The Elvis Factor
It’s mid-day on a beautiful and unusually warm spring day in Montreal and I’m on the road in my Pontiac G5, and, as is usually the case when I’m driving, I’m tuned into Elvis Radio. I happened to catch an interview with one of the marketing people from across the street at Elvis Presley Enterprises. They usually share information about upcoming Elvis related shows, exhibits, celebrations, anniversaries, etc. The fellow on the air this morning caught my attention when he mentioned a speech that Bruce Springsteen had recently given on Elvis’ influence. In the same segment, I also learned that Bruce is one of many great artists who contributed a piece of personal rock n’ roll memorabilia to the most recent exhibit at Graceland called, “ICON : The Influence of Elvis Presley Presented by Fender” open from March 1, 2012 through February 2013. I’ve known for many years that Bruce is a big Elvis fan, and I was anxious to get back home to see what he had said in his speech. This was the perfect catalyst for my next article!
For years I’ve been taking mental notes of all the musicians I’ve seen or heard being interviewed, who have at one time or another commented on how much Elvis influenced their lives. As a young boy, Tom Petty decided he wanted to become a musician after a chance encounter with Elvis on the set of one of his movies. The impact that Elvis’ music and persona had on the young Tom Petty was immeasurable. It was a pivotal moment for him, one that changed his life forever. In 1976, during his Born to Run tour, a 26-year-old Bruce Springsteen decided he wanted to meet his idol and jumped the fence at Graceland! And, as I just recently learned, the Boss pays homage to the King by sporting an Elvis Fan Club pin on his guitar strap on the cover of Born to Run. There’s a great little write up about it in Rolling Stone magazine’s article: “This Week in Rock History: Bruce Springsteen Breaks Into Graceland”. Fast forward 36 years to today, and we can hear Bruce at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival in Austin, Texas saying, “Elvis was the first modern, twentieth century man – the precursor of the sexual revolution, of the civil rights revolution – drawn from the same Memphis as Martin Luther King – creating fundamental outsider art that would be embraced by a mainstream popular culture.” Wow. That really sums it up beautifully. Elvis came along and shook the foundation of the establishment until it eventually came tumbling down.
And, how many of us have heard John Lennon’s famous quote, “Before Elvis, there was nothing”. Think about how profound a statement that is. I recently watched the movie “Nowhere Boy”, which tells the story of Lennon’s life before The Beatles. Hearing Elvis’ “That’s Alright” on the radio, and then seeing Elvis on the silver screen made John want to be Elvis. From then on, all he could think about was learning how to play guitar and sing. He started combing his hair and dressing like Elvis. He kept playing and singing and eventually, after a few raw interpretations of Elvis’ songs with various band formations, The Beatles were born. The Fab Four and Elvis are seen as musical rivals by some, yet, to quote John once more, “If there hadn’t been an Elvis, there wouldn’t have been the Beatles.”. Some people argue that rock n’ roll would have come about one way or another, with or without Elvis – I disagree. There was something entirely unique about Elvis’s voice and musical arrangements. No one else could duplicate that sound. Not to mention the way Elvis moved! Only Elvis could be Elvis. Elvis did not invent rock n’ roll, he was rock n’ roll. Rock n’ roll is not just the music; it’s a way of life. It’s how you walk, talk, dress, think, dance, love, live, and in some cases, even die. Elvis created that lifestyle, and we all wanted in.
The King’s influence, or what one could call, the “Elvis Factor”, is often forgotten or overlooked by so many who prefer to dwell on his demise rather than focus on his profound contribution to the world. Over the years, in talking with people of my age or younger who are not Elvis fans, I’ve come to realize that their entire impression of Elvis is based solely on the caricature, the “jumpsuit Elvis” taken from his last few years when his health and weight had spiraled out of control. It saddens me to see that for so many, his legacy has been turned into a joke. I often feel I am somehow responsible to educate them on Elvis, with the hopes that they may come away with a renewed understanding of who he was, and realize just how significant he is.
Last summer, my rock cover band (Abducted By Aliens) was approached by a local music festival to do a tribute to Elvis. We had eight weeks to put together a full show comprised of 27 songs accompanied by an Elvis slideshow. It was an enormous undertaking, which turned into a labour of love for me. I had never dreamed my band would be doing a tribute to Elvis. Those eight weeks were filled with nervous excitement, passion, and as we got nearer to show time, a lot of tension. It was a thrill for me to have the opportunity to sing Elvis’ songs in front of two live audiences who sincerely enjoyed the show we’d worked so hard on to produce. We did not imitate Elvis, but rather, we put together a very special rock inspired show called “ELVIS ROCKS: A Rock Tribute To Elvis”. My wife and I had seen the Cirque du Soleil Viva Elvis show in Vegas the year before and were blown away by the amazing new contemporary “rock” arrangements they had produced. We took a cue from this amazing production when it came time to making up our own arrangements. While rehearsing the songs with the members of the band, one of the things that struck me the most was how little any of them knew about Elvis. I found myself regularly sharing all sorts of trivia with the boys. I’ve been a fan all my life, so I guess I just assumed that most people, especially middle aged rock n’ roll musicians from North America would have heard “(You’re The) Devil in Disguise” at least once!
As I stated in chapter 1, my mission in part with this blog, is to “tear down the stereotyped caricature of the man that, sadly, is embedded in the psyche of popular culture”. I’ll have a lot more caricature busting comments for you in forthcoming chapters!
Down the road, I’ll eventually be taking an in depth look at the world of Elvis impersonators (or Tribute Artists as they are now called) – yes, I’m going to “go there”! For better or worse, they’re out there. Truth is, there are only but a handful that can truly do justice to Elvis – in fact, one of the best ones is from Québec. I’m going to share with you my own personal perspective on this phenomenon!