By Gillian G. Gaar
Had he lived, Elvis Presley would have turned 75 in 2010. A number of releases have celebrated that milestone this year, including the “Good Rockin’ Tonight” CD box set, the “On Stage” live CD set, the release of “Elvis On Tour” on DVD, new box sets of Elvis’ movies, and the mammoth “The Complete Masters” set, a limited-edition, 30-CD box due in September.
Clearly, Elvis’ legacy is one that has lived on and will continue to do so. But what if there had been no Elvis? How would the world be a different place? It’s more than just a matter of what it would be like if Elvis’ classic songs were no longer part of the musical landscape. After all, one of the key reasons why Elvis is such an important figure in music history is not just because of the influence he had on music, but also on the music industry itself.
John Lennon once famously stated, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.” In 2002, this catchphrase was reworked in the ad campaign for the “ELV1S: 30 #1 Hits CD” — “Before anybody did anything, Elvis did everything.” It’s a bit of an overstatement — Frank Sinatra’s crooning attracted hordes of screaming bobby-soxers in his day, and a few singers, such as Frankie Laine (with songs like “That’s My Desire”), were bringing black musical influences into the white mainstream — but no one turned the music world upside down quite like Elvis. There would indeed be a big hole without him.
There’s long been a debate about what the first rock ’n’ roll record was. Most critics favor “Rocket 88,” recorded by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats at what was then the Memphis Recording Service (later Sun Studios) in 1951, with Sam Phillips producing. But if Elvis wasn’t the first to record a rock ’n’ roll record, he was the first to achieve great success with genre, which opened the doors for a host of other performers to come on through. Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly all had hits after Elvis broke big in 1956 (Chuck Berry had his first hit in 1955, while Elvis was still a growing regional sensation). Rick Nelson launched his singing career by dressing as Elvis for an episode of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” (the guitarist in his band was James Burton, who later became Elvis’ guitarist in 1969).
“None of us could have made it without Elvis,” Buddy Holly said. And what would rock be like today if they hadn’t made it?
Elvis also recorded his early records at Sun with Sam Phillips, and his success changed the course of Phillips’ life (and the future of record collecting). The money Phillips received when RCA bought Elvis’ contract for $35,000 was plowed back into Sun Records, thus boosting the careers of Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison, and confirming Sun’s place in history as an incubator of prime talent.
Elvis may even have had an impact on the hotel industry; Phillips also used the money he earned from working with Presley to invest in a hotel chain called Holiday Inn.
Nor was it only in America that record executives searched for the “next Elvis.” Over on the Continent, Johnny Hallyday carried the banner as the French Elvis. In the U.K., Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard, Billy Fury, and Adam Faith were all touted as Britain’s answer to Elvis, though as Chris Farlowe, who had a U.K. No. 1 with “Out Of Time” in 1963 admitted, “Sure we had our versions of Elvis, but how the hell could you compete with him?”
The success of Elvis’ records had a profound impact on the business side of the music industry, for at that point, no one had achieved sales like him. His first album, 1956’s “Elvis Presley” became RCA’s biggest-ever pop seller with sales of 300,000 — that is, until the album “Elvis” was released later that year, with sales topping half a million. His four main singles in 1956 each sold more than a million, with “Don’t Be Cruel”/“Hound Dog” selling nearly four million. Sales like that encouraged record companies to see that rock was more than just a passing fad.
Elvis changed the nature of merchandising as well, with a wide range of items produced to cash in on his popularity as the first solo rock star. While these were aimed at the teenage market in the ’50s, the nature of merchandising evolved over the years to encompass adult fans and collectors, as well.
Elvis’ success also had geographical significance for the music industry. In the mid-’50s, the entertainment industry was primarily based in New York City and Los Angeles. Chicago and Nashville also had music scenes of note, but for the most part, big commercial success was achieved in the metropolitan centers on either coast. Elvis’ success helped break that stranglehold, with the result that regional scenes began attaining more prominence. No longer was it necessary to move to get a big break, as the music scenes that developed over the years in Detroit, San Francisco, Austin and Seattle demonstrated.
Another element not as easily quantifiable — but undeniably present — is the influence Elvis had on the acts that were inspired by him, most notably The Beatles. Though each of The Beatles became involved in music due to the skiffle craze in Britain, it was Elvis who made them confirmed fans of rock ’n’ roll.
“That’s the music that inspired me to play music,” John Lennon later told Rolling Stone. “There is nothing conceptually better than rock and roll.”
Certainly The Beatles were fans of other American rock ’n’ roll artists. But if Elvis had not been there first, would those artists have risen to fame and thus been able to influence acts like the Beatles? Without Elvis as a catalyst, would The Beatles themselves have lacked the push to make music into a career, instead gradually drifting into regular jobs, with music eventually becoming nothing more to them than a hobby? What then would have become of the British Invasion? If there hadn’t been The Beatles, would there have been The Rolling Stones? The Who?
