Vocals Powered by Elvis
Unsure about what to tackle in this chapter, I decided to refer to my voice memos for inspiration. If I hear something on Elvis Radio that I’d like to write about, I grab my iPhone and record a little voice memo or a snippet of Elvis singing. This week, I happened to catch this great audio clip of Elvis in the studio about to record the song “Too Much Monkey Business”. He’s goofing around with some lyrics and singing in an operatic style. Listen to the clip posted below and watch for the notes he hits at 6 and 11 seconds – impressive stuff for a rock n’ roll guy. (My acknowledgements to Elvis Radio for the sound bite I captured on my iPhone)
Too Much Monkey Business
Although humorous, the sound bite also reveals Elvis’ vocal prowess. Hearing it motivated me to jump right in and start exploring his vocal range, as I’d promised I would do in chapter 1. Most people, when they think of his voice, immediately hear his deep low register in their minds, which in a sense, is part of his trademark. Whenever anyone imitates Elvis, they usually lower their voice and say something kitschy like “Thank you, thank you very much”. Indeed, Elvis did have a great sounding lower register, but I believe that his higher register deserves as much attention and recognition!
Below is an excerpt taken from the “Vocal style and range” section on the Elvis Presley Wikipedia page.
His voice can not be measured in octaves, but in decibels; even that misses the problem of how to measure delicate whispers that are hardly audible at all.’ Presley was always ‘able to duplicate the open, hoarse, ecstatic, screaming, shouting, wailing, reckless sound of the black rhythm-and-blues and gospel singers,’ writes Pleasants, and also demonstrated a remarkable ability to assimilate many other vocal styles.
I would agree that Elvis’ voice is hard to measure or quantify because it is so versatile. When I listen to him sing, there is a vastness and depth that is hard to describe; it seems to resonate as if he were singing in a cathedral. I realize that there are some basic vocal effects, like reverb and such, that have been used during production, but nonetheless, there is no other singer I know of who’s voice appears to come equipped with “built in reverb”. There are plenty of great singers out there with rich deep voices, but none sound quite like Elvis. Even the best Elvis impersonators, and I’m talking about the ones that can really sing, still lack that mysterious and elusive resonating quality.
It’s Now or Never
George Klein is quoted as saying “Elvis could sing anything…rock n’ roll, rhythm and blues, country, and gospel”. And he’s right. Elvis had an amazing talent for singing just about any style of music. “It’s Now or Never” (posted above) is a shining example of just how beautifully he could sing songs in the standards genre. Take a moment, close your eyes, and listen to this song. Notice how the softer, breathy notes he sings in the verses are delivered with such control and emotion, yet seem to flow freely as if floating upon a breeze. He sings with such tenderness, care and sensibility, every word equally as important as the preceding one. The high register singing in the choruses commands attention. The notes are rich and deep, and filled with that mysterious “built in reverb”. He ends the song by hitting that high note on “My love won’t wait….”. He makes it all seem so effortless.
Here’s a great little bit of trivia I found on the songfacts.com website. Bill Porter, the audio engineer who recorded the song remembers:
“Elvis was having trouble with ‘It’s Now or Never’ because he basically sang in the baritone range, and the end was in the tenor range. We recorded seven or eight takes and at one point, I pushed the talkback button and said, ‘EP, we can just do the ending. I can splice it in without doing the song all the way through again’. He answered me with, ‘Bill, I’m gonna do it all the way through, or I’m not gonna do it at all!’ We did it again, and of course, he got it the way he wanted it.”
Check out Ray Walker’s (the famous bass vocalist of “The Jordanaires”) interview with EIN where he talks about he how coached Elvis so he could hit the high note at the end of the song “ ”. (On a good day, I can almost hit that note!) Ray shares with Elvis the technique singers can use to allow them to reach notes that would normally fall just outside their natural range. It’s really quite amazing! You can check out Ray Walker doing a great version of one of Elvis’ gospel classics, “Swing Down Sweet Chariot” here :
Like Elvis, my voice falls in the baritone range – the register between base and tenor. In Elvis’ case, he is able to reach down and hit some of the notes from the base register and conversely hit some of the notes in the tenor register, which is quite uncommon. Quoted from Henry Pleasants book “The Great American Popular Singers” (1974) “… Elvis was all at once a tenor, a baritone and a bass, the most unusual voice I’ve ever heard.” I believe that this ability – among many others – is what makes his voice so alluring. Just below, I’ve posted a snippet of the song “ )” which I believe showcases the elastic quality of his dynamic voice; his ability to smoothly transition from very low notes to very high ones. Watch for the octave jump in the first line of the chorus… “The stars up in the sky…you know they know the reason why”. And for some sharp contrast, check out the original version of the song, performed by Eddy Arnold in the video below! When Elvis covered a song, he really made it his own.
I’ll Hold You In My Heart
I’ve known for a long time that my voice is well suited to Elvis’ repertoire, so when my band was asked to do a tribute to the King, I was thrilled. Although I can mimic Elvis’ voice quite well, I discovered while rehearsing for our shows just how impossible it is to fill those Blue Suede Shoes. Being in a cover band is tough because you are covering so many different artists who each have their own sound and range. For example, there’s a big difference between Billy Idol, Green Day, Elvis and Bono! In order to do justice to the repertoire, you have to learn proper technique and learn how to mimic other voices, otherwise you’ll be left without a voice at the end of the night. Of utmost importance however, is choosing the right key. A few years into my singing gig I discovered that it is imperative for a singer to choose keys that best suit his/her voice. Being asked to sing a song in a key that doesn’t work is torture!
The more I listen to today’s music, and today’s singers, the more I appreciate Elvis. We live in a time where everyone is a singer. Thanks to YouTube, and shows like American Idol, anyone can become a star. But how many of those stars really last? The artists and bands of today all sound the same – save a few. Back in the day, you had to have enough true talent to set you apart from the mediocrity in order to become famous. There was no pitch adjustment software or fancy effects to enhance the voice, you had to rely on your ear, pitch, and technique. You needed talent – of which Elvis had plenty.