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.

Gene McDaniels

I am saddened at the news of the passing of Gene McDaniels. One of the most eclectic, soulful, political, gentle, and passionate talents in modern jazz/soul music, McDaniels was 76.

You can read about his life and career here. I hope you do.

I came to know the work of McDaniels in the early 90s when he started to become a favorite source of sampling in the hip hop world. It wasn’t until almost a decade later, however, that I started to appreciate the full range of his talent. The deep soul of his music, complimented by the thoughtful and intelligent lyrics he penned, made him a rare gem in a world of superstars.

My favorite song of his has always been “Compared to What.” An investigation of racism and US hypocrisy, it was both an angry song rooted in the moment of the late 60s as well as a prescient warning. In the last year, McDaniels took to YouTube to speak to his fans through a series of videos featured on his own channel. Here’s Gene discussing “Compared to What”:

And here is Les McCann and Eddie Harris’ wonderful live performance of the song (as featured on the former’s albume Swiss Movement):

McDaniels had a deep conscience and used his art to speak out on our collective inhumanity to one another. His ability to critically address issues of race, gender, power, and class while still being meaningfully artistic in a golden age of soul music says a lot about the man and his scope.

Beginning in 1970, armed with the freedom that came with his success after a decade of busting his artistic hump, he created two of the most overtly political and smart albums of all time. The first, Outlaw was something new for the once-pop/soul singer some had once compared to Jackie Wilson. A fusion of urban sounds ranging from jazz to funk and rock, the album (his first on the Atlantic label) was a radical coming out party. It’s a hard album to summarize, but this track “Love Letter to America” is suggestive of the unique blend of styles it contained:

“Welfare City”, also from Outlaw, sounds almost like 1967 but contains more than a few of his purposeful hybridity.

His 1971 follow-up, Headless Heroes Of The Apocalypse is even bolder than Outlaws. The story of the aftermath of the album is now legend in music. Due to his overt radicalism, someone in the Nixon administration called to complain to Ahmet Ertegun and encourage him to fire McDaniels. Whether that was the cause or not I do not know, but it was McDaniels’ final release for the label.

Here’s “Jager the Dagger” from the 1971 album:

And here is one of my favorites of his from Headless, “Supermarket Blues”:

For all the controversy of his career, McDaniels possessed a beautiful voice, a gift which rivaled his artistry with lyrics and sound. Here he is in a performance from earlier this year, the one of the last videos uploaded to his YouTube channel.

Rest in peace brother…

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.

Monday Blues

Let us celebrate the brilliance of Stevie Ray Vaughan!  Born in Texas, on October 3, 1954, he died tragically on August 27, 1990, now 20 years ago.  He was a blues master, possessed with an ability few people in human history have had.  Authentic blues mixed with talent is hard to come by in this world; Stevie Ray had it all and more.

Here he is performing his own “Texas Flood” from a live show in 1985.

Live Aid (25 years ago today)

On July 13, 1985, perhaps the largest concert event of my lifetime took place.

Live Aid was a benefit concert for sub-Saharan African relief, a single day comprised of two concerts–one in London’s Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia’s JFK.

Born in Bob Geldoff’s head, Live Aid was a trans-Atlantic follow-up to 1984’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, the UK single that inspired USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” the following spring.  They raised some $245 million dollars as a result of this one day.

I was one of the more than 2 billion people that watched the live broadcast, a day’s worth of music shown in more than 60 countries.

It was an historic day on many levels. The surviving members Led Zeppelin played onstage for the first time since Bonham’s death.  U2 blew people away with their concert performance, no doubt beginning the generally accepted view of them as one of the best live bands of the next generation.  The Who played, their first time on stage since their ’82 “Farewell Tour.”  Black Sabbath reunited, as did Crosby, Still, Nash and Young.

There were famous no-shows, people who were invited but did not perform for one reason or another.  Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, and a host of others were invited to perform but didn’t. Some had conflicts, some had a falling out with US promoter Bill Graham. Others didn’t believe Geldoff’s vision. Springsteen later said he didn’t know it was going to be as big as it was.

The show began at 12 noon GMT at Wembley. The band Status Quo played the first set.  Two hours later, the show began in Philadelphia with Joan Baez.  The shows ran concurrently, with one act on stage at a time, the UK audience watching the US stage via satellite when it was live, and vice versa.  Paul McCartney closed out the UK show, formally closed with a rendition of “Do They Knoew It’s Christmas.”  Bob Dylan and friends Ronnie Wood and Keith Richard were the last act, taking the US stage at around  3:30 am London time, followed by “We Are the World.”

For all this greatness, and the greatness that never was to be, one performance stood out the most for me. The set played Queen was one of the most amazing live rock moments I have ever seen, largely for the crowd’s participation, but due in no small part to Freddy Mercury’s command of the stage. It left a memorable impression on my 12-year-old self.  I was never a huge fan, but I forever carried a tremendous amount of respect for the band after this day in July 1985.

Here’s their entire set, in 3 parts:

Paul Wasn’t Dead But The Beatles Were Finished

Forty years ago this Saturday, on August 8, 1969, this photograph was taken.

AbbeyRoad

The image served as the cover for the last recorded studio album by The Beatles, Abbey Road, released in the U.S. on October 1, 1969. It is arguably (but closer to indisputably) the most famous album cover photograph in rock history.

The shot was taken by photographer Iain MacMillan, the result of a 10 minute photo shoot session with the band.  They would finish their studio work on the album less than two weeks later.  The four would only be together a few more times in their lives.  Before Abbey Road hit the shelves, Lennon was already touring with the Plastic Ono Band.  When their final album Let It Be was released in spring 1970, McCartney had a solo album released and at least two of the members had suggested the band was done.  They dissolved their business relationship later that year.

I’ll have more to say about the album in October, when the 40th anniversary of the release arrives. Needless to say, it remains one of their most successful, and iconic. As an album, it is my hands-down favorite. In unique and unexpected ways it showcases the talents of each of the four, and that’s not even talking about George Martin, who was behind the controls. The album is something of a disputed artifact within fan and critical circles, seen by some as symbolic of the wave of “overproduction” taking hold of popular music and emblematic of the emerging “progressive rock” movement.

Most famously, of course, the above photograph inspired the “Paul is dead” rumors in late 1969.  The “rumor” began largely after the publication of a joke article written by University of Michigan student Fred LaBour.  LaBour read into every aspect of the photograph, leading others to do the same. The band crossing the street became a funeral procession, with Lennon the clergy, Starr the undertaker, McCartney the deceased, and Harrison the grave digger.  McCartney is carrying a cigarette, and is stepping out of synch with the others.  There’s even more that was said about the license plate of the VW, the cop car, and the back of the album.

When I studied abroad in England in 1992, I bought three posters to hang on my dorm room wall.  One was the picture of Cindy Crawford holding her breasts and looking lovingly into the camera, obligatory for my generation’s adherence to heterosexual norms. One was of Bob Marley’s pained face smoking marijuana, obligatory for being in college.  The other was of the cover of  Abbey Road.

Check out the recently re-released CD of Abbey Road (remastered edition); as for the poster, you can find it here.

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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