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OPINION | CRITICAL MASS: Elvis Presley still haunts us after all these years

by Philip Martin | June 26, 2022 at 2:10 a.m.
Austin Butler plays Elvis Presley in “Elvis” (2022). Elvis was actually a pretty good piano player.


Baz Luhrmann's new Elvis movie is out. My sources in the industry suspect, more for reasons of logistics than quality, that it might have the biggest opening weekend of the summer. I've heard a $200 million opening weekend is not out of the question.

Everyone is going to see "Elvis," they tell me; this summer is proving there is a lot of pent-up demand for spectacle-heavy movies, and this one is well positioned to ride the momentum.

My sources cite spacing — it's being released four weeks after "Top Gun: Maverick" and two weeks after "Jurassic World Dominion" — and strength of competition. The only other major studio movie coming out this weekend is the Ethan Hawke horror film "Black Phone," which one distributor described as the spiritual heir of the cheap and dirty "Purge" series — or a modern iteration of the old Universal monster movies. While its budget is low enough to ensure a decent return on investment, "Black Phone" seems unlikely to make a wider cultural impression. It's a business venture, counter-programming designed to harvest the discretionary income of those disinclined to see a movie about the King of Rock 'n' Roll.

All signs point to "Elvis" being a very big deal. But, the 12-minute standing ovation it garnered at the Cannes Film Festival notwithstanding, early reviews haven't been great. Since deadlines precluded my seeing the film before writing this piece, I'll just report that the early consensus seems to be that Austin Butler, the 30-year-old who plays Elvis Presley in the film, does a very good job, but that the screenplay has a rote feel.

Writing for the website Collider, Ross Bonamie says it's a "hyper-gaudy recitation of a Wikipedia history of Presley, hitting the major notes that one should explore in this story, embellishing the more theatrical aspects of this tale, and mostly avoiding the complicated aspects ... There are moments where Elvis comes close to 'Walk Hard'-esque levels of bio-pic parody, as a character offers Presley drugs, or as women come and go in his life, but Luhrmann is flying through this story too fast to draw too much attention to these moments."

I have sympathy for Baz Luhrmann. I can imagine many Elvis movies, but a comprehensive bio-pic seems like the least interesting approach. Elvis is large, he contains multitudes, and, in 2022, 87 years after he was born and 45 years after his death, he still possesses the power to confound and astound us; to break our hearts and incite joy.

INVENTED ROCK 'N' ROLL

No one would argue that Elvis Presley invented rock 'n' roll; "Rocket 88" and Bill Haley & His Comets and Alan Freed and his "Moondog Coronation Ball" preceded him. In the early 1950s, cultural miscegenation was in the air — race records were being broadcast on WDIA-AM and the heavy backbeat of rhythm and blues was viral.

Jackie Robinson had introduced jazzy Black style to baseball; Chuck Berry and marketers realized there was a new demographic to sell to — a teenage cohort that, in the economic boom of the post-war years, suddenly had leisure time and discretionary income.

Elvis and B.B. King hung out together on Memphis' Beale Street before either of them was famous. Elvis went to the juke joints on the nights whites were allowed in — he heard Arthur Crudup and Rufus Thomas. He adored Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

The legend is, as usual, suspect. Elvis was a savvy kid when he walked into Sun Records in August 1953; he was looking for a career, not to make a record as a birthday present for his mother Gladys or, as he sometimes said, to hear what he sounded like. If that was all he wanted, he could have gone to a drug store, done it cheaper.

But he chose Sun Records. He was prepared to pay for a few minutes of studio time — investing in what he saw as his inevitable future. He'd known he was a singer back in high school, even if music was the only course he ever failed.

That story is apparently only sort of true; Elvis made a C in the class. It's said his teacher was unimpressed by his version of the 1947 Pee Wee King hit "Keep Them Cold Icy Fingers Off of Me." Elvis told her she just couldn't appreciate his music, and she agreed.

