That Old Feeling: Happy Birthday, Elvis

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Elvis stage in '56: 'Wigglin' his ass and singin' 'Hound Dog''

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We are startled, on the amazing "Blue Moon," by his trick of shifting, in a heartbeat, from saloon baritone to pants-too-tight wailing. We are reminded of his daring enunciation: all those words that suddenly began with h ("Hi want you, hi need you, hi-hi-hi love you"), the occasional glottal addition ("Glove me tender...") and his near Hawaiian avoiding of consonants ("Ya-hoo A-know Ah can be fou'/ Sittin' home all alo'"). That's from "Don't Be Cruel," a song that comes close to redefining the art of the pop vocal. It's gentle and amused, with a cute quaver in the "at" when he pleads "At least please telephone" and the octave drop on that lusty "mm-mm" before the third verse. On one of the 1956 TV shows, he proudly called "Don't Be Cruel" "my biggest record," adding "'Course they're all the same size."

The next year would consolidate his growth as a vocalizer. For his first movies, he even got good songs, which would rarely be the case in the 60s. On Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's "(You're So Square) Baby, I Don't Care" for "Jailhouse Rock," he shows his eerie ease in shifting from high to low registers, and runs supple variations on the "Baby, I don't care," making it a promise of the naughtiest behavior. The uptempo "Got a Lot of Livin' to Do," written for "Loving You" by Aaron Schroeder and Ben Weisman, keeps him in tenor-shout mode; it's as if he can't wait to dip into the tag "I don't know what or who I'd rather to it a-with than you." He has masterly fun with three other "Loving You" songs: "Mean Woman Blues," "Party" and especially the Kal Mann-Bernie Lowe "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear"

This song isn't a classic, but Presley's rendition is — an Elvis apotheosis and an Elvis parody. (Everyone else was imitating him; why shouldn't he?) Grateful for a jaunty tune about his favorite stuffed animal, and perhaps for the marketing tie-in to the official Elvis Presley Teddy Bears on sale at better chain stores, he turns it into a children's song; he could be a father crooning silky nonsense to a first-born. He lends a seductive petulance in "I don't wanna be your tiger/ 'Cause tigers play too rough." He plays with the title words as if they were Silly Putty, altering the stress and length of the vowels. It's a great, blithe performance.


The ad line for "30 #1 Hits" reads: "Before anybody did anything, Elvis did everything." He certainly knew his job — all of them. He was also a fine instinctive musician, a fast study with a gift for synthesizing what he'd heard into his own style. "He sucked up influences like litmus paper," writes Peter Guralnick in "Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley," the first book in a meticulous two-volume biography. "He was SERIOUS about his work. Whenever [Elvis' first manager Bob] Neal went by the house, he found him with a stack of records — Ray Charles and Big Joe Turner and Big Mama Thornton and Arthur ?Big Boy' Crudup — that he studied with all the avidity that other kids focused on their college exams. He listened over and over, seeming to hear something that no one else could hear..."

A raw recruit when he entered the Sun Records studio in Memphis in late 1954, Elvis learned enough so that, when he joined RCA, he was soon the de facto producer of his own sessions. Steve Sholes was RCA's A&R representative, but, as Phillips insisted to Guralnick: "He was NOT a producer. Steve was just at every session, and he kept his fucking mouth shut." Sholes would propose songs, and Elvis would dispose. In 1957 Leiber and Stoller, the L.A.-based singer-songwriters whose "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock" would be prime Presley calling cards, took over as producers. Stoller: "We thought we were the only white kids who knew anything about the blues," Stoller told Guralnick, "but he knew all kinds of stuff." Leiber added: "We thought he was like an idiot savant, but he listened a lot. He knew all of our records. ... And he was a workhorse in the studio — he didn't pull any diva numbers."

