It’s hard to believe that Elvis Presley, had he survived. would have been 85. One wonders if he would be like the nonagenarian Tony Bennett, still maintaining an active concert and recording schedule; or would he have retired. What we do know is that 43 years after his death after years of prescription drug abuse, he is remembered everywhere. It’s amazing that he is so widely revered and still imitated when one looks at his career. From 1960 to 1968 his career consisted of a string of cheesy films with formulaic sound tracks. His best film work was his early material—Jailhouse Rock, King Creole and Loving You. In all three of those films he portrayed James Dean-like alienated, angry figures and did so with credibility.
His choreography in Jailhouse Rock, on the title song is a classic, although the lyric “Number forty-seven said to number three “You’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see”, was a bit of a head-scratcher for 1957 audiences, given the prison in the film was all male.
Although music traditionalists would have strongly disagreed at the time, Elvis was like Frank Sinatra in the sense that he was a virtuoso song stylist, not a singer-songwriter. When he took on a blues song like Hound Dog he changed the tempo and instrumentation completely. Even in his Sun Records days he completely altered songs like Mystery Train, That’s All Right and Blue Moon of Kentucky from their traditional blues and bluegrass roots.
Taking a glance at his RCA singles output from 1957 to 1960 one is struck by the number of really good songs: “All Shook Up” with its walking piano line and tasteful guitar; “Don’t” a ballad that showcased his vocal range, “A Fool Such as I” top notch vocals and terrific guitar work by Hank Garland. Around 1960 Presley went through an Italian balladeer phase with tunes like “It’s now or never” (O Sole Mio) Are You Lonesome Tonight” and “Surrender.”(Torna a Sorrento). From there as his “B” film career ramped up, the quality of the singles declined, with occasional exceptions like “Marie’s the Name of his Latest Flame” with outstanding guitar solo by Scotty Moore. With the arrival of the British invasion Elvis was nowhere to be heard, although he was still seen by dwindling audiences in mail-ins like “Frankie and Johnny” and “Girl Happy.”
Then in 1968, his manager, Col. Tom Parker negotiated a deal for a TV Christmas Special. Presley was initially unimpressed with the concept, viewing it as another in a series of low quality productions negotiated by Parker. But NBC producer Bob Finkel saw the program as an opportunity to capitalize on Elvis’ undiminished charisma and talent, and at the same time to pay homage to the roots of Elvis’ career. The result was a triumphant comeback for Elvis. He was 33, he looked great, decked out in a skin-tight leather suit, singing in front of a live studio audience and his career was re-launched.
Shortly after that we got almost a decade of the jump-suited, puffy Elvis, maintaining a hectic Vegas and concert schedule, culminating with his death in a bathroom at Graceland 43 years ago yesterday.
When one thinks of the careers of Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones—now spanning more than half a century–, Elvis’ career was relatively short at a little over 20 years. And even then, there was a long fallow period. But his talent was so great, his singing voice one of the best in popular music, his early films showing so much promise, his 1968 comeback a defining moment in show business—that the legend of Elvis Presley has spanned generations. He was nearly broke when he died, but through the shrewd management of his estate it is now worth between $200 and $400 Million US. Between 2000 and 2005 alone, Elvis, dead, for a quarter of a century, earned $45 Million.