Reinventing Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley Debut Album

It took me 30 years to figure out that Elvis Presley was the shit.

I came of age in the 90s, when our rebels and heroes swallowed shotguns and treated fame like it was a bottle of Astroglide they found in their grandmas purse.  Elvis stood for everything that I thought was wrong in music.  He didn’t write his own tunes, he dressed gaudy and Public Enemy told me he was a racist.

Now I know I was wrong.  He didn’t write his own tunes because hardly anybody did back then.  What he did do that nobody else had done before was take white “hillbilly” music and mix it with black “race” music and blend it into something brand new, called “Rock & Roll.”  It seems hard to believe now, but back then it was out of this world.  It would be like if today somebody mixed Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party and your daughter loved it.  He wore a lot of pink.  I’ve heard him described as a white man wearing black people’s clothes in women’s colors with trucker sideburns.  He was from Mars.  Black and white people didn’t even share water fountains back in the 50s and here was Elvis dressing and singing like a black man to a country audience full of Howdy Doody suits who still thought Swedes and Norwegians shouldn’t mix.  Shit was forward, understand?

And the racist thing is just plain stupid.  Someone started a rumor that he said “The only thing a colored person can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my records.”  He never said it.  The truth is he grew up in the highly African-American neighborhoods in Memphis and on Beale Street.  He idolized black musicians.  He freaking ACTED like them.  Why in the name of God would someone who hates black people mimic them on every level?  Ever seen a KKK Grand Wizard dressed like Lil’ Wayne and auto-tuning the cross-burning ceremony?  He brought black culture into the white mainstream and some people weren’t ready for it so they made up vicious lies to cut him down.

Elvis was a revolutionary artist who changed the entire face of music, more so than anybody else in history.  He didn’t write his own music, but he interpreted it like a prophet.  Nobody did a song like Elvis.  Nobody.  He was pure emotion and energy.  He channeled lightning into his songs.  And yeah, he later became fat and gross and not good.  But why don’t we sit down and compare you when you’re 20 and 42?  Think you’re going to look good in those skinny jeans and Uggs when you weigh 115 lbs more there?  Tone the judgment down a bit there, tubby.

My favorite example of Elvis’ electricity is his very first national TV appearance playing “Shake Rattle & Roll” on the Dorsey Brothers’ CBS program “Stage Show.”  This isn’t the Ed Sullivan Show.  This was before he was a household name, or even known at all.  He hadn’t figured out his stage routine yet.  He didn’t have choreographed “Jailhouse Rock” routines.  He was just a nervous kid who’s about to take over the world and doesn’t know it.  After being introduced by a young Rick Moranis, Elvis comes out all amped to the gills on nerves (and also probably trucker speed).  The crowd had literally never seen anything like him.  No white musicians moved while playing back then.  People stood there like Hank Williams and played their nice songs.  So when Elvis gets to the first guitar break and backs up and starts shaking maniacally, you can actually hear the crowd (after a shocked pause) laugh and clap out of surprise.  Later on in other appearances they’d come to expect it and pan the cameras up to keep from showing the “obscene, animal gyrations,” but at this point everybody was caught off guard.  Elvis gave the world a wet-willy and they didn’t notice until it was too late.

I could go on forever about how different Elvis was and how there’s never been a more culturally shocking and important artist in the history of music, including the Beatles.  Instead, just watch the video and realize that 95% of the music you’ve ever liked came out of this moment.  And enough with the skinny jeans, fluffy.

Elvis “Shake Rattle and Roll” from John Marr on Vimeo.

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