He was there to sing, of course, though he played a vigorous rhythm guitar, ceding the fancy solos to Scotty Moore. But on one 1957 session, when slap-bassist Bill Black walked out in frustration after being unable to master the rumbling electric-bass intro for the Leiber-Stoller "Baby, I Don't Care," Elvis picked up the instrument and played the line perfectly. He would also push for extra takes to get a song right. He insisted on 31 stabs at "Hound Dog," then listened pensively to the playbacks and said of the final take, "This is the one." End of discussion. Elvis was the boss.


Elvis had wanted to be James Dean; he saw Dean's signature movie, which he called "Rebel Without a Pebble," a dozen times. He was touched by Dean's sensitivity, stricken by Dean's early death (in September 1955, about the time Parker bought Elvis' contract from Phillips). In fact, though, Elvis was the Marlon Brando of pop. Everyone saw this; I did, and I was 11. Brando and Elvis both had sullen good looks: hooded eyes and full, sensuous mouths that easily formed a sneer-smile. They semaphored their menace in their movement: Brando the prowling predator, Presley the sex machine. Most important: both men, virtually by themselves, caused a redefinition of what was acceptable in their fields. And soon, because of their seismic influence, their strange styles became the standard.

Pauline Kael wrote that changes in art almost always seem at first a mistake. The new initially looks like the old, done poorly. The status quo, when affronted, thinks it's watching some that wants to be the status quo, but can't. Brando didn't mean to talk in that mumbling, meandering way, did he? And Elvis, windmilling his legs and unleashing those pelvic spasms that were all his — purely Elvic — what the heck was he doing?

Elvis made his national TV debut in January 1956 on the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey "Stage Show," preceded by a number in which 12 chorine danced while playing xylophones. Just before he came on stage, Cleveland DJ Bill Randle uttered these inflated but prescient words: "We think tonight that he's going to make television history for you. We'd like you to meet him now: Elvis Presley."

It made history, all right, but not of the Stanley-vs-Livingstone variety. More like King Kong rattling his chains before the tuxedoed first-nighters. Singer and audience eyed each other across a gaping cultural divide. Figuring Elvis out was part of the pop-cultural challenge or threat he posed. Elvis' own challenge was figuring out how to work the audience. He knew his approach worked on tour, in the South. But New York was alien to him, as he at first was alien to it.

On the singer's early TV appearances, you can hear gasps of incomprehension. They may have been shocked by his gyrations, but even more they were confused. (Berle, sensing audience resistance during at the end of the "Hound Dog" number," rushes out, whistling enthusiastically and shouting, "How 'bout my boy! I love 'im!") Occasional reaction shots of the adult, white, middle-aged studio audience reveal people with annoyed, derisive or baffled looks on their faces.

Watching the Berle-show "Hound Dog," we can feel the career-threatening danger of his burlesque moves, see his hip-level guitar wagging insolently like the first electric phallus. No wonder the onlookers gasped and giggled. They knew they were present for a cultural sea change; and their animosity was a necessary impediment for the invader to overcome. Exactly the same abrasion is evident in the 1951 film of "A Streetcar Named Desire," in the moment when Vivien Leigh's fluttery Blanche duBois is first confronted with Brando's brutish Stanley Kowalski. It is the instant, epochal collision of old and new, of refinement and feral energy, of a sensibility on the way out and an attitude crashing through, ready to take over.


I suspect that Brando's mannerisms were thought out, an expression of the Stanislavski Method, while Presley's were symptoms of his nervous energy and naivete. To look at the young Elvis exposed, and exposing himself, on national TV (they can be seen in Alan and Susan Raymond's 1987 documentary "Elvis '56") In his first TV shows, he puts the mask of insolence on his stage fright. He rarely smiles. He seems simultaneously determined and stricken. While introducing a song, he audibly cracks his knuckles. His singing voice, so at home in the recording studio, shivers audibly behind the TV microphone. At the end of one number ("Baby Let's Play House"), he wipes his mouth with the cuff of his jacket. It looks like the gesture of the lion who, in his performance, has just devoured the lambs in the audience; but I bet it was nerves and sweat.

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