Elvis: Thirty Years On

Originally posted August 14, 2007

Elvis Presley came to mind the other day. I noticed a mention on one blog or another over the weekend that, come Thursday, Aug. 16, it will have been thirty years since his death.

I never quite got Elvis, at least as far as any real emotional connection went. By the time I was listening to rock and pop, the years when he set the standard for rock ’n’ roll – either with what he recorded in the 1950s or during his comeback in the 1960s after his military service – were long gone. I liked what I heard from him as the 1960s turned into the 1970s – “Kentucky Rain,” “In The Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds” were three great singles – but beyond being a good listen when he came up in the radio rotation, he didn’t mean that much. And his last Top Ten hit, 1972’s “Burning Love,” did absolutely nothing for me.

So when I heard on a hot August afternoon that he’d died in Memphis, it didn’t have much impact. Oh, I didn’t quite shrug it off. I knew Elvis’ death mattered in the wider scheme of things. It just didn’t matter much to me. That might have been because I hadn’t yet done enough digging into the history of rock ’n’ roll to appreciate Elvis’ place in its popularization. I was aware that he’d caused a pretty big ruckus in the years just after I was born, what with the sneer, the gyrating hips and, at the center of it all, the music.

Listening to the music today, it sounds pretty tame, from the Sun records releases – “That’s All Right,” “Mystery Train” and the rest – to the sounds of his debut LP on RCA, 1956’s Elvis. What was radical and, to some, offensive, is now so mild – especially in its beat – as to be a curio. Still, the Elvis album, with “Hound Dog,” “Heartbreak Hotel, “Blue Suede Shoes” and so many more extraordinary tracks, is one of the most important albums in rock history because Elvis’ popularity among working class and middle class youth in the U.S. is one of the foundations on which all of modern pop and rock was built.

Not that there weren’t other building blocks along the way; there were many. But as Sun Records’ Sam Phillips knew, someone like Elvis – with his synthesis of musical styles and his charisma – was the key. The list of musicians essential to the development of rock and pop music is a fairly brief one, and Elvis is one the big blocks in the foundation that was laid during the 1950s. (Off the top of my head, the others from the 1950s on whom the history of the music rests are Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly. Did I miss someone? If you think so, let me know.)

Anyway, my point is that now I understand Elvis’ historical impact, which I know I didn’t grasp entirely on that hot August afternoon when I heard he’d died. Nevertheless, except for his three hit singles of 1969 and 1970, his music still does not touch me. I don’t get the same visceral kick when I hear “Don’t Be Cruel” or “All Shook Up” or “Hound Dog” as I do when I hear “I Saw Her Standing There” or “Gimme Shelter” or even “American Pie.” I appreciate the music, but I don’t necessarily love it.

Even so, when one explores Elvis’ incredibly huge catalog, there are jewels hidden among the glass. One of the more interesting places to look for those jewels is among the many movie soundtracks of the early 1960s. The movies were mostly dreadful – was any modern performer’s manager as utterly shortsighted as was Col. Tom Parker? – but the soundtracks were on occasion worth a listen. One of those was the soundtrack to the 1966 movie Spinout, which includes some bluesy numbers as well as a nicely done cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is A Long Time.”

So, to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of Elvis’ passing this week, I’ve chosen for a Tuesday Cover his version of “Down In The Alley” from that Spinout soundtrack. Originally recorded by the Clovers for a 1956 Atlantic single, the song has been covered by a few other folks along the way, including the Chambers Brothers and Ronnie Hawkins. Elvis does a pretty good job with it.

Elvis Presley – “Down In The Alley” [1966]

3.88 MB mp3 at 192 kbps


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