THE THREAT: ELVIS IN THE FIFTIES, VOLUME 7….“HOUND DOG” RISING

Volumes 1–6 can be accessed under the “Elvis In The Fifties” category at the right

hounddog2

Before Elvis’ eightieth birthday recedes, here’s a reminder of just how much the sands of history–and its shady cousin, memory–can slip and slide.

NOTES are mine….quotes are sourced as notated.

I actually assembled this series of quotes about fifteen years ago as part of a larger piece I wrote in response to a friend of mine making the standard claim that Elvis basically “stole everything” (including, of course, “Hound Dog”) from black people and, more generally, to a strain of then prominent “scholarship” (mostly found in left leaning magazines and, to be  fair, mostly refuted there, too) which frequently asserted, among other things, that Big Mama Thornton had not only recorded the original version (true) but had written it (false).

So, for a messy, complicated story of one little record…

Speak memory….I leave it to each reader to decide who to believe!

hounddog3bigmama

….On August 13, 1952, (Jerry) Leiber and (Mike) Stoller became de facto producers when they supervised, from the studio control booth, Big Mama Thornton’s recording of their song “Hound Dog.”

Johnny Otis, a white drummer and vibraphonist, was the leader of a popular black blues band. He asked Leiber and Stoller to write some material for several of the singers in his band. Little Esther and Big Mama among them. “We went down to a rehearsal,” says Leiber, “and watched Big Mama perform. She must have weighed three hundred pounds and she was the saltiest chick we’d ever seen. We went home to write for her and out came “Hound Dog.”

Otis supervised the recording session first with Leard Bell, who worked with him on the road, playing the drums. The tune had been conceived by Jerry and Mike as a kind of country blues, with the drums playing a loping figure such as one might hear in Louisiana music. Bell had trouble finding a groove, and Jerry and Mike told Otis he had to play drums to save the song. “Who’s gonna’ sit in the booth?” Otis asked. “We will,” answered Jerry and Mike. And with Otis on the drums, his snares turned off so the drum kit got an unusual hollow ring, “Hound Dog” was recorded in two takes. “That was the first time,” Leiber says, “that we actually took over some authority and asked for a little bit more of this, a little bit less of that.” The record was number one on the national rhythm-and-blues charts for three months, eclipsing the success of Leiber and Stoller’s first r&b hit, “Hard Times” by Charles Brown. But since the charts were still segregated, few of Jerry and Mike’s remaining white friends heard either tune.

[From Baby That Was Rock & Roll: The Legendary Leiber and Stoller–Robert Palmer (1978)]

….Mike Stoller: “Johnny Otis called us in August 1952, and asked us to come over to his house. We knew Johnny because we’d written songs for Mel Williams and Little Esther, who worked with his band. He said, “I’ve got this singer, Willie Mae Thornton, who I’m going to produce. I want you to come by and listen to her and write a song for her.’ That’s how we meet her. I’d seen her name on something prior to that, but I didn’t know what she looked like. And to my knowledge I’d never heard her. Just knew the name.

“We went to this house in West L.A.–it was in the West Adams area. Beneath the living quarters of the house was a garage which he’d converted into a kind of rehearsal studio. I remember it was a warm afternoon, so the doors were open and it was sort of a half-inside, house-out rehearsal. And that’s when we first saw Big Mama. We were kind of….she was very imposing. [Laughs.] We ran back to my house and wrote “Hound Dog” in about eight or nine minutes. I started playing the piano with a beat that was kind of angry-sounding, because she seemed to be an imposing and salty kind of woman. She appeared to be close to 300 pounds and strong as an ox–she used to lift the microphone, with its heavy steel base, with one hand and sing into it while the base was up in the air. That’s what came through when I played the piano. And Jerry just started rambling and shouting and all of a sudden came out with, ‘You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.’ And it became a song about a gigolo. We took it back over to the garage that same day, and that was it. We sang it to her and she said, ‘Uh-huh.’ [Laughs.] [Referring to other printed versions of the story:] I don’t think we wrote it on a paper bag; it was probably a piece of lined paper.

“I remember we walked into the studio the next day and Jerry said, ‘Willie Mae, growl that opening line.’ And she said, ‘Don’t tell me how the sing the blues.’ Of course, the idea stuck, though. There was just two takes. When we’d rehearsed it at Johnny’s house, Johnny was sitting in on the drums. He’d had the snares turned off and was playing an old southern-style beat that sounded like something from an Alan Lomax recording–like they’d just come back from the fields. In the studio, his drummer, K.C. Bell, was on the drums. He had a regular, good-sounding set of traps you know, a regular crisp-sounding snare, and it just wasn’t happening. We told Johnny to get on the drums, and he said ‘Who’s going to run this thing?’ We said, ‘We will.’ It was actually the first time we had been fully in charge in the studio. Big Mama gave two incredible performances; the second one was better. It was a killer.”

[From Behind the Hits: Inside Stories of Classic Pop and Rock and Roll–Bob Shannon and John Javna (1986)]

[NOTE: “Hound Dog” became Big Mama Thornton’s only hit of any kind on any national chart, reaching #1 on the R&B charts in April, 1953.]

….Somebody told me they were recording there at Sun and I just went. Everybody had been in there. Sam [Phillips] had a completely black stable then, no white artists in there at all. All black. I had cut a song in Sun in 1953 called “Bear Cat,” that was the first hit for Sun, but I had done some other songs before that. I think two songs. Then Sun leased some of my songs to Chess up in Chicago. All I wanted to do was make a record. I didn’t worry about the money, because at that time you’d only get a penny a record.

“Bear Cat” was a spin-off from Willie Mae Thornton’s “Hound Dog”–same background music and everything, just different words. Sort of an answer to “Hound Dog.” It was a big song. The first hit with a Sun label on it. I made maybe five, six hundred dollars off it. Sam made a bit more than that. But Sam wouldn’t hardly tell anyone I made the first record for him that got a hit until about three years ago. They’d put us on panels together and he never did mention it. But I’d always come back and say, ‘Sam didn’t tell you I made the first record.’

He was an arrogant bastard. He is today. Back then he had a big car, was maybe a foreign car, a Bentley, and he’d boast about the money he made that got him this car. I said, ‘Yeah, but if it hadn’t been for me, he wouldn’t have had that car.’

[Rufus Thomas, from Sun Records: An Oral History–John Floyd (1998)]

….Consider American popular culture in the moments just after 8:00 p.m. on January 28, 1956, as represented (quite accurately) by “The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show.” The theme music is a large, bland was of strings and brass without discernible rhythmic accent. The male entertainers are decked out in tuxedos; suits and ties constitute casual wear except in the odd comedy skit. The only women are skimpily clad dancers. Everyone is white; no one speaks with an accent (except, perhaps, in an ethnic comedy sketch). The atmosphere is polished, sophisticated, slick, easy–nothing is difficult or challenging because there’s nothing at stake. Everyone has a role to play, entertainer and audience, assigned at birth and kept for life.

Enter Elvis, the living antithesis of this culture. Not unkempt but unruly, fresh, arrogant, surly, raw and powerful, his lip curling, hips shaking, knees swiveling. The music is streamlined and defined, his small band louder than the Dorseys’ huge orchestra. Elvis snaps into “Heartbreak Hotel.” He owns the song and the crowd immediately; the audience is stunned. This isn’t so much an “act” as an expose of the emptiness not only of most entertainment but of most lives. In the process of watching him, lives are changed.

Yet the reaction wasn’t national convulsion. “Heartbreak Hotel” came out the week Elvis’ first Dorsey show aired and, though the song soon topped national pop and country charts–even got to Number 5 in R&B–TV wasn’t decisive in its success. The Dorsey show wasn’t highly rated. Elvis had been booked because he might boost its ratings. Elvis had been spectacularly successful with his live show in the South and Southwest, radio programmers were becoming more open to rock & roll with each passing week and he now had a record with the promotional clout of RCA behind it from the day of release. All these factors contributed to Elvis’ national breakout.

All this while the band toured ceaselessly, flying into New York to do the TV appearances and to make an occasional record date. Elvis, Scotty [Moore], Bill [Black] and D.J. Fontana were selling out the honky-tonks and the arenas in the South and Southwest, making an occasional foray into the Middle West but basically avoiding the big cities. It was the country circuit they played. But Colonel Parker had bigger ideas.

