The Killer at Peace: Jerry Lee Lewis's Golden Years
In the living room, directly above Lewis' chair, is a framed photo from the day in December 1956 when Lewis, Cash, Carl Perkins and Presley – a.k.a. "the Million-Dollar Quartet" – hung out and recorded at Sun. Elvis is at the piano, looking upward, eyes fixed on Lewis. Above the bar is a photo from the sessions for the Class of '55 LP, a 1985 reunion of Lewis, Perkins, Cash and Roy Orbison. "All of them, really good friends," he says quietly. "All gone." Lewis took his survival as a point of pride by naming his 2006 comeback LP Last Man Standing. "A lot of people didn't like it when I said that. But they had to accept it."Jerry Lee Lewis is still alive and rocking, having just released his third album in the 2000s, titled Rock & Roll Time, though his most raucous days are behind him.
In Memphis in the early 1950s, young Elvis Presley would sometimes help out the upstairs neighbors, Rabbi Fruchter and his family, by acting as a "Shabbos goy," -- that is, by doing tasks that Jews may not do on the Sabbath. (The rabbi's son Harold, then a toddler, recalls the arrangement in an audio interview.) Yet Elvis knew he had some Jewish forebears. Tablet Magazine notes that his "great great maternal grandmother was Jewish and had a daughter who had a daughter who had a daughter that was Elvis’s mother." Though he embraced Christianity, he often used to wear a Chai necklace (sometimes paired with a cross), saying "I don't want to miss out on going to heaven on a technicality." In that spirit, a Hasidic Elvis impersonator named Dan Hartal, aka "Schmelvis," recently recited Kaddish at Graceland and traveled to Israel to plant a tree in Elvis's memory.
Studio engineer Matt Ross-Spang wasn't even born when most of Sun's most famous records were cut. Nonetheless, he's thought a lot about what makes them sound the way they do (transcript). Matt has been buying up old gear for a few years, returning the Sun Records studio to a vintage state (with a few exceptions), and he is still practicing "sonic archaeology," trying to figure out how Sam Phillips made records sound like Sun Records. There's more to it than the Sun tape echo. [more inside]
Here's a song I didn't know existed until summer 2007, when Lemon Jelly's Fred Deakin released an impeccably curated three-CD mix (full 4 hours on Mixcloud). Halfway through the first disc, the music slipped into an easy, loping groove, sunburned and hungover, and a regretful voice offered Otis Blackwell's lonesome lyric: "You know I can be found/ Sitting home all alone …" [Billy Swan's version of "Don't Be Cruel" is] a beautiful record, though, and utterly different from Elvis's 1956 recording. And it opens a fantastic collection of country funk songs, collected and remastered by Zach Cowie of Light in the Attic Records. More sounds below the break. [more inside]
blood, dirt, & angels features audio clips of photographer Alfred Wertheimer discussing several iconic photographs he took in 1956 of Elvis Presley. Among them: The Kiss. [more inside]
One Nation Under Elvis
My own conversion to country music came all of a sudden in 1990, around another campfire, also in Nevada. The great Western Shoshone anti-nuclear and land-rights activist Bill Rosse, a decorated World War II vet and former farm manager, unpacked his guitar and sang Hank Williams and traditional songs for hours. I was enchanted as much by the irreverent rancor of some of the songs as by the pure blue yearning of others. I’d had no idea such coolness, wit, and poetry was lurking in this stuff I was taught to scorn before I’d met it.[more inside]
Well, bust my britches, here it is January 8, Elvis Presley's birthday! Now, a mere 20 days after the young rock crooner had celebrated his 21st, back in 1956, he stepped onto the stage at CBS Studio in New York City and made his US national television debut, on the Dorsey Brothers show. Seems he was hot property from the get-go, cause he was back on that stage, straightaway, for five more appearances, on February 4th, 11th and 18th, then again on March 17th and 24th. And, yeah, heck, he was pretty good.
Century 21 Calling - Dreamily retro footage of the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, AKA the Century 21 Exposition, including a visit to the Bell Systems pavilion. A slice of space age science propaganda, the fair gave Seattle some of its most enduring landmarks in the form of the Space Needle and the Alweg Monorail, and, of course, brought Elvis to town.
How many arms have held you, and hated to let you go, how many, how many, I wonder, but I really don't want to know.
"The most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my displeasure to hear," Frank Sinatra wrote of rock 'n' roll during the time of Elvis Presley. But Frank wasn't stupid... he knew his relevance was fading and if you can't beat 'em, you have to join 'em. So in 1960, Elvis Presley was welcomed home from his two year military tour by the Frank Sinatra Timex Show "Welcome Home Elvis" special. Later Sinatra said, "I'm just a singer. Elvis was the embodiment of the whole American culture."
