It’s been 35, let me write that again, 35 years since Elvis Presley, the rightfully named “King of Rock and Roll,” passed away. For many musicphiles, zealous fans of him, and many of your rock and roll heroes who followed him and absolutely thought the man was musically irresistible, this is certainly a memorable day in the history of American music.
While the legacy and history of Elvis Presley is divided miles wide between those that love him and those that loathe him, one thing remains absolutely clear: the rules set and invented by the early Elvis, the brylcreemed, snarled lipped, leather jacket juvenile delinquent who had barely gotten out of his teenage years when he went into famed Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee and started his recording career, remains the checkpoint for all that followed him.
He represented the starting gate and visual primer of what a rock and roll star is supposed to look like, how to whip an audience up in a rock and roll lose your mind and soul frenzy, in essence the correlation between guitar and singer. The rock and roll archetype of the front man is taken wholly for granted in this day and age, a lot of the excess of the 1970s rock and roll front men had a lot to do with that, but nothing would have existed in any incarnation or form without the blueprint set forth by the musical posturing of Elvis Presley.
Yes, he existed during the roots of 1950s American rock and roll and certainly people like Chuck Berry and Bill Haley and Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins were as equally as important in the gestation of the genre. For sure, Holly arguably might be the all time master of it. But Elvis was the first true rock superstar. Elvis was the first radical, outlaw, rebel, heartthrob, chart topper, hit maker. Most of his songs were written by others yes, and he was guided by the surefooted hand of his long time manager, Colonel Tom Parker. But Elvis Presley became a product unlike any other, influencing scores of people who followed him, people who get much more adoration regardless of their personal folly. People like John Lennon, Iggy Pop, Robert Plant, all who swore by him, who played Elvis records constantly when they were growing up, no doubt utilizing and shaping every fiber of what was to become their own artistic and musical licenses and styles.
Elvis charted out hit after hit after hit during the ’50s — “Jailhouse Rock,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Hound Dog,” and so many others — to massive success. Television appearances were at a strange two fold; everybody wanted him, but censors became nervous at his physical, uninhibited, let loose and take no prisoners gyrations, which drew shrieks from a young teenage audience that was also themselves experiencing musical sensations like these for the very first time. And as a result, most TV directors had him shot famously from “the waist up,” during his performances.
By the time after his stint in the Army and as the 1960s rolled on, Elvis started to become irrelevant as the waves of The British Invasion, led by The Beatles, washed up on our shores and dominated the rest of the decade, as did electric blues, garage and psychedelic sounds. A comeback by decades end showed that Elvis still could ignite untold passions in audiences, but as the 1970s wore on, he became more mired in Vegas schtick and suddenly became a magnate to the older generation, even making appearances during Richard Nixon’s Presidential tenure at the White House. Presley started to slip into self parody and started to gain weight, a lot of it, suddenly, he became addicted to drugs, pills mainly, something that would have seemed unthinkable during the ’50s, which now seemed like centuries ago for him and his fans. It all culminated with his death on August 16, 1977.
After his death, he became mythologized in the most bizarre and crude ways, a revolution of Elvis impersonators (something which still exists to this day) of his ’70s white rhinestone studded suit era became almost like a national pastime. Rarely would anyone ever see someone imitating the Sun Records era of the early Elvis, the reason more than likely being that that version of Elvis was truly one of a kind, found more in the sincere posturing of an Iggy Pop than a bloated nobody layman who entertained crowds of 30 people in dive bars singing “My Way” as the later, near the end Elvis.
To this day, most of the new generation thinks of Elvis as this the bloated fool and wonders just what all the hoopla was about and why, quickly dismissing him and his talents. But make no mistake, he was a musical dynamo when he first blazed onto the musical landscape way back when. The first few years of his career stands up there with any artist and musician in any genre before or since. You’d have a pretty shortlist to try and come up with other musical figures who can make the same claim.
On this day, the 35th anniversary of The King of Rock and Roll’s death, revisit the legend, strip away all the pretenses, see what’s underneath, be amazed, know what you’ve always known and what you may have forgotten, at what made Elvis Presley at one time and to still a lot of people, a bonafide true American musical legend.
If you want to get a taste of Presley’s music, , Playlist: The Very Best Of Elvis Presley, which contains 14 songs including “Jailhouse Rock,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “Burning Love,” is on sale this month for only $5.