It’s fun to consider such questions, even though it’s impossible to determine what the true answer would be. But it’s safe to say that while The Beatles may very well have still come into existence without Elvis, they would certainly have been a very different group.
By a similar token, innumerable other artists have credited Elvis with giving them the inspiration to pursue a creative career.
“When I first heard Elvis’ voice, I just knew that I wasn’t going to work for anybody and nobody was going to be my boss,” said Bob Dylan. “Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.”
Dylan told one biographer he listened to Elvis while working on his own early albums (he’d even falsely bragged that he played piano on Elvis’ records), and later stated, “If it wasn’t for Elvis and Hank Williams, I couldn’t be doing what I do today.”
Bruce Springsteen, who first saw Elvis on one of his “Ed Sullivan Show” performances, echoed this theme. “Elvis is my religion,” The Boss said. “But for him, I’d be selling encyclopedias.”
Elvis is the one who got Elton John interested in music, too. “If it hadn’t been for Elvis, I don’t know where popular music would be,” John said. “He was the one that started it all off, and he was definitely the start of it for me.”
David Bowie said Elvis was a major hero of his. “I was probably stupid enough to believe that having the same birthday as him actually meant something,” Bowie said.
Even the late Isaac Hayes acknowledged Elvis’ role in musical history. “Elvis was a giant and influenced everyone in the business,” Hayes said.
What’s interesting about this list is that while none of these artists made music that sounded like Elvis’ — with the exception of some of Springsteen’s work — they all felt a kinship with him as an artist. Remove Elvis from the roster of musicians these artists were inspired by, and how differently would they have developed?
And Elvis’ image was as important as his music. His pompadour, drape jacket and blue suede shoes said “rock ’n’ roll” as much as — well, as much as the song “Blue Suede Shoes” itself does. His gold lamé suit of the ’50s, the leather suit worn in his 1968 TV special, and the bejeweled jumpsuits of the ’70s have become equally iconic.
As David Stubbs wrote in “Uncut Legends,” “Elvis Presley’s look is beyond cliché. It’s ingrained in the collective consciousness.”
Bono appropriated The King’s gold suit for U2’s “Zooropa” tour (as have Phil Ochs and Jerry Seinfeld). In his stage show, Morrissey spelled out his name in large red letters as had been done in the opening and closing sequences of the ’68 Elvis special, when a giant E-L-V-I-S had filled the screen.
And while the Clash might have sung “No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones in 1977” (in the song “1977”), the group nonetheless replicated the cover art of the “Elvis Presley” album for “London Calling.” And Joe Strummer’s rockabilly coif couldn’t have been inspired by anyone else but the King.
When James Brown observed that Elvis “taught white America to get down,” he was referring to his performing, as well as his musical style. Elvis’ physical movements on stage and TV in the ’50s might have scandalized adults, but they also changed the relationship young male performers had with their bodies forever, a freedom to which artists like Mick Jagger owe a huge debt.
At the other end of the spectrum (as far as movement) are the two “sit-down” concerts taped for Elvis’ 1968 TV special, which guitarist Scotty Moore has described as “the first Unplugged”-type show. The concerts weren’t entirely unplugged — Scotty Moore played an electric guitar — but they did set up the format of an intimate, scaled-down performance.
“This was a concept that wasn’t out there yet,” said Sandi Miller, a friend of Elvis’ who attended the shows.
“This was something totally new, to throw a bunch of fans in a little room with a performer, throw him up on a little stage and say ‘Have at it.’ That hadn’t been done before.”
By the ’70s, arena acts like Wings and Queen began having acoustic segments in their shows in an effort create a sense of intimacy, something that’s still a staple of rock shows today. By 1989, this concept had evolved into MTV’s “Unplugged” series, with performers reworking their songs in an acoustic setting, thrown up on a little stage with a bunch of fans in a little room.
And it’s no exaggeration to say that Elvis Presley helped transform Las Vegas to a town where rock ’n’ rollers are now as welcome as Rat Packers. Elvis’ first performances in Las Vegas in 1956 had not been hugely successful, in part because the city was geared toward adult entertainers (and audiences). This was true even when Elvis made his triumphant return to Vegas in 1969. As Ronnie Tutt, Elvis’ concert drummer from 1969 on said, “Rockers didn’t want to do Vegas because of what they had to do; there was just no real vehicle there of what to do. And so Elvis established this thing, this look, this approach.”
In 1969, Elvis put together a live show that proved you could rock in Vegas, and he played the International (later the Hilton) more than any other venue. As a result, where rock acts previously had regarded a Vegas appearance as an indication that their careers were on the downswing, it now became a hip place to play — hip enough that Vegas was chosen as the site for what was billed as “the world’s first rock ’n’ roll hotel and casino,” the Hard Rock Hotel. Plans even had been made for an Elvis-themed hotel/casino in Vegas, but those plans were scrapped in the wake of the recent economic slump.
