Friday Five: January 1959

It’s a brand new year so let’s try a brand new way of doing things. Each week I’ll move year-by-year and post 5 songs that cracked the Billboard top 5 for the month in which I post. Why don’t we start with 1959 because, well, why not?

5. “One Night” by Elvis Presley
The King started 1959 at the #5 spot with this song, originally recorded by Smiley Lewis in 1956. Lewis’ version begins “One night of sin / Is what I’m now paying for,” a line too suggestive for RCA and Elvis’ handlers. The cleaned up version was released in ’58 and peaked at #4 before working it’s way downward in the following year.

4. “Sixteen Candles” by The Crests
Comprised of three African Americans, an Italian American, and one Puerto Rican, The Crests were the first interracial doo-wop group to achieve any chart success. This song was their biggest hit, reaching #4 in January 1959 before peaking at #2 the following month (they were kept out of the top spot by the next song on this list). I suspect we’ll see some cinematic representation of the 50s more than a century from now (or whatever cinema becomes by then) where this song will be played. I’m not sure that make its timeless but, rather, more “time bound” and iconic.

3. “Stagger Lee” by Lloyd Price
It’s a song about a real life event——the 1895 Christmas night murder of a man (Billy Lyons) by a St. Louis pimp (“Stag” Lee Shelton) all over a Stetson hat. A song evolved over time, “corrupting” the name of the assailant into we have now. Lloyd Price’s version would reach the top spot the following month but it peaked at the #5 position in January 1959. As a young teenager I loved to listen to this on an old 45 my folks had. Even then it sounded like a game changer to me. I can only imagine what this sounded like in 1959.

2. “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” by The Platters
This is why you slow dance. The Platters reached #1 with this gem in January 1959. It was originally written for a musical named Roberta in 1933 and had grown into something of a standard over the next two decades for everyone from Glen Miller to Nat King Cole. The Platters were already established after hits like “Only You” and “(You’ve Got) The Magic Touch” when they started reworking older tunes and making them their own. The widow of the original composer stirred some controversy when she expressed her displeasure with the reboot of her husband’s work by a rock ‘n roll group. It’s a peak into the window of time when rock ‘n roll meant something bad.

1. “Donna” by Ritchie Valens
How can I not put this at my top spot? The seventeen-year-old Chicano named Richard Valenzuela had a professional musical career that lasted less than a year. He only released three singles in his lifetime. The first was a song he wrote, “Come On, Let’s Go.”  It was his first hit record (the B-side was the Lieber/Stoller song “Framed”). His second was this song, a tune he wrote about the girl he loved. The B-side was “La Bamba,” Valens’ reworking of a Mexican folk ballad. Side A peaked at #3 in January 1959.  On February 2, Valens (along with Buddy Holly and J.P. Richardson, a.k.a. “The Big Bopper”) would perish in a plane crash.  “Donna” would peak at #2 a couple of weeks later.  “La Bamba” at #22.

Elvis at 34

Elvis Presley died 34 years ago today. What better way to remember the King than to look back at his 34th year of life?

Elvis turned 34 in January of 1969. The once reigning King of popular music had become something of a pop cliche by the 60s, known best for his string of simple but pleasing feature films. In 1968, his now legendary “comeback special” (which aired in December on NBC) reminded the world that not only was the man an amazing talent, but that he still “had it.”

On the heels of his resurgence in popularity, Elvis took to the stage again for his first live performances in almost 8 years. In July, he opened at the International Hotel in Las Vegas for an extended stay, playing his first show to 2000 adoring fans who couldn’t have imagined the historic scope of the event they attended.

In that audience was a young baby named Tomás.

No! Just kidding. I wasn’t born yet. But when I entered this world three years later, the Elvis stage performances which began in those weeks of the summer 1969 had been honed and perfected. In terms of his stage presence, he was never better in his post-50s period than he was from 1969 to 1972. By that time, however, the excesses (food, drugs, and production design) regularly overcame the talent, as the King became little more than a cardboard cut-out of his once great image.

But we’ll always have 1969! Here’s the King in sound and (often) un-synched video from some of those 1969 shows.

Happy Birthday Elvis

If he had lived, Elvis Presley would have turned 75 years old today.

Elvis Aaron Presley was born on January 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi. His birth certificate listed his middle name as “Aron,” later ascribed to his father’s misspelling of the Biblical reference he and his wife had chosen. Elvis had an identical twin who was given a sound-alike middle name. That child–named Jesse Garon–was stillborn and was buried on January 9. Elvis often said his middle name was given to remind him that his brother was a part of him.

