Elvis Presley was the Rock 'n' Roll prototype. He possessed "knock 'em dead" good looks, a great voice and boundless energy. The combination yielded more #1 hits than any other performer. But Elvis was far more than some '50s hip shaking ("Elvis the Pelvis") singer. Though Rock 'n' Roll would have happened without Presley (it was well underway by the time he arrived on the national scene) the music would never have had the reach or impact that it did. Elvis single-handedly yanked popular culture from middle-aged crooners and MOR hacks and created the youth market. His influence on both Rock 'n' Roll and Country was immediate and enormous. And it continues, in various forms, over twenty-five years since his passing.
Presley was born to a dirt poor couple, Vernon and Gladys Presley, on January 8th, 1935, in the rural outback known as Tupelo, MS. A stillborn twin, named Jesse Garon, followed Elvis Aaron. The family moved to Memphis in hopes Vernon could find employment but it was still a struggle with the family living in public housing. At Humes High School, Elvis was known as a flashy dresser. Like a lot of poor kids, from any generation, clothes were very important. A second string football player, Elvis, no doubt encouraged by his mother, also developed an interest in music. With his mom's birthday coming up, Elvis thought he'd record a couple songs ("Old Shep" and "My Happiness") as his gift. Elvis, who was working as a truck driver for Crown Electric Company, walked into Sun Records and laid his money down. The session set him back $4 and not only changed the young man's life, but the world.
Initially, Sun Records' owner Sam Phillips was unimpressed. Presley could imitate, badly, many to the era's top singers, including personal favorite, Dean Martin. It was during a break when Elvis was goofing around, singing naturally, that he perked Phillips' ears. Presley's Sun recordings (arguably the strongest and most consistent of his career) are undeniable Rock 'n' Roll. These recordings ("Blue Suede Shoes," "Paralyzed," "Money Honey," "Tryin' To Get To You" and "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry" among them) set the bar for the '50s and the early '60s. More importantly, they were prime examples of what Rock 'n' Roll was all about. Elvis' new manager Col. Tom Parker wanted his talent to have a national reach. Unwisely, Phillips, thinking he had the "next big thing" in Carl Perkins, sold Elvis' contract to RCA. Elvis' debut RCA single "Heartbreak Hotel," was possibly the first power-ballad. Though a huge hit, it was not a real strong start. But Elvis soon produced two incredible Rockers.
The first was "Hound Dog" which is nearly perfect, except for the Jordanaires' "ahh" backing vocals during the guitar solo. The vocals soften the impact (which was probably what they intended at the time). The second, "Jailhouse Rock," is perfect. Guitar driven, with an E/F major chord progression and bone rattling vocals, it had the raw power to stand up against anything produced since. Everything else may have been hot for the times but today comes across as catchy mid-tempo pop songs ("All Shook Up," "Don't Be Cruel," etc.). Elvis was almost immediately thrust into movies. The film Love Me Tender isn't much but Jailhouse Rock and King Creole are not only Elvis' best movies they are good films in their own right.
Getting his draft notice a year earlier, Elvis entered the Army in '58. But the hits kept coming since Elvis and his handlers (led by Col. Parker) had foresight to record a large amount of material prior to Elvis' induction. It was doled out over the next two years. Elvis was by all accounts an exemplary soldier - serving in Germany - rising to sergeant. In March of '60 Elvis shed his Army uniform and was a civilian again. Things pretty much picked up where they'd left off. Elvis appeared on a Frank Sinatra special and delivered ratings making the show one of Sinatra's few successful television forays. His first two post-Army movies were G.I. Blues, which naturally exploited Elvis' military service and the scenic Blue Hawaii. While neither movie was Oscar material, they weren't bad, especially when compared with what followed. Musically, Elvis had some of his most successful ballads ("Can't Help Falling In Love," "Wooden Heart" and "It's Now or Never"). But he also Rocked. "Little Sister" was top notch. "Stuck On You" and "Return To Sender" were also great performances. But the rot set in soon enough. By the time Elvis made the film Kissin' Cousins he was sunk.
The next half-dozen years saw an unbroken string of bad movies and an equal number of unbearable soundtracks. The domestication of Elvis reached a climax in '67 when he married Priscilla Beaulieu in Las Vegas. Nine months later, daughter Lisa Marie arrived. Though Elvis and Priscilla were only married six years, she eventually saved the Presley estate, turning Graceland into a profitable tourist attraction, and adding some much needed focus to other Elvis related financial matters.
