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.
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
, then again on March 17th
. 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
"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
Glaucoma [w/Flash audio. NB: mouse-over bottom-left for Elvis. Obviously]
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.
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...