People, when I was a little boy I was Elvis Presley.
Well, at least I wanted to be anyway. In fact there is an early school picture of me with my lip curled up just like Elvis used to do in his early days.
Alas, I grew older and unfortunately so did Elvis. He passed away the year I graduated high school in 1977. By then he no longer looked like I or his fans wanted him to. Of course I didn’t look like I wanted to either and it wasn’t his fault he couldn’t stay young forever.
After he died Elvis’s life was examined by those wishing to make money off him. Writers both praised and attacked him. Psychologists even wrote pathologies dissecting his life and emotions in a way that was almost indecent. A lot more indecent than Elvis’s simple singing and dancing was at the beginning of his career.
One of the worst I read was by a writer named Albert Goldman. In 1981 he published a biography called “Elvis" in which he basically tore Elvis’s life to pieces. Everything Elvis ever did, said, or thought was turned into something bad and put in the worst possible light.
It doesn’t matter to me though. I like him no matter what they say. I prefer to remember him as I first saw him when I was a child sitting in the front seat of a car between my parents at a drive in movie. Sitting there in the dark looking up at that big wide screen I thought he was the coolest thing in the world.
On Sunday October 16, at the Iredell County Public Library a special program was held called “Discovering Elvis: Tracing Traditions to the Soul of the King.”
Billy Stevens, musician, popular music scholar, and lecturer spoke about Elvis’ sound and played examples of Elvis’ early recordings as well as versions sung by the original artists.
The program focused on Elvis’ rise to fame while putting him in a social and historic context providing a proper perspective on his life and career.
Mr. Stevens has an M.A. from the University of Mississippi. He has toured in more than 40 counties including India, Kenya, Israel, and Palestine presenting his lecture/demonstration “The History of the Blues: the Roots of Rock ‘in’ Roll.”
In his program Mr. Stevens refuted the claim that Elvis simply stole the music of the little heard black artists of his day by demonstrating how Elvis had been influenced by many types of music and how he assembled all of these to create a different original sound.
He told the story of the rise to fame of a white teenager who grew up in Memphis, Tennessee surrounded by various genres of music such as gospel, bluegrass, jazz, country, and blues.
Elvis loved music and he loved to sing. He was unprejudiced toward the types of music he listened to and to the artists performing the songs. He soaked in what he heard and when it came back out of him it was in a different style with a new sound of his own creation.
Mr. Stevens identified Elvis as the turning point in American music. Elvis was the first rock n’ roll star and with him came the start of rock and roll. It was a new fresh sound that though influenced by earlier music it was still a new beginning, As John Lennon of the Beatles later would say, “Before Elvis there was nothing.”
The audience heard the recordings of the original artist and then listened to Elvis’ version. Among those compared were “Big Mamma” Thornton’s original blues version of “Hound Dog” and Bill Monroe’s bluegrass song “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
Especially telling were the differences between Elvis’ version of songs like “That’s Alright Mamma” and Pat Boone’s copies of Little Richard’s songs like “Tutti Frutti.”
While Elvis brought an original sound, style, and fire to his recordings Pat Boone was simply putting out a toned down copy of the original version which he copied.
By contrasting Elvis’ early recordings with those of the original artists Steven’s program made clear the way in which Elvis transformed earlier genres, both African and Anglo-American, into a new style acceptable to both young white and black audiences of the 1950’s.
In the end Elvis’ music and performances triumphed over a social system in the 1950’s that was designed to prevent close interracial contact. People then just like me today decided they liked Elvis and his music and really didn’t care about all the other things that were said and written.
The speaker also gave a brief history of jazz pointing out that the availability of musical instruments to black society was a key in the creation of early jazz and blues music.
He pointed out that after the Civil War many military bands sold and got rid of their brass instruments as they were disbanded. In New Orleans these instruments often ended up in the hands of black artists who would go on to make music we would later call jazz.
The development of rural free delivery by the United States Post Office was also a key in the creation of early black and country blues music. When RFD began in Farmington, Minnesota in 1876 it allowed musical instruments to be sold cheaply by mail. Companies like Sears & Roebuck were soon selling five dollar guitars across America.
This allowed both white and black music lovers who grew up in relative poverty like Elvis to obtain good but cheap musical instruments. No longer was music segregated between rich and poor.
What had been available only on fine pianos in the parlors of the wealthy was now in the hands of the working class. With the common man and woman America found its musical voice.
The program was free and made possible through a grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council’s “Humanities Forum.” a Speakers Bureau of the NCHC. The program was sponsored by the Iredell County Public Library.
Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library
This article appeared in the Statesville Record and Landmark as “Library program will explore the life of Elvis Presley” on Oct. 19, 2005