Elvis Aron Presley and the history of R & R - Part 1
Elvis Aron Presley is the key figure in the early history of r&r. He combines all the essential overlapping influences of its beginning years, manifesting them in a personal style that transcends any particular influence in maintaining a coherent aesthetic unity. The impact of his artistic image as singer, guitarist, dancer, actor and star or celebrity, is paralleled by the impact of his "life" image. The in-depth public participation in the combined "life-art" total image, is different in extent and/or kind from the reception accorded any previous entertainer—if only because of a new sense for coordinated exploitation of the star as a commodity through a wide range of available media. Elvis was carried into the hearts of his fans not only through their ears by radio waves—they could see him on TV and in the movies, chain their wrists with his charms, scent their bodies with his cologne, and sate their thirst for him symbolically with his soda pop. How many erstwhile teen-aged kids could have had the image of their idol so literally close to their hearts—i.e., what are the net recorded sales for Frank Sinatra or Rudolf Valentino T-shirts? They have to top a quarter of a million to be in the same league. No one rocked the entire entertainment industry quite like Elvis.
The next influence of comparable scope and intensity comes with the Beatles (and later, inevitably perhaps, with their parody—the synthetic, brilliantly mercenary Monkees, the enormity of whose success is most fascinating and instructive—but a topic for the future.
Two details (incidental? coincidental?) suggest, poetically, why Elvis Presley is the first real electric figure in the popular arts. These were published in "An Elvis Presley Fact Sheet," which appeared as a frontispiece to The Elvis Presley Story, edited by James Gregory. Among biographical details and other newsy items concerning Elvis' ambition ("To be a successful motion picture actor"), his favorite foods ("Pork chops, brown gravy, apple pie"), birthplace (not Dogpatch, but Tupelo, Mississippi), and dislikes (which include "getting dressed up, and crowded places," believe it or not), there are the following illuminating revelations:
The study of electricity at night school forms one of those curious situations in history where the subject actually makes a comment about itself. Presley chose a subject matter (electricity) that was the very means by which any study (thus formalized and institutionalized) of that subject (or other subjects) was made possible in "night school." It is intriguing that Presley actually chose to study electricity—but of course it doesn't "prove" a thing. For the kid of the early 1950s there was a certain vocational and intellectual romance being built up around electricity. Ads on the backs of every comic book made ubiquitous appeals to generate the enticing and lucrative image of a career in radio, TV or electronics. It may be of interest here to cite Elvis' first two jobs: while still in high school he held down a $14-a-week job in "show business"—as an usher at Lowe's State theater. After graduation in 1953 he drove a truck for the Crown Electric Company, which more than doubled his wages.
In a much larger and somewhat more metaphorical sense, Presley's career was electric, especially in that he had a pervasive and (what appeared to most people as) instantaneous success. The concept of "instant totality" came to the popular mind not only in terms of Presley's effects, but also as a characteristic of his style. Hence it is not surprising that popular critics found it both easy and convicing to use similies of electricity. Take this passage by way of illustration:
"You might say that Elvis is one of the major reasons why rock 'n' roll has become a household word. A few years ago, this dynamic young man wasn't afraid to make his singing a little different from the rest of the pop music pack. On stage he was supercharged, generating so much energy that he seemed to be striking off sparks. There was a special, exciting quality about Elvis' singing. There still is.
You know Elvis feels every word and sound he utters; his songs come from the heart. It's transmitted to his audience."
The idea of a human machine is already there at the very beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and even before that in the automata of European courts. The artist Marcel Duchamp made probing statements related to this concept early in the twentieth century; and Marshall McLuhan picked up in the title of his first book, The Mechanical Bride. But with transmitter and generator, now the music has become electric.
As for the singers: Crudup provides an answer; he was Presley's guru, especial in musicianship, and one of the major sources of his vocal style. Other answers may indeed be serious. But beyond that, they serve to relate Presley's music to a specific historical context in a new and important way. In the synthesis of his style, Elvis drew upon the three major traditions of American popular music—just as in return, his music was the first really to appeal to each of these audiences at the same time. To any Elvis fan reading his Story, here was the possibility for immediate identification of tastes, or at least of one taste. No better examples in the public's mind at the time, could have been chosen to "symbolize" the three traditions of r&b, pop and c&w. From our historical vantage point, of course, we can see that the Ink Spots did not really belong to the r&b tradition—but they were Negroes, and about as acceptable a bunch of Negroes as you could find. Certainly they represented a more tactically astute and more "tasteful" choice than any of the real r&b artists whose songs Elvis sang, such as Little Richard ("Tutti Frutti," "Long Tall Sally ," "Rip It Up"), Joe Turner ("Shake Rattle and Roll"), Fats Domino ("Blueberry Hill"), Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters ("Money Honey"), or Willie Mae "Big Mamma" Thornton ("Hound D0g").
On the other hand, the influence of the Ink Spots on Presley is obscure. Similarly with Frank Sinatra, no more generalized and acceptable figure could have been selected. Widely popular (so as not to mark Presley as having square tastes, nor so as to appear obviously a phony journalistic invention) Sinatra combined the virtues of being current but also, very well-established. Moreoever, he posed little competitive threat to Presley. For while citing a more contemporary favorite might have tempted some of his fans to take the hint and switch loyalties, there was little chance he would lose any part of his audience to Sinatra. Musically, apart from the reference to "Big Boy" Crudup, Hank Snow is the most believable "favorite." This selection satisfied Presley's c&w fans; but it also leads directly to the significant topic of c&w's confluence with pop music style.
Musical elements from c&w begin to appear consistently throughout the r&r idiom by the end of 1956, following the overwhelming influence of Elvis Presley. Unlike any pop or r&b artist who preceded him, Presley overlaps all four fields of popular music—pop, c&w, r&b and r&r—in both style and appeal. Further, Presley's impact on these fields is not a temporary or intermittent one, but rather pervasive and lasting in its effects. In contrast to those country artists, whether before him or contemporary, who emerged from their own field to cross over into pop. with hit tunes, the success of Elvis Presley is continuous and cumulative.
Kurt von Meier
To the left is the July 11, 1968 edition of the New York Free Press. This edition contained the first of Kurt's five-part series on Elvis Presley.
The paper was one of a group of alternative newspapers which published during the 1960s. At $.15 a copy, it provided coverage of politics, entertainment, media and counter-culture happenings.