Friday, June 8, 2007

"I Don't Sound Like Nobody"

by Tom Schreck, author of On the Ropes, A Duffy Dombrowski Mystery

That’s what he said when Marion Keisker, the secretary at Sun Studios asked. It was his first time in a recording studio.

He was right.

This summer will be the thirtieth anniversary of Elvis’s death and undoubtedly there will be a lot said. Do me a favor; before you join in on the fat, dope fiend, rhinestone volleys do some thinking.

The protagonist in ON THE ROPES, A DUFFY DOMBROWSKI MYSTERY, has Elvis for a hero. Not just because Duffy loves the music or the look but rather for what Elvis stood for.

Right here is where you expect to read how Elvis should be admired because he was simple, he loved his mom, never forgot his roots and was a devout Christian.

None of that is why Elvis is important and none of it is why he’s Duffy’s hero.

Elvis was important because he was dangerous.

He was dangerous because he sang black music as a white man—and this is the important part—in black style. There were white artists covering R&B but they took the sexuality out of it—homogenized it—and fed it to the unenlightened masses.
Elvis kept the soul and carried the message. He did it genuinely, not through imitation but from his identification with his own experience. You see the Presleys lived on an integrated street in the segregated South not because it was a progressive street but because it was a fucking poor street. Elvis sang the blues because the blues was for him far more than a 12 bar progression.

On that same street he listened to the rural country music (which bares no resemblance to what is called “country” today.) He listened to the sounds of the poor white gospel music and the groove of the black spirituals. He took all of it inside.

And why is this dangerous?

Because he brought it all together and the masses loved it. Black, white, poor, rich were all loving it together and the establishment—those that have something to lose if we all get together—hated it.

It was racism but more than that it was classism. The children of the haves were dancing—and grinding—to the music of the have-nots. The parents of those haves went out and created Paul Anka, Fabian and Bobby Rydell to get their kids away from it.

Many argue that Elvis caved but if you look closely you’ll realize that he never did. After the army Elvis came back to the States and told RCA he was going to record opera—he wanted to pay tribute to the social activist Mario Lanza who had recently died under suspicious circumstances.

“It’s Now or Never,” the English version of “O Solo Mio” was his biggest hit.

He continued to rebel by tributing Jackie Wilson with Return to Sender and turned on a generation of rock and rollers to Wilson’s soul sound.

Even in Vegas he insisted on combining black and white gospels singers in his group—two very distinct sounds because he wanted to mesh together everything he was about and tweak his nose at the establishment.

I know what you’re thinking. “C’mon Schreck. He sold out, he went corporate, did Vegas and for fuck sake—he hung out with Nixon!”

Well, yes.

And he didn’t walk with Martin in Memphis when he could’ve made a huge impact—how about that? Dangerous my ass!

Yeah, well people have a way of making their impact. Elvis did it through his expression of his art. Yeah, I’m calling rock-a-billy, R&B and gospel art. Every class of people have their means of expression and the poor south has as much right to call theirs “art” as anyone.

Let me leave you with this.

On Independence Day, 1957 Mississippi Senator James Eastland held a pro segregation rally in Memphis. Three thousand five hundred people came out and cheered his rants about our sons and daughters cavorting with the nigger and how it must be stopped. It was the ugly, ugly stuff our country doesn’t think about enough.

And where was Elvis? Was he picketing the rally? Holding a sign up about love and peace? Shouting down the senator from the front of the stage?

No, he wasn’t there but he wasn’t far away.

Two miles west Elvis was giving a concert, singing to an audience of 15,000— to an audience made up of white, black, young and old. He was rock’n and rolling, bumping and grinding and swiveling his hips. I’m sure he was sneering that smile of his.

And I’m sure they could hear the cheers two miles to the east.

Now that’s fucking dangerous.


Mark Terry said...

Elvis's legacy isn't terribly simple. You're right in everything you've said. On the other hand, if you've heard the original versions of "Hounddog" (I noted the photo and that performance in your blog), you might notice this song doesn't have anything to do with, er, a canine.

On one day I'll agree with you. On another day I'll just suggest that Elvis was a cautionary tale about the benefits of a high-fiber diet and dangers of prescription drugs. He's not a blank slate we can write our interpretation of American culture on, because that simplifies him too much. But most of the music holds up, doesn't it?

And if you haven't heard this yet, check out Jimmy Buffett's "Elvis Presley Blues." It's on his latest album, "Take The Weather With You."

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Excellent and passionate post, Tom!

And the blog world didn't stop spinning on its skewed axis, did it? But then it's early yet (j/k!). Keep writing from your heart, kiddo, and you will never have to second guess your choices.

Joe Moore said...

Nice post, Tom. But I can't believe you went ahead and used the f-word. You know, "fat". :-)

Tom Schreck said...

"Elvis's legacy isn't terribly simple."

"He's not a blank slate we can write our interpretation of American culture on, because that simplifies him too much."

Nicely said, Mark.

He's absolutely as complex as American culture...but that doesn't mean he's always the perfect metaphor for it.

As for Big Mama Thornton's version of Hound Dog--there's no question that she wasn't singing about a basset hound.

The fact that Elvis recorded that song is testament to his respect for R&B...that and the fact that he insisted on 41 takes before he found a cut he thought was good enough.

Mark Combes said...

Dammit, Mark #1 stole my thought - and I have so few cogent ones! I was thinking the same thing about Buffett's "Elvis Presley Blues" when I was reading this. Buffett is much the same as Elvis and I've heard Buffett speak of Elvis as if he were kin. They both are very underrated as performers and song writers. You think the sequin jumpsuits for Elvis; "Margaritaville" for Buffett - but there is so much more to both men's work....

I was a casual Elvis fan until I went to Graceland on a layover in Memphis. Had some time to kill, thought it might be interesting. I was blown away. The man is mythical in his accomplishments. And he did it all with purity of heart. He loved his family, he loved his country, and he loved his music. We all should be so brave.

Anonymous said...

I love Elvis :)

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Tom, you are the bomb.

'Nuff said.


Tom Schreck said...

I work hard at being the bomb.