But by the time he got crossways with that teacher, Elvis was a veteran performer; as a 10-year-old he'd dressed up like a little cowboy and sung Red Foley's "Old Shep" at the Mississippi–Alabama Fair and Dairy Show when his family was still living in Tupelo. He came in fifth in the talent contest and a few months later got a guitar for his birthday. He'd hoped — or later said he'd hoped — for a rifle or a bicycle instead.

He brought that guitar with him to school every day in the seventh grade, when the other kids called him trash and "mama's boy." He played and sang during lunchtime, though later he'd say he was too shy to have done that.

He listened to Mississippi Slim's — real name Carvell Lee Ausborn — radio show on Tupelo's WELO; he performed on Slim's program when he was 12. Slim showed him some new chords.

In 1948, when the Presleys moved from Tupelo to Memphis, he started taking guitar lessons from Lee Denson, an older boy who also gave lessons to brothers Johnny and Dorsey Burnette. They all played around the public housing complex known as the Lauderdale Courts.

During his junior year at L.C. Humes High School, Elvis grew his hair and began experimenting with fashion, wearing some of the flashy clothes he'd seen in the window of Lansky Brothers. He could buy those clothes because he was industrious — while he was in high school he started a lawn service (charging $4 a lawn) and worked as a movie usher for Loew's State Theater, for his father's employer Precision Tool, on the night shift at M.B. Parker furniture manufacturing, and as a shabbos goy for his Jewish neighbors, Rabbi Alfred Fruchter and his wife Jeannette.

(My Elvis movie would include a scene where the Fruchters, who perceived Elvis as "a nice boy," loan the Presley family their record player so they could listen to Elvis' version of Crudup's "That's All Right" when it was released as a single.)

He became a bit of a high school celebrity after performing in a school talent show. When he showed up at the Tennessee State Employment Security Office a week or so before his high school graduation, the interviewer pegged him as a "rather flashily dressed 'playboy' type."

They sent him on to a temporary job assembling furniture at M.B. Parker Co. He made 90 cents an hour, about $36 a week, which wasn't bad money for a poor boy just out of high school. After the temporary position ended, he went back to Precision Tool for a while. It wasn't until April 1954 that he signed on as a truck driver with Crown Electric.

Elvis filed his first income tax return in 1954, listing himself as "semi-skilled labor." His gross income was $916.33.

HERE COMES THE SUN

Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick argues he picked Sun because he thought there was at least a chance of being discovered there. Before and after that session he tried out for a couple of vocal groups, who'd dismissed him either because he lacked a good grasp of vocal harmony or because they simply didn't think he was that good a singer. (This seems to have been a fairly common opinion. His neighbors, the Fruchters, thought he had a nice voice but were dubious of his chances of making it as a musician.)

But Presley was not dissuaded — when Sun receptionist Marion Keisker asked him what kind of singer he was, he answered, "I sing all kinds" and insisted that he didn't "sound like nobody."

After he recorded, she took down his name and noted that he was a "good ballad singer."

Her boss Sam Phillips was intrigued, but not immediately blown away by the performance. Presley would return to the studio to make another recording on his own dime before Phillips arranged a recording session for him in June 1954, in which Presley tried (and failed) to cut a cover of a Jimmy Sweeney ballad.

Phillips let Presley sing a few other numbers, and was sufficiently impressed to arrange another session, this time with two local musicians, guitarist Winfield "Scotty" Moore and upright bass player Bill Black.

It was at this session when, after struggling through much of the evening, the three launched into an impromptu version of "It's All Right." Phillips stuck his head out of the control booth, told them to start it up again and rolled tape.

Three days later, DJ Dewey ("No Relation") Phillips was playing the track on his radio show.

Less than two weeks later, Presley, Moore and Black were playing club dates. By the end of the month, they were opening for Slim Whitman. In October, Presley quit his job at Crown Electric. When he filed his income tax return the next year, he reported $25,240.15 in earnings.

He'd make about 11 times that much in 1955. By 1958, he was earning more than $1 million a year. Forbes estimates he made a little more than $30 million in 2021.

  photo  Austin Butler is Elvis Presley, Helen Thomson is Gladys Presley, Tom Hanks is Colonel Tom Parker and Richard Roxburgh is Vernon Presley in the new movie “Elvis.”
 
