Remembering Elvis

(Published in the Calgary Herald on Aug. 16, 1997)

Those who cared will still remember what they were doing when they heard the news, 20 years ago today. I was interviewing Calgary concert promoter Dave Horodezky at his office when he excused himself to take a call. “What a shame,” said Dave, after a moment’s silence. “What a black day for rock ‘n’ roll.”

What a black day indeed. For members of the first rock ‘n’ roll generation, Elvis Presley’s death at age 42 brought home to us the sobering reality of our own mortality. I was 33 then, and suddenly felt much older.

Other rockers — Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix — had died before Elvis. But we could rationalize their deaths as avoidable aberrations, caused by plane crashes or drug overdoses. Elvis’s death hit closer to home because he was the first of the original rockers to die from natural causes. Or so we thought at the time. It was only later we would discover that pills and southern-fried cholesterol were contributory factors.

I cared about Elvis because his music, wild, loud, uninhibited, was joyously different from the Mantovani music my parents listened to on Radio Eireann, the national broadcasting service in my native Ireland.

At age 13, it was important for me to have things private and unshareable — things that were exclusive teenage property. The sideburns and ducktail hairdo would come later. In the beginning, it was enough just to have the music, the raw sound, beamed to us from across the Atlantic via the only commercial pop music station, Radio Luxembourg, that could be picked up in Dublin in those unenlightened times. My friends and I listened to it surreptitiously after dark, when the station pointed its signal toward the British Isles.

Elvis didn’t invent white rock ‘n’ roll, of course, but he was unquestionably its first universal hero. Bill Haley, who scored the first huge rock ‘n’ roll hit with Rock Around the Clock, didn’t count because we knew he was just a failed country and western singer who got lucky with a new gimmick.

Elvis was the real thing, an American hillbilly with danger in his voice and rebellion in his soul, who took his surly look from the movie characters of Marlon Brando and James Dean, took his good-rocking music from the black gospel, and rhythm ‘n’ blues singers he heard on the radio as a kid, then synthesized these various borrowings into something original, something distinctively his own.

Competing for our young ears during the same period were other top U.S. rock ‘n’ rollers, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino, Little Richard. But good as they were, they could not compare with Elvis, who commanded from the first day we heard him. First with Heartbreak Hotel, and later with Don’t Be Cruel and Hound Dog, he ruled the airwaves like never before.

My friends and I would suffer through two hours of hit-parade Perry Como and Dean Martin on Radio Luxembourg every Sunday night just to hear three minutes of Elvis singing Don’t Be Cruel. By the end of that memorable year, 1956, Elvis had racked up half a dozen record hits, and earned the right to be forever called the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. No one would ever dethrone him. From that moment onward, Presley would be the once and future king.

The generation that followed, the teenagers who had their life’s soundtrack composed for them by the Beatles, would doubtless disagree. They would say Elvis was nothing more than a brooding singer with an average voice, swivelling hips and limited guitar-playing ability. Heck, he didn’t even write his own songs.

But then they wouldn’t understand. They wouldn’t understand why Calgary Herald editor Bob Parkins showed up for work on Aug. 17, 1977, wearing a black arm-band. They wouldn’t understand why, for those of us who were teenagers in 1956, even the most mediocre of the first Presley recordings could make the pop music that followed seem as nothing, to be blown away like chaff.

I don’t much understand it either. I don’t understand why Pavarotti appeals to me more than the technically superior Placido Domingo, and I can’t explain why Elvis ruled and Pat Boone didn’t. Boone also released several rock hits in 1956, including Tutti Frutti and Long Tall Sally. But he couldn’t hold a candle to Presley. Maybe it was because Boone sounded like someone my parents would have approved of.

I almost never listen to Elvis’s recordings nowadays, though I will always play his Blue Christmas in my house at Christmastime while resolutely refusing to listen to Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. Fats Waller and John Field have taken the place of the popular music I craved as a teenager. The Presley impersonators have ruined his songs for me by reducing them to parody.

But whenever someone suggests, as a 30-year-old friend named Tom did recently, that Elvis was not very good, I put Presley’s July 2, 2021 recording of Hound Dog on the turntable, and listen to it one more time. I hear what you say, Tom, but I have to disagree. Elvis was good. He was very good.