Elvis Lives

Today is March 25, 2020 and though most people in this world won’t know it, it’s a noteworthy day in the life of Elvis Presley.

“But ain’t he dead?” you might ask. Yes, Elvis was born on January 8, 1935 and died on August 16, 1977. He was 42 years, 7 months, and 8 days old. That’s 15,561 days in total that the King of Rock ‘n Roll roamed this earth.

Well, today is the 15,562nd day since Elvis passed. That means the big guy has now been officially dead longer than he ever was alive.

Of course, in many non-physical ways Elvis remains very much alive. I could throw a whole bunch of statistics at you about the yearly visitor count to Graceland or the millions of dollars Elvis Presley Enterprises continues to make off his work and likeness to show how he “lives” as a business. And, surely, he continues to live in the hearts of all his fans.

The kind of “life” that most interests me is the cultural one. We continue to live in a pop cultural world that he helped to build. Even if the music doesn’t sound at all the same, Elvis played a big part is defining the “culture” of pop music. He helped define the popular music teen idol, sex symbol, rebel, “has been” and the comeback, and even the spectacle, all in ways that still linger today. Oh, there were many others who also played a part in defining those, but few would deny Elvis’ role.

The most interesting way he still lives is through his music. How many times a day is Elvis played on this planet’s radio waves? How many times a day do people put on and listen to his music?

We all live and, I hope, we are all loved and remembered. But how many of us are well remembered longer than we were ever alive? How many of us make such a cultural mark on this globe to be remembered in such meaningful, vital, and longstanding ways as this cat? Not many in the big scheme of things. That doesn’t say much about him or about us as people. It is worth a thought, though. For me, it’s a good excuse to spend some time with his music.

So way to go Elvis. Here’s to your continuing life as the King of Rock ‘n Roll.

Friday Five: February 1962

5. “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis Presley
If you’re an Elvis fan, it’s one of the greatest love songs ever recorded. The King started the month at #2 on the pop charts with this ballad, which is where it topped out. It was from the soundtrack to Elvis’ favorite of his movies——Blue Hawaii——where it shared musical space with other timeless classics.

4. “I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More)” by Barbara George
Barbara George started the month at #1 on the R&B charts with this, her first and biggest hit. There’s something irresistibly early 60s about the sound, both musically and vocally.

3. “The Twist” by Chubby Checker
I think the twist is the biggest dance move of the 60s. Hell, it might be the biggest of the century. Chubby Checker made it that way with his cover of Hank Ballard’s 1959 tune. Chubby Checker hit the #1 spot with it the first time in 1960. Two years later he’d do it again when “The Twist” topped the pop charts at the start of 1962. By February it was on the decline at #3 but it’s who can deny that remarkable achievement.

2. “Baby It’s You” by The Shirelles
Two weeks in a row and we have something from The Shirelles. I don’t know what it is about this song but, as a kid, it always sounded elegant to me. It might be the vocal harmonies and the interjection of “sha-la-la-la-la” at just the right time. Maybe it’s the echo effect. Now, it’s the graceful elements mixed with the harsher elements (rough lead vocals at the start, crazy organ in the middle) that attract me. The tune peaked at #3 on the R&B charts in February 1962.

1. “Duke of Earl” by Gene Chandler
I wasn’t alive in the 60s but, from my outsider’s position,  this is easily one of the greatest songs of the decade.  It’s probably in my top 100 of all-time. It’s flawless and iconic. One of those perfect creations that becomes synonymous with its time.  It topped both the pop and R&B charts in February 1962.

Friday Five: January 1961

1961 was a good year, a good year indeed. And the first month of that year brought us some classics.

5. “All in My Mind” by Maxine Brown
If Maxine Brown was a stock in 1960, you would have sunk all your money into her. Why she never made it big is a mystery but she did make quality R&B songs for a decade starting with this song——which she wrote——released late in 1960. She peaked at #2 on the R&B charts (only #19 on the Hot 100 pop charts. (If Wikipedia is to be trusted, Ms. Brown is still with us, too. She’ll turn 80 this summer.)

4. “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” by Elvis Presley
Iconic. And there’s a good story behind it, too. The King recorded the song starting at 4:00AM on April 4, 1960. It was the last song recorded as part of his Elvis is Back! album, his first after leaving the Army. Presley wasn’t pleased with his work and thought he couldn’t do the song justice. His producer (Steve Sholes) convinced him to do another take by saying that the Jordanaires had messed up by bumping their microphone stands. The King obliged, and that take (only #3) was what we have. (Apparently, at the very end of the song you can be hear somebody stapling the pages of Elvis’ contract.) It started the month at #1 and sold a couple of million copies. (Since we’re on it, the King is, of course, dead.)

3. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” by the Shirelles
The King started the month at the top and the Shirelles closed it out. I guess the way to the top of the charts in January 1961 involved asking a question. The group (Shirley Owens, Micki Harris, Doris Coley, and Beverly Lee) met as teenagers——they all attended Passaic High School in New Jersey, where they started performing. After a few years of recording and touring, they released “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” (written by Carol King and her husband Gerry Goffin) and had their first of many hits. It was the first #1 single by an African American, “all-girl” group. (They would only reach #1 one other time, with 1962’s “Soldier Boy.”) The Shirelles paved the way for the wave of “girl groups”—The Chiffons, The Ronettes, Martha and the Vandellas, and, of course, The Supremes—all of who came later. For my money, this is one of the best of the decade. (Owens and Lee are still kicking. Coley passed in 2000 and Harris died tragically while performing on stage in 1982.)

2. “Angel Baby” by Rosie and the Originals
I almost left this one out, only because I’ve written about it so many times. But I just love it too much. It’s one of the archetypal Chicano oldies, recorded by a half-white, half-Chicana teenager (she was 15) from the San Diego area. It peaked at #5 on the pop charts but it lives in generations of Chicano families to the present-day. (Rosie Hamlin passed away in 2017 at the age of 71.)

1. “Shop Around” by The Miracles
“Shop Around” is historic on two fronts——it was the first hit for Smokey Robinson (the lead singer of The Miracles who, with Motown-founder Berry Gordy, wrote the song) and the first hit for Motown Records. It topped the R&B charts in January, where it stayed for 7 weeks. It hit #5 on the pop charts that month, too, before peaking at #2 in February. The first million-seller for the Detroit company, the song opened the door for what became the most legendary home of R&B music of the era. I often like to think how as tens of thousands of African American young people (mostly college students) were taking over the segregated lunch counters of Woolworth’s across the South, they were also making this song #1. There’s nothing inherently political about it, but still… (Smokey was practically a baby when he hit it big. He’s only 78, and still performs.)

Elvis Day, 2018

Today is the 41st anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. I made my first post to the original “Latino Like Me” blog (hosted on Blogspot) on this day 11 years ago.

To mark the occasion, I could go on about why I love Elvis so much; or make my argument why he is the greatest rock ‘n roll star in history; or play clips of his best performances. Instead, I’d like to share one of his most historic performances, one that captures his position as a cultural phenomenon.

This is Elvis’ “Welcome Home” performance from 1960. Fresh out of the Army, Elvis made his first television performance in three years as part of the fourth (and last) Frank Sinatra Timex Show, this one subtitled Welcome Home Elvis.

Wikipedia tells a little bit of the story:

On March 26, at 6:15pm, taping for the show took place at the Fontainebleau Hotel. It was Presley’s first appearance on television in over three years, and his first serious performance since 1957, making Presley nervous about how he would be received. Colonel Parker, perhaps due to nerves of his own, had arranged for as many Presley fans as possible to fill the audience, although at least half of it was still made up of Sinatra fans. For the occasion, to fit in with Sinatra’s “rat pack” persona, Presley wore a tuxedo.

Sinatra and Elvis were kind of rivals in the 50s. Sinatra represented the kind of music and vocals which were the antithesis of rock ‘n roll, while Elvis. . . well, he was the king. Sinatra had once said rock ‘n roll was “sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons” and “manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth.” But here, the two are friendly and complimentary in every way.

As they say, it was a big deal. Here is the long clip of his appearance.

My Happiness

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!

40 years

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.

The King is Dead; Long Live the King!

Thirty-eight years ago today, on August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley died.

The more time that passes, I think the less people remember what an amazingly talented performer he was. But strip away the commercial superficialities, and all of the tragedy of drugs and excess, and you do have an amazing voice. Just amazing.

The “Mark in the Morning” radio show, here in L.A., offered a nice reminder of that talent this past Friday (it should be in the “Audio Clips” feature here). They played audio from Elvis’ recording session at American Sound Studio, in Memphis, likely on January 23, 1969. On that day he was about a week into recording the album that would become From Elvis in Memphis, his post-“’68 Comeback Special” release, that stands as his best studio album (although Elvis is not really known for his albums as much as his singles).

