To understand Elvis, you have to know the music before him.
Hot jazz — so vibrant and affirming in the ‘20s and early ‘30s — had mellowed during the war years. Big bands had grown bigger and softer, their edges worn smooth by an audience seeking comfort and stability in a time of hardship and loss. When the war ended, the country looked to mend its wounds with a sense of unity, shared optimism and hope.
The music reflected the time. The popular singers had big, easy voices, from the satiny Nat King Cole to the velvet fog of Mel Torme. Frank Sinatra produced an enviable string of hits such as “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin;” Perry Como crooned “Catch a Falling Star” and the novelty song “Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom)”; Patti Page sang “The Tennessee Waltz” and “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?”
Great voices all, well trained, mannered. And, as was desired in that postwar era, both the songs and the singers were non-threatening. Very non-threatening.
But after a decade of safe, tempered, homogenous music, the youth of America were ready for a change.
In stepped the big train from Memphis. Elvis Presley, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, was barely 21 when he made “Heartbreak Hotel”: Music was changed forever.
He had the big voice that was expected at the time, but it was unlike anything heard before on the pop charts: Not only did it have a Southern twang, it had a youthful urgency, an irrepressibility, an untamed edge. It was lusting, it was sinful, and to millions of young people bored with the conformity that was suffocating them, it was magnificent.
In a little more than two years, Presley racked up one of the most extraordinary runs in pop music history — “Heartbreak Hotel,” “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Love Me Tender,” “Too Much,” “All Shook Up,” “(Let Me Be) Your Teddy Bear,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Don’t,” and “Hard-Headed Woman” all hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
Aside from “Don’t,” they are all considered classics more than 50 years later.
The crowds went wild, more even than for Sinatra, more than they would for anyone else until the Beatles hit town. His appearances caused near-riots, and the fans who packed his concerts would not leave until the announcement came over the loudspeakers: “Elvis has left the building.”
A musical genius with a golden touch, Elvis responded to his influences. Growing up in small-town Mississippi, he was exposed to country music and the gospel singing he heard in church. As a teen, he moved to Memphis, where he was fascinated by the rhythm and blues he heard from black singers on Beale Street. Like many contemporaries, he fused these styles into a hard-driving country sound, rockabilly.
Other rockabilly stars were good (Carl Perkins) and great (Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison). There was only one Elvis.
Elvis had charisma. Even his detractors, and he had many, had to admit that there was something compelling about the man and his music. He could command a stage like no one else, and his distinctive soulful baritone voice was instantly recognizable. And there was one more thing.
Rock music has always been about sex, from the term “rock ‘n’ roll” to the suggestive beat. And more than any other singer of his day, the young Elvis was the personification of sex, the kind of man parents didn’t want their daughters to date. That one shock of hair curled dangerously down his forehead, his lips curled in a haughty sneer, his eyes flashed dark. And of course he shook his hips suggestively whenever he sang.
It wasn’t subtle. But it was effective.
Not all of Elvis’ efforts to capitalize on this sex appeal and charisma turned out well. He made 31 movies, some of which made a lot of money, but all of which were terrible. Even so, from these cinematic disasters came some of his greatest songs.
“Jailhouse Rock,” from the movie of the same name, did more to distill the essence of rock music than any song since “Rock Around the Clock.” “You’re So Square (Baby, I Don’t Care)” also came from “Jailhouse Rock.” The great ballad “Love Me Tender” came from the movie of the same name. “Got a Lot of Livin’ to Do” came from “Loving You,” as did the under-appreciated title song. Even “Viva Las Vegas” has a certain greatness to it, if you’re in the right mood.
In his 30s, Elvis settled into a kind of self-parody. The quality of his songs diminished, although he had a nice little string with “In the Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds,” and “Kentucky Rain” all released within a few months of each other. His behavior became more outlandish — handing out free Cadillacs to whoever pleased him — and his taste became more garish.
This is the period that Elvis impersonators inevitably mimic, with his mutton-chop sideburns and his ghastly rhinestone-encrusted knit white jumpsuit. That was the look he had when he mounted a comeback with two hugely successful televised concerts in 1968 and 1972. This comeback may not have won many new fans, but it gave the millions who had adored him a reason to remember why.
Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Elvis’ excesses got the better of him. The massive amounts of prescription drugs, the overeating, the grossly unhealthy lifestyle caught up to him when he was just 42 years old.
His music is immortal. But Elvis left the building for the last time 32 years ago.