On April 23, they began what was meant to be a two-week headline engagement at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. It was an undiluted disaster. The crowd came to gawk and glare at the hillbilly freak. It sat on its hands, a middle-aged, middle-class wad that wanted nothing more threatening or challenging than a little diversion from its losses at the tables. After the first few days, Presley’s name dropped to second on the bill, below comedian Shecky Greene. Before the start of the second week, the Frontier agreed to tear up Elvis’ $8,500-per-week contract.

The Vegas dates did have one benefit. While watching a lounge act, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, Elvis and the band heard a trumped-up version of Big Mama Thornton’s 1953 R&B hit, “Hound Dog,” an arrangement so wild and preposterously stagy that they immediately added it to their own stage show, where it became a sensation.

[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1982)]

….The Bellboys, a highly visual act who provided both action and comic relief, had had a minor hit the previous year with a song that had been a huge rhythm and blues success for Duke/Peacock artist Big Mama Thornton in 1953. “Hound Dog” had been written by two white teenagers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who specialized in rhythm and blues, and was a very odd choice for a male performer, since it was written from a female point of view. Nonetheless, it was the showstopper of Bell’s act, even retaining some of the original rhumba-flavored beat, and it sparked a determination on Elvis’ part to incorporate it into his own show. “We stole it straight from them,” said Scotty. “He already knew it, knew the song, but we were just looking on it as comic relief, if you will, just another number to do on stage.”

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….It was Elvis’ performance of “Hound Dog” the second time he appeared on “The Milton Berle Show” that created outrage in papers and pulpits across the land. “Hound Dog” itself, although written as an exercise in black vernacular by a pair of hustling white leftists from Hollywood, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, was greeted as the worst kind of hillbilly barbarism. That is, “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog/Cryin’ all the time” was regarded as culturally retarded by a nation that only months before had found “How much is that doggie in the window/The one with the waggly tail” perfectly acceptable.

[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1982)]

He opened (the Milton Berle Show appearance) with “Hound Dog,” the song with which he had been closing his act ever since Las Vegas. He was wearing a light-color checked jacket, dark pants, a two-tone polo shirt, and white socks, and for the first time, surprisingly, he was not even cradling a guitar. Perhaps to make up for its absence he seemed to have carefully worked out new moves, wrists splayed out almost limply in seeming contrast to the ferocity of his vocal attack, fingers fluttering, arms outspread. With Scotty’s solo he lurches backward in what might be interpreted as an upbeat adaptation of the shrugging, stuttering, existential hopelessness of a James Dean, there is a jittery fiddling with his mouth and nose, and as the song comes to an end he is dragging the microphone down to the floor, staggering almost to his knees. Scotty and D.J. and Bill keep their eyes glued on him, there is only the slightest flicker of surprise as he points at the audience and declared emphatically. You ain’t nothing but a hound dog, then goes into his patented half-time ending, gripping the mike, circling it sensuously, jack knifing his legs out as the audience half-screams, half-laughs, and he laughs, too–it is clearly all in good fun.

[From Last Train in Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….The biggest outcry was against the way Elvis moved. “Elvis the Pelvis” became an epithet on the lips of the nation’s adults, moving Elvis to a rare public expression of bitterness (in a TV Guide interview): “It’s one of the most childish expressions I ever heard, comin’ from an adult.” TV critics used Presley’s TV performances to argue their case against the decadence and boorishness of the medium; the ordinarily sober John Crosby of the New York Herald Tribune called Elvis “unspeakably untalented and vulgar,” just short of true obscenity. It was an opinion seconded, often in stronger terms, by preachers, critics and educators across the land.

[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1982)]

…The attacks continued: In Nashville an effigy of him was hung, in St. Louis he was burned in absentia. Writing in the Catholic Sun the Reverend William Shannon complained that “Presley and his voodoo of frustrations and defiance have become symbols in our country.” Cardinal Spellman, in a sermon, quoted one of Jack Gould’s articles on Presley at length. The Reverend Charles Howard Graff of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Greenwich Village, New York, called the singer a “whirling dervish of sex.” The evangelist Billy Graham admitted he hadn’t met Presley and didn’t know much about him, but based on what he’d heard he wasn’t “so sure I’d want my children to see him.”

Reactions to Presley were not limited to the critics. One campaign was the brainchild of two Yale students who had become alarmed when they saw a lot of kids sporting “I Like Elvis” buttons. These two launched a counterattack on behalf of Beethoven and had a thousand “I Like Ludwig” buttons made up. A placard on the counter of a music store in Manhattan read, “Combat the Menace! Get Your Ludwig Button.” They sold them all in a matter of hours and within a few weeks claimed to be a national club with twenty thousand members across the country. Those who were seen with “Ludwig” buttons included such famous musicians as Isaac Stern, Eugene Ormandy, and Pablo Casals.

It seemed that everybody got in on the act, including one used car dealer in Cincinnati, who advertised that he would break fifty Presley records in the presence of anybody who bought one of his cars. He sold five cars in one day. In Toronto, Canada a columnist for the Toronto Telegram started a club for those who disliked Elvis and rock. It was called the Elvis Suppresley Club. On Canada’s west coast, columnist Jack Wasserman of the Vancouver Sun held a contest in which listeners were invited to complete, in fifty words or less, the following sentence: “I hate Elvis Presley because….” The winner got a Frank Sinatra record album. In the town of Aylmer, Quebec jukebox operators took Presley songs out of boxes after the mayor-elect urged the ban on the basis that the songs were too suggestive. At a private school in Ottawa, Canada eight female students were expelled after they disobeyed a school edict to stay away from a Presley concert. The principal of the senior high school in Wichita Falls, Texas, Oren T. Freeman, stated that, “We do not tolerate Elvis Presley records at our dances, or blue jeans or ducktail haircuts.” The editors of the Music Journal blasted Elvis for his “leering, whining, moaning,” and for his “filthy performances.” Two female students from a San Francisco high school won a “Why I Love Elvis” contest and were flown to Hollywood to be kissed. The principal expelled them and explained, “We don’t need that kind of publicity.”

….A jockey known as the Great Scott, in Nashville, burned six hundred Elvis records in a public park.

….When radio station WPST of Minneapolis banned Presley from their airwaves they brought down the ire of some residents. Several DJs reported receiving threatening calls to “play Elvis Presley or else.” A rock was thrown through the outlet’s front window and the attached note read, “I am a teenager–you play Elvis Presley or else we tear up this town.” The ban stood.

….In Leipzig (East Germany) police arrested a gang of youths after they had come under the influence of “NATO ideology.” The name of the gang was the “Elvis Presley Hound Dogs.”

[From Anti-Rock: The Opposition to Rock and Roll–Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave (1988)]

“appalling taste”–The San Francisco Chronicle.

“no discernible singing ability…an undistinguished whine…for the ear he is an utter bore”–The New York Times (Jack Gould)

“Elvis Presley wriggled and wiggled with such abdominal gyrations that burlesque bombshell Georgia Southern really deserves equal time to reply in gyrating kind…He can’t sing a lick, makes up for vocal shortcomings with the weirdest and plainly suggestive animation short of an aborigine’s mating dance….The sight of young (21) Mr. Presley’s caterwauling his unintelligible lyrics in an inadequate voice, during a display of primitive physical movement difficult to describe in terms suitable to a family newspaper, has caused the most heated reaction since the stone-age days of TV when Dagmar and Faysie’s necklines were plunging to oblivion.”–New York Journal-American (Jack O’Brien)

“[Popular music] has reached its lowest depths in the ‘grunt and groin’ antics of one Elvis Presley. The TV audience had a noxious sampling of it on the Milton Berle Show the other evening. Elvis, who rotates his pelvis, was appalling musically. Also he gave an exhibition that was suggestive and vulgar, tinged with the kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos.”–New York Daily News (Ben Gross)

“…if his entertainment could be confined to records, it might not be too bad an influence on the young, but unfortunately Presley makes personal appearances.

“He recently appeared in two shows in the Municipal Auditorium of La Crosse, Wisconsin. According to the La Crosse paper, his movements and motions during the performance, described as a ‘strip-tease with clothes on,’ were not only suggestive but downright obscene. The youngsters at the shows–4,000 at one, about 1,200 at the second–literally ‘went wild,’ some of them actually rolling in the aisles…

“Yet the National Broadcasting Company wasn’t loath to bring Presley into the living-rooms of the nation on the evening of June 5. Appearing on the Milton Berle show, Presley fortunately didn’t go so far as he did in La Crosse, but his routine was ‘in appalling taste’ (said the San Francisco Chronicle) and ‘his one specialty is an accented movement of the body that hitherto has been primarily identified with the repertoire of the blond bombshells of the burlesque runway.’ (New York Times)

“If agencies (TV and other) would stop handling such nauseating stuff, all the Presleys of our land would soon be swallowed up in the oblivion they deserve.”–Catholic weekly America.

