Here’s an amazing fact — in August of this year, it will have been thirty years since Elvis died. Of course, it might not be as amazing to you as it is to me, but I’m willing to bet that most of us wouldn’t have guessed that it had been that long since he took that fatal trip to the – er – throne.
In all the years since then he’s been the subject of everything from veneration as the King to ridicule for memories of his final years, coupled with spurious sightings of his aged self at various donut shops or the like. Meanwhile, his many recordings continue to sell and earn money, as do the various satellite industries fueled by his name and memory.
I’ve written before about my feelings for Elvis in the early days, when I was a teenager and first struggling with my musical likes and dislikes and he was just starting out. I didn’t much care for him — mostly because he seemed a little too edgy for my conservative and insulated upbringing, but also because it annoyed me to see girls swooning for him. But I did eventually begin to appreciate Elvis and his music, and although I know that he didn’t need my approval, in a larger sense I probably represented his gradual shift to more mainstream appeal, which continued throughout much of his career.
But although Elvis and his story are well-known, there is an aspect that’s less talked about and it has always intrigued me. He’s given a lot of credit for being one of the originators of rockabilly, a type of music that most feel was the forerunner to modern rock and roll but that otherwise might be a little bit of a mystery.
There’s a good write-up in the Wikapedia about rockabilly, and I’d encourage anyone who wants to know more about it to tap into that resource, but the definition can be complicated or simple. You can list all the varieties of music combined in rockabilly and go off on long tangents about the influences, or you can simply say that at its heart, it’s a fusion of country music and blues.
All musical styles are born from the combining of other styles, and seldom is it a clear-cut event that can be identified as to time and place. That’s mostly true about rockabilly too, because there were lots of instances through the years of crossovers occurring both ways, and you could even make the argument that country music and blues were essentially very similar. However, there’s not much doubt that once again, Sam Phillips and Sun Records in Memphis were instrumental in the beginnings of rock and roll by helping to create rockabilly.
In the early 1950’s, Sun was well known for recording and producing both country and blues records, and that made the perfect environment for the young Elvis, who seemed to be the answer to Phillips’ often quoted desire to find a white singer who sounded black. Elvis fit the bill in a number of ways, not only with his sound but also with his background, growing up poor in Mississippi and Tennessee. He was very familiar with all the music of the South, including R&B, and even gospel.
Working for the first time in the Sun studios and teamed up with Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black on bass, he recorded a tune written by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, a black Delta bluesman. The rest – as they say – is history. The song, “That’s Alright, Momma”, became Presley’s first single and also defined rockabilly in an unforgettable way.
Elvis Presley – “That’s Alright Mama”
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