Friday, March 23, 2007

Elvis Presley

Elvis Aaron Presley (January 8, 1935 - August 16, 1977), often known simply as Elvis and also called "The King of Rock 'n' Roll" or simply "The King", was an American singer, musician and actor. He remains a pop icon and is regarded by some to be the most important, original entertainer of the last fifty years. Presley is one of the most talked about and written about performers of the 20th Century. (Presley's birth certificate uses the spelling "Aaron", and his estate has designated this as the official spelling of his middle name. He used the name because of his twin brother, Garon, who died at birth, so Elvis would always have a part of his brother with him.)

Presley started as a singer of rockabilly, singing many songs from rhythm and blues, gospel and country. He was first billed as "The Hilbilly Cat". His combination of country music with bluesy vocals and a strong back beat marked a clear path toward rock & roll. He was the most commercially successful singer of rock and roll, but he also had success with ballads, country, gospel, blues, pop, folk and even semi-operatic and jazz standards. His voice, which developed into many voices as his career progressed, had always a unique tonality and an extraordinarily unusual center of gravity, leading to his ability to tackle a range of songs and melodies which would be nearly impossible for most other popular singers to achieve. In a musical career of over two decades, Presley set many records, such as concert attendance, television ratings, and records sales, and became one of the best-selling artists in music history.

He is an icon of modern American pop culture. In the late 1960s, Presley re-emerged as a live performer of old and new hit songs, both on tour and in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he was known for his on-stage highly energetic performances both vocally and physically, his sartorial jump-suits and capes adding to the drama. He attracted massive attendance figures. His concert performances were staggering in quantity, considering they numbered 1,145 in 8 years, 1969-1977. He continued to perform before sell-out audiences around the U.S. until his death in 1977. His death from a drug overdose at 42 followed alarming concerns about his health. His death on August 16, 1977 proved a huge shock to his fans; however, it soon became clear that a combination of over-work, obesity, depression, bad diet and severe abuse of prescription drugs, accelerated his premature departure. Nevertheless, much confusion, conflict, contradictions and general controversy still surrounds his death. Regardless, his popularity as a singer has survived his death.

Elvis Presley - Origin of the surname

The surname Presley was Anglicized from the German name "Pressler" during the Civil War. His ancestor Johann Valentin Pressler emigrated to America in 1710. Presley was mostly of Scottish, Native American, Irish, Jewish, and German roots.

Elvis Presley - Early life

Elvis Presley was born on January 8, 1935 at around 4:35 a.m. in a two-room shotgun house in Tupelo, Mississippi, to Vernon Presley, a truck driver, and Gladys Love Smith, a sewing machine operator. Vernon Presley is described as "taciturn to the point of sullenness" and as "a weakling, a malingerer, always averse to work and responsibility," whereas his mother, Gladys, was "voluble, lively, full of spunk." Priscilla Presley describes her as "a surreptitious drinker and alcoholic." When she was angry, "she cussed like a sailor." Presley's twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley, was stillborn, thus leaving him to grow up as an only child. Jesse Garon Presley was buried in a shoebox in an unmarked grave, in Priceville Cemetery in Tupelo. In the evening of April 5, 1936, Elvis survived the forth dealiest tornado in US history in the Tupelo community that took 233 lives.

Neither Gladys nor Vernon had finished elementary school. The result was one "menial job after another. One run-down apartment after the next, barely enough money to put food on the table for a family of three." However, Presley's parents were very protective of their only surviving child. The little boy "grew up a loved and precious child. He was, everyone agreed, unusually close to his mother." "Much has been written about the unusually close relationship between Elvis and his mother, often with the suggestion of something unhealthy afoot," because "Elvis, sole survivor of a pair of twins delivered by Gladys, would reap the love and attention normally given two boys." His mother "worshipped him," said a neighbor, "from the day he was born." Elvis himself said, "My mama never let me out of her sight. I couldn't go down to the creek with the other kids."

