic's Take on Elvis

Mon Jan 04, 2010 2:38 pm

Nice article with some touching observations. I enjoyed, in particular, the author's comments about "Blue Moon" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky", as well as their description of blues and gospel as being about "the Earth" and "the Sky" respectively; that's a very good way of looking at it, and it satisfies my growing cosmological perspective. I also enjoyed their remarks about latter 60s gold like "You'll Never Walk Alone" and "You Don't Know Me". Also pleasing to see more obscure songs mentioned like the Don Robertson ballad "I'm Yours" and the bossa nova entry "Almost In Love". That said, I feel the author also shot himself in the foot by deeming "The Girl Of My Best Friend" and "His Latest Flame" as "puerile" and to then bemoan people who dismiss EP post-army because he was "broadening his horizons"; those two songs are shining examples of just that, and to many Presley fans, they are some of his finest pop records. Oddly, the author talks more dispassionately and fairly about songs like "Wooden Heart" and "Blue Hawaii", so he isn't entirely consistent in his approach, which seems to be another sticking point whenever someone writes about Elvis. He does the same with the 50s stuff. In that same dismissive paragraph, he asserts that a song like "Teddy Bear" represents "the most forgettable aspect of his career", then waxes lyrical about it -- or at least EP's vocal talents on it -- a few paragraphs later: "We could love him telling us about hound dogs, teddy bears, and hardheaded women, or we could love him tender." Prose like that also amps up the myth of Elvis' early songs being faddish and somewhat silly, which the author gives extended voice to in his assertion, "by 1960 Presley, tired of doing one rehash of 'Don't Be Cruel' after another ... "; that sentiment is totally wrong-headed, as EP's 50s catalogue is as diverse as any artist's for such a short span of time, and Elvis was continuing to do new things in his last recording sessions before being diverted by the army. To correct a more simple factual error: the author gives the spelling as "Elvis Aron Presley", but Elvis changed his middle name to "Aaron" before his death, and anyone writing seriously about him should be aware of that and respect his choice by spelling it the latter way. [EDIT: The alleged switch from "Aron" to "Aaron" is now in doubt. I am researching the matter.] The author really does seem to have come round to loving Elvis, though, and a lot of their writing reflects their pleasure at discovering his work. A solid -- if slightly uneven -- read.
Last edited by Cryogenic on Wed Jan 13, 2010 9:36 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Re: "Elvis at 70" -- A Jazz Critic's Take on Elvis

Tue Jan 05, 2010 1:04 am

Never saw this before. The guy is "spot on," as some of my FECC brethren say.

Elvis never set out to be any kind of rebel or trailblazer. Elvis sang. And, he was as much Dean Martin as he was Arthur Crudup, and the mainstream media will NEVER get it.

Re: "Elvis at 70" -- A Jazz Critic's Take on Elvis

Tue Jan 05, 2010 7:09 am

Well said, Cryo' and Jacques!

That said, it's one of the more sympathtic recent pieces on Presley and coming from an unexpected quarter as well. I recall Jazz / political writer Stanely Crouch (whom I otherwise rather enjoy) being very harsh on what he finds as being juvenile about rock'n'roll and Elvis compared to his ever-serious "mature" jazz cats.

I suspect when Elvis as a recurring cultural phenomenon dies down (and let's face it, it's a slow but inevitable trend), more critics will be able to step forward and objectively view his music and legacy and finally at least admit: "I see why he was a big deal." Such are the cultural resentments and partisanship that we still don't see the sort of stateside evaluation of Elvis as we might see, of say, Roy Orbison, whose 20-year old black and white TV concert is still played regularly on PBS stations in the US. Both were greats but Elvis is a blinding force even in death that still sends some critics into a reflexive 'a guy like this stole my lunch money" bias against Elvis as seen in the recent Boston Globe and Toronto Star pieces spotllghted on this forum.

Re: "Elvis at 70" -- A Jazz Critic's Take on Elvis

Tue Jan 04, 2011 9:31 pm

Resurrecting this old post here guys. But this is a fantastic piece. There are a few gripes and inconsistencies but overall this alternative approach is most welcome. Elvis was quite literally as much a rock n roller as he was a crooner. And I love him for it. He was a bridging point in music he was the last of a generation of music and the start of the next - and yet somehow was nothing like either what came after or before him.

