The Importance of Elvis

Posted: June 20th, 2022 | Filed under: Cinema, Culture, Music, Personalities | 2 Comments »

This piece was originally published at the turn of the century. It has been very slightly edited for clarity and content in advance of the release this week of the Elvis Presley biopic.

In his book “The Fifties,” David Halberstam chronicles the most misunderstood of the century’s decades. In the tome, he relates a conversation where noted composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein discussed political and social trends with Dick Clurman, an editor at Time magazine. Halberstam quotes Bernstein: “Elvis Presley is the greatest cultural force of the twentieth century.”

Incredulous, Clurman suggests some other choice, Picasso perhaps.

Bernstein, not to be deterred, retorts: “(Elvis) changed everything — music, language, clothes, it’s a whole new social revolution . . .”

Elvis Presley is LEO’s Person of the Century.

That is not a typo. No Henry Ford or Winston Churchill or Bill Gates or FDR or Einstein or Rosa Parks or Jackie O could meet our standards at Louisville Eccentric Observer for such critical status.

Elvis Presley is the wise choice, the eccentric choice, the correct choice. Love him or loathe him. Pity his Greek tragedy of a life. Ignore him if so inclined. But don’t make the mistake of dismissing Elvis as irrelevant.

Elvis was the undisputed King of Rock & Roll but no longer a major player on the music scene twenty two years ago when he died ignominiously in his throne room. The causes: Terminal, drug-induced bloat and chronic ennui. He had become the caped, prescription pill-addled Elvis who arrived for a White House audience with Richard Nixon, carrying a handgun as a gift, then requesting a badge to fight drug abuse.

We chose the Elvis who in the summer of 1953 entered the Memphis Recording Service studio at 706 Union in Memphis to record an acetate for his mama. The Elvis who the following year, at the insistence of guitarist Scotty Moore, and with encouragement from Sam Phillips’ secretary Marion Keister, waxed revved versions of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama.” The songs changed Elvis’ life forever.

And the lives of all who heard them.

And life itself.

As Renaissance Woman Caroline Dahl titled her magnificent needlepoint seen above, Elvis was “The New King of Heaven and Hell.”

Elvis Presley. The world’s been a different place since.

In “The Days Before Rock & Roll,” Van Morrison sings: “Without those wireless knobs/ Elvis could not come in.” Most telling this image of ten year old Morrison, born of the war baby generation, in his bedroom in Belfast twiddling the knobs of his radio tuning in Radio Luxembourg to hear this alluring, exotic sound like none before. His global compatriots were doing the same thing.

That is the beginning of the story. The phenomenon that was Elvis owes much to the influence of radio. Sun Records entrepreneur Sam Phillips provided Memphis deejay Dewey Phillips with a pressing of that first Presley’s 45. That night the wacky record spinner played the two sides exclusively. His phones lit up like a rocket’s red glare. Listeners wouldn’t let him stop playing the record.

They needed to hear it over and over again.

Phillips tracked down Presley at a movie theater. The King jumped in his Crown Electric truck and hightailed it to the studio for his first interview.

As excited as the shy mama’s boy was, he had no clue what was in store. Nor for that matter did anybody else, even huckster Colonel Tom Parker who was to become Elvis’ manager, mentor and Svengali. This unique moment of the century, a moment without prescience, was the first hint of vast societal revision.

As John Lennon, no minor cultural icon himself, once said, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”

Admittedly, this incident was not the first indication of electronic media’s influence. That reality revealed itself on Halloween night in 1938. Enfant terrible Orson Welles and fellow pranksters of the Mercury Theater of the Air stunned the nation with a unique broadcast of “War of the Worlds” done in such a realistic manner that listeners believed aliens had landed in New Jersey. Panic ensued. Evidence was unmistakable. Mass immediate dissemination of information, whether true or just a shuck, had the capacity to sway.

By the time Elvis recorded his hybrid, rebellious, ground-breaking songs, there were 20 million households in America with television sets, a twentyfold increase from 1949. Coincidentally it was in 1954, the same year as Elvis’ debut, that the force of that new medium was unleashed.

Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy was wrecking havoc with people’s lives and the fabric of the country’s political institutions with his scattershot accusations of rampant Communistic insinuation in American life. Thanks to diligent examination by Joseph Welch, McCarthy was unmasked, proven a charlatan. Most important, our republic watched on TV.

With its own eyes it saw that he who would be demagogue wore no clothes. Because of those flickering black and white images in the nation’s living rooms, McCarthy’s bully pulpit was snatched from beneath him. The thrust of media at full throttle from then on was a force to be reckoned with.

