“Before Elvis, there was nothing.” - John Lennon
Elvis’ birthday is today. He would have been 76 years old. I, like many people, called him the King of Rock and Roll today on Facebook and was challenged to explain how he could merit that title. So here goes;
It’s hard to imagine how different the world was 60 years ago. Nowhere was our cultural differences more broadly expressed than in music. Pop music was divided into ‘black’ music and ‘white’ music. The names for the categories were much more genteel; white music was either ‘pop’ (short for popular music) or country & western (yes, both kinds!) black music was first called ‘race records’ and then was changed to ‘r&b’. Of course all of these distinctions were only invented by the recording industry to sell records. In the real world, ‘white’ people would listen to ‘black’ music and vice-versa.
When Elvis walked into Sun records in Memphis, TN in 1954, he stood in front of the mic and let loose a new kind of music. An uptempo, countryfied version of an old rhythm and blues song by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup called That’s Alright Mama. This was the birth of Rock and Roll. Rock and Roll transcended boundaries of culture, race, gender or nationality. The music was embraced by kids all over the nation and soon the world. Elvis started the avalanche of artists that followed; Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, etc. He influenced everyone from Buddy Holly to Led Zeppelin. Keith Richards, in his recent autobiography, had this to say concerning Elvis’ imprint on his own career; “Heartbreak Hotel...was the stunner...when I woke the next morning, I was a different guy.”
No other single artist or group influenced more artists or a more diverse group of artists than Elvis. In the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland there are a collection of drawings made by a young Jimi Hendrix in grade school, the subject of one drawing; Elvis Presley. Bob Dylan referred to listening to Elvis like, “busting out of jail”. Little Richard called Elvis “an integrator”. Rod Stewart said; “Elvis was the king. People like myself, Mick Jagger and all the others only followed in his footsteps.” Elton John said; “If it hadn’t been for Elvis, I don’t know where popular music would be.” In a career that only lasted 20 years, including 9 years in Hollywood making movies instead of rock and roll records, it would be easier to make a list of 20th century artists who weren’t influenced by Elvis...it would be a very short list.