It wasn't until the movie/soundtrack earnings showed a steep decline that Col. Parker sought another revenue source. He focused on TV and signed Presley to appear in a December special on NBC. Regardless of the show's original title it became forever known as The '68 Comeback Special. Parker's original concept was to have Elvis sing a dozen Christmas songs, wish everyone a "Merry Christmas" and say "goodnight." This approach would have surely cemented Elvis' reputation as nothing more than a '50s novelty. Fortunately, things went in a different direction. The special made him the "King of Rock n' Roll." The highlight of the show was his performance in the round for fans. He jammed with long time friends and musicians, singing classic Rock songs (not just his own), telling stories and having a great time. It may have been the first unplugged show. He was also dressed in black leathers, which only added to the sex appeal. It proved Elvis, at the ripe old age of 33, still had it. After the special, Elvis was hot again. He released "From Elvis In Memphis" went on tour and starting producing "live" albums. "From Memphis To Vegas/From Vegas To Memphis" was a double album featuring one record of live material and one from his Memphis sessions. "On Stage-February 1970" and the '73 live release "Elvis: That's The Way It Is" (soundtrack to the concert film) were solid albums. Soon though, the live material was raced through with all the precision and grace of the '60s movies.
Rock 'n' Roll stars always attract entourages filled with people who love basking in the reflected glory. Often these people have little or nothing to do with the music. They gain stature by who they know and what they do for them. Case in point, Dr. George Nichopoulous (Dr. Nick). He prescribed an unending stream of drugs for Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and others. But Elvis was his biggest customer and victim. Elvis had long used diet pills - you can't eat fried foods the way he did without taking some action. In the Army, Elvis, like many other soldiers, used pep pills to stay awake during guard duty. Lonely, haunted by the past - he never recovered from his mother's death in the late '50s - Elvis now relied heavily on medication. In a drugged out state, he reportedly had conversations with his own shadow believing it was his late twin Jesse.
Through the '70s, until his death on August 16th, 1977 from a "heart attack," Elvis was a popular concert performer and Vegas attraction (draw your own conclusions). Except for a handful of songs including "Burning Love," concert favorites "Always On My Mind" and "Any Day Now" along with the dramatic and nearly over-the-top "American Trilogy" Elvis was done as a compelling recording artist. Released posthumously, his version of "My Way" was so over-reaching and self-contradictory that it was laughable. Still, Elvis always had it in him to do great things. However, he didn't always have or take the opportunity.
Elvis was one of the most maddeningly inconsistent performers in Rock 'n' Roll history. Brilliant, energetic, exciting performances are followed by mere pop pap. "Greatest Hits" packages are often the best way to go. Most of Elvis' pre-Army material is excellent. This is when he was the leading Rock 'n' Roll voice and delivered beyond expectations. Most of the '60s movie soundtrack stuff can be easily dismissed. Anything of value is usually somewhere else (on a compilation). Then there is his '68 "comeback." The soundtrack to the Elvis Special is notable for "Trouble," "Guitar Man" and the informal jam session on "Lawdy, Miss Clawdy." Also, Elvis' comments on his '50s fame are very revealing. The first post-comeback recording "From Elvis in Memphis" has a Country/Rock focus and is a masterful album. When it comes to live recordings "the earlier the better" rule applies.
