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.

Monday Blues (03.07.11)

Ike Turner (Mississippi, 1931-2007), “Rocket 88” (1951). (Listen to the song here.)

Born in the delta region of Clarksdale, Mississippi, the Kings of Rhythm included Raymond Hill and Jackie Brenston on sax, Willie Kizart on guitar, Willie Sims on drums, Jonny O’Neal on vocals, and Ike Turner on piano. In 1951 they headed up to Memphis to record some of their songs, including a group of tunes by Turner. They recorded the boogie woogie meets jump blues “Rocket 88” at the Memphis Recording Service, a small studio where owner and producer Sam Phillips recorded local talent and then licensed them to independent labels. In 1952, Phillips renamed the studio Sun Records when he started putting out records on his own label.

As the story goes, Kizart’s amp was damaged in the groups trip up the delta, creating the distortion on top of what was already a pretty jagged guitar line written by Turner. After hearing Turner sing on a couple of other recordings, Phillips recommended somebody else sing vocals on “Rocket 88.” Saxophonist Brenston was chosen. When Phillips sold the single to Chess, he credited it to “Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats.” The single went to #1 on the R&B charts later that year.

Some consider it to be “the” first Rock ‘n Roll sing ever recorded.

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.