Below is the King’s sixth take of the song “Suspicious Minds,” the take that became the single released later that fall. This “raw” track is awfully complete compared to how hit singles are made today.  It lacks the full instrumentation and background vocals that are part of the final release but it is one complete take of a song, the singer and the band playing together, with the singer’s amazing (non-computer-enhanced) voice on display.

“Suspicious Minds” would be Elvis’ last #1 single before his death.



Friday Five: 1977

This is the year.

The movie Star Wars was released on May 25, 1977. I don’t remember that day or much of anything related to the event of the release. Since I was 5, that’s not surprising. I don’t even remember watching the movie for the first time. But I do remember that my entire cultural life afterwards was related to the Star Wars universe in some way, shape, or form. It was what I played. It was the toys I bought, the drawings I made, the imagination I indulged in. Star Wars was everything.

On August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley died. I do remember that day. It rained in southern California. I remember being with my mom in the parking lot of Zody’s when we heard the news on the radio. Elvis has always been another little obsession of mine. The music, the movies, the entire popular culture that grew around him in life and continued to thrive in his death, it all was a measurable part of the things I love.

Let’s take a lot at 1977 musically. These are 5 songs from that year that meant something to me in the years after.

5. “Nickel and Dime” (Journey)
Journey will always be a band best known for the music they released beginning in 1978, when lead singer Steve Perry came aboard. I certainly never heard of them until 1981, when the Perry-fronted band released Escape. (More on that album in a month.) But Journey is really the band of guitarist Neal Schon, who played with Santana before leaving to form his own band. They released three albums before Perry, each reflective of their “prog rock” origins that owe much to Schon’s guitar and Bay Area rock culture. This is one of my favorites from their 1977 album Next, a song I obsessed over in the late 1990s.

4. “Celebrate Me Home”(Kenny Loggins)
I can’t explain why I seem to know Kenny Loggins so well. He’s just one of those musical acts who was well-placed in the media during my upbringing. He was a fixture on the radio stations we listened to in the car, too. This track from his 1977 debut solo album (he had already been a part of the successful duo “Loggins and Messina”) is one of those lingering songs for me. I also remember him singing this on TV, probably during the holiday seasons. It’s a good song, one that spotlights his talents well. There’s also a little bit of the sound that would dominate 80s pop emerging in the track, a credit to his influence.

3. “Three Little Birds” (Bob Marley)
I don’t remember knowing of the existence of Bob Marley before his untimely death in 1981. I do remember hearing his music in high school, and becoming somewhat obsessed with his music and life in the early 90s while in college. College has turned Marley into music for drinking or getting high, but he is so much better than the individual tracks that make up the typical playlist. In the 90s, I started to listen to Bob Marley an album at a time, from the beginning forward. I grew in my appreciation for his talent and also for his visionary message. This song, from his 1977 album Exodus, is a deceptively simple song. In context, you get a sense of how much it thrives on the amazing talents of everyone involved with what is arguably his best studio album.

2. “Come Sail Away” (Styx)
Styx is one of those things that I sometimes feel like I have to defend. In my older age, I’ve stopped feeling that as much. Groups like them or like Foreigner were really good at what they did. Maybe it wasn’t the most important music ever made, but it was good. It fulfilled the expectations of the pop rock genre and did it in big, bold, funny, and sometimes (often) melodramatic ways. What works is that they take themselves seriously, as well they should. That genuine caring for their sound and their fans translated onto vinyl. This song is one of their biggest hits from one of their biggest albums. It is a great example of all they did well, and all they did to excess. It is 70s mightiness!

1. “Dreams” (Fleetwood Mac)
I really love Fleetwood Mac. Even though I wasn’t old enough to be a part of their meteoric rise in the 70s, their music still has a very close relationship to me and my musical identity. But it’s a very “academic” kind of thing, too. They’re not a personal thing for me in the same way the are/were for those who loved them and lived through those times. I understand what they meant, and as I got into their music it started to become a very personal thing for me as a fan, maybe even as a historian.

All this is related to why I picked this song. For me, this is not their best song. It’s not even my favorite song. I do love it. But, more importantly, it is a musical sound that transports me back to the feeling of those times more than any other. That’s saying something, because there hasn’t been a time that this song hasn’t been a fixture of FM radio since its release. That my feeling of it is “70s” and not “80s” must mean something.

“Dreams” is the only song from Fleetwood Mac to make it to #1 on the pop charts. It’s from the album Rumors, which was not only their biggest album but also one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. The really rich recording warmth of a vinyl sound, the drums, and Stevie Nicks voice make it all happen.