[Select quotes (a very small sampling) gathered from Anti-Rock and Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley]

….Juvenile delinquency, a widespread breakdown of morality and cultural values, race mixing, riots and irreligion all were being blamed on Elvis Presley and rock ‘n’ roll by a national press that was seemingly just awakening to the threat, the popularity of the new music among the young, and, of course, the circulation gains that could always be anticipated from a great hue and cry.

….When in Charleston he nibbled a reporter’s fingers just to get her attention, it made national headlines–“Girl Reporter Bitten by Elvis”–and his mother was upset that now he was being accused of some new form of moral degeneracy until he reassured her there was nothing to it.

….“I’m going to get a wiggle meter to time the wiggles,” said the Colonel with imperturbable calm. “When Elvis stops singing, we’ll put him on the stage and just let him wiggle!”

….The Milton Berle Show topped Phil Silver’s Sergeant Bilko in the ratings for the first time all season.

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….All this caught they eye of Steve Allen, then hosting a Sunday night variety show. If he outlives Norman Cousins, Allen may yet come to be regarded as this century’s preeminent embodiment of the patronizing middlebrow. Allen was a pianist and sometime lyricist, and he hated the emergent rock & roll; he would later be reduced to reading aloud the lyrics to “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” Allen seized the opportunity to present Elvis as a chance to hype his own ratings while putting the young hillbilly in his place.

Elvis appeared on July 1, 1956. The program began with Allen walking on stage dressed in a tux, short hair slicked back, horn-rimmed glasses set firmly on his smirking image, wringing his hands in gleeful anticipation. “Well, you know, a couple of weeks ago on ‘The Milton Berle Show,’ our next guest, Elvis Presley, received a great deal of attention–which some people seemed to interpret one way and some viewers interpreted another.” Allen said, his silly smirk growing larger. “Naturally, it’s our intention to do nothing but a good show. [A bark from offstage, Allen laughs nervously.] We want to do a show the whole family can watch and enjoy and we always do. And tonight we are presenting Elvis Presley in his [snicker], what you might call his first comeback. And so it gives me great pleasure to introduce the new Elvis Presley.”

Elvis stood there, decked out in a tux (and blue suede shoes, no less). Elvis beat Allen in the first round, singing a knockout version of “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” his new single and a fairly conventional ballad that was entirely credible in this getup. Allen then opened a curtain, revealing Elvis’ band–and a basset hound perched on a stool, wearing a top hat and a bow tie, to which Elvis was supposed to sing “Hound Dog.” He did, and he prevailed yet again, proving himself not only a good sport but an exceptionally intense and witty performer. Only those who gazed long into Presley’s eyes could have seen how angry and humiliated he felt.

[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1986)]

….“He sang without passion,” Al Wertheimer noted (of the ‘Steve Allen Show’ rehearsal). “He didn’t move, he didn’t touch the microphone, he stood square, both feet spread and stuck to the ground. After he had finished….Steve patted him on the back and told him it was great. Elvis smiled and in a slow, modest voice, he said ‘Thank you, Mr. Allen.’”

Then he met the dog, a female basset hound dressed in a collar, bow tie, and top hat. In further keeping with the theme of the show he was going to sing “Hound Dog” to–who else? During the first run-through the dog ignored him. Allen “suggested that they get to know each other.” Elvis petted, sang to her, and in the end prevailed, to the applause of the assembled stagehands and professionals.

….If Allen was experiencing extreme pleasure, it was clear that Elvis was experiencing the opposite.

….With his opening number (during the show itself), “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” for the first time he appeared, if not comfortable, at least involved, even in tails. He sang the song with sincerity and feeling, hunching his shoulders, loosening his tie, but for the moment lost in the private reverie which his music provided. The Jordanaires doo-wahed behind him, out of the picture, as were the musicians, save in silhouette. Even as the last notes were still ringing, Steve Allen bustled out on stage again, this time wheeling the basset, and announced that Elvis was not going to sing “Hound Dog,” his next big hit, which he would record the next day. The dog started to look away, Elvis cupped its chin, and there was sympathetic laughter as Elvis glanced balefully, as if sharing a joke with a friend, at the audience. The camera was on the dog as Elvis pointed at her and declared the obvious with a playful snarl. When the dog started to tremble, he held her affectionately and in the course of the song even kissed her once or twice. Apart from nervous titters, there was little response from the audience, but Elvis was a good sport about it all (“He always did the best he could with whatever situation he was given,” said Jordanaire Gordon Stoker of the appearance, “and he never, ever insulted anybody”), walking the mike around into the basset’s line of vision whenever its attention wandered, sharing his discomfiture openly and amiable. There was a sense of almost palpable relief on the part of all concerned when the song ended and he could finally march offstage after a long, lonely moment in the spotlight.

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….It got worse, in a comedy skit that featured Allen, Imogene Coca and Andy Griffith as what was supposed to be taken as a “typical” hillbilly entertainment troupe devoted to hayseed jokes and the hustling of marketable products to the rubes. The jokes were not even up to Allen’s usual pallidly “urbane” standards. Each of them was lame, flat but vicious, a pitiless exhibition of Allens’ commitment to proving a point: that Elvis and the hillbilly culture he symbolized had no place in American life. Twenty-five years later, this skit is virtually incomprehensible except as a sort of basic attack on what Elvis was taken to represent, which was not only the South but lack of “sophistication.”

Nor was Allen’s intention missed–not by everyone. In Newsweek, John Lardner devoted an entire column to Elvis’ appearance on the program. Though it was written with Lardner’s familial sarcasm, the column (“Devitalizing Elvis”) amounts to a defense of Presley. “Steve Allen…made a public attempt to neutralize, calm or de-twitch Elvis Presley, the lively singer,” Lardner wrote. “Allen did this, one assumes, in what he personally considers the best interests of civilization. For him, it was logical. Civilization today is sharply divided into two schools which cannot stand the sight of each other. One school, Allen’s, is torpid and dormant in style; it believes in underplaying, or underbidding, or waiting ’em out. The other, Presley’s, is committed to the strategy of open defiance, of confusing ’em, of yelling ’em down. The hips and the Adam’s apple, this school believes, must be quicker than the eye.

“Allen’s ethics were questionable from the start,” Lardner concluded. “He fouled Presley, a fair-minded judge would say, by dressing him like a corpse, in white tie and tails.” The corpse, in the long run, would be bourgeois emptiness Allen epitomized. But for now the humiliation was Elvis’.

[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1982)]

….Back at his room at the Warwick (after the “Steve Allen Show” appearance), Elvis was still not done with his official duties. It had been arranged for him to do an interview on Herald-Tribune columnist Hy Gardner’s program, “Hy Gardner Calling!,” which broadcast locally on WRCA-TV, channel 4.

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….The next day he seemed hardly the worse for wear. He arrived at the RCA building to find fans carrying picket signs that declared “We Want the Real Elvis” and “We Want the Gyratin’ Elvis”…Then he entered the studio, shortly before 2:00, and settled down to work.

ELVIS1 elvis3

….They started with “Hound Dog,” but perhaps not surprisingly it proved more difficult to capture on record than anyone had anticipated from its easy on stage success. Engineer Ernie Ulrich, as cynical about rock and roll as anyone else in the building, got a good sound mix early on, but then there were seventeen takes without a satisfactory master. The drums, always the driving force in the live show, weren’t working right. Scotty was groping toward his guitar solo, the Jordanaires were having some difficulty finding their place, and Shorty Long, the boogie-woogie piano player who had filled in on the last New York session, was just looking for his cues. (Nominal producer) Steve Sholes was getting visibly discouraged–he was desperate to get material for the second album, and here they were wasting all their time on a single song–but Elvis, who exhibited few points of stillness in any other aspect of his life, maintained absolute concentration. “In his own reserved manner,” wrote Wertheimer, “he kept control, he made himself responsible. When somebody else made a mistake, he sang off-key. The offender picked up the cue. He never criticized anyone, never got mad at anybody but himself. He’d just say, ‘Okay, fellas, I goofed.’”