In 1938, when Presley was three years old, his father was convicted of forgery. Vernon, Gladys's brother Travis Smith, and Luther Gable went to prison for altering a check from Orville Bean, Vernon's boss, from $3 to $8 and then cashing it at a local bank. Vernon was sentenced to three years at Mississippi State Penitentiary. Though Vernon was released after serving eight months, this event deeply influenced the life of the young family. During her husband's absence, Gladys lost the house and was forced to move in briefly with her in-laws next door. The Presley family lived just above the poverty line during their years in East Tupelo.

In 1941 Presley started school at the East Tupelo Consolidated. There he seems to have been an outsider. His few friends relate that he was separate from any crowd and did not belong to any "gang", but, according to his teachers, he was a sweet and average student, and he loved comic books. In 1943 Vernon moved to Memphis, where he found work and stayed throughout the war, coming home only on weekends.

In her book, Elvis and Gladys, Elaine Dundy cites many examples of young Presley, between the ages of eight and ten, going off to town on Saturday afternoons to listen to local musicians, attend radio shows or hang out at theaters. In January 1945 Gladys took Elvis shopping for a birthday present at Tupelo Hardware. She bought him his first guitar, in lieu of a bike and rifle, for $12.75.

In 1946 Presley started at a new school, Milam, which went from grades 5 through 9, but in 1948 the family left Tupelo, moving 110 miles northwest to Memphis, Tennessee. Here, too, the thirteen-year-old lived in the city's poorer section of town and attended a Pentecostal church. At this time, he was very much influenced by the Memphis blues music and the gospel sung at his church. His only reason for waking up in the morning was to give those he deemed "squares" a "haircut on the neckline."

In his teens Presley was still a very shy person, a "kid who had spent scarcely a night away from home in his nineteen years." He was teased by his fellow classmates who threw "things at him - rotten fruit and stuff - because he was different, because he was quiet and he stuttered and he was a mama's boy." He is even said to have been cornered in the bathroom of his school by a couple of boys with scissors, but was rescued by upperclassman Red West.

Presley entered Humes High School in Memphis and worked at the school library and after school at Loew's State Theatre. In 1951 he enrolled in the school's ROTC unit and tried unsuccessfully to qualify for the high school football team, (the coach supposedly cut him from the team for not trimming his sideburns and ducktail). He spent his spare time around the African-American section of Memphis, especially on Beale Street. In 1953 he graduated from Humes, majoring in History, English, and Shop.

After graduation Presley worked at the Parker Machinists Shop, and, after working at the Precision Tool Company with his father, worked for the Crown Electric Company driving a truck. Here he began wearing his hair in his signature pompadour style.

His mother Gladys was so proud of her son, that, years later, she "would get up early in the morning to run off the fans so Elvis could sleep". She was frightened of Elvis being hurt: "She knew her boy, and she knew he could take care of himself, but what if some crazy man came after him with a gun? she said... tears streaming down her face."

Elvis Presley - Voice characteristics

Elvis Presley was a baritone whose voice had an extraordinary compass - the so-called register - and a very wide range of vocal color. It covered two octaves and a third, from the baritone low-G to the tenor high B, with an upward extension in falsetto to at least a D flat. Presley's best octave was in the middle, D-flat to D-flat. "He has always been able to duplicate the open, hoarse, ecstatic, screaming, shouting, wailing, reckless sound of the black rhythm-and-blues and gospel singers. But he has not been confined to that one type of vocal production." In ballads and country songs he was able to belt out "full-voiced high Gs and As that an opera baritone might envy," showing a remarkable ability to naturally assimilate styles. His "voice has always been weak at the bottom, variable and unpredictable. At the top it is often brilliant. His upward passage would seem to lie in the area of E flat, E and F."

Presley's range, though impressive in its own right, did not in itself make his voice that remarkable, at least in terms of how it measured against musical notation. What made it extraordinary, was where its center of gravity lay. By that measure, and according to Gregory Sandows, Music Professor at Columbia University, Presley was at once a bass, a baritone, and a tenor, most unusual among singers in either classical or popular music.

However, at the beginning of his career, critics ridiculed Presley's manner of singing. For instance, on June 11, 1956, Time magazine called the singer "dreamboat Groaner Elvis ("Hi luh-huh-huh-huv-huv yew-hew") Presley."