Fifty years ago today Elvis Presley recorded what would prove to be one of the iconic standards of the rock'n'roll canon, Leiber and Stoller's Jailhouse Rock. The song's sly allusions ("number 47 said to number three, you're the cutest jailbird I ever did see") to same-sex prison liaisons went unnoticed (or at least uncommented on) at the time, and it stayed a US #1 radio hit for 7 weeks straight. The unisex production number [youtube] from the movie of the same name has come to be recognized as one of the grandfathers of the pop/rock video. A black-leather-clad, still-svelte Presley performed the song on his 1968 [youtube] "comeback" TV special, and was singing it (slurred delivery, sequins and all) right up into 1977 [youtube], the year of his death. In 1980 John Belushi and company turned in a fine version [youtube] as the closer to the Blues Brothers movie, and the song was a regular feature of their live [youtube] shows as well. Happy 50th birthday, Jailhouse Rock!
Elvis: King of the Rock 'n' Roll Jews? Unlike George Allen, Elvis proudly embraced his Jewish heritage. Through his mother's side of the family, Elvis could trace his lineage back to his Jewish great-grandmother, Martha Tackett, which makes Elvis Jewish by matrilineal descent. A former shabbos goy who did chores on the Sabbath for a rabbi in Memphis, Elvis had his biggest-selling success with a #1 hit by a Jewish songwriting team. Known to wear a Hebrew Chai pendant and to donate to Jewish charities in Memphis, Elvis also put the Star of David on his Mom's gravestone.
The Afghan Elvis (with YouTube clip), the Soviet Elvis (played by Tom Hanks), the French Elvis (now seeking Belgian citizenship), the Mexican Elvis, the Swedish Elvis, the Filipino Elvis, the Chinese Elvis, the Sikh Elvis, the Japanese Elvis who became a Prime Minister, and other foreign Elvii.
Glaucoma [w/Flash audio. NB: mouse-over bottom-left for Elvis. Obviously]
George Washington University's National Security Archive carries a collection of declassified US documents and articles on Saddam Hussein; Mexico, Cuba and other Latin American countries; Nixon's meeting with Elvis; the CIA and Nazi war criminals; etc.
If you've been paying attention, then you're probably aware that Clear Channel own your favorite (or least favorite) radio station, your local concert venues, the promoter who organizes shows for them, the billboards that advertise the show, and the company you bought the tickets from. And now they own your favorite dead rock star. SFX Entertainment, a promoter owned by Clear Channel, has bought an 85% share of Elvis Presley's estate and name from Lisa Marie Presley. That includes Graceland. Wow, do they ever suck. (Salon agrees.)
I wish Elvis had lived long enough to record La Vida Loca... but since he did not, I have to content myself with "Kingtinued", a CD of modern, largely A.E.D. (After Elvis' Death) tunes recorded in the style of the large one. Only the highest quality material was selected for the CD, to be sure.
Since it's Elvis Presley's 68th birthday today and Richard Nixon's 90th birthday tomorrow, it's only natural to herald the December 21, 1970 meeting that has inspired a novel, a Showtime made-for-cable movie, musical novelties, and a mini-memoir from a Nixon staffer. The National Archives has received so many requests for photos of Elvis shaking hands with Nixon that they posted this online exhibit.
Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me … "Media arrogance and dishonesty means we are eternally bound to live in a skewed world where Elvis is king of rock'n'roll, Clapton is the guitar god, Sinatra is the voice and Astaire is the greatest dancer." Is it right to celebrate an artist who’s fame derived from appropriating and diluting the original music of black America?
Is The King Finally Dead, After 25 Years? Elvis Presley died on 16 August 1977 and, silly season or not, The Observer, kicking off with Nik Cohn's above-linked essay, has assembled a cracking collection of articles, interviews and humorous pieces about the controversial crooner, mainly directed (I'd say) at non-fans. To my mind, the most enjoyable are Nigel Slater's brave attempt to make the famous Presley sandwich; the weird interview with Larry Geller, his hairdresser and spiritual advisor; the account of Elvis's only (secret) visit to Britain; Michael Odell's funny set of instructions on how not to behave at an Elvis party; an interview with George Nichopoulos, the doctor who wrote out more than 10,000 prescriptions for him; a round-up of ludicrous ex-girlfriends' memories and, as an after-thought, a collector's report on locating that legendary first "Uh-huh" of his. It's all good stuff but one has to ask whether, in this day and age, it isn't, er, overkill. Is Elvis Presley still that relevant or is he slowly becoming a figure of fun? Whether or not he's actually dead, of course, is entirely another matter...