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….What they needed to figure out was how to turn the live performance into a record that would have the same effect. Elvis had performed the song live with a half-time, bump-and-grind ending a la “I Got a Woman,” but now that was quickly dropped in favor of a full-speed-ahead version that had more to do with energy and overall impact than anything else. Scotty’s guitar sounded loud and propulsive against a churning rhythm from Bill and D.J., while the Jordanaires delivered a backdrop of clapping hands and flowing “ahhhhs.” The end result was like a musical machine gun, and take after take rang through the room, growing tougher and sharper each time.

[From Elvis Presley: A Life In Music (The Complete Recording Sessions)–Ernst Jorgensen (1998)]

….On the eighteenth take they finally got something. By now the beat had changed considerably from the way they did it in live performance, and the phrasing of the lyrics had changed even more. It had veered still further from Big Mama Thornton’s original Latin-flavored “rhumba-boogie” feel (preserved mainly in the repetition of the final words, HOUND DOG at the end of the opening lines) and become a hard-driving number powered by D.J.’s tommy-gun attack and a solo that Scotty later labeled “ancient psychedelia.” With the twenty-sixth take, Sholes thought they had it….

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley– Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….This was the session where Elvis’ perfectionist streak first became apparent. From Sholes’ point of view several of the earlier takes would have been just fine, and he tried to get the singer to listen to the playbacks, but it was obvious that the singer was marching to his own beat; he wouldn’t rest until he had recorded the song to his own–not anyone else’s–satisfaction.

[From Elvis Presley: A Life in Music (The Complete Recording Sessions)–Ernst Jorgensen (1998)]

….After the thirty-first take Sholes announced over the PA, “Okay, Elvis, I think we got it.”

….Elvis left his chair and crouched on the floor, as if listening in a different position was like looking at subject from a different angle. Again he went into deep concentration, absorbed and motionless. At the end of the song he slowly rose from his crouch and turned to us with a wide grin, and said, “This is the one.”

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….Finally, with thirty-one, Elvis declared himself satisfied, and the room breathed a sigh of relief.

[From Elvis Presley: A Life in Music (The Complete Recording Sessions)–Ernst Jorgensen (1998) ]

ELVIS2

NOTE: Immediately after recording “Hound Dog,” Elvis chose Otis Blackwell’s “Don’t Be Cruel” from a stack of demos and recorded it in twenty-eight additional takes. Although it was July, the air-conditioning was turned off in the studio for the entire session. “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog” were released as the A and B sides of RCA single 47-6604 (Elvis’ third for RCA) the week of August 4, 1956. It sold a million copies in the week before it was eligible to debut on the Billboard Hot 100. It spent a combined 11 weeks at number one and became the biggest selling single of the 1950s. Elvis had never before–and would never again–devote as many as thirty-one takes to a single side.

Mike Stoller: “In July, 1956, I was sitting in a lifeboat with sixty or seventy other people somewhere in the Atlantic. I was relieved to be away from the sinking Andrea Doria, the beautiful Italian liner I had been on for the past eight days, which now had a large gaping hole in its side and was going down fast. The lifeboat had a broken rudder and could not be steered. I wondered what would happen to me next. Fifteen hours later I stepped on to the dock in New York and was greeted by Jerry Leiber with, among other things, the news that Elvis Presley had just recorded “Hound Dog.”

[From Elvis Presley Sings Leiber and Stoller (Liner Notes)–RCA International INTS 5031 (1980)]

LEIBERSTOLLER

….Elvis Presley, who had signed an exclusive contract with RCA Victor late in 1955 and was turning the country upside down with his versions of rhythm-and-blues oldies and juked up country tunes, heard their “Hound Dog” in a Las Vegas lounge in 1956 and decided to record it. Being unfamiliar with Big Mama Thornton’s original recording*, he used the lounge combo’s garbled version of the lyrics. “You ain’t never caught a rabbit” was no in Leiber and Stoller’s original arsenal of invective, but they were not heard to complain.

During the spring of 1956, Stoller and his wife took a European vacation. They booked passage back to New York on the Andrea Doria and, the night before they were to land, the ship was rammed by the Stockholm in a thick fog bank. Mike was carrying a drink into the ballroom when it happened. “The Stockholm hit us and went two-thirds of the way through the Andrea Doria, bounced off, and came back in again. The ballroom was enclosed in glass and, after the initial shock, I looked out. It looked like someone had taken a giant letter opener and opened up the side of the boat. The Andrea Doria started listing further and further over on its side, and finally we made it down a jacob’s ladder into a lifeboat, which somebody had hacked loose because the winches were broken. Eventually we got into the Cape An and it took us to New York.”

When Leiber heard that the Andrea Doria had been rammed, he spent a frantic night and day trying to find out if Mike had survived. When he learned that the Stollers were among the lucky ones he raced down to the docks to meet them, bringing a silk suit for Mike in case he had been caught without his threads and bubbling with the news that Presley had recorded their song. The news didn’t mean much more than the silk suit at first–“I was just happy to see anybody,” Mike says–but soon the record was a number-one hit.

[From Baby That Was Rock and Roll: The Legendary Leiber and Stoller–Robert Palmer (1978)]

NOTE–*This is Palmer’s contention–disputed by Scotty Moore in an earlier quote here, and highly unlikely given “Hound Dog”’s huge R&B success and Elvis’ nearly encyclopedic knowledge (later confirmed by Leiber and Stoller themselves upon meeting him) of contemporary music.

….By now (the morning after Elvis’ “Hound Dog” recording session) the Steve Allen Show seemed like a million years ago, and the verdict was long since in. Allen had trounced Ed Sullivan in the ratings, the reviews were no more kind toward the stationary Elvis than they had been toward the gyrating one (“A cowed kid,” declared the Journal-American, “it was plain he couldn’t sing or act a lick.”) and Sullivan had publicly reiterated that he would not have the singer on his show at any price (“He is not my cup of tea.”) while privately he had already been in touch with the Colonel.

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

NOTE: Elvis returned home to Memphis by train. On July 4, he performed on “Elvis Presley Day” at the town’s minor league baseball stadium. Just before beginning the concert he quieted the crowd for the following announcement: “You know, those people in New York are not gonna’ change me none. I’m gonna’ show you what the real Elvis is like tonight.”

….Ed Sullivan announced on July 12 that he had changed his mind and was booking Elvis at an unprecedented fifty thousand dollars for three appearances in the fall and winter.

[From Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley–Peter Guralnick (1994)]

….By the time the first (Ed Sullivan) show appeared, on Sept. 9, Elvis had become such a cause celebre that Sullivan earned an 82.6 percent share of the viewing audience, an estimated 54 million people. (Steve Allen was off the air that night, replaced by a British movie, the network version of a flag of truce.)

[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1982)]

….For his third Sullivan show, Elvis was filmed only from the waist up in an attempt to do more subtly what Steve Allen had tried so awkwardly the previous summer: to make Elvis Presley respectable.

[From Elvis Presley: A Life In Music (The Complete Recording Sessions)–Ernst Jorgensen (1998)]

….MARLO LEWIS (director, the Ed Sullivan Show): Ed said to us just before Elvis was to do the show. “We’re in trouble. Elvis is doing something in these concerts that can no way be shown on television. He’s hangin’ some kind of device in the crotch of his pants so that when he moves his knee back and forth, it looks like his personal organ.” Ed used a little better language than that. “It’s waving back and forth just above the knee. We can’t have that on Sunday night. That’s a church night.”
So when we shot the show, I took camera two and I said, “Dolly into a chest shot and stay there.” And for that entire six minutes we only saw Elvis from his chest to his head. We never revealed the rest of him, nor did anyone ever see this “implement” between his legs. And I’ll tell you a secret: it wasn’t there.

[From Elvis Up Close–Rose Clayton and Dick Heard (eds.) (1994)]

NOTE: Waist up?…More like solar plexus up!

….Sullivan himself had been almost as derisive of Elvis’ ability as Allen. Sullivan wasn’t the host on the first Presley-led program–he was ill, so Charles Laughton filled in. But Ed was there when Elvis came back on October 28 and again the following January. By then, everyone but Sullivan and Elvis had forgotten Ed’s original snub.

