Always on my Mind: Reclaiming Elvis’ musical legacy
- Credit: Channel 5
Elvis Presley, one of the world’s great stars, died 40 years ago next week. Arts editor Andrew Clarke looks back at his remarkable career and seeks to shine a spotlight on his often overlooked musical legacy.
Forty years ago, on August 16, 1977, the world suffered a cultural heart attack. Elvis Presley, the man, who almost single-handedly, personified the birth of rock’n’roll had died at the ludicrously young age of 42.
There had been rock’n’roll deaths before – Buddy Holly, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix – but Elvis’ death was different. He was an innovator, he was the man who took blues, country and gospel and forged them into a brand, new art form.
He didn’t do it alone but he was the one who added rocket fuel into the musical mix and took this beat-driven, guitar-based art form out of the Delta and sold it to the world.
But, over the years Elvis’ musical importance has been overshadowed by tales of his tragic decline and his after-hours lifestyle.
The endless parade of impersonators have helped turn one of the world’s great cultural innovators into a white jumpsuited caricature. There was so much more to him than that. So, on the 40th anniversary of his death, here are a few reasons why we should take Elvis seriously as a musical force.
Elvis was a great musician
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Elvis had innate musical talent. He had a good ear for a song and he was the one who came up with the arrangements in the studio. He was the one who took what was an old fashioned country song like Jim Reeves’ A Fool Such As I or a blues like That’s All Right Mama and turned them into genuine rock and roll classics. He had no George Martin providing bespoke arrangements.
The most obvious example of Elvis’ musical power can be found in his hit Blue Suede Shoes. Written and recorded by country singer Carl Perkins, the original is incredibly sedate compared with Presley’s recording which comes across like a nuclear explosion.
Elvis was a great collaborator
Critics over the years have pointed out that, unlike The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, Elvis never wrote his hit songs but he came from a different era – a time when singers were supplied their material by professional songwriters.
He was also astute enough to develop relationships with some great songwriting teams who worked out of New York’s famed Brill Building. In the 1950s Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller provided a vast number of his greatest hits including Hound Dog, Jailhouse Rock, Hard Headed Woman, King Creole, Treat Me Nice, (You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care and the surly Trouble.
In the 1960s they were supplanted by an equally dynamic team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman who supplied an equally impressive selection of top ten hits including Little Sister, (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame, She’s Not You (with Leiber and Stoller), Viva Las Vegas, Suspicion and A Mess of Blues.
Elvis was the Comeback King
There is a school of thought that Elvis died when he went in the army but this would ignore his amazing comeback in 1960. Within weeks of being discharged from the army he was back in the studio recording a new album and a flood of stand alone singles like Stuck on You, It’s Now or Never, Surrender, I Feel So Bad. For the next three years he managed to have both a highly-prized recording career while also starring in a series of highly-profitable movies. Sadly, the demands of the poorly-made films proved too great and the recording career was put on the backburner until he returned to the recording studio in January 1969 and recorded the greatest album of his career From Elvis in Memphis. The album and accompanying singles Suspicious Minds, In The Ghetto and Kentucky Rain established him once again as an important creative force.
Elvis surrounded himself with great bands
Elvis loved performing. He was a great showman but he was also an intuitive musician and like to be surrounded by people who shared a similar musical background and could follow his lead and break into almost any song on a whim. In the 1950s Scotty Moore, Bill Black and DJ Fontana provided the beat and guitar-breaks while in the 1970s this job was carried out by James Burton, Ronnie Tutt, Jerry Scheff and Glen D Hardin. The 1970s band was such a tight unit that, after Elvis’ death, they worked with Emmylou Harris and then Roy Orbison.
Five Must Have Elvis Albums:
Boy From Tupelo
The anniversary album released this summer which collects together all Elvis’ groundbreaking early recordings which were released while he was at Sun Records in Memphis. Classic tracks include That’s All Right, Good Rockin’ Tonite, Baby Let’s Play House and Mystery Train.
Elvis Golden Records Vol 1 & 2
The classic 1950s hits were largely stand alone singles and so were collected together on two albums when Elvis entered the army. Includes Hound Dog, Heartbreak Hotel, One Night and Jailhouse Rock
Elvis is Back
Elvis’ first album after being demobbed. Includes the breath-taking Reconsider Baby, Such A Night and Dirty, Dirty Feeling. For best value get the CD with associated non-album singles It’s Now or Never and Stuck on You.
From Elvis in Memphis
The big comeback album released in 1969 after escaping a decades worth of dreadful movies. Standout tracks include Long Black Limousine, I’m Movin’ On, Power of My Love, Wearing That Loved On Look, In The Ghetto. Once again get the CD with non-album singles Suspicious Minds and Kentucky Rain.
Elvis at Stax
This album collects together Elvis’ two lengthy recording sessions at the famed Stax Recording Studios in Memphis in 1973. He laid down a combination of country, gospel-funk and blues. Standout tracks include Promised Land, Loving Arms, If You Talk In Your Sleep, I Got A Feelin’ In My Body and Just A Little Bit.