Enter Elvis. He arrived when information and imagery were beginning to travel at speeds rarely before comprehensible. People still had heroes they didn’t trade in every fifteen minutes.

Society was ripe for significant cultural liberation.

In the second world war, U.S. troops had shipped off to Europe and kicked some major Nazi butt. They’d sailed the Pacific and avenged the carnage at Pearl Harbor. The haberdasher from Kansas City dropped the bomb. The soldiers returned, battered, but with swagger and sense of a larger world than Norman Rockwell’s America. Though the U. S. was young as nations go, its status as world power was secure. Yet less than two centuries old, it’s culture was still in formulation.

The global effect of Japan’s nuclear decimation mustn’t be underestimated. The new truth was this: tens of thousands of people could be killed in a single mushroom-clouded instant. Civilized peoples wouldn’t hesitate to take such action.

From those wartime experiences — including a ravaged psyche dumbfounded by the holocaust — a live-for-today ethos evolved. Inherent in this new persona was the genesis of disaffection that primed the pump for the rock and roll era.

Post WW II America was booming. Appliance Parks and Levittowns were cropping up all across the land. The atmosphere vibrated from the pounding of hydraulic machinery and the thrust of combustion engines. Car sales skyrocketed. Even though the interstate highway system wasn’t yet in place, the desire to travel was epidemic. The Pennsylvania Turnpike opened in 1940. Americans had to move. There was a new mobile class that wanted to savor Howard Johnson’s 28 flavors along the way.

When Ike wasn’t asleep in the White House, he was playing golf at Augusta. While television was new and exciting, the screen was mostly filled with old vaudvillians, whose schtick seemed primeval to baby boomers craving a bigger kick, too east coast for the heartland.

This was not the world that fostered the teen idols that predated Elvis. The rah-rah-sis-boom-bah era of Rudy Vallee and his megaphone were long gone. So too the ba-ba-buh-boo of the Bing Crosby. Even the adoring throngs that greeted heartthrobs Cryin’ Johnnie Ray and Frankie Blue Eyes read like yesterday’s papers by the mid 50’s.

While all seemed Ozzie and Harriet tranquil on the surface, the truth was that western civilization — especially the young, lower and middle classes — was restless. The grass roots were ready to sprout. The masses wanted more, though they hadn’t been able to articulate exactly what. With his furrowed brow, James Dean was the insouciant rebel without a cause.

In “The Wild Ones,” motorpsycho Marlon Brando was asked, “What are you rebelling against?” His defiant answer, “What do you got?”

Early on Elvis was recording a tune at Sun. He wasn’t happy with the laggardly tempo. He raged, “That don’t move me, let’s get real gone.” A simpatico legion waited to march along, transistor radios in hand.

So they did. First the young, then so powerful was the impetus of change, that all society, all culture, was forced to change. Not just Ed Sullivan, the country’s stone-faced emcee who eventually succumbed, granting Elvis his imprimatur. When Presley finally made it to Sunday night primetime, nobody needed to see his pelvic thrusts hidden by conservative camera placement. Chaos already filled the air. Good rockin’ tonight was 24/7. Sullivan’s acknowledgement of Elvis was nothing less than a fading establishment crying “uncle.”

The importance of Presley to the world of music has been chronicled and dissected ad nauseum. He merged rhythm & blues with bluegrass. And with gospel. And with pop (there are those who say he merely wanted to be the next Dean Martin). And with jump — both the dance and the sound. And infused it all with an incessant, driving cadence that perfectly fit the tenor of the times.

The purpose here is not to dwell on Elvis’ music — that is almost peripheral to the point. Yet one must acknowledge the rhythmic turbulence of his early songs, which were recorded without drums. Then listen to, say, the RCA version of Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes.” The new electric onslaught is instantly apparent.

This was a declaration of independence: “You can do anything you wanna do/ But don’t step on my blue suede shoes.”

Goodbye to the hot-diggity-dog-ziggity-boom years of “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?” Hello to the thrust of electro-metallic thunder.

Tapping Elvis Presley as Person of the Century has less to do with his repertoire than his social influence. That he changed the literature of music is clear beyond peradventure. That he opened the ears of the world to diverse sounds is a given.

All that said, though it’s this initial contribution that serves as a flashpoint, that may be his least important impression on society.

Remember what Leonard Bernstein elucidated — Elvis changed everything. On the surface, we changed how we dressed, the way we wore our hair, the way we talked. For the first time, world culture acknowledged not only that Bessie Smith was as important as Kate Smith, but Robert Johnson was as relevant as Lyndon Johnson. At a deeper level, how generations and societal strata related to each other — Who had the real authority? — was up for grabs. Elvis Presley did more to empower the working class than Walter Reuther and the wobblies combined.