As a result, that final appearance was complicated. As penance for attacking Elvis, the Colonel insisted that Sullivan publicly apologize–which Sullivan did, saying, “I wanted to say to Elvis Presley and the country that this is a real decent, fine boy.” But Sullivan and the CBS censors contradicted themselves, declaring that for this night, Elvis’ “suggestive movements” made it imperative that he be shown only from the waist up. Elvis made a mockery of this censorship, swiveling wildly, bumping and grinding with everything from his elbows to his eyebrows, using his shoulders as a metaphoric pelvis, and grinning wildly at the undiminished screams.

[From Elvis–Dave Marsh (1982)]

Z Magazine: What happened with the royalty agreement you had with Leiber and Stoller around the rights to “Hound Dog”?

Johnny Otis: There were two young guys, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who came to me in the early 1950s and said we’re trying to write songs and we think we’ve got good songs and good ideas. Could we hook up with you and you could help us when the song needs some help and maybe you could record some of our songs. In fact, they did have great ideas. Some songs I would put my two cents in and other songs didn’t need it. But on the songs I did put my two cents in, we had a hand shake agreement that I would be a partner. One such song was “Hound Dog.” I was supposed to have half the publishing credit and one-third of the writer’s royalties. There was no problem when we had a R&B hit with Big Mama Thornton’s record of it in 1953, but when Elvis Presley’s version hit big, they couldn’t hold on to their integrity. They found out that the law specified if you’re under 21 you’re a minor. They used that and won a victory in court to get out of our agreement. Recently, when I was inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame, here they appeared on the screen, like the great white fathers of rhythm and blues music, congratulating me and giving a little bit of our history together. I resented that so much.

[From “Slippin’ & Slidin’: An Interview With Johnny Otis” in Z Magazine–Sandy Carter (April, 1995)]

NOTE: You might not guess it reading this quote, but, as earlier noted, Johnny Otis was himself white.

….The best account of Elvis facing his real audience is Gordon Bowker’s “Rock!” (Seattle magazine, February, 1970), which places several teenagers at Elvis’ 1957 Seattle concert, and then catches up with them twelve years later. Bowker’s concluding words cannot be topped, and they sum up the moment:

“The rosy glow had gone from the cap of Mount Ranier, and the infield was bright with the best night-baseball lights in the minor leagues. The noise from the 15,000 people was immense. Finally the crown grew quiet.

“‘I alluz like to begin mah concerts with the national anthem,’ the King said, into the mike. ‘Will ya’ll please rise?’ Boyd Grafmyre and Willie Leopold and Ted Shreffler and Dennis Lunder and Merrilee Gunst [who, as Merrilee Rush, would score a top ten hit in 1968 with the shining “Angel of the Morning”] and Tom Hullet and Pat O’Day who had driven over from Yakima with his wife to celebrate his second wedding anniversary and the other 15,000 people all stood up. Also on his feet was Jimi Hendrix, then a Seattle schoolboy.

“Elvis picked up his guitar, twitched once more, took a breath, and groaned: ‘You ain’t nothing but a hound dog….’

“The crowd was stunned. Then it erupted into a frenzy that dwarfed the one a few minutes earlier. The grandstands seethed back and forth like a huge sea anemone. Not even Elvis could be heard above the roar.”

[From Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music–Greil Marcus (1975)]

 

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume 7: “When A Man Loves A Woman”)

“When A Man Loves A Woman”
1966
Artist: Percy Sledge
Writers: Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright (Percy Sledge uncredited)

Percy Sledge “When a Man Loves a Woman” (Live and Scorching on Television)

Shifting sands:

“It was shortly after (Wilson) Pickett’s first session that Fame’s studio musicians cut a record behind an unknown local singer named Percy Sledge. That record was ‘When a Man Loves a Woman,’ which, with its Bach-like organ, soaring vocal, and frequently imitated church feel might be defined as the quintessential soul sound. Then in February 1967, Jerry Wexler brought down a newly signed artist for her first Atlantic recording session….although she had been in the business all her life, she had never, it was said, lived up to her potential. The artist was Aretha Franklin…”

(Peter Guralnick, The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1976)

“As Clarence (Carter) prepares for his set, Percy Sledge is recalling how he came to compose his biggest hit…

“He was moonlighting from his job as a hospital orderly, singing with a local band at a club in Sheffield, Alabama, and he was so low with woman troubles he couldn’t even make it through the Smokey Robinson and Beatles songs he had been doing at dances and clubs. He turned to bass player Cameron Lewis and organ player Andrew Wright and just asked them to give him a key, any damned key. He half sang, half bawled along in his mammoth, achy baritone, just a bunch of stray thoughts on the blindness and paralysis of love: ‘If she’s bad, he can’t see it….’

“‘Wasn’t no heavy thought in it,’ he says. ‘I was just so damned sad.’

“Sometime later, when he had calmed down and refined the thing into a slow, anguished ballad, he gave Lewis and Wright songwriters’ credit. By then Percy had won an Atlantic recording contract by auditioning in a record shop in Sheffield for a local producer named Quin Ivy. The song was cut there, in Ivy’s South Camp Studios, with some personnel borrowed from Rick Hall’s Fame Studios in nearby Muscle Shoals. Percy grew up in Leighton, not ten miles from the Fame operation. So he says it all felt right–the musicians, the place, and the song. ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ was Percy’s debut on Atlantic, and it sold more than 1 million copies in the spring of 1966 and stayed at number one on the pop charts for two weeks.”

(Gerri Hirshey, Nowhere To Run: The Story of Soul Music, 1984)

“Muscle Shoals burst upon the consciousness of the world at large in the spring of 1966 with a single record that was homegrown, home-produced, and would forever eliminate the necessity of Jimmy Johnson finding his way to Athens or anywhere else. ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ established Muscle Shoals as a national recording center, brought Jerry Wexler directly from Memphis to Fame, and became the first Southern soul number actually to top the pop charts. It was also as significant an integrating factor in its way as Elvis Presley’s ‘That’s All Right,’ Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti,’ or Martin Luther King’s march on Birmingham of two years before. The artist was Jimmy Hughes’s cousin, Percy Sledge, from nearby Leighton; the engineer was Jimmy Johnson, who also played on the date along with the rest of the new rhythm section; the session, oddly enough, though, was neither recorded by Rick Hall nor put out on the Fame label, despite the fact that Rick played a major role in its release and reaped most of the benefits from it….

“‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ completed the process begun, really, by Joe Tex’s success of the previous year….Southern soul had at last entered the mainstream of pop in the unlikely guise of the ultimate make-out song, the kind of song that affected its fans so powerfully that, as Jimmy Johnson says, ‘I’ve heard stories of people driving off the road when they heard that record come on the air.’”

(Peter Guralnick, upping the ante, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, 1986)

If one goes to the liner notes of Percy Sledge: The Atlantic Recordings, the story takes on even more complicated and far-ranging dimensions which are beyond the scope of this essay (hey, anyone who has the money should get hold of the box anyhow).

The main reason I posted the quotes above is to show how stories surrounding certain records evolve–note especially the distance between the Peter Guralnick of 1975 and the Peter Guralnick of 1986–the difference between a passing thought and a consuming passion.

Well, that and to open the discussion of course…

*    *    *    *

Percy Sledge was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.

Ever since, he’s been a favorite whipping boy for anyone who thinks the Hall is too big, its membership requirements too lenient and/or vague, its methods insufficiently transparent, or that its very existence is a blight on the face of humanity.

Of course, just about everybody thinks Percy’s signature record is wonderful but…it was just one record!

And it wasn’t all that important!

And he wasn’t really rock and roll!

And he’s a journeyman!…At best!!!

And, and, and…

Well you get the drift.

As a result, Sledge routinely shows up on the lists of the undeserving–or of those who should be kicked out…or just excluded from alternative Halls developed in the imagination.

Mind you, he’s not the only artist so treated. But he seems to be the one about whom there is almost universal acceptance of his general unworthiness for such high honor (which most of those complaining are quick to point out is not really a high honor at all, since it extends to artists the caliber of, well….Percy Sledge! The crit-illuminati did not get where they are–in a position to bend so many impressionable minds–without developing a certain ability to frustrate the resistance.)

Alas, I’m part of that resistance, so I have to give it a try.

I think Percy Sledge belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I think if he’s a “journeyman” then pretty much all soul singers who aren’t Aretha Franklin or Al Green are the same. Heck, I think he’s a no-brainer and always was.