Friday Five: 1972

This is the end of the first week of the spring semester at the Claremont Colleges. And each spring I get to teach my class on comparative race movements of the post-WWII era, “All Power to the People!” One of my favorite things about the class is the music. We start each class with a song, something that usually aligns with the topic or theme of that day’s class.

Even though I’m the teacher, it’s a great learning experience for me. The goal of finding music that’s appropriate for the class fuels a lot of my listening habits on a weekly basis. As a result, I continue to discover songs from the past that I’ve never heard before, songs that are great and that fit perfectly into the class. I also get to play songs I know intimately and love passionately with a group of young people who, often, have never heard them before.

That’s always been the point behind this “Friday Five” thing, too. So, I started thinking it might be fun to cover the span of my life through these weekly posts. I can still share music, but by covering one year each week I get a more organized way of writing about the music I love and remember, as well as discover stuff I missed along the way or rediscover the stuff I forgot about.

So, here we go! I was born in 1972, and so the music I love from that year is a mix of songs I remember hearing a lot as a small child as well as songs I’ve come to love in my teen and adult years. These five are a mix of both, all worth a listen.

5. “Garden Party” (Rick Nelson)
At some point in the 1980s, one of the “basic cable” stations started playing repeats of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” I knew about Ricky Nelson and his family before that, mostly through pop cultural references and appearances on talk shows. While his teen hits were in regular radio play in my youth, this is the song I most associate with the times. It’s a mix of country and rock, something that somehow sounds so 70s and, yet, kind of reminiscent of earlier sounds.

4. “A Horse With No Name” (America)
At some point in the 1980s, I started to understand the negative reaction to 70s pop that was widespread within segments of the hardcore rock ‘n roll purists. I suspect folks like that hated the band America. The lead singer sounded like Steven Stills, and their music sounded like the kind of “AM Gold” that dominated the airwaves in the 70s. But I can’t deny this song its rightful place in my youthful memories. I can remember hearing it as a small kid, riding in our Ford Pinto, holding on to my doll of The Six Million Dollar Man. Even now, the sound of it is both comforting and kind of haunting.

3. “Burning Love” (Elvis)
It’s the King’s last song to enter the Top Ten, and his last #1 single. And it’s so gorgeously white-leather-jump-suit-in-Vegas that I can’t help myself!

2. “Use Me” (Bill Withers)
I just couldn’t be happier that Bill Withers is getting inducted in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame this spring. The man was viciously good, as a song writer and performer. This is, hands down, my favorite song of his. I can still remember the first time I ever really listened to the lyrics. I was a teenager and even though I had known the song for my entire life, I had never really thought about what it was about. It’s a hefty piece of music, sexy, soulful, and funny. (The single version, below, is tight. But I’ve long had a soft spot for this acoustic version, too.)

1. “Let’s Stay Together” (Al Green)
It might be cheating to add Al Green’s most famous hit to a list of 1972 songs since it was first released as a single the year before. But the song was the highlight of his album of the same name, released in 1972. The song reached #1 on the Billboard “Hot 100” in that year, coming in at #11 for the year overall. Al Green is in my “holy trinity” of musical performers, along with Elvis and Tom Waits. Few people can turn it on like he could. Willie Mitchell, his producer, deserves a lot of the credit. But that voice!

Friday Five: Elvis ’72

This weekend marks the 37th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley.

Elvis was 37 years old in 1972, a year that falls within my favorite Elvis period (1968-72). His live shows in that period were as good as it gets for the King. While you can see hints of his tendency to impersonation himself–something that would become the norm as he went into serious physical decline–you also get some real hints of the greatness that was Elvis.

Here are five live performances from 1972.

5. “Proud Mary” @ Madison Square Garden
My favorite live Elvis album is of his legendary Madison Square Garden shows from 1972. He played two shows on the day of recording, an afternoon and an evening one, with the evening one supplying almost all of the tracks for the album.

4. “Polk Salad Annie”
This is a video from the 1972 documentary Elvis on Tour, a collection of his performances from this period.

3. “Burning Love” @ Greensboro Coliseum
This is from his Greensboro show (April 14, 1972) where he premiered “Burning Love” to a live audience.

2. “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”
Another from Elvis on Tour.

1. “Suspicious Minds” @ Madison Square Garden
This is a low-quality video from the afternoon show. One of my favorite Elvis songs, and his last to top the Billboard charts.