Some of you may not have been born yet, but for those who remember…where were you? what were you doing? Me, I was about to turn 13, we were hanging out with another family just enjoying the summer and suddenly Mom was crying…why? Because August 16, 1977 was the day Elvis died…
While American’s seem completely captivated by those pseudo celebs who are famous for…well…nothing and the media captures every move and news items one week old are treated as ancient history, Elvis Presley—who died 36 years ago today—remains as popular as ever. Why? It’s not just because our popular culture idolizes its heroes, that’s a given, no, at the heart of the Elvis phenomenon is something much simpler and very American: dreaming big dreams and making those dreams come true.
To fully appreciate the influence of Elvis on the world of music, it is critical to listen to the music of those first few years. He was not just some semi-talented white guy who ripped off infinitely more gifted black artists and rewarded, no, he may have been many things, but he was not that. Just go back and listen to his early music, “That’s All Right, Mama,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” and “Hound Dog.” Musically, the early Elvis was an astonishingly gifted chemist—creating his own personal style by mixing black music with country and pop.
His staggering vocal talent, however, is only part of his story. Think about the society that this man exploded into in the mid-’50s…a stale America, its inhabitants decked out in suits and dresses, living in “Happy Days”. It was a society with nothing at stake. Then comes Elvis…
amused, defiant, cool, hips quivering and then
everything was at stake. Suddenly America was in the midst of a game of chicken, because Elvis was playing for keeps and taking his dreams very, very seriously. And, then, so were those who listened to him, his voice burning into the suburbs.
The man had ambition, he was the son of a sharecropper, he roamed Memphis’s black Beale Street section listening and learning, his music full of unmentionable menace, but was also tender and romantic lyricism. He was all contradiction: the raunchy roadhouse rocker who loved mom and Jesus, the yes-sir/no-sir Southern boy with the swaggering carelessness, the smoldering sex symbol with the self-mocking smile. And, like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, he was all magnetism: “There was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promise of life—as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.” He was, and is, the stuff that American Dreamers are made of.
John Lennon said that before Elvis there was nothing and after Elvis there was everything. While this is debatable, but when Elvis hit the US in 1955, singing and moving those hips, the world has never been the same.
So, can the birth of rock and roll can be explained simply as a matter of some white guy coming along who could “sing black” and get the teenage girls to scream? There is no way to ever explain Elvis or his legacy, he was simply a poor sharecropper’s son who mixed the music of the poor whites and blacks and scared mid-1950s America, and whose talent dwarfed any who followed.
Me, I was raised by a mother who would sneak an apple from home and save her lunch money all week, just to go see him on the big screen or to by his latest single, I’ve been on the pilgrimage to Graceland 3 times and will likely end up there again in the future. My nieces have also grown up with an appreciation for his beautiful voice, Mom still plays his music regularly, there is a satellite station dedicated to only his music, the movies are available on DVD for generations to come to enjoy…honestly, when I find one of his movies on cable…I watch! I also have the Aloha from Hawaii CD (yes a CD) in my car that I put in when the mood strikes.
So…do you remember?