I thought he always was, because I used to listen to his old Greatest Hits collection pretty religiously and knew he was a fantastic singer with a nice run of R&B and Pop hits (he had a dozen or so chart hits, including four that went top twenty on the Pop chart and top ten on the R&B chart so he wasn’t quite the one hit wonder (or no hit wonder) that many of his (mostly white) Hall contemporaries who don’t get complained about were.

Besides, anybody who can leave a deathless “best of” behind is Hall of Fame material in my book.

But in case I might have wavered, Percy Sledge: The Atlantic Recordings, which includes everything he recorded for the label from 1966 to 1973, laid any doubts to rest–because there you have a hundred or so sides that, with no more than half-dozen exceptions, live up to the quality of the dozen I already knew inside and out.

Anybody who could lay down seven years worth of great music while the revolution was still going strong is Hall of Fame material no matter how exclusive you want to make the membership.

In my book.

But actually none of that really matters.

Like Orson Welles used to say about great movies: “You only need one.”

Percy Sledge made a lot of great records. Some might have even been greater than “When A Man Loves A Woman.”

So he didn’t really make it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the strength of one record. That’s a club reserved for fifties-era hard rock gods (Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins, Ritchie Valens, Gene Vincent…all richly deserving, by the way…I’d make similar arguments for them if they needed defending).

Sledge made it because his voice is one of those special few that creates its own club.

He might not strike you at all, but if he does, he’s liable to strike deep.

That’s how mild-mannered black guys who sing ballads get in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But if he really had made it on the strength of just one record, and that one record was “When A Man Loves A Woman,” he’d still be worthy.

*   *   *   *

For one thing, it is one of the rare great records that rose from quasi-mystical processes.

You can read the entry quotes above and get a taste of how that process works–how perfunctory “explanations” acquire depth and nuance (as I mentioned above, the liner notes of the box set take the story even further and make it far too complicated to pare down to a handy quote or two–highly recommended reading).

Pared down to bare bones, however, the story goes something like this:

Somewhere, some time, in the mid-sixties, a virtually unknown club singer was on a stage, feeling lousy about a romantic breakup and he started riffing and making up some words.

Somehow, over the next several months he and his band-mates worked up an actual song and recorded it in a place that was about as out of the way as any place could be.

Then his producer sent it to a not-so-out-of-the-way place (New York) and a really big time record man (Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler) who gave said producer a call and said it was promising but they needed to re-record it to give it a more professional feel (or something).

After which, said producer (Quin Ivy) re-recorded the record, didn’t much like what he heard and re-sent the original disguised as the new recording.

Then Jerry Wexler called back and said something along the lines of “that’s more like it!”

Then the record was released on somebody or other’s label (Wexler’s, Fame owner Rick Hall’s, Quin Ivy’s….hard to say, for certain, but everybody seems to agree that Hall got most of the money and it was certainly his studio that benefited most directly).

However it got released, the record went to Number One on the Pop and R&B charts and has stayed on the radio for nearly half a century and counting.

And, as Peter Guralnick points out, it became a signature record of a specifically Southern brand of soul music, which was instantly and forever deemed more “authentic” than its northern counterparts (specifically Detroit’s Motown).

Dubious assertions of authenticity aside (Black America always preferred Motown, actually, and the margin was never close), the ripple effect was enormous.

Next thing you know, Detroit native and newly signed Atlantic artist Aretha Franklin came south and in one brief, rather chaotic session at Muscle Shoals, found her voice.

However the story gets told, it seems generally agreed upon that she came south looking for what Percy Sledge had found: a vibe, a sound, a group of musicians, the magic of a special place, a song.

Something.

And, however the story gets told, we have the music she made, which formed the basis of her national breakout and the core of her legend, to remind us of just how successful this unlikely process was.

But “When a Man Loves a Woman” doesn’t really need that sort of long shadow to justify it’s importance.

All it needs is itself.

These days we tend to think of “southern” soul as being half of that north/south equation I mentioned–one which usually gets boiled down to the phrase “Motown and Stax” (with “Stax” standing in for the entire swath of labels running along the Memphis-to-Muscle Shoals axis). That common phrase makes it sound like there was some kind of real balance between the two aesthetics in both art and commerce.

Well, the art thing can be debated, but there was a time when nobody had any illusions about the commerce aspect.

That time ended (and the illusions began) when Percy Sledge recorded “When a Man Loves a Woman,”–as deep a soul sound as anyone would ever wax–and it shot straight to the top of the charts.

Maybe it would have ended (and begun) some other way.

Maybe “Stax” would still have become a true cultural–and economic–counterweight to Motown by some other means. Heck, maybe those means would have even come by way of a record actually recorded on the Stax label.

God knows there was enough talent around. Maybe even some bigger talents than Percy Sledge (few as those would be).

Then again…maybe not.

“When a Man Loves a Woman” wasn’t the first deep soul record to gain national success, but it took the game to new heights–and those very heights, reached at a moment when, for a series of complicated reasons, black music that wasn’t recorded by Motown was having more trouble denting the white charts than at any time since Elvis broke out nationally, were what soul (all of soul, not just the southern brand) could and would aspire to for the next decade.

There are reasons we give credit to those who do, as opposed to those who might have done. The most important reasons revolve around just how slippery alternate universes can be.

But another reason is that those who do ultimately create and define reality.

The reality in this case is that the cosmic success (all time classic, #1 Pop, #1 R&B, still inspiring blog essays nearly fifty years later!) of Percy Sledge’s ultimate feel-good-about-feeling-bad record more or less directly brought Aretha Franklin to what may very well have been the one circumstance in the world that could allow her to tap what became transcendental genius.

And that reality is not unrelated to the specific genius of Sledge’s actual recording.

These days, it might not be too much a stretch to say that “When a Man Loves a Woman” is the “blackest” record to top the charts during the hey-day of what I tend to refer to around here as “the revolution”**

Of course, thanks in no small part to the revolution’s real, if ultimately limited, successes, we now have a rather different (though not necessarily more expansive) definition of what “blackness” means–in culture, in music, in the general phantasmagoria of intellectual life in a struggling democracy which really ought to be thriving by now. Once any record as black as “When a Man Loves a Woman” could actually top the Pop charts, the coming rearrangement of the Cosmos was inevitable even if the degree to which this particular monumental record informed–or was informed by–the overarching process is strictly chicken-and-egg, you-said-I-said, let’s-convene-an-all-expenses-paid-scholarly-panel-to-bat-this-about-on-CSPAN-shall-we affair.

What’s rather more clear is just why this particular record had the liberating impact it did.

It meant basically that the man who stood lowest on the political ecomony’s carefully constructed totem pole–a poor African-American from the dreaded rural south–could sing in a voice that called up centuries of pain, real and imagined, personal and cultural, intimate and epic–and channel it into a masterpiece of both technique (once you let go of the false notion that technique can and should be defined only in classical terms, a notion Percy Sledge had quite a bit to do with exposing as rather limited) and emotion (the very thing classical technique was developed to reign in).

The resolution between Sledge’s perfect discipline and deep reserve on the one hand and his access to liberating ecstasy on the other is the very definition of what the American experiment has always aspired to at its best. The idea that we’ll be better tomorrow if–and only if–we remember every single good and bad thing that happened yesterday only has a few transcendent definitions in art.

I don’t know of one better than Percy Sledge singing from the bottom of the well without ever losing his claim to the top of the mountain.

[**NOTE: That is, the musical and cultural revolution that began–as a revolution–the first time Fats Domino’s left hand touched a piano within range of a recording device and ended–as a revolution–the day Kurt Cobain blew his brains out. Others use different markers. Those are mine.]

 

 

ALL APOLOGIES (Duck Dunn and Robin Gibb, RIP)

I generally write an obit when–and only when–the passing of some prominent person affects me on a deep level and I also think I might have something worth saying that hasn’t been said in the usual outlets.

It’s been a hectic year (and it took me a while to get used to remembering to look up recent deaths on-line, as I’m not exactly a ravenous consumer of any “regular” news). That’s the best explanation I have for missing RIP’s of figures as deserving on all levels as Donald “Duck” Dunn and Robin Gibb.

Dunn was, of course, the bass player for Booker T. and the MGs, who happened to be the “house” band at Stax records, in addition to being a hugely successful instrumental act on their own (one of only two such bands, along with the Ventures, to be inducted as performers into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame).