"He also shared several qualities with Louis Armstrong, not all of them positive. Each was the first and greatest, larger-than-life exemplar of a new kind of music, yet the majority of their output-everything but the earliest work-is almost universally dismissed. Somehow, a kind of radical, extreme purism has become the norm with regard to their music. Certain puritans apparently can't stand the idea that Armstrong made music other than jazz or that by 1960 Presley, tired of doing one rehash of 'Don't Be Cruel' after another, was similarly broadening his horizons."

This particular part is so true. For the majority of people, they only want to hear Elvis as the young Rocker. People simply either can't or don't want to accept him as anything else. Ultimately, it means almost everything else he did is universally written off - except for brief resurges.

Elvis Presley - the ultimate contradiction.

Re: "Elvis at 70" -- A Jazz Critic's Take on Elvis

Tue Jan 04, 2011 10:01 pm

Good Time Charlie wrote:Resurrecting this old post here guys. But this is a fantastic piece. There are a few gripes and inconsistencies but overall this alternative approach is most welcome. Elvis was quite literally as much a rock n roller as he was a crooner. And I love him for it. He was a bridging point in music he was the last of a generation of music and the start of the next - and yet somehow was nothing like either what came after or before him.

"He also shared several qualities with Louis Armstrong, not all of them positive. Each was the first and greatest, larger-than-life exemplar of a new kind of music, yet the majority of their output-everything but the earliest work-is almost universally dismissed. Somehow, a kind of radical, extreme purism has become the norm with regard to their music. Certain puritans apparently can't stand the idea that Armstrong made music other than jazz or that by 1960 Presley, tired of doing one rehash of 'Don't Be Cruel' after another, was similarly broadening his horizons."

This paragraph is absolutely true. Well spotted my friend. I am so tired about rock critics (most of them) that is so refreshing to hear another kind of critic. And if you ever read his books, Will Friedwald is acid and very strict (he defined Bono part on the Sinatra 1993 of I've Got You Under My Skin like a "drunk punky singing on a Karaoke"). So these words are precious coming from him.

This particular part is so true. For the majority of people, they only want to hear Elvis as the young Rocker. People simply either can't or don't want to accept him as anything else. Ultimately, it means almost everything else he did is universally written off - except for brief resurges.

Elvis Presley - the ultimate contradiction.

Re: "Elvis at 70" -- A Jazz Critic's Take on Elvis

Tue Jan 04, 2011 10:04 pm

8) great article and i always find Elvis wailing along with 'Hail, Hail Rock N' Roll' VERY Jazzy and even during the last tour when The Orchestra was playing a new tune called 'Jazzing in Vegas' Elvis still sang at the end of it in a Jazzy way!~ :roll: :smt007

Re: "Elvis at 70" -- A Jazz Critic's Take on Elvis

Tue Jan 04, 2011 10:21 pm

Jazz is strictly for the stay-at-homes.

- Buddy Holly

Re: "Elvis at 70" -- A Jazz Critic's Take on Elvis

Tue Jan 04, 2011 11:36 pm

drjohncarpenter wrote:
Jazz is strictly for the stay-at-homes.

- Buddy Holly


We're discussing Elvis not Jazz. The fact he is a fan of Jazz only adds to the piece - because he is not taking the awful "Rockist" approach that is apparently the only worthy stance these days.

Re: "Elvis at 70" -- A Jazz Critic's Take on Elvis

Tue Jan 04, 2011 11:48 pm

Good Time Charlie wrote:
drjohncarpenter wrote:
Jazz is strictly for the stay-at-homes.

- Buddy Holly


We're discussing Elvis not Jazz.

Really?

Re: "Elvis at 70" -- A Jazz Critic's Take on Elvis

Tue Jan 04, 2011 11:52 pm

drjohncarpenter wrote:
Good Time Charlie wrote:
drjohncarpenter wrote:
Jazz is strictly for the stay-at-homes.

- Buddy Holly


We're discussing Elvis not Jazz.

Really?


Erm yeah.