Elvis Presley - Sun recordings

On July 18, 1953 Presley paid $3.25 to record the first of two double-sided demo acetates at Sun Studios, "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin", which were popular ballads at the time. According to the official Presley website, Presley gave it to his mother as a much-belated birthday present. Presley returned to Sun Studios (706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee) on January 4, 1954. He again paid $8.25 to record a second demo, "I'll Never Stand in Your Way" and "It Wouldn't Be the Same Without You" (master 0812).

Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, who had already recorded blues artists such as Howlin' Wolf, James Cotton, B.B. King, Little Milton, and Junior Parker, was looking for "a white man with a Negro sound and the Negro feel," with whom he "could make a billion dollars," because he thought black blues and boogie-woogie music might become tremendously popular among white people if presented in the right way. The Sun Records producer felt that a black rhythm and blues act stood little chance at the time of gaining the broad exposure needed to achieve large-scale commercial success."

Phillips and assistant Marion Keisker heard the Presley discs and called him on June 26, 1954, to fill in for a missing ballad singer. Although that session was not productive, Phillips put Presley together with local musicians Scotty Moore and Bill Black to see what might develop. During a rehearsal break on July 5, 1954, Presley began singing a blues song written by Arthur Crudup called "That's All Right". Phillips liked the resulting record and on July 19, 1954, he released it as a 78-rpm single backed with Presley's hopped-up version of Bill Monroe's bluegrass song "Blue Moon of Kentucky". Memphis radio station WHBQ began playing it two days later; the record became a local hit and Presley began a regular touring schedule hoping to expand his fame beyond Tennessee.

However, Sam Phillips had difficulty persuading Southern white disc jockeys to play Presley's first recordings. The only places that played his records at first were in the Negro sections of Chicago and Detroit and in California. However, his music and style began to draw larger and larger audiences as he toured the South in 1955. Soon, demands by white teenagers that their local radio stations play his music overcame much of that resistance.Still, throughout 1955 and even well into 1956 when he had become a national phenomenon, Presley had to deal with an entrenched racism of die-hard segregationists and their continued labeling of his sound and style as vulgar "jungle music". Allegations of racism were made against Presley, possibly by those segregationist elements who hated what he was doing. Jet examined the issue and in its August 1, 1957 edition, the African American magazine concluded that: "To Elvis, people are people regardless of race, color or creed."

Country music star Hank Snow arranged to have Presley perform at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry and his performance was well received. Nonetheless, one of the show's executives allegedly told Presley, "You ain't going nowhere, son. You may as well stick to driving a truck." Indeed, at the start of his fame, Presley didn't look like a rising star. Guitarist Scotty Moore described him as a "typical coddled son", still "very shy", and "more comfortable just sitting there with a guitar than trying to talk to you."

Presley's second single, "Good Rockin' Tonight", with "I Don't Care if the Sun Don't Shine" on the B-side, was released on September 25, 1954. He then continued to tour the South. On October 16, 1954, he made his first appearance on Louisiana Hayride, a radio broadcast of live country music in Shreveport, Louisiana, and was a hit with the large audience. His releases began to reach the top of the country charts. Following this, Presley was signed to a one-year contract for a weekly performance, during which time he was introduced to Colonel Tom Parker.

National exposure began on January 28, 1956, when Presley, Moore, Black, and drummer D.J. Fontana made their first National Television appearance on the Dorsey brothers' Stage Show. It was the first of six appearances on the show and the first of eight performances recorded and broadcast from CBS TV Studio 50 at 1697 Broadway, New York. After the success of their first appearance, they were signed to five more in early 1956 (February 4, 11, 18 and March 17 and 24

Elvis Presley - Presley and his manager "Colonel" Tom Parker

On August 15, 1955, Presley was signed by "Hank Snow Attractions", a management company jointly owned by singer Hank Snow and "Colonel" Tom Parker. Shortly thereafter, "Colonel" Parker took full control and, recognizing the limitations of Sun Studios, negotiated a deal with RCA Victor Records to acquire Presley's Sun contract for $35,000 on November 21, 1955. Presley's first single for RCA "Heartbreak Hotel" quickly sold one million copies and within a year RCA would go on to sell ten million Presley singles.