Writing about the possibilities for racial harmony that were endemic to what I like to call the rock and roll revolution–and how we’ve largely short-changed those possibilities–is one of the main reasons for this blog’s existence. No one embodied that ethos more perfectly or profoundly than Dunn, a southern white man who, along with a southern black man named Al Jackson, Jr., made up what was likely rock and roll’s very greatest rhythm section (granted there is competition, but not much).

That rhythm section was planted in the very heart of what I believe is the greatest inter-racial experiment in the history of America’s cultural life…or perhaps just the history of any country’s life, period–the Memphis/Muscle Shoals soul scene of the sixties and early seventies.

That scene was where white label and studio owners and a mix of white and black songwriters and session men backing an extraordinary group of African-American vocalists, merged to provide the truest and deepest soundtrack for the nation’s moment of hope for a better day coming–and, eventually, the lament for its limitations.

It was a small scene, frankly, and perhaps a couple of dozen people at most were truly indispensable to its contemporary success and its enduring legend. Not one of those people–not Otis Redding or Percy Sledge or Sam Moore or Mavis Staples, not Booker T. Jones or Isaac Hayes or David Porter or Steve Cropper or Andrew Love, not Jim Stewart or Rick Hall or Quin Ivy….no, not even Al Jackson, Jr.–was more important than the man who tied the rhythms to the melodies at “Soulsville U.S.A.”

At least musically, the best chance for reviving “The Death of the Dream” (as Peter Guralnick’s final, epic chapter of his finest book, Sweet Soul Music, termed it), came in the dread “disco” era of the mid and late seventies.

That’s the era I grew up in and the era the Bee Gees dominated to an extent that had only been managed by Elvis and the Beatles before and has only been matched by Thriller-era Michael Jackson since.

I can’t say I was all that taken by the Bee Gees at their apex (though I love most of that music now). But they had already got through to me in their earlier incarnations, which I happened to be discovering at the same time “Staying Alive” and “Night Fever” were playing something like forty or fifty times a day…apiece.

Gibb’s brother Barry was the lead voice on most the group’s signature hits, but Robin’s distinctive quaver–always on the verge of breaking, always holding on somehow–was put to great use on more than a few, with “Massachusetts” and “Run to Me” (a co-lead) being two of the three songs (Barry’s “To Love Somebody” was the other), that convinced me there might be something to these folks even as my high school buddies were assuring me that the disco stuff wasn’t half bad if you were good and drunk by the time your girl-friend got control of the radio or dragged you onto a dance floor.

Like I say, eventually I loved the disco stuff, too. And I’m glad I got to live through one of the last moments when the dream still sparked a few embers in the ashes. Robin Gibb was as important to that moment as Duck Dunn was when the flame burned brightest.

I don’t know how they’ll fare in the next world. But they were among the precious few who earned a state of grace in this one.

Booker T. and the MGs “Green Onions” (Live)

(On a related note: While I was searching for the above, I found this very beautiful duet from Lulu and Maurice Gibb–Robin’s twin brother who passed away in 2003 just months after this was recorded. It’s appropriate to this moment, I think, and it’s one of her very finest vocals…which is saying something. Their marriage, incidentally, was from 1969 to 1973. Better then.)

 

 

HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN….(Volume Five)

“In the Ghetto”
1969
Artist: Elvis Presley
Writer: Mac Davis

Elvis Presley “In the Ghetto” (Studio track with video)

“‘In The Ghetto’ was not without its own troubles….the song’s political content (gentle, almost vapid by today’s standards) unnerved some of Elvis’ friends…” (Robert Gordon and Tara McAdams. Source: Liner notes to From Elvis In Memphis Legacy Edition, 2009)

Elvis Presley’s monumental comeback in the late sixties has been parsed a thousand ways. He was restless after a decade of lifeless movies and dead-end soundtracks. He realized his career was at stake and decided he better get off his lazy hillbilly bottom and crank it up one more time. The Colonel let him out of the Zombie Pad on a twenty-four month pass. He had a cold. Steve Binder (the ’68 Comeback Special’s admittedly wonderful producer) caught him in a good mood and used some clever voodoo to get him interested again.

The moon was about to be in the seventh house and Jupiter was about to align with Mars.

I’m paraphrasing, of course.

There’s no point in digging up the exact quotes. They’re too familiar to those who know the Elvis Narrative to be worth repeating and too lazy and haphazard to be worth dignifying for those who don’t.

The basic drill is the usual one: If Elvis did anything so transcendent that it can’t quite be denied, we must rest eternally reassured that he was the last person responsible for it.

The way “In the Ghetto” has been generally handled–as a subset of the 1969 Memphis sessions–is typical.

It’s ignored. Or it’s sidelined. It’s good but it’s not….important! Maybe as a piece of the overall moment, but not for itself.

It’s “gentle, almost vapid by today’s standards,” and Elvis really, really had to be talked into recording it even so. (Read: “Whatever he meant by it, don’t worry, because he didn’t really mean anything.”)

I guess I’ll have to say I beg to differ.

Recording and releasing “In the Ghetto” in the early months of 1969 may have constituted the single most important series of decisions in Elvis Presley’s career.

I know nearly everyone who is old enough to remember that particular year has been trying to embalm it ever since–it’s a dread, apocalyptic moment for some, a moment-when-all-things-seemed-possible happy pill for others and one state of denial is just about as thorough (and delusional) as another.

It’s useful, I think, to try and view it from Elvis’ perspective.

I know this requires taking liberties. Elvis probably held his views about art, politics and the world in general closer to the vest than any artist in his century who had both a legitimate claim to the last level of greatness and a fair opportunity to share what he thought about it all if he so desired.

So we don’t know much of what he was really feeling–even quotes we can trust to be accurate carry little real weight or context because Elvis was a lot of things to a lot of people, including the people closest to him and trying to guess who really “got” him at any given moment is a fool’s errand.

But at least some things can be rationally assumed. Perhaps the most important is that, circa the late sixties, Elvis had kept himself in the game–something that ought to give pause to those who off-handedly dismiss his movie career.

The brief revivalist period of the early seventies, when Chuck Berry and Rick Nelson could have big hits (well, one apiece anyway), was still several years off–and would owe a great deal to Elvis’ own resurgence in any case.

The Everly Brothers had released Roots, one of the great albums of the century, the year before and got exactly nowhere with it.

Ray Charles was becoming best known as a regular guest on TV variety shows, and was already three and half years removed from the last top ten Pop hit of his career.

Bo Diddley was twenty years away from the Nike commercials that would give his nightly performance fee its one remaining bump.

Jerry Lee Lewis was a rather safe, successful mainstream country act and, despite his own far-reaching network variety show, so was Johnny Cash.
Brenda Lee wasn’t even that (though she would have a comeback on the country charts in the seventies).

Buddy Holly and Sam Cooke were dead.

James Brown was still relevant, but he had only really broken through to the commercial mainstream in the mid-sixties and wouldn’t really stay there much longer.

Within a few months, on the occasion of his epic Vegas opening, Elvis himself would grab fellow headliner Fats Domino–by then even further marginalized than most of the others–and introduce him as “the real king of rock and roll,” a pronouncement that was met with bafflement by the press corps at the time and has, along with dozens of other similarly expressed sentiments, been dropped down the memory hole by those bent on propagating a certain narrative ever since.

Compared to every single one of his important contemporaries, then, Elvis was in decent shape. He was on the sidelines while they were in the cheap seats on their way to being ushered quickly and quietly to the parking lot.

Compared to the giants who had come to the fore as his contemporaries faded, however, he was nowhere. They were engaged, he was distant. They were speaking to the times, he was a thing of the past. They were making the music “relevant,” he was the symbol of a phase that had to be passed through (rock ’n’ roll, the fifties) before the really important stuff (Rock, The Sixties) could happen.

They were the Beatles and the Stones and Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix and Aretha Franklin and the Who and the Doors.

He was the ghost they–or at least the times–had transcended and kicked to the curb.

Then, in the summer of 1968–using a TV Christmas special that would air in December as his medium–he had “re-engaged” and voila! all that was swept away.

* * * *

Any serious student of Elvis Presley’s music knows this is a grossly oversimplified narrative. Elvis’ music career had been running on dual tracks ever since he left the army in the spring of 1960. This isn’t the place to discuss that journey in depth, but suffice it to say, the music he made in the Comeback Special and the subsequent Memphis sessions that produced “In the Ghetto” did not spring from a vacuum (I would recommend a close listen to “It Hurts Me,” from 1964 and his gospel sessions from 1966 as easy proof, though that still only scratches the surface).