There are several reasons to release "Elvis 30 - #1s." First, there was the phenomenal success of The Beatles' "30 - #1s." "If it worked for themů" Second, for a large chunk of his career Elvis was basically a singles act. Third, unlike The Beatles, who only faltered toward the very end, the Elvis' catalog is a hair-raising (or harebrained) roller coaster ride over twenty years, so why not cull the best and leave the rest. Finally, a Dutch DJ, JXL, remixed a forgettable Elvis song, from an equally forgettable movie, and turned "A Little Less Conversation" into a worldwide hit. Elvis' last major hit, prior to his death, was "Burning Love" which was stuck on an album of worthless soundtrack filler. You had to buy the crap to get the one great song. The Elvis "keepers of the flame" must have realized they couldn't slag again. But the most important reason is Elvis himself. Before his death, but after his comeback (about the time the world was amok with Elvis impersonators), Elvis reached icon status. And though he accomplished a great deal in his life, his public persona superceded it. Still, the question remained, what are people remembering? The seminal cultural force, the King of Rock 'n' Roll, or was it the guy whose fan base was so loyal he could sleepwalk through two dozen movies, or worse, some dude stuffed into a white jumpsuit, rolling around in a drug stupor? It was time to define. The "keepers" licensed Elvis songs for the animated film "Lilo and Stitch" in the hopes of hooking the grandkids of Elvis' original fans - it'd be new music to them. The "#1s" would be the killer follow up. Unfortunately, the film failed to rivet America's pre-teens and the "#1s" is really for existing fans. Elvis is a powerful force. "Jailhouse Rock" and "Hound Dog" have never been equaled. But skimming the hits, starting with Sun Records (his best performances), then moving through the pre and post-army period (the height of his popularity), the movie soundtracks, the comeback and the overblown Vegas jumpsuit era doesn't really do Elvis justice. It's schizophrenic and won't excite any newcomers. Several songs on the "#1's" transcend time but an equal number are better forgotten, like "Wooden Heart." Elvis sang this tune in his first post-Army film "G.I. Blues" to a wooden puppet - get the joke? Already, things are taking a bad turn. "2nd To None" can be seen as a companion to the "30 #1's" album. Like its predecessor, "2nd To None" touches all of Presley's career phases. There's one unreleased track "I'm A Roustabout," which isn't bad, and the inevitable remix; this time it's "Rubberneckin'" by Paul Oakenfold. The good news is "Rubberneckin'" is a far better song than Elvis' previous remix hit. Ostensibly a collection of #2 (or lesser) chart hits there's something for everyone. While there is no arguing with the Sun ("Blue Suede Shoes" is still brilliant) or early RCA material, what is surprising about this 2003 collection is the strength of the late '60s/early '70s material. The double shot of "Any Day Now" and "An American Trilogy" should convince anyone that Elvis still could muster the passion and commitment at the nether end of his career. Both are stunning vocal performances. Even so, if the Elvis marketers want to pitch a fresh audience, push "Blue Suede Shoes," "Paralyzed" or even "Little Sister." Rock 'n' Roll! That'll get it done. The "Elvis: Rocker" CD is as close as anyone has come to getting it right.
Aside from the "30 #1s" and "2nd To None" there are a couple other compilations to recommend. The 1958 release "Elvis Golden Records (Vol. 1)" contains 14 hits it has all the early classics. "Hound Dog" a song originally recorded by Blues wailer Big Mama Thornton is probably Elvis' most hard-edged performance. Also, a great guitar solo. "Jailhouse Rock" is just a flat out Rocker. The guitar is loud and Elvis is louder. It would be nearly a decade before there would be anything as powerful. Even ballads and the mid-tempo Rock 'n' Rollers ("Teddy Bear," "All Shook Up," "Too Much," and the macho "Treat Me Nice") are handled expertly. "For LP Fans Only" was filler while Elvis completed his Army duty but it's easily a Rock 'n' Roll monument. Every performance is classic starting with "That's All Right" from his Sun days, it includes "Mystery Train," "My Baby Left Me" and "I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone." The back cover has Elvis in his army duds. Elvis' first two albums are also worth owning. For the cover alone, "Elvis Presley" is essential. Elvis has his eyes closed, playing and singing with wild abandon. Scotty Moore is in the background, sweating and trying to keep up. This is as close as any single picture ever came to encapsulating Rock 'n' Roll. The back cover has four black and white Elvis pictures. He's wearing a polka dot shirt with turned up collar and jacket. The pink lettering of "Elvis" down the left side and the green lettering of "Presley" on the bottom are standout touches (later lifted by The Clash). The album contains some of Presley's most confident and exciting performances including the definitive version of "Blue Suede Shoes." Elvis' version is much tighter and more energetic than Carl Perkins' original. Elvis also cuts loose with "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Cry (Over You)" and "Money Honey." While nearly every song on the album is a cover it shows a Rocker at the peak of his powers. "Elvis," also released in '56, keeps up the unrelenting pace with "Paralyzed" and a set of Little Richard covers ("Rip It Up," "Long Tall Sally" and "Ready Teddy").