Elvis began his professional musical career in 1954, at the age of 19. By the time he was 21 he was a worldwide sensation. You know the rest from there: over one billion units in records sales worldwide; 150 albums and singles certified at least gold; 40 top ten singles and 18 number one hits; thirty-one motion pictures, plus two more concert films; the highest rated TV broadcast in history–twice. They don’t get bigger than Elvis.

That sounds cliche, but it really can’t be more true. Elvis defined the story arc of a rock ‘n roll legend. He was a poor, good-looking kid with an immense amount of talent. He had a quick rise to fame and became as big a star as there ever was. All of it was balanced on his musical hybridity, his commodification in mass media, and his distinct appeal to a younger generation (coupled with an active loathing of him by vocal contingents of an older generation). He parlayed his musical stardom into television and motion picture success; he became a “has been” who only had followings among a bunch of grown-ups and preteens before having a “comeback” in his early middle age. He tour extensively, even going to Vegas–a town he opened up to a new clientele. He ended his career as something of a joke, a bloated and crumbling god, almost playing a caricature of his former iconic self. He died of a drug overdose, and became as large in death as in life.

All other rock stars since him have been impersonators of him, even if they are departing from his story. He is the North Star in our commercial, musical, popular culture.

I’ve written a lot about Elvis on this blog, and I will probably write a lot more in the future. Back when this site was hosted on Blogger, the very first post on Latino Like Me (in August 2007) was about the 30th anniversary of the death of the King. His death is an event I remember very well, even to this day, although I was only 5 years old at the time. It stands out to me now as a reference point for this, the anniversary of his birth.

The above picture is of Elvis during his final concert performance in June 1977. This is the man who died less than two months later. Visually and otherwise, he has but the faintest connection to the image of the star I posted at the start of this entry.

I have spent most of my life consciously knowing of Elvis Presley–the man and the legend–as a dead person. The dead Elvis has been surrounded in the glorious tragedy and obscure minutia of his tragic demise–the drugs, the loneliness, the excess, the pain.

Strangely, at the same time, I have also grown up knowing another Elvis, a living breathing one. This one is wrapped up in youth, in the 50s and 60s, in talent and passion and hysteria.

The birthday of Elvis is not disconnected from the anniversary of his death. I don’t think it can be. But, at least for me, it is primarily an occasion that brings up memories of things that happened long before I ever lived but that made lasting impacts on my life nonetheless.

The 75th birthday of Elvis Presley is real, even though he isn’t alive to experience it. That’s because of another thing he meaningfully embodied, not in life but in death–immortality through culture.

Strange Coincidences in History

It has occurred to me that this past Sunday was another strange pop cultural event in the world.

Ronnie James Dio died on May 16, 2010, on the exact 20 year anniversary of the passing of Sammy Davis Jr.  On August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley died and, 20 years to that day, in 1997, internationally-known Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan died.  Elvis and Nusrat are a pair, each man has a similar standing in his own musical genre, musical culture, and global industry.  Dio and Davis aren’t too oddly matched either, both being notables inside of a larger genre, perhaps not recognized widely as the best but certainly widely known as on of the best by all those who’s opinions matter.

Re-Writing the Death of Elvis

What, indeed, is the relation between the things we can’t remember and the things we can’t forget?

The question has been nagging me in the past three days as I began to read the flurry of news reports relating to the death of Elvis Presley.  While the “King of Rock and Roll” passed away more than thirty years ago, a new book is alleging his death was not due to excessive weight, heart disease, or drug abuse.  A “longtime friend” of the King himself instead says he died from constipation.

And who is this “long time friend” who is also the author of the forthcoming book?  It’s George “Nick” Nichopoulos, Elvis’ former personal physician.

The man known as “Dr. Nick” to Elvis and the Memphis Mafia is the author of “The King and Dr. Nick,” in which he describes his theory of Elvis’ death as being the result of complications due to bowel paralysis.  The most shocking thing about this claim is that it comes from Dr. Nick, the only person to have faced charges relating to the death of Elvis.

When Elvis died on August 16, 1977, at the age of 42, investigators learned that Dr. Nick and his wife were heavily indebted to the King for an estimated $300,000.  They learned that he has become a close associate of Elvis, as well as his entourage and other notables in the regional music industry (such as Jerry Lee Lewis).  They also learned that Dr. Nick had prescribed more than 5,684 narcotic and amphetamine pills and vials to the King in the seven months before he died. Dr. Nick prescribed Elvis an average of 25 doses of drugs a day.  The day he died, Elvis filed a prescription for 8 medications from his “longtime friend,” Quaaludes, Percodan, Desadrine, Dilaudids, among them.