Still, there was one place Elvis certainly had not gone and that was into the arena of topical protest music.

Again, it’s easy to oversimplify this. The notion of truly popular, overtly political “protest” music–not the working-man blues variety that was a staple of virtually every popular genre but rather issue-specific material that not only lamented injustice but suggested real possibilities of challenge and change–had been around forever. But it had actually only come to fruition in the folk movement of the early sixties (mostly with the dual emergence of the much-lauded songwriting of Bob Dylan and the seldom fully appreciated singing of Peter, Paul and Mary which actually put it on the charts). Great as some of that music was, by the late sixties topical music had more or less broken down into a handful of basic categories: pleas for universal tolerance and brotherhood, depictions of social unrest or injustice (usually racial), war protest.

What was seldom addressed–and what remained essentially unspoken on records meant to compete for high positions on the Pop charts–was any condemnation of the kind of cruel, cyclical, working-class poverty in which Elvis himself had been born and raised.

And, since there was no role model for this kind of protest record having any kind of commercial success, it’s worth taking an extra-hard look at just where Elvis’ career stood at the moment it showed up on his radar.

* * * *

Yes, the Comeback Special had been a triumph. Yes, the TV show’s first single “If I Can Dream,” had been a big (though not monumental) hit–reaching #12 on the Pop chart.

But the second release, “Memories,” got only to #35, not much better than average for Presley’s post 1965 singles.

Hence, the first single release from the Memphis Sessions was a huge decision.

If it didn’t meet or exceed the success of “If I Can Dream,” then the momentum built by the critical and ratings success of the television special would be effectively broken–Elvis would run the very real risk of finding himself back on the sidelines for good.

Looking back now, it’s very easy to see the remaining arc of Presley’s career from 1968 onward as a series of successful assaults on one citadel after another: Christmas special-dom, the Top 40, Vegas, Madison Square Garden, Global-concert-via-satellite and, finally, the Pearly Gates all falling down like dominoes.

Where it all might have gone if the first single from the Memphis Sessions had flopped–or even just done moderately well–is pure speculation.

My own best guess is that it probably would have gone just about the same.
But the important thing to remember is that Elvis could not make any such safe assumptions.

For all he knew–even with a string of what, with benefit of hindsight, we know were surefire hits and permanent radio staples in the can (“Suspicious Minds,” “Don’t Cry Daddy,” “Kentucky Rain”)–that first release might make or break his future.

Was he going to get back in the game or be unceremoniously benched? Was he going to regain the throne, or spend the rest of his career swapping variety show bills with Ray Charles or “back to the country” tours with Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash?

Those possibilities may seem absurd now, but they must have seemed very real to Elvis in the early months of 1969 when he made–or at least approved–the decision to release “In the Ghetto” as his next single.

* * * *

Before I talk about the record itself, I’ll cast my own memory back.

I don’t remember a whole lot specifically about 1969. I was eight years old. But I remember the period.

I remember the general atmosphere in the working class South throughout the late sixties and early seventies.

I remember school bus rides and backyard football games and lunchroom breaks where the boys’ talk occasionally got around to “who your parents voted for” in both the ‘68 and ‘72 elections.

I’m not saying it was an everyday occurrence. Hardly. But once, maybe twice a year, something or other brought it up.

So I can tell you this: I was always in the small minority of those who had to admit his parents voted for Nixon.

And what this mostly met with was not so much hostility or scorn as puzzlement.

The ten or twelve or fourteen-year-old boys I went to school with and played pick-up football with in seventy and seventy-one and seventy-two didn’t especially have anything against Richard Nixon. They had heard he wasn’t so bad. But they really didn’t understand why any white person would vote for anybody but George Wallace.

I mean, didn’t my parents know that Wallace had promised to send all the black people back to Africa? (And no, they didn’t say “black people.”)

Truth be told, I have no idea to this day what George Wallace promised in the ’68 or ’72 campaigns. It’s just one of those things I never got around to looking up.

But I know what the kids I rode buses with and ate lunch with and kicked the football around with thought he had promised. And, since I know how right they thought George Wallace was to make this promise, I know how right their parents thought he was, too.

So I also know this: For the most famous Southern white man since George Washington, to pull “In the Ghetto” out of his demo-pile in 1969 and spend twenty-three takes getting it right (more than twice his usual–for comparison with a couple of other big hits from the same sessions: “Suspicious Minds” took eight takes, “Kentucky Rain” ten) and then approve its release as a potential make-or-break single at one of the most crucial points of his career, meant something.

What it meant to history and the world at large, can be debated eternally.
But for what it meant to Elvis, I think all we need to do is listen.

* * * *

Backing up the statement at the top of this post, Elvis’ most assiduous biographer, Peter Guralnick, has called Mac Davis’ lyric “abstract, almost fairy tale” in form, while also suggesting that concerns with “the inevitable consequences of ghetto poverty and societal indifference and pleading for compassion for black youth…may well seem mild today.”

Actually such sentiments are more like nonexistent today and Davis’ lyric would be better described as trenchant and prophetic.

“Take a look at you and me,” Elvis sang in 1969, “are we too blind to see? Or do we simply turn our heads and look the other way?”

You couldn’t come up with a better description of America over the last forty years than a nation learning to turn its head and look the other way….and not just at poverty.

The Chicago streets that Davis–like Elvis, a southern white man raised breathing Pentecostal air–described so “mildly,” “abstractly,” “almost vapidly” are presently sufficiently awash in murder that it’s actually news.

And, hey, given the normal All-American murder rates that’s saying something.

But Elvis’ version of “In the Ghetto” doesn’t draw its last measure of power from its relevance to the headlines of 1969 or yesterday.

It still rings deep and true because, for all the master touches of what were then pop fundamentals–the quiet shine of the acoustic guitar, the soulful female backing chorus, the ominous, martial drumming at the close–Presley’s vocal cuts too close to the bone to be hemmed in by the hit-making standards of any particular period, even one as great at the late-sixties.

Let’s be honest. Protest lyrics date, even great ones like “In the Ghetto.” They date even if the underlying message does not.

Production methods date.

So do instrumental styles and fashions in soulful female choruses.

The only thing that doesn’t date are the great voices.

For all its broad, political portent, “In the Ghetto” was probably as personal for Elvis Presley as a confessional. Think what it meant for the boy, born in poverty himself, who had been walked to school by his own mother until he was a teenager, to contemplate a woman so destitute she can only dread the arrival of “another hungry mouth to feed,” and you can readily understand Elvis’ almost impossible commitment to nuance–his determination to make the connection complete.

Nowhere else did he draw on his always carefully parceled “southernisms” more adroitly or effectively. Over and over, for this performance as for virtually no other, he used the common language of blacks and working-class white southerners–“Mum-ma” for “mama,” the very slightly elongated “i” in chi-ld, the hard accent on the second syllable in “get-toe”–to draw the scenes of a northern ghetto closer and closer to himself and, by extension, to an audience–a very specific part of his audience–which certainly included at least some of the parents of the boys who thought it was weird my parents didn’t vote for George Wallace.

In a time and place where the word “ghetto” had long since been appropriated from its European origins and given the singular meaning it still retains for middle-class Americans–a place where poor blacks are kept separate from everybody else by any means necessary–the boy from the Tupelo shotgun shack by way of the Memphis housing projects took his sweet time and, without yielding to even a trace of false piety or self-righteous anger, wrung every last bit of meaning from a lyric that was closer to biblical parable than “fairy tale.”

The world’s a complicated place, of course. We shouldn’t forget that Elvis would eventually offer to hire a hit-man to take out George Wallace’s would-be assassin only to have Wallace gently rebuff him in the name of Christian forgiveness. We also shouldn’t forget that Elvis probably left a few fatherless, potentially “angry” young children roaming the earth himself.

But the thing about art is that it does offer an opportunity for transcendence.

In the moment when it counted–the moment when both the artist and the man had the most to lose–Elvis kept the deepest faith by very specifically picking up a song by a then little-known writer and putting the blame for the link between a child whose “hunger burns” and “an angry young man, face down on the street with a gun in his hand,” right where the now thoroughly neglected New Testament he had been raised on said it belonged.

On those too blind to see.

I don’t know if there will ever be a time when the world can’t use a little more of that, but I’m pretty sure we’re not there yet.