Nonetheless, Vegas remains very much an Elvis town, and there are probably more Elvis-related things to do in Vegas than in any other places besides Memphis, Tenn., or Tupelo, Miss. Elvis slot machines are among the most popular in the casinos (this year rivaled by “Wizard of Oz” slot machines). Sadly, the Elvis-A-Rama museum has closed, but you can still get your Elvis memorabilia fix at “The King’s Ransom,” an exhibit drawn from the collections of Russ Howe and Bud Glass that is currently on display at Imperial Palace hotel and casino (www.thekingsransom.com).
There’s memorabilia on display at the Hard Rock Hotel, as well, and a commemorative statue of Elvis stands in front of the Hilton. Cirque du Soleil’s latest production is the lavish “Viva Elvis” show, not as imaginative as the Cirque’s “Love” show, based on the Beatles’ music, but still entertaining.
And then there are the impersonators.
Though there were a few Elvis impersonators working when Elvis was still alive (the late comedian Andy Kaufman being one of them), their number has expanded immeasurably since his death. It’s quite likely that there are more impersonators of Elvis than any other star, now including impersonators of every race and gender. Further broadening the appeal, some who are very serious about their impersonations, while others take an irreverent approach, satirizing showbiz conventions (as the performance artist-inspired “Extreme Elvis” does), or making social commentary (as in the work of “El Vez,” the “Mexican Elvis”).
It’s the impersonators who really make Vegas a place of true Elvis-dom. Without them, the city would have quite a different character. Most wedding chapels offer the opportunity to be married by an Elvis (or at least serenaded by one during the ceremony). Impersonators can be found in the Legends and American Superstars shows. Peter Vallee, aka “Big Elvis,” offers a free show Monday through Friday at Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall & Saloon on the Las Vegas Strip. Any vendor passing out flyers to tourists knows that the quickest way to attract attention is to dress up like Elvis.
Jesse Garon is one of the premier Elvis impersonators in Vegas, even dubbed “the Official Elvis of Las Vegas” by Mayor Oscar Goodman, though Garon himself prefers the term “Elvis Emulator.” A native of Dallas, Garon has been in Vegas since 1993. After working in a touring version of the Legends show, he went into business for himself, and performs at weddings, escorts guests to the Viva Elvis show in a pink Cadillac, and generally involves himself in “Anything and everything having to do with Elvis” (check www.vegaselvis.com).
A world without Elvis would mean a world without Elvis impersonators — and who could imagine that?
“It’s so hard to say what the world would be like without him,” Garon said, “because Elvis was the first to shake things up like he did. He was the first one who created a rock ’n’ roll entourage — he created what a rock star was, with his jumpsuits and his belts and his entourages and his planes. So if we hadn’t had him, what direction would it have taken? Would we have been a whole bunch of people listening to Andy Williams and idolizing him and the way of his life? Had we not had that influence, boy, I’m scared to think where we might have went. It would just be a terrible thing to think of if Elvis hadn’t been around. Who knows? Neil Sedaka could’ve been King!”
Though without Elvis’ success in Vegas, we’d at least have been spared that embarrassing “Viva Viagra” commercial, sung to the tune of the Las Vegas’ official theme song, “Viva Las Vegas.”
Elvis-related catchphrases, like “Thank you, thank you very much” and “Elvis has left the building” have become part of the cultural lexicon (the latter phrase especially cropping up in films ranging from “Men In Black” to “Showgirls”). Bizarrely, Elvis references were even used to score political points in the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign. President Bush, in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, criticized the Democratic nominee, Gov. Bill Clinton, for his changing views on how to balance the budget, saying, “He’s like that on a lot of issues, first on one side, then the other. He’s been spotted in more places than Elvis Presley.”
Bush later added, “If [Clinton] gets his way, hardware stores across America will have a new sign up, ‘Closed for despair.’ I guess you’d say his plan really is ‘Elvis economics.’ America will be checking into the ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’”
But Clinton embraced the Elvis analogy and turned it around in his favor, playing a saxophone rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel” on “The Arsenio Hall Show, and saying in a speech, “You know, Bush is always comparing me to Elvis in sort of unflattering ways. I don’t think Bush would have liked Elvis very much, and that’s just another thing that’s wrong with him.”
At the Democratic National Convention, the vice presidential nominee, Sen. Al Gore, joked in his speech, “It’s always been my dream to come to Madison Square Garden and be the warm-up act for Elvis.”
After he was elected, Clinton’s secret service code name was “Elvis,” giving the agents multiple opportunities to legitimately tell each other “Elvis has left the building” while guarding the president.
Elvis Presley means many things to many people. And certainly anyone interested in popular culture from the mid-’50s on has been touched by his influence, whether they’re fans of Elvis or not.
“Elvis made an imprint on the world of pop music unequaled by any other single performer,” said Dick Clark.