Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Long Way from Tupelo

We celebrate July 4 with fireworks every year, but July 5 marks an anniversary offering the world its own serving of sizzle. The act of remembering helps us open our minds to forgotten or little known facts that just might bring a smile during these dog days of summer.

60 years ago on July 5, 1954, Sam Phillips made music history when Elvis Presley laid down the track to “That’s All Right (Mama)”. Unrehearsed, the grainy recording captured the distinct sound that caught Phillips’s ear during a break when Elvis picked up a guitar and sang an up-tempo version of a blues song. Sam Phillips knew he had a rare item on his hands: a white singer who could sing black rhythm and blues. The Voice would call it a slam dunk four-chair turn today.

Phillips even commissioned a new logo for his Sun studio: the crowing rooster and rising sun on his record label would be a visual wake-up call signaling this seismic shift on the music landscape. There would be a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on. 

In our day of auto-tuned voices and computer generated recording artist clones, it is hard to imagine the simplicity of those early days. 

While driving through Memphis, I tuned in an Elvis channel and lengthy interview with Rock and Roll Hall of Famer James Burton, Elvis’s guitarist from 1969-1977. Burton said Elvis had impeccable rhythm and “near-perfect pitch.”

“He set the tempo himself, and it was always perfect. You could set a computer by him; he was never off.”  He said that Elvis always launched into a song in a live performance in the original key in which he recorded it; he always knew.

“We never did the same show twice,” Burton recalled. He played twice-nightly shows in Las Vegas from 1969-1976—that was 837 sold out shows--and never repeated a performance. With a repertoire of 500-600 songs, Elvis knew the words to everything he sang. 

Elvis played piano and guitar by ear but did not read music. He never told his musicians what to play or how, Burton said, but they knew to “watch him like a hawk” and stay with him for he was likely to change something as he felt the music. He was known to move into another song as the spirit moved him, repeat a portion or build to the big finish which he favored in the 70s. Elvis surrounded himself with musicians who were good enough to handle anything the job required.  He could sing any genre, but he never left his gospel roots, his longtime friend said.

Singer Cissy Houston, one of the Sweet Inspirations backup singers, said Elvis frequently turned to gospel standards she knew while relaxing between shows in Vegas in 1969.  She was choirmaster of New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, NJ. (I learned she has been directing their youth choir for 50 years now and still sings with them. Impressive commitment!) Cissy's own  musical pedigree spanned a few decades as mother of the late Whitney Houston, aunt of Dionne Warwick and cousin of Mississippi-born opera singer Leontyne Price. Cissy and the Sweet Inspirations backed up an impressive line up in her day.  They also can be heard on Van Morrison's "Brown-Eyed Girl" and Pontotoc's own Jim Weatherly's original "Midnight Train to Georgia."

When recording in the studio, Elvis had an aversion to laying down multiple tracks as they do today. He wanted everyone in the studio standing very close together, singing and playing at the same time. He wanted the recording finished when they left the studio. They frequently recorded all night long but were finished by dawn.

His was a rare ability to sing gospel, rockabilly, rhythm and blues, ballads, rock and roll and pop, in spite of the warning issued years before when he wanted to be a gospel singer that there was no future for him as a vocalist. 

What a reminder not to believe everyone who would tell us to abandon a dream.

20 years ago a woman brought a file of photos to Graceland and cornered a local radio disk jockey, George Klein, to promote her son.  “He’s the youngest Elvis impersonator and he sings just like Elvis,” she urged. 

“He does bear a resemblance to Elvis, Mrs. Hernandez, but there’s just not a market for children Elvis impersonators,” Klein replied then.

Last month that little guy circled back around to Graceland while performing in Memphis as part of his own international tour. He is now known as Bruno Mars, a multiplatinum Grammy winner who was profoundly shaped by Elvis.

The power of influence never stops.

37  years ago while living with some students in the Aphrodite Hotel—I know, unfortunate name choice—for school in Athens, Greece, I stepped out of the elevator into the small lobby one August day. The desk clerk announced is his clearest English, “Your king is dead.”

Did he mean our president has been shot? I wondered.

“Your king is dead,” he said again gravely handing me a newspaper with the headline of Elvis’s death, a shot heard ‘round the world, so to speak.

The pilgrimages to Graceland would swell generating worldwide interest in the man and his music. Graceland recently hosted a private tour for The Duke of Cambridge, Prince Harry and their entourage causing mild tremors in Memphis: The future king treading the same soil as the king of rock and roll. 

Yes, the rising sun still shines on Union Avenue.  
As George Klein says, “The sun never sets on a legend.”  

Interestingly, the only category in which Elvis won a Grammy was in Gospel music which he won in 1968, 1973 and 1975. "How Great Thou Art" was certified 3x Platinum in 2010. If Gladys Presley had any idea that her son was remembered for some level of success linked with the gospel music he first sang in that little row house in Tupelo, I'll bet she would have been pleased.