Elvis Presley: The King of Rock

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January 8, 2021: Happy Birthday, Elvis! If Elvis Presley were alive today, he'd be 86 years old. And probably weigh 860 pounds. Or, as the ever-quotable Yogi Berra might say, "If Elvis were alive today, he'd be dead!"

Elvis didn't invent rock and roll but he spread the message across America. And the world.

Music changed greatly during the postwar era, helped by electronics, the ubiquitous reach of television and the increased monetary 'buying-power' of teenagers. The electric guitar was developed in the late 1940s by Les Paul. He and wife Mary Ford had a moderately successful singing career during the early Fifties. But Les' technology revolutionized music. The electric guitar arguably gave birth to rock and roll. It's hard to say which was the first rock and roll record - some credit Jackie Brentson's 'Rocket 88' from 1951.

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It certainly had the correct elements - it was about a car - a 1950 Oldsmobile 88 with a high-compression, overhead-valve Rocket V-8 engine - and featured Ike Turner on keyboards. Others claimed that 'Shake, Rattle and Roll' (a remake of a Thirties R&B song) by Bill Haley and his Comets in 1954 was the first rock and roll song. Little Richard claimed he invented it, screaming, "I am the architect of Rock and Roll!" Still others mention Chuck Berry.

Regardless of who invented it, the credit for the mass-popularization of this new music must be given to Elvis Presley, who flew onto the scene in 1956 with the number one hit, 'Heartbreak Hotel.' (Even now, Elvis Presley is first on Forbes's list of top-earning deceased celebrities, earning an estimated $40 million.) For 25 of the next 37 weeks, Elvis held the absolute top of the charts with no less than seven single, million-seller hits. RCA couldn't keep up with record demand.

Many consider Elvis' early Sun Records his best work. I'm less impressed; it seems to me that Elvis' was still trying to find his "voice" while at Sun. Elvis' best music, in my view, was his early pre-Army RCA stuff. Steve Sholes produced much of it. The most-real, most-memorable Elvis was the raw-but-talented, 1956 rocker in the loud clothes, belting out 'Heartbreak Hotel' on the Dorsey Brothers' TV show. (One of the best early Elvis songs is 'I Was The One' from recorded in February, 1956. It was Elvis' only do-wop recording. Unfortunately, the song became the B side of 'Heartbreak Hotel' and has never received its due.)

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Elvis came on the scene when I was thirteen; he has become an icon for people who are my age, encompassing everything cool and vulgar of that era - giant tailfins, pink-and-black color schemes, gold-flecked boomerang-patterned Formica, turquoise appliances, sputnik lamps, etc.

While songwriters Mike Lieber and Jerry Stoller are best known for some of their work for the Coasters and other black artists, they wrote and studio-produced many of the songs for Elvis' hit records ... and his early movies - 'Loving You', 'King Creole' and 'Jailhouse Rock.' In fact, it's the royalties from Elvis' songs ('Hound Dog,' 'Don't,' 'Santa Claus Is Back In Town,' 'Love Me,' 'Treat Me Nice,' 'Trouble' and more) that have kept them in a plush lifestyle. Lieber and Stoller steadfastly refused to make split royalty-deals with Elvis' manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who demanded a 50% kickback from all songwriters. As a result, they basically stopped writing songs for Elvis (post-Army) and his musical career started downhill because the quality of song material declined.

On the occasion of Elvis' death in 1977, John Lennon quipped, "Elvis died when he went into the Army." Lennon may have been a jerk but he was right about Elvis' music. He also said, regarding rock-and-roll, "Before Elvis there was nothing." Sadly, Elvis gradually evolved into a joke - except for a few shining moments, such as his '68 Comeback Special.

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I never met Elvis or saw him perform in person but I've eaten at the Krispy Kreme shop right down the street from Graceland - where Elvis used to get 'em. (I bet he used to buy 100 dozen at a time. Just sent a fleet of Caddys and said, "Put 'em in the trunk, boys. Thank yew. Thank yew vurrah much.") Graceland is south of Memphis, less than a mile from the Mississippi border. The Krispy Kreme is on the same street as Graceland (Highway 51) but it's actually in Mississippi.