An astonishing, surely unexpected turn of events it was. Here’s this sharecroppers’ son from the Delta, a loner, a mama’s boy with little self esteem (but a handful of ambition), who shocks the world to a new way of life.

One day this kid is driving a truck around Memphis, daydreaming seemingly impossible dreams. At night he’s stealing away to juke joints to hear forbidden music. The next day — almost literally — he is holed up in a small tight-knit culture of his own making as insulation from suffocating adulation of an adoring public clamoring to touch the hem of his garment.

Within moments of his arrival on the scene, he was imprisoned to a stultifying isolation from which he never escaped, and because of which he died an early, senseless death.

The rest of us were luckier. We cherished the new music that we could now experience thanks to the barriers Presley smashed. Youth, the proletariat and the bourgeois worldwide enjoyed a newfound freedom, an empowerment to contribute, to control — all wrested from elders and prior aristocracy.

Presley chronicler Peter Guralnick, in Louisville recently offered this about Elvis’ contribution to society beyond the music, “He was part of an evolutionary process — the triumph of the vernacular.

“Somewhere it was going to happen. The early 50’s were more than McCarthy and all that. There were the beats.

Magazines like Cashbox were already taking note that white kids were listening to black music. It was coincidence that it happened to be Elvis in Sam Phillips’ studio. It would have happened even if there was no Elvis.”

On its face, Guralnick’s view seems contradictory to our premise.

Not so.

Elvis as conduit — there’s a theory that fits both views. Yes the Beats existed in the 40’s, espousing freedom and immediacy. The fact remains that their Elvis, Jack Kerouac, had written his “That All Right Mama” — “On The Road” — years before. But it wasn’t published until 1957, after Elvis had broken down the barriers.

Rock & roll would have happened without Elvis. Sooner or later the rhythms of “race” music would have coalesced with hillbilly whines. The social upheaval that resulted in the tumultuous 60’s, the civil rights and feminist movements and new consumerism were all fostered by the new essence catalyzed by Elvis. Perhaps they would have evolved anyway. Nobody knows for sure.

Maybe what we are saying here is that Elvis was but a symbol — the catalytic moment for an inevitable change that would have gone down without him.

Yet . . . yet . . . there is an elusive voice that says no, that reiterates that Elvis Presley was something special. That Memphis in the 50’s, hard by the Mississippi and the Delta’s fertile ground — the very soul of America — was special. That Sun Studios, according to Guralnick, was home to a renaissance no less important than that of the Medici’s. That Elvis was not just a coincidence.

Bottom line: Elvis was all that. And more. A guy’s guy with feminine beauty. A rogue with charm. A rebel who respected his mama and served his country abroad. A take charge dude with significant self-doubt. An actor. A lover. A revisionist. A singer. An addict. An innovator. A performer. A vanguard. A philanthropist. A spendthrift. A simple man with a complicated life.

He was neon. Bright lights, big city. The 20th century’s pied piper.

He was not only evolutionary but transition itself. Not only revolutionary but the cannon itself. He smashed the old mold to bits. He was the new, the modern, the contemporary, the future. In music surely. But also in manners. And mores.

Because of Elvis anything was possible for anybody.

Elvis was without agenda, yet changed that of world culture.

Whatever standards might be applied, be they academic, anecdotal or pop cultural, Elvis Presley clearly contributed as much to the way world society is today as any other person this century. Because of the resultant idolatry — the almost religious iconography — that emanated from his fame, Elvis remains in the public consciousness more today than in the later years of his life.

The King is dead, long live the King.

So influential was he that his image inflated to kitschian proportion.

Commenting on the mystery that is the Bermuda Triangle, Mojo Nixon, one of contemporary society’s leading philosophers, theorizes: “Elvis needs boats. Elvis needs planes.”

He also credits Elvis for Stonehenge. And the pyramids.

Nixon — Mojo not Dick — has stated:

“Elvis is everywhere.

“Elvis is everything.

“Elvis is everybody.”

2 Comments on “The Importance of Elvis”

  1. 1 Jim said at 11:02 pm on June 20th, 2022:

    Read it then, read it now. Among the best you have ever written,

  2. 2 » Blog Archive Rock & Roll Rewind: Elvis '76 - said at 7:14 pm on March 21st, 2023:

    […] Not getting into the whole Elvis explanation here, For a full take on Elvis Presley’s significant cultural impact, something you’d never know from last summer’s movie, read this extended piece I wrote originally for LEO. […]

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