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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I think, too, that Presley's sexy swiveling was as much an anachronism as an innovation. Elvis was, at heart, a song-and-dance man. In the Big Band days, singers would come forward after the band's opening refrain, perform the vocal and sit down. Country stars kept busy strumming guitar; blues shouters had the piano to bang on; and crooners like Bing Crosby and Perry Como ("Perry Coma" in Harvey Kurtzman's Humbug parody of America's most popular TV star of the mid-50s) just stood around and smiled. Elvis, in the instrumental interludes between his singing, simply did what countless showbiz troupers had done on music-hall, vaudeville and Broadway stages: danced. His gyrations weren't exactly the old soft-shoe. But it was a dance: St. Vitus'.

The kids got it: they picked up on Elvis' sexuality, his vitality and fun. Adults thought kids picked up an infection too. The same cultural paranoia that had parents burning horror comic books in 1954 had them calling for a TV ban on Elvis the Pelvis, and Presley was obliged to tone down his moves when, on "The Steve Allen Show," he sang "Hound Dog" in a tuxedo to an actual hound dog (in a tuxedo). In a revealing press comment in Charleston, S.C., the week before the Allen show, Elvis put his music and his performance style into cultural contest: "The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I'm doin' now, man, for more years than I know. They played it like that in the shanties and in their juke joints, and nobody paid it no mind 'til I goosed it up."

After the guest shots on "Stage Show" and with Berle and Allen, Elvis was ready for Ed Sullivan. (Sullivan had previously averred he would never sign the singer for his program. But when Elvis' Allen turn creamed Sullivan in the ratings, Ed and Col. Parker made a deal: a precedential $50,000 for three appearances.) These were the from-the-waist-up shows, though Elvis was usually shot from the breastbone up, to keep his legwork from corrupting America's youth.

By this time, teenage girls had figured out how to get into a TV show that had Elvis. They had also learned to Elvis was a mature TV performer. His hair now dyed jet-black to look better on camera, he wishes a speedy recovery to Sullivan, recently injured in a car accident. He sings ballads, mostly, and behaves himself from the waist down, mostly. For a second he shouts, "You ain't nothin'..." as if to launch into the heretical "Hound Dog," but that's just a goof; he stops and quickly grins. At the end of his final appearance, Elvis offers a prayer for the viewers: "May God bless ya, as He's blessed me."

That would have required quite a few blessings. since a record 83% of the viewing audience was tuned in to Elvis on Sullivan. It was official now: the kid was King.


Brando had it easier than Presley; for in pop, more than in acting, it's tough to remain in the vanguard. Consider the four overlapping phases of Elvis' music. Phase 1: At Sun Records, he borrowed blues from blacks and country songs from rednecks, passing them along to the huge middle-class. Phase 2: He got sharp material from top young songwriters (primarily Leiber-Stoller and Otis Blackwell) that he could make his own. But early rock didn't allow for much variety: 12-bar blues, 16-bar pop song. Phase 3 began in late 1957, when every songwriter was handing him drab variants on Blackwell's "Don't Be Cruel" By the end of the 60s, Phase 4, Elvis was redoing mainstream songs, ones everyone had heard a hundred times before. A lot of his later hits — "Crying in the Chapel," "The Wonder of You," "My Way" —had already been hits. This made him the world's priciest lounge act. Even before Elvis played Vegas, he was Vegas.

Sadly, the pulverizing novelty of sexual danger was quickly domesticated, as Elvis jumped into mainstream show business. Like Brando, Elvis helped America realize it was dying to be hip. But having educated his audience to get hipper, he seemed to get squarer simply by standing still. He had segued from being Elvis to doing Elvis: playing him on TV and in movies. He'd become his own parody, stunt double, postage stamp — the first Elvis impersonator. In the new era of the singer-songwriter, the "mere" singer was an anachronism, dependent on others to write "Elvis-style" material. The Beatles left him for dead; and his darling, deviant version of "Blowin' in the Wind" (from a Graceland basement tape) shows he didn't exactly get Bob Dylan. This should have been Elvis' prime; but his movie producers, and the Colonel, called the shots. He didn't rebel; he did it their way.

So what's left? A terrific crooner who was closer, in intonation, vocal virtuosity and care for a song's mood, to Bing Crosby than to any top singer of the rock era. We have to entertain the possibility that Elvis was exactly the anachronism he wanted to be. In the 1956 Charleston interview, he'd been asked what he would do after the rock 'n roll fad faded, as many adults thought or hoped it would. "When it's gone," Elvis said, "I'll switch to something else. I like to sing ballads the way Eddie Fisher does and the way Perry Como does. But the way I'm singing now is what makes the money. Would you change if you was me?"

Eventually, he did change. He did what Crosby, Como, Sinatra and Fisher had done before him: sing strong, sing pretty. Toward the end, he couldn't hack the rock material (his vocals on "Burning Love" and "Way Down" are thin, ragged, spindly), but he still had it as a balladeer. His spectacularly intense rendition of "I Believe," excerpted on the recent NBC special "Elvis Lives," proves that his inside the bloated body was the soul of a gospel-tinged Caruso. The under-the-balcony tenorizing of "It's Now or Never," the final detonation of pain and taunt in "Are You Lonesome Tonight?", the choir-soloist power of the hymn "He Touched Me" — his voice breaking poignantly at the end of the hymn, as if he had just seen Jesus — these still thrill and haunt. So does his desire to please an audience of kids and grandmas instead of comfortably occupying a niche, as almost every pop star has done since.

At the end of the "Platinum" CD is a speech Elvis made in 1971. Quoting Vincent Youmans' 1929 "Without a Song," he says, "So I keep singin' the song." The impulse to sing raunchy, corny, beautiful songs trapped Elvis; and in that trap, he sometimes found triumph.

Doesn't a star of such prominence and poignancy deserve a happy 68th birthday — dead or alive?

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