It's a little known fact, but there are some remarkable parallels between Elvis and Abe Lincoln:

Abraham Lincoln

Elvis Presley

Born in a log cabin

Poured Log Cabin syrup on almost all food

Read and studied by the light of a fire

Set his study on fire - got pissed when reading light burned out

Liked stovepipe hats

Liked Stovetop Stuffing

Owned a long, black coat

Owned a long, black Cadillac

Wrote Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope

Wrote his address on the back of an envelope for the Kentucky Fried Chicken delivery guy along with a note: "15 buckets - Extra Crispy. Hurry!"

In August of 2004, announcer Al Dvorin, who coined the phrase "Elvis has left the building" died at age 81. You gotta wonder what Al had been doing for the last 27 years!

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Return To Sender

Remembering Elvis: The King of Rock and Roll died on August 16, 1977.

I'll never forget where I was when I heard that Elvis Presley was dead. I was driving along the Eisenhower Expressway in Chicago when the news came over the car radio. I had just finished a business meeting in the Windy City and was headed to northwestern Indiana for an overnight stay and another meeting the following day. I was piloting a rented Buick Century sedan and was wearing a three-piece gray suit with a button-down pink shirt and maroon club tie. I don't know why I remember all these details but they are embedded in my brain like a virus-laden Microsoft Windows patch.

Anyway, I left the radio on, because the news was still unsubstantiated. His death was later confirmed with an announcement originating from Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis - before I even got to the Illinois-Indiana state line.

That night, I watched the 11:00 pm news in a depressingly dark motel room and saw a old b&w clip of a young Elvis performing 'Ready Teddy' on The Ed Sullivan Show. I had viewed that very show when it originally aired in September 1956 and I had just turned 13. It was one of Elvis' finest live television performances. Sullivan was in the hospital after a car accident in his big '56 Lincoln Premiere sedan. Substitute host Charles Laughton introduced Elvis, who performed from a remote hookup in Hollywood where he was making the movie, 'Love Me Tender'.

Lots of people have Elvis memorabilia, but I have a couple of rare items. At the time of Elvis' death, I was still working at Rohm and Haas; one of my duties was investigating the market for reinforced plastic caskets and burial vaults. I subscribed to two trade magazines, American Funeral Director and American Cemetery. Both had special issues with articles describing Elvis funeral and burial.

Elvis was entombed in a seamless copper-deposit casket. It was the most expensive casket you could buy in 1977, costing well over $10,000. It was made by electrolytically "depositing copper on a form, mandrel or shaped base, so that there are no welds or seams to leak."

Actor/comedian Freddie Prinze, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in January 1977, was buried in the same kind of casket at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills.

I also have a black & white framed photo of Elvis performing in 1955, with his three-piece band in the background. The photo has been personally signed by the two surviving members of the trio - guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana. It is on the wall in my office - over the copy machine, which is next to my computer where I'm now typing.

My first exposure to Elvis Presley was when he appeared on the Steve Allen Show during the summer of 1956, when he performed 'Hound Dog' and the ballad, 'I Want You, I Need You, I Love You'. That's when I began buying his records and became a fan, mostly of his pre-1961 releases. (posted 8/16/11, permalink)

Elvis & His 1956 Continental Mark II: Let's start by straightening out the common misconception that Elvis Presley was a Cadillac man who painted his cars garish colors and customized them wildly, demonstrating (say his critics) a lack of taste and refinement.

The reality is that Elvis' taste was bipolar - sometimes conservative, sometimes all flash. His home, Graceland, is a stately dwelling; Elvis bought it in 1957 and left the exterior tastefully unchanged. Inside, some rooms are quite nicely decorated; others look like they've been furnished entirely with merchandise from roadside stands. The stairwell to the basement recreation rooms features mirrored ceilings and carpeted walls.

Elvis had a flashy, purple and white, customized '56 Caddy convertible and commissioned George Barris to make a vulgar gold and white 1960 Cadillac 75 Series custom limousine. Yet Elvis also owned a black Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, a Mercedes 600 limousine and other expensive, conservative vehicles which would look right at home on the streets of Philadelphia's Main Line, Hilton Head Island or the Hamptons.

Elvis was definitely a car guy ... (more >>>)

Hunka Hunka Burning Timeline: Dave Burge noted that we have passed a grim milestone:

(posted 4/3/20, permalink)

Etch-A-Sketch Elvis:

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