If Elvis was constipated, the above concoction would be a great start to determining the source.

In January 1980, Dr. Nick–who acted as one of the King’s pallbearers–had his medical license suspended by the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners for his overprescription of Elvis.  The suspension lasted but three months, but Dr. Nick also faced a jury for his actions.  They acquitted him of malpractice and unethical conduct.  I doubt they would do so today.

George Nichopoulos has a vested interest in floating a different version of the King’s death, because he in the person most implicated in contributing to it!  This fact–and the ones mentioned above–are absent from any of the news stories I have seen.  Indeed, most focus on the “new” theory of the death of Elvis without even a questioning gaze turned back to the source.

Oh, the sorry state of journalism!

Elvis in Vegas

Forty years ago today, Elvis Presley performed before more than 2,000 screaming fans at the International Hotel in Las Vegas and, in so doing, began his “last comeback,” the final phase of his storied career in popular music and culture.

Elvis took to the stage on July 31, 1969 after an eight-year absence that saw him go from a cultural phenomenon to a movie star to a relic of a time long-since past. Music had changed, the culture had changed, and Elvis no longer appeared to be relevant.

His significance could not be denied. By 1969 a wide array of music superstars could draw their musical lineage back to the King. He had sold more than 250 million records and had the record for most gold albums and gold records (ten and forty-seven, respectively).

And then there was December 1968, when NBC aired a television special that became popularly-known as the “comeback special.” The middle-aged King, looking tan and lean, dressed in black leather from head to toe, stood before a small audience in the round and—without fancy lights, effects, or even electricity pulsing through the instruments—he and his band put his magic on display. It was simple and beautiful rock and roll: blues, country, gospel…Elvis.

Something began to stir in the King, as it did in his manager Col. Tom Parker, and mere months later, Elvis had been signed to be the inaugural act at the largest showroom in all of Las Vegas in the newest hotel on the strip.

A young music reporter at the Los Angeles Times by the name of Robert Hilburn was assigned the task of reporting on Elvis’ Vegas gig. Hilburn penned something of a love letter to the King, a piece titled “History Will Place Elvis in No.1 Spot.” In it, he wrote:

At the time of his initial success, those reviewing popular music didn’t appreciate or understand the sensual, driving, undisciplined music of the singer from Memphis. Having accepted Sinatra and the tradition of Tin Pan Alley as their standard, they couldn’t take the new sound seriously. When they did write about Presley, it was usually in tones of outrage or humor.

When younger writers, who had been moved by Presley’s music, reached an age where their articles would be accepted by editors, Presley was no longer a vital, moving musical force.

With the youthful exuberance of an avid fan of popular music, he cautioned: “But that is going to be corrected now. Elvis is back.”

In some ways, Elvis was back. The King played to sell out crowds for the remaining parts of the summer of 1969, the start of a series of live performances which would carry him through to his death in 1977. From 1969 to the early seventies, some of those performances deserve to be ranked among his best. Film footage provides testament to his sheer, human force, his musical power and raw electricity. Backed by a stellar band and vocal section, and a modern and visual production, Elvis’ Vegas shows were an event, to be sure.

Of course, addicted to drugs and hindered by a physical girth that would match his stardom, many of his live performances in the later era also provide evidence of his decline, both in physical health and performative ability. The famous rock analyst Lester Bangs said it bluntly in his eulogy to the King, “Where Were You When Elvis Died?” Accusing Presley of having “contempt for the audience,” he wrote: “I see him as being more like the Pentagon, a giant 
armored institution nobody knows anything about except that its power is 
legendary. Obviously we all liked Elvis more than the pentagon, but look at what a 
paltry statement that is.”

The “Vegas Elvis”—bloated, in studded jumpsuit, when the person on stage became more an imposter of the image he once embodied than the real thing—provided the last, and, hence, lingering, image we have of the King doing what made him famous. It’s a shame, of course, because there is some greatness in that time, too. But if it must be, then so be it, because there is even a grandeur in his tragic demise.

Forty years ago today, when Elvis began this, the last stage in his hallowed career, he also began writing the final chapter in the archetype he continues to define. Elvis was and remains the very definition of what we call “Rock ‘n’ Roll.” We revel in his house, one built with many a mighty voice and strum, but occupied by only one, then and now.

As the young Hilburn wrote back in 1969: “When all the applause is finished, the stage is cleared and the showroom at the International Hotel is emptied, one message remains: the rock generation was right after all. Elvis Presley was no false idol. He was, and remains, the most important of all.”

All photos came from the wonderful website “Elvis Presley Music” and their section on this special day in rock history.

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