Monday, July 07, 2008

What's the big deal about Elvis?

You have got to be kidding me.

I had a kid say that to me the other day; and he was actually serious.

What's the big deal?

The day Elvis released his version of that song, do you know what the most popular song in the country was?

"16 tons", as sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford, or maybe Dean Martins "Memories are made of this" depending on the chart you were looking at (Billboard didn't standardize chart format until the end of 1958).

Alongside it were the Sammie Davis Jr. version of "That Old Black Magic" (probably most famous as a Sinatra tune today), Mitch Millers "The Yellow Rose of Texas", "Sincerly" by the McGuire sisters, and Tex Ritters "Gunsmoke" and "Remember the Alamo" (Tex Ritter was John Ritters dad by the way).

Imagine listening to Sammy Davis Jr. singing a crooners tune from the 1943, and then all of a sudden, "Tra-aaain traaaiiin, co-homin rown-hown the beh-hend...."

Elvis is the point where R&B, and the blues, and gospel, and boogie-woogie, and early rockabilly, all came together, and made rock and roll (fairly or not; little Richard has a hell of an argument, but the charts don't lie).

Yes, Elvis was ballads, and teenage girls swooning and all that; but Elvis was also himself, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black, pumping out rocking and rolling tunes like "Mystery Train".

Elvis's first single, released July 8th 1954; was, as almost everybody knows, "That's all right Momma", a straight up blues tune by Arthur Crudup:

...and it was competing against The Crewcuts singing "Sh-boom".

A little bit different eh?

By the time Elvis released his first full album, March 28th 1956, he was already on his way to number one in the charts with "Heartbreak Hotel". The followup single "Hound Dog", debuted at number 20 in the singles charts, on its way to number one; unheard of, as there were no Rock &Roll charts yet, and it was competing against the powerhouse that was "Round and Round":

By the by, that sentence might be taken as snarky, but it isn't. Round and Round was the number 1 pop song of 1957 when covered by Como; and it is an absolutely perfect pop song, sung by one of the greatest pop singers who ever lived. Perry Como was a bigger star in his day, than Madonna, or Britney ever were.

This isn't to say that Comos music wasn't good; in many ways it was the continuation of the storytelling song traditional to American music (a tradition that has unfortunately been abandoned by pop music, and now resides almost exclusively in country music). There were a hell of a lot of excellent singers, songwriters, and musicians doing traditional American pop music.

What you can't deny though, is that Rock and Roll really changed everything about popular music; seemingly overnight. Although pop standards survived on the charts through the late 60s (in fact, on occaison Tony Bennet releases a hit even today; and Rod Stewart has launched a second career in pop standards); the dominance of rock and roll was sudden, and nearly complete.

I'm going to share a little list with you. It's all the number 1 singles from 1953 to 1957, and I want to see if you notice a pattern:

"Oh! My Pa-Pa (O Mein Papa)"Eddie Fisher
"Secret Love"Doris Day
"Make Love to Me"Jo Stafford
"Wanted"Perry Como
"Little Things Mean a Lot"Kitty Kallen
"Sh-Boom"The Crew-Cuts
"Hey There"Rosemary Clooney
"This Ole House"Rosemary Clooney
"I Need You Now"Eddie Fisher
"Mr. Sandman"The Chordettes
"Mr. Sandman"The Chordettes
"Let me go Lover"Joan Weber
"Hearts of Stone"The Fontaine Sisters
"Sincerely"The McGuire Sisters
"The Ballad of Davy Crockett"Bill Hayes
"Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White"Perez Prado
"Rock Around the Clock"Bill Haley and The Comets
"The Yellow Rose of Texas"Mitch Miller
"Love is a Many Splendored Thing"The Four Aces
"Autumn Leaves"Roger Williams
"Sixteen Tons"Tennessee Ernie Ford
"Sixteen Tons"Tennessee Ernie Ford
"Memories are Made of This"Dean Martin
"Rock and Roll Waltz"Kay Nelson
"Lisbon Antigua"Nelson Riddle
"The Poor People of Paris"Les Baxter
"Heartbreak Hotel"Elvis Presley
"I was The One"Elvis Presley
"The Wayward Wind"Gogi Grant
"I Want You, I Need You, I Love You"Elvis Presley
"My Baby Left Me"Elvis Presley
"My Prayer"The Platters
"Heaven on Earth"The Platters
"Hound Dog"Elvis Presley
"Don't be Cruel"Elvis Presley
"Love me Tender"Elvis Presley
"Any Way You Want Me"Elvis Presley
"Singing the Blues"Guy Mitchell
In 1955, the pop standard ruled the lists. In the middle of 1956, basically overnight; Rock and Roll took over the number one spot in the person of Elvis Presley, and didn't give it up until the rise of Disco 20 years later.

From the time Elvis hit number 1 with "Heartbreak Hotel" on April 21st 1956, until the end of that year, there were only 11 weeks he was not in the number one slot. He spent 8 weeks on top with Heartbreak Hotel, then after just a 4 week break, another week at #1, then a two week break, and then 16 weeks consecutively at number one (with several different songs).

In fact, the streak continued all through the next year as well, with 7 different number ones in 1957, and a total of 26 weeks in the number one spot. There were 7 more in 1958; amazing considering from March 24th 1958 until May 5th 1960, Elvis was in the Army; then on his discharge, he had four more songs hit number one in 1960, for 14 weeks in the slot. Between 1956 and 1962, the only year Elvis didn't have a number one, was 1959, the year he spent entirely in the army in Germany.

"Elvis Presley" was the first rock and roll album to ever hit number one and it didn't even have his three big singles on it (as was the practice at the time). Every single album in any popular music category made after it, was changed forever.

Only one other popular musician post war could make the same claim; when the Beatles had a similar effect from 1964, to 1970.

It's no coincidence, that Elvis, and The Beatles, are most frequently mentioned in the same breath, as the greatest artists in the history of Rock and Roll.

I should note, I'm not making a qualitative evaluation of Elvis as an artist; personally I like him a lot, but from a purely technical and artistic standpoint he was no better or worse a singer than any other major pop star of the time. In fact in many ways, Pat Boone, or Perry Como, were better singers (certainly Perry Como was). Certainly Little Richard, and Chuck Berry were greater innovators in Rock and Roll.

...But Elvis was white, and Elvis had soul, and he had heart, and he was sexy, and he could move, and he could present himself... Elvis was danger, without being TOO dangerous. Elvis was accessible. Elvis was able to change our culture in so many ways, because he was all of these things.

The big deal, is the IMPACT Elvis had on American popular music.

Oh sure there were better singers, better song writers, better musicians; but no-one else change the face of music the way Elvis, and the Beatles did.

Here's a few more of my favorites from Elvis:

"Elvis aint dead... He just went home..."

The original, not the remix; though I like both.

How is this not the greatest vegas song ever? Oh wait, it is.

One of the earliest REALLY rocking, swinging, hard driving tunes out there.

A lot of folks think it's cheesy, but really get into the groove; and it works.

This one is just plain one of my favorites. I've always loved it.