Elvis Presley – Fanfare for the Common Man
Throughout the ’70s, right up until his death 20 years ago on August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley regularly performed Hank Williams’ classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” at his sold-out arena shows. “I’d like to sing a song that’s probably the saddest song I’ve ever heard,” he’d say, and the screaming arena would suddenly turn hushed. James Burton would kick off the song by filtering its original acoustic and steel intro through his own soul-deep electric guitar riff, and then Elvis, his baritone quavering gently in tones sincere and stately, would deliver a version every bit as affecting as old Hank’s. You would certainly never confuse the two renditions, but Presley’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” reminds, once again, that the king of rock ‘n’ roll was first, foremost and forever a country boy at heart.
It’s been commonplace for a long time now, when writing about Presley’s influences, to remark almost entirely upon his fascination with R&B and the blues. After all, it was his intense attraction to such a culturally off-limits sound that (some say) sent him across the tracks into the poor, black section of Tupelo, Mississippi, known as Shakerag and that even had him driving (perhaps) across the Tennessee-Arkansas Bridge into West Memphis to check out Willie Mitchell at a place called Danny’s. By appropriating the black music he heard blasting out of the smoky clubs down on Beale Street and flying over the air to him on the radio, Presley found his defining inspiration, the conventional wisdom explains. Because he made up his mind to seek out this music and to soak it up until it became his own, the version of rock ‘n’ roll we have today came into existence.
This is all true enough. But one should never forget that Elvis was a country boy too — not because of anything he chose, but simply because he was born to it. Country music was part of Presley’s artistic sensibility and world view the way drawing breath is a part of life. He didn’t have to discover it like some new and foreign land, hidden away in exotic juke joints and the thrilling jive of a cat disc jockey like Dewey Phillips. It was already there, just there, in his very bones from the get-go. We can easily imagine a young Elvis hearing in the music of black R&B artists the possibility of something he might one day become. But country music? It was simply the reality of who he already was, of who he’d always be, no matter what. That he didn’t deny or reject his country roots is a signal fire drawing us to an equally essential part of his genius.
Not that Elvis never dreamed of Something More. He was, after all, a country boy who idolized movie star Tony Curtis, who wanted very much to be a successful singer of Southern gospel like his heroes in the Statesmen Quartet and the Blackwood Brothers, who gravitated to the sounds of R&B shouters and crooners like Wynonie Harris and Roy Hamilton, and who couldn’t get enough of pop and country crooners either (Bing Crosby, Eddy Arnold, Dean Martin). He borrowed pieces of his style from all of these artists: Curtis’ swagger, Statesmen lead singer Jake Hess’ unabashed emotionalism and sense of the dramatic (not to mention a good deal of his ballad phrasing), R&B’s energy and rhythm and cool, Deano’s mumbled, swallowed-word delivery — but the common denominator was always that each of these sounds, and plenty more besides, were then filtered through the heart and mind of a country boy.
And white country boys, at least in Presley’s day, listened to country music. As would be the case with any boy who grew up poor (at times, desperately so), white and Southern in the two decades leading up to our century’s midpoint, country music would have been playing everywhere Elvis turned, and he loved it. Country music was there in the Southern and country gospel standards that his mama Gladys would sing to him, and in the C&W tunes his daddy Vernon would hum around the house. It was in the hymns he would sing in Pentecostal churches come Sunday morning, in the country standards like “You Are My Sunshine” he would strum and play with friends before school most mornings, and it was in the crooning of the cowboy singers — Ritter, Rogers and Autry — he enjoyed at Tupelo’s Strand theater on the weekends. It was there, too, in the way people with more means looked down their noses at him and his people, in the way he talked, in the clothes on his back, in the rumble in his belly. Later, it was in the All-Night Singings held at Memphis’ Ellis Auditorium, where Elvis saw dynamic, emotive Southern gospel quartets like the Blackwoods and Stamps, Speers and Statesmen, praising the Lord and promising Something More.
Like so many other Southern kids, Elvis listened to the Grand Ole Opry every Saturday night with his folks, dreaming of one day standing center stage himself, just like Red Foley and Bill Monroe. Unlike so many kids with the same dream, though, he had ambition enough to get down to WELO and sing with local hillbilly star Mississippi Slim. And as a 10-year-old, this country boy, who everyone remembers as being achingly shy, somehow found the guts to get up and croon Foley’s hoary paean to a dead doggie, “Old Shep”, for second prize at a fair in downtown Tupelo — and to sing it as sincerely as all get-out too, just the way Foley did. “Well, all of us kids thought that was so silly,” childhood friend Laverne Farrar recalled in the Rose Clayton/Dick Heard book Elvis Up Close: In The Words Of Those Who Knew Him Best (Turner Publishing, 1994). “But now Elvis didn’t smile or nothing. He sang it right out from his heart.”
Throughout his career, Elvis frequently chose to perform country songs that, judged by rock standards, would be nothing more than the worst kind of schmaltz. In 1956, for example, he recorded “Old Shep” (accompanying himself on piano), and in the ’70s, “Snowbird.” But more often than not, his performances of such songs communicated intense emotion simply because he sang them as sincerely as anyone ever had — indeed, singing “right out from his heart.” Others might hear country corn in this approach, but that possibility never even seemed to occur to Elvis. Raised on country & western and its oft-forgotten cousin, Southern gospel — two repertoires he would draw upon throughout his career — he instinctively understood the importance of being earnest and sincere. Elvis was a country boy.
PART II: The Big Bang
Presley’s Sun sessions, and especially his breathless versions of “That’s All Right” and Bill Monroe’s 1941 country waltz “Blue Moon Of Kentucky,” are the Big Bang of the rock ‘n’ roll universe. To the country music establishment, though, Elvis and the rock ‘n’ roll revolution he spearheaded must have sounded exactly like the end of the world.
Distracting old-school country listeners away from his undeniable twang with heaping helpings of rhythm and bluesy shouting, the Hillbilly Cat was stealing away the youngest generations of country fans, changing the rules. What’s more, he was doing it virtually overnight. Presley’s double-sided single, “Baby Let’s Play House” paired with the closer-to-“real”-country “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone”, had climbed to #5 on the national country charts in the summer of 1955, busting the kid out beyond the regional fame his first three Sun singles had already won for him. But Elvis was just warming up. His next release, “I Forgot To Remember To Forget”/”Mystery Train”, became Presley’s first country #1 — his first #1, period. Billboard named Elvis the Most Promising Country Artist of 1955.