It remains one of the most powerfully incisive speeches in U.S. history. Delivered at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was gunned down.
Elvis Presley was born 83 years ago today. It’s a good time to take a little taste of what made the man special, musically speaking.
Here’s a recording of the song “My Happiness” made by Elvis on July 18, 1953. It’s his first ever recording, an acetate press made for $3.98 at the Memphis Recording Service at Sam Phillip’s Sun Record Company.
There’s no producer here. No technological tricks. No band even. No nothing, really, just Elvis and his guitar and a style made up of the diverse musical upbringing he had.
It’s a great example of Elvis in an unadulterated form. Maybe we can think of it as a “pure” Elvis, before he gets marketed as a “product” and long before that process makes it so that many other forces are involved in what his music is.
To put that specialness into context, here are some popular recordings of the song made before Elvis walked into Sun Studios. This is “My Happiness” by the Marlin Sisters, a 1947 recording that is believed to be the first:
Here are Jon and Sondra Steele, whose May 1948 recording was the first “hit” version of the song:
Competing versions by the Pied Pipers and none other than the great Ella Fitzgerald also came out in 1948:
There are elements of all of these in Elvis’ version. Perhaps he’s closest to the last two, which are a touch slower than the earlier ones. But Elvis’ phrasing and vocal shifts are his all alone. He’s more than an imposter, even at this early stage in his career. He was a hybrid, a part of this and that, mixed with something from here and something from there. The resulting style brought together white and black musical styles, along with specific trends from different genres (like country and gospel and rhythm & blues) and made them into something else.
Elvis certainly wasn’t the only one doing this. I’m willing to admit he might not even have been the best. But he certainly wasn’t something to be dismissed. The tradition of that hybridity, mixed with raw talent, and even mixed with the commodification of the marketplace, all that is the history of rock ‘n roll.
So happy birthday to the King!
Happy New Year! The start of 2018 gives me a chance to update my list of celebrities who are still with us but, because of advanced age or the passage of time, are kind of forgotten. As I’ve said in earlier posts, think of this as a chance to experience the “I didn’t know s/he was still alive” feeling before reading their obituaries.
A good number of past spotlighted celebrities are still kicking. Carol Channing (96), Hal Holbrook (92), Henry Silva (89), and the private Doris Day (93) are alive. Olivia de Havilland continues to be the standout celebrity for my list. At 101, the former actress who had a lead role in Gone With the Wind is likely the oldest living Oscar winner. Of course, former “Lollipop Guild” member and oldest living “Munchkin” Jerry Maren (98) is also a noteworthy mention.
The passing of Fats Domino and Chuck Berry in 2017 make legends like Little Richard (85) and Jerry Lee Lewis (82) worth mentioning. Carl Reiner (95) recently made a documentary for HBO called If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast spotlighting nonagenarians like himself. Friends Dick Van Dyke (92), Betty White (95), Mel Brooks (91), and Norman Lear (95) were all among the folks featured.
That’s already a lot of celebrities, but let me draw attention to three you might not know about:
Larry Storch (94)
Comedian and former star of the show “F-Troop” will turn 95 on January 8. He had a full career in television as a frequent guest star in notable shows of the 60s and 70s and as a voice actor in cartoons later on in life.
Charolette Rae (95)
Mrs. Garret is now 95. She announced last year that she has cancer, but she’s made it to 2018 despite the disease. She is most famous for playing one character on two television shows. Edna Garret began as the housekeeper for the Drummond family of “Diff’rent Strokes” and then became the lead adult in the show “Facts of Life,” which ran from 1980-1988.
Kirk Douglas (101)
The star of Spartacus, Paths of Glory, and The Bad and the Beautiful is perhaps the most famous “Gold Era” Hollywood star still with us. He reached the century mark in December 2016 and is now 101. Father to Michael Douglas, the elder Kirk is arguably the most prominent oldest living celebrity.
I was listening to an interview with Priscilla Presley and Jerry Butler this morning and both were talking about the frustration and disappointment Elvis felt with regards to his movie career. He would read scripts and throw them across the room, deriding their quality and declaring that he wasn’t going to do it anymore.
But Elvis had little choice in the matter. Col. Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, had locked the King into these contracts without much regard for his artistic or creative desires. Ever the promoter, Parker just sought out the best ways for Elvis to make money while protecting the image of the star he used to make money.
In Priscilla’s telling, that’s one of the reasons Elvis got so excited about his television special in 1968, the event that has become forever known as his “’68 Comeback Special.” This was something he knew, and something he could use to express his creative self, maybe even enjoy control for a change.
On this 40th anniversary of his death it feels like an especially good event to remember. In light of the story above, the ’68 special carries more than just the excitement of the “comeback”–the raw, stripped down energy that reminds folks why he was who he was. It also carries with it a little bit of loss, of what could have been, of what he was never allowed to be. That, to me, is so much of the memory of the icon that is Elvis.
In this present moment of a white supremacist president and a resurgent white nationalism, there’s another way it all seems a little more appropriate right now, too.
We’ve been here before. However bad it seems, our ancestors fought through much worse and carved out a road for justice. Now we pick up where they left off, aware that the fight has changed but our weapons–dignity, community, and love–have never been stronger.
Power to the people!
5. “Brand New Day” (The Staple Singers)
We gotta put our heads together / and see where we go from there / We got to fight for what we believe in / Somethin’s in the air!
4. “Everything is Everything” (Lauryn Hill)
Let’s love ourselves and we can’t fail / To make a better situation / Tomorrow, tomorrow, our seeds will grow / All we need is dedication / Let me tell ya that
3. “Glory” (Common and John Legend)
Every day women and men become legends / Sins that go against our skin become blessings / The movement is a rhythm to us / Freedom is like religion to us / Justice is juxtapositionin’ us / Justice for all just ain’t specific enough
2. “Fight the Power!” (Public Enemy)
Got to give us what we want / Gotta give us what we need / Our freedom of speech is freedom or death / We got to fight the powers that be
1. “Better Way” (Ben Harper)
Reality is sharp it cuts at me like a knife / Everyone I know is in the fight of their life /
And I believe in a better way / Take your face out of your hands and clear your eyes / You have a right to your dream and don’t be denied / I believe in a better way