Friday, January 8, 2016


On April 14, 1956, RCA Victor Records presented Elvis with the one millionth copy of his landmark hit, "Heartbreak Hotel," recorded just three months earlier at their McGavock Street studios in Nashville. (Photo courtesy

Contributing writer Bruce E. Boyers celebrates what would be Elvis Presley's 81st birthday today, with a short essay on an "Aha!" moment he experienced when he was a very young man. Listening to a car radio, he heard Elvis singing "Heartbreak Hotel," a song written by Tommy Durden and Mae Boren Axton (singer/songwriter Hoyt Axton's mother, for you music scholars) and recorded with, among others, Chet Atkins on guitar and Floyd Cramer on piano. The world would never be the same again. -- CLH 


by Bruce E. Boyers

I've always been a bit ambivalent about writing about Elvis. You see, my mother brought me up musically in such a way that, by the time I was 10 or 11, I knew for a fact that the greatest music in modern times had been written and recorded by African-Americans. Although she didn't own any "race records," she told me all about them—78 RPM vinyl singles that brought a musical form known as Rhythm and Blues into the world. Historians now point to one such record—ironically, recorded in 1951 at the same Sun Studios in Memphis where Elvis would, four years later, make his first impressions onto wax—as the very first Rock and Roll record ever made. The song is called "Rocket 88," and it was written and performed by the highly controversial (years later) Ike Turner.

In that I was aware of these earlier efforts that eventually resulted in Rock and Roll, I've always been chafed by Elvis being called “The King of Rock and Roll.” In my mind, that title should have gone to Chuck Berry, Little Richard, or one of many other black pioneers like Ike Turner, who in reality taught Elvis everything he knew.

Well, a few years ago I was considerably softened up on the subject. I read about a 1971 press conference that Elvis held in Las Vegas following a hugely successful performance he had just had at the newly opened International Hotel there. At that press conference, a journalist referred to him as “The King.” It just so happened that Fats Domino was standing in the nearby crowd of onlookers. Elvis gestured at Fats and said, “No, that's the real king of rock and roll.”

Okay, Elvis, you made a bit of peace with me with that one. So here's a bit about Elvis.

Kid Galahad--and Kid Bruce

By the time I started to become musically aware—just before the Beatles hit the US in 1964--Elvis Presley was somebody you could only see in movies. Thanks to a killer schedule of filmmaking he had been pushed into by his manager Colonel Tom Parker, the only way anybody could experience Elvis between 1962 and 1968 was to go to their local cinemas. I was a poor kid who rarely if ever got to go to the movies. Hence, Elvis was kind of off my personal radar.

Well, almost.

In 1962, when I was 7 years old, my entire hometown of Idyllwild, California was totally abuzz,  the name Elvis Presley on everybody's lips. Although my mother did not take me to see it, she and many other townspeople got to witness Elvis making the film Kid Galahad right there in our little town. The locals also got to witness a bit of Elvis's good spirit—in between takes, he'd play football with the local kids out in the street.

Years later when I actually got to see Kid Galahad. It was amazing to watch Elvis singing his way past all the bits of the town (many long gone) that were firmly fixed in my memory as a kid—and knowing that at any of those moments I hadn't been very far away.

The Inspiring Elvis

But enough about me. Who was this Elvis Presley person anyway? He must have had something going for him. The number of famous musicians who cite his name as the performer that got them interested in playing music is endless. A seven-year-old Bruce Springsteen saw Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show and was inspired to take up music. Bob Dylan once described the sensation of first hearing Elvis as being “like busting out of jail.” Elvis was also a prime influence on a little band called the Beatles.

It wasn't until I was about 11 years old that I really understood why he had such an influence—up until then I had only heard the second-rate songs Elvis was forced to record for his movies, and I couldn’t figure it out at all. But late one night I was riding with my mom in the car, and a song came on the radio that instantly riveted my attention. She reached over and turned it up, and said, “That was Elvis Presley's first record.” (It wasn't, but it was his first release on a major label, so it was probably the first she'd ever heard of him.) The song was "Heartbreak Hotel." Like much of the blues and R&B I had been exposed to, it was raw, it was ferocious, it was dirty. And it was INCREDIBLE.

That, as I was later to learn, was real Rock 'n' Roll. Elvis in the beginning was this beautiful, untamed sexual animal. Guys sat by patiently while their girlfriends screamed in ecstasy over him. Some weren't so patient, and downright hated him. Bigots tried to have him boycotted because he sounded black. Television shows at first banned him, and then demanded him as his records flew up the charts, one after the other.

In actual truth, Elvis was just doing what came naturally to him: singing. And when the rhythm moved him, dancing. It just so happened that both made women everywhere insanely desirous of bearing his progeny.

Elvis Presley was a dream come true for one Sam Phillips, owner and operator of a small Memphis outfit called Sun Records. Elvis had been in the studio a few times, but hadn't really impressed anybody. Phillips, however, was constantly on the lookout for a white performer who could bring the sound of black music to a white audience. One night he had Elvis in the studio, and had him sing just about everything he knew. It proved entirely fruitless—until they were about to give up and go home, when Elvis picked up the guitar and starting singing his rendition of a 1946 blues number. Suddenly, the other musicians—and Sam Phillips—were wide awake. They recorded the song. "That's All Right" became a local sensation, and launched the career of a legend.

Elvis had made some careful observations over on Memphis' Beale Street, the black part of town where all the rhythm and blues clubs were. He'd obviously learned his lessons well.

The wild, out-of-bounds Elvis had a long string of hit records, including "Hound Dog," "Don't Be Cruel," "Love Me Tender," "All Shook Up" and many more. Unfortunately, it only lasted until 1958, when the US government—who already had rock 'n' roll on their radar as something dangerous to be carefully watched—decided to draft Elvis into the army. While Elvis's two-year army stint didn't even come close to killing his career (as I'm sure some hoped it would), things were different when he came out. He got into movies, and tamed down quite a bit. The old Elvis—the one who has now inspired generations of rockers—was gone forever. When Elvis died in 1977, John Lennon commented sarcastically, “Elvis died when he went into the army.”

To be fair, he didn't. Once out of his encumbering movie contract in 1968, he came back out into live performances with a vengeance. While not the wild man he once was, he proved he could still pack a hell of a punch as a performer. He started choosing his own songs—instead of the crap of the type foisted off on him during his film career—and the results were fantastic. He had new hits with songs like "Suspicious Minds" and "In the Ghetto.” And up until his health began to really slide in the mid-1970s, he sold out concerts—many of them arenas—everywhere he played.

So here's to you, Elvis. The dream lives on.

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