Re: "Elvis at 70" -- A Jazz Critic's Take on Elvis

Tue Jan 04, 2011 11:53 pm

Good Time Charlie wrote:
drjohncarpenter wrote:
Good Time Charlie wrote:
drjohncarpenter wrote:
Jazz is strictly for the stay-at-homes.

- Buddy Holly


We're discussing Elvis not Jazz.

Really?


Erm yeah.

So am I. Read my comment more carefully, you might get the point.

Re: "Elvis at 70" -- A Jazz Critic's Take on Elvis

Wed Jan 05, 2011 12:37 am

Good Time Charlie wrote:We're discussing Elvis not Jazz. The fact he is a fan of Jazz only adds to the piece - because he is not taking the awful "Rockist" approach that is apparently the only worthy stance these days.


Yes---the rockist approach views American music as a set of gated communities, whereas it's really more of a huge city, and Elvis was a fundamentally cosmopolitan resident of that metropolis. He ranged all over it and went where he liked. Once more critics start understanding that had shared as much with Bing Crosby as he did with, say, Chuck Berry, (and was really more of a transitional figure than a the high priest of Rock'n'Roll) his artistic reputation might rise again, and people might start looking at his back catalogue with new eyes. Personally speaking, I'm not a jazz buff, but imaging American music without jazz would be like imagining a wasteland.

Re: "Elvis at 70" -- A Jazz Critic's Take on Elvis

Wed Jan 05, 2011 12:48 am

Revelator wrote:
Good Time Charlie wrote:We're discussing Elvis not Jazz. The fact he is a fan of Jazz only adds to the piece - because he is not taking the awful "Rockist" approach that is apparently the only worthy stance these days.


Yes---the rockist approach views American music as a set of gated communities, whereas it's really more of a huge city, and Elvis was a fundamentally cosmopolitan resident of that metropolis. He ranged all over it and went where he liked. Once more critics start understanding that had shared as much with Bing Crosby as he did with, say, Chuck Berry, (and was really more of a transitional figure than a the high priest of Rock'n'Roll) his artistic reputation might rise again, and people might start looking at his back catalogue with new eyes. Personally speaking, I'm not a jazz buff, but imaging American music without jazz would be like imagining a wasteland.


Amen to that, spot on Revelator. Elvis was essentialy the big starting point for Rock n Roll; then others expanded upon it. Elvis meanwhile, roamed across various other ranges of Music and it is hard for the Rockist to accept that Elvis focused on other things than Rock after his stint in the army. Even the famed American Sound sessions are more RnB/Soul/Country than what Rock had become by the end of the 60s.

Re: "Elvis at 70" -- A Jazz Critic's Take on Elvis

Wed Jan 05, 2011 7:59 am

Well worth reviving, Rev' and so well said. Also, that's a good point Chuck made above about Elvis and Louis Armstrong.

It's not uncommon for people to zone-in on the alleged (if often accurate) peak (usually) early period and then deride the rest as "less authentic" or " a long way from..." As someone said about the forgettable Wall Street Journal critic Jim Fusilli (who asked us why we should care about Elvis after an alleged listen to the "Complete Masters" set), here's a guy who is being a contrarian for the sake of being contrary.

I also tend to have great respect for flat out "all-stars" or giants of music in all fields and enjoy the trajectory of their careers, from their halting beginnings, to their rise to fame, to their peak period, their obscure period, their mis-steps, their revival and so on---as long as their is an enduring quality that makes me care and something unforgettable about them that keeps you interested. That's why a quality box set or single disc can make me appreciate anything from a guy like Prince to Hank Snow or Eddy Arnold or Johnny Guitar Watson. There's something very interesting about a musical life well-lived - again assuming their is something worth keeping to begin with.

I respect the late Buddy Holly and enjoy a lot of his brief legacy but 22-year olds don't always know what they're talking about.

"Jazz" - a huge umbrella term - has at various times in its history been exactly where the creatures of the night want to be and are or were. Sure, there was the less social advent of "progressive" modern jazz in the '50s which had more introverted, intellectual appeal, but by and large, historically jazz has been in many ways "the people's music" at least in many periods before become a more musty, upscale pursuit for a select few.