 
MUSICALITY

I want to circle back to Presley's musicality.

Lots of people, including me, have pointed out he wasn't a songwriter and was only a competent guitar player who often used his instrument more as a prop. You could take that as implying Presley wasn't a great musician. As ludicrous as that sounds given his work product, it's an opinion often expressed.

It's a wrong opinion — Presley couldn't read music, but neither can Paul McCartney. None of the Beatles could. Stevie Wonder obviously doesn't read music; neither did Ray Charles. Presley was not a virtuosic guitarist, but he played pretty good rhythm guitar. And he was a really good pianist — on those "Million Dollar Quartet" tapes, that's him playing the majority of the piano parts, even though Jerry Lee Lewis is right there. His best instrument may have been the electric bass guitar.

There's a story about him playing the bass line on "Jailhouse Rock" after Bill Black, who was more comfortable with the upright double bass, became frustrated with the part. (According to Scotty Moore, the song in question wasn't "Jailhouse Rock," but "Baby, I Don't Care," which was recorded during the same session.)

Drummer D.J. Fontana, who joined Moore and Black in Presley's band in 1955, recalls that Elvis could, after a few minutes of fooling around, play just about any instrument competently. And that makes sense given the man's obviously gifted ear.

There are a couple of reasons we tend to diminish Presley's musicality — he did, especially in the early days, tend to use his acoustic guitar as a theatrical device. His first performances were with a child-sized guitar he was given on his 11th birthday; later he often performed with a hand-tooled (and sound-deadening) leather cover over the body of his guitar.

Presley's job was to sing and rubber-leg, to work up the crowd. When he moved on to RCA, he had the best session musicians at his disposal.

And, unlike Marvin Gaye and Wonder and other multi-instrumentalists, Presley's virtuosity never became part of the show. He didn't have to develop as a musician, and his stagecraft flowed other ways. Presley perhaps didn't achieve his full potential as a musician, but that doesn't mean he didn't have extraordinary gifts.

GREATEST SELLOUT

A recent story in The Washington Post called Elvis the greatest sellout in American history. "Not just in the history of rock 'n' roll, mind you," author David Segal wrote. "He's the greatest sellout, period."

Segal has a point. Elvis was always a commercial venture, a capitalistic notion. He took the money and did what they told him, even if he thought it was silly. Elvis was a good boy, kind to his mama, polite to his fans, respectful of the men in suits who decided things for him.

It's easy to deny Elvis because he didn't invent the idea of artistic integrity in rock 'n' roll. It's easy to parody his karate gestures, to imagine Elvis as insincere or — as Public Enemy's Chuck D. has — a cynical "racist."

But there are other ways to interpret the way he sang and lived, and, if you listen hard, maybe it's even possible to imagine that there was something authentic in the way he attacked "Mystery Train" or "That's All Right." We should remember he didn't have a playbook. In the '50s, it was more likely a greasy-kid-stuff fad, and its purveyors would be back pumping gas and driving trucks within a year or two.

Presley didn't think of himself as an artist. He was an entertainer. He dyed his sandy hair black because he believed dark-haired movie stars had more longevity. He saw Dean Martin as a career lodestar.

He famously ceded control over his destiny to an illegal Dutch immigrant and former carnival worker who called himself Col. Tom Parker — played by Tom Hanks in Luhrman's film. (Elvis never performed overseas, largely because Parker feared that the passport application process would expose his dubious status. So the only performances Elvis ever gave outside the United States were in Canada.)

And Parker's instincts weren't infallible. While the silly movies that consumed most of Elvis' time and energy after he returned from his Army tour of duty in Germany were lucrative, safe and easy for the big fella to coast through, as the '60s wound down they were played out.

No studio was apt to offer Elvis a new contract anywhere close to his expiring one, and Elvis was bored with going through the motions. It didn't help that the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, et al., had redefined rock 'n' roll, making popular music for adult sensibilities.

Elvis was over by 1962. Then he came back. Then he went away again, and came back again. Then he died. Now he haunts us.

Email: pmartin@adgnewsroom.com


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