Parker was a master promoter who wasted no time in furthering Presley's image, licensing everything from guitars to cookware. Parker's first major coup was to market Presley on television. First, he had Presley booked in six of the Dorsey Shows (CBS). Presley appeared on the show on January 28, 1956, then on February 4, 11 & 18, 1956, with two more appearances on March 17 & 24, 1956. In March, he was able to obtain a lucrative deal with Milton Berle (NBC) for two appearances. The first appearance was on April 3, 1956. The second appearance was controversial due to Presley's performance of "Hound Dog" on June 5, 1956. It sparked a storm over his "gyrations" while singing. The controversy lasted through the rest of the 50's. However, that show drew such huge ratings that Steve Allen (ABC), who was a jazz devotee and hated rock 'n' roll, booked him for one appearance, which took place early on July 1, 1956. "Presley was dressed in the white tie and tails of a ´'high-class' musician, the clothes were intentionally made so tight he couldn't move freely." According to Jake Austen, "the way Steve Allen treated Elvis Presley was his federal crime. Allen thought Presley was talentless and absurd, and so he decided to goof on him. Allen set things up so that Presley would show his contrition by appearing in a tuxedo and singing his new song 'Hound Dog' to an elderly basset hound..." "Scotty Moore has testified that when the band went into the studio the next day to record 'Hound Dog,' they were all angry about their treatment the previous night." Notwithstanding, that night, Allen had for the first time beaten The Ed Sullivan Show in the Sunday night ratings, prompting Sullivan (CBS) to book Presley for three appearances: September 9, and October 28, 1956 as well as January 6, 1957, for an unprecedented fee of $50,000. On September 9, 1956, at his first of three appearances on the Sullivan show, Presley drew an estimated 82.5% percent of the television audience, calculated at between 55-60 million viewers. On his third and final appearance (January 6, 1957) on the The Ed Sullivan Show, Sullivan, apparently very impressed by Presley, pointed to him and told the audience "This is a real decent, fine boy. We've never had a pleasanter experience on our show with a big name than we've had with you You're thoroughly all right." However, it has also been said that Presley's manager orchestrated the compliment in exchange for permitting Presley to appear, after Sullivan had earlier publicly stated his refusal to allow Presley on his program.

Parker eventually negotiated a multi-picture seven-year contract with Hal Wallis that shifted Presley's focus from music to films. Under the terms of his contract, Presley earned a fee for performing plus a percentage of the profits on the films, most of which were huge moneymakers. These were usually musicals based around Presley performances, and marked the beginning of his transition from rebellious rock and roller to all-round family entertainer. Presley was praised by all his directors, including the highly respected Michael Curtiz, as unfailingly polite and extremely hardworking.

Presley began his movie career with Love Me Tender which opened on November 15, 1956. The movies Jailhouse Rock (1957) and King Creole (1958) are regarded as among his best early films.

Parker's success led to Presley expanding the "Colonel's" management contract to an even 50/50 split. Over the years, much has been written about "Colonel" Parker, most of it critical. "Endlessly deferring to his manager," says John Harris, the singer "watched his own career dive first into B-movie schmaltz and thence towards the dead-end that was Las Vegas." Marty Lacker, a lifelong friend and a member of the Memphis Mafia, says he thought of Parker as a "hustler and scam artist" who abused Presley's reliance on him. Priscilla Presley admits that "Elvis detested the business side of his career. He would sign a contract without even reading it." This would explain the strong influence the Colonel had on Presley. Nonetheless, Lacker acknowledged that Parker was a master promoter.

Elvis Presley - Presley and African American music

Even in the 1950s era of blatant racism, Presley would publicly cite his debt to African American music, pointing to artists such as B. B. King, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Jackie Wilson, Robert Johnson, Ivory Joe Hunter, and Fats Domino. The reporter who conducted Presley's first interview in New York City in 1956 noted that he named blues singers who "obviously meant a lot to him. I was very surprised to hear him talk about the black performers down there and about how he tried to carry on their music." Later that year in Charlotte, North Carolina, Presley was quoted as saying: "The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doin' now, man, for more years than I know. They played it like that in their shanties and in their juke joints and nobody paid it no mind 'til I goosed it up. I got it from them. Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now and I said if I ever got to a place I could feel all old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw." Little Richard said of Presley: "He was an integrator. Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn’t let black music through. He opened the door for black music." B. B. King said he began to respect Presley after he did Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup material and that after he met him, he thought the singer really was something else and was someone whose music was growing all the time right up to his death.

