The great John Lennon once said, “Before Elvis there was nothing,” and in many ways it was true. In the drabness following WWII, especially in Britain, popular culture was mostly a throwback to the vaudeville of the pre-war years. When Elvis exploded into the international youth consciousness, rock and roll turned the old world around and changed the form of popular music for the next quarter of a century. Much was made of his hips shaking and other suggestive moves because up until that time most male singers just stood in one spot and maybe did a little finger-popping to the beat. But, no one had ever grooved to the music the way Elvis did, and as a generation would soon learn to do.
When asked about this new music, Frank Sinatra said, “rock and roll is being sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons,” and his middle-aged fans were in complete agreement. (I remember riding with the Old Man in the car one day when “Heartbreak Hotel” came on the radio and he immediately changed the station. When I protested, saying Elvis was great, he announced that rock and roll was just a kid’s fad and would be gone as fast as it had arrived.) But, that’s not how it played out.
By the end of the 1950s it was the greatest generation’s music that began to fade away along with memories of the war and those who had lived through it – proving that Danny & The Juniors were right when they sang “rock and roll is here to stay, it will never die.”
The writing was on the wall. As Elvis churned out hit after hit, record distributors saw sales of singles hit heretofore unreachable numbers, and teenage girls (and some boys too) swooned and screamed during TV host Ed Sullivan’s tenuous presentation of the new star. Then, unexpectedly, Elvis, accused of corrupting the nation’s youth, enlisted in the Army to prove that he was a red-blooded American boy. This, however, put a serious kink in his career and after the military Elvis was never again the rebellious, wild man that had so inflamed the youth. A much sanitized version of the King went on to make a bunch of ‘B’ movies which, ironically, have kept him alive on cable TV, alongside concert films of a sweating, bloated Elvis, which have become a common parody image of an all-time great artist.
Elvis Presley’s influence on the music and culture cannot be over-stated; while visiting Graceland doing research for a radio special on Presley, I asked to use the restroom and was admitted to a private room off the kitchen. The walls were covered with signatures of various artists who had been there and right over the toilet were scrawled these words - “Bob Dylan was here.” The day Elvis died I was watching the coverage on TV when my phone rang. On the line were my friends Patt and Big Bag, two other promo guys, calling to ask if they could come over. “We don’t think you should be alone.” So, I got out the Elvis records and when the guys arrived with beer, chips and other stuff, we had a wake. We told stories about how Elvis had inspired us all to go into the music business and how tragic it was that he died so young.
Maybe it was all just too much for a Tupelo truck-driving boy: the adoration of his fans, the world-wide fame, the death of his mother, the loss of his wife and daughter, and the enablers around him looking away from his substance abuse out of fear of banishment. Perhaps, we thought, it was prescient when he sang, “Fame and Fortune, how empty they can be.”
- The Don Who Rocks
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