Elvis would have been eighty this week [on January 8th] if he had lived. The blogosphere is full of comments on his life and music and what his influence was, or was not. This is what Richard Williams thinks.
I believe that Elvis revolutionised the modern world. He is up there with Bill Gates and Gorbachev. What else was going on in the year he was born, 1935?
> Hitler orders German rearmament, violating treaty of Versailles.
> Worst ever sand storm in US Mid-west creates dust bowl.
> Spanish civil war begins cranking up.
> Mao and the Red Army make huge incursions in the south and west of china, ending the ‘long march’.
> Stalin was about to begin his ‘Great Terror’ [1936-1937] when a million Jews and ‘undesirables’ were purged in the pogroms.
What I think is that all of these people and events are a unique consequence of the A + B = C view of history. The pogroms wouldn’t have happened without Stalin; the Red Army wouldn’t have created the modern Communist State without Mao Tse Tung’s ruthless pragmatism; Elvis’ sultry good looks and incredible voice would have propelled him forward in ‘Showbiz’ but the magic ingredient, the C in the equation, was what he was singing . . . the Black Blues. And that drove him to prominence and stardom that the youth of the mid-fifties were able to latch on to as an expression of yes, their rebelliousness but principally, their rejection of the old order; the old values; the old consensus.
Endlessly debatable. The role of Sam Phillips; the role of Col Tom Parker. Elvis was a twin but his brother died in childbirth. Did he inherit his brother’s gifts as well as his own? Who can say? Would he have turned out differently if he hadn’t been born to dirt-poor white sharecroppers in the American rural south? Definitely; everything had to come together at the precise moment it did. It’s that thing about the moon: if it was a hundred miles nearer the earth the tides would be too high and the land-mass reduced and the population reduced and resources, mines, oil wells would be unreachable. A hundred miles, that’s all. So, if Elvis had been born in Sao Paulo or Las Vegas even with his voice and looks, he would have made no difference. It was that factor C, Sam Phillips to see the potential and Elvis’ musical education in the black constituency in which he was raised, that produced the magic.
What about the argument that if it hadn’t been Elvis it would have been someone else? Who? Jerry Lee Lewis? Johnny Cash? Miles Davis? Don’t think so. There were plenty of ‘rebellious’ role models around in the fifties; James Dean; Marlon, others whose names have disappeared from public consciousness, such has been their long-term impact but none of them came close to the changes wrought by Elvis.
I don’t much agree with Richard Williams’ list of top Elvis tunes. If he had started out singing Dark Moon, he would have sunk without trace. The trouble with Richard Williams is that he hears all the chords and listens to the production, whereas I hear things more emotionally. Of the records on his list, I would agree Marie’s the Name of his Latest Flame is a fabulous record; The Girl of my Best Friend would also get into my top ten, as would Baby I Don’t Care.
So, here is my list of greats:
Trying To Get To You
My Baby Left Me
Baby I Don’t Care
Good Rockin’ Tonight
I Beg Of You
Girl of My Best Friend
That is nine. If I have to add one more it would be Baby Lets Play House.
I hardly ever play or listen to anything by Elvis much these days yet he meant so much to me as a kid. It’s that Desert Island Discs conundrum, do you choose stuff that meant something in your life or something you actually like and would listen to if marooned on a desert island. Speaking as someone who really was marooned on a desert island [without any music] for six months, I would say that I would select stuff I like.
Which wouldn’t any longer be by Elvis Presley.