Up to the mid 1950s black artists had sold minuscule amounts of their recorded music relative to the national market potential. Black songwriters had mostly limited horizons and could only eke out a living. But after Presley purchased the music of African American Otis Blackwell and had his "Gladys Music" company hire talented black songwriter Claude Demetrius, the industry underwent a dramatic change. In the spring of 1957 Presley invited African American performer Ivory Joe Hunter to visit Graceland and the two spent the day together, singing "I Almost Lost My Mind" and other songs. Of Presley, Hunter commented, "He showed me every courtesy, and I think he's one of the greatest."

However, certain elements in American society began to simply dismiss Presley as no more than a racist Southerner who stole black music, but in the words of Black R&B artist Jackie Wilson, "A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man's music, when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis."

"Racists attacked rock and roll because of the mingling of black and white people it implied and achieved, and because of what they saw as black music's power to corrupt through vulgar and animalistic rhythms. The popularity of Elvis Presley was similarly founded on his transgressive position with respect to racial and sexual boundaries. White cover versions of hits by black musicians often outsold the originals; it seems that many Americans wanted black music without the black people in it," and Elvis had undoubtedly "derived his style from the Negro rhythm-and-blues performers of the late 1940s."

The Elvis stole black music theme is an enduring one with arguments for and against published in books (see: "Dispelling The Myths An analysis of American Attitudes and Prejudices", Todd Rheingold, Believe In The Dream Publications, USA, 1992, LOCC:93-090296, and on Elvis websites and popular music messageboards. Several arguments are presented on the Elvis Information Network website in its Spotlight On The King section.

"Many White people would be surprised to learn that Elvis Presley's hit 'Hound Dog' was first popularized by a Black woman, Big Mama Thornton. Elvis and his music live on the collective memory of Whites, yet Little Richard, some of whose work Elvis borrowed, has been forgotten." A southern background combined with a performing style largely associated with African Americans had led to "bitter criticism by those who feel he stole a good thing," as Tan magazine surmised. No wonder that Elvis became "a symbol of all that was oppressive to the black experience in the Western Hemisphere". What is more, Presley was widely believed to have said, "The only thing black people can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my records." It was claimed that the alleged comment was made either in Boston or on Edward R. Murrow's Person to Person. A black southerner in the late 1980s even captured that sentiment: "To talk to Presley about blacks was like talking to Adolf Hitler about the Jews."

In his scholarly work Race, Rock, and Elvis, Tennessee State University professor Michael T. Bertrand examined the relationship between popular culture and social change in America and these allegations against Presley. Professor Bertrand postulated that Presley's rock and roll music brought an unprecedented access to African American culture that challenged the 1950s segregated generation to reassess ingrained segregationist stereotypes. The American Historical Review wrote that the author "convincingly argues that the black-and-white character of the sound, as well as Presley's own persona, helped to relax the rigid color line and thereby fed the fires of the civil rights movement." The U.S. government report stated: "Presley has been accused of "stealing" black rhythm and blues, but such accusations indicate little knowledge of his many musical influences." "However much Elvis may have 'borrowed' from black blues performers (e.g., 'Big Boy' Crudup, 'Big Mama' Thornton), he borrowed no less from white country stars (e.g., Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe) and white pop singers (e.g., Mario Lanza, Dean Martin)," and most of his borrowings came from the church; its gospel music was his primary musical influence and foundation."

Whether or not it was justified, the fact remains that distrust of Presley was common amongst the general African-American population after the accusations of racism were made public. According to George Plasketes, several songs came out after the singer's death which are a part of a "démystification process as they portray Elvis as a racist." In his book, Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past, David Roediger considers contemporary "wiggers" (white kids "acting Black") in light of the tensions in racial impersonation embodied by Elvis Presley.