(Straight From Nashville is a weekly column written by CMT.com managing editor Calvin Gilbert.)
Elvis Presley would have celebrated his 80th birthday Thursday (Jan. 8). If that sounds old, just remember that Tony Bennett is 88 and Willie Nelson is 81, and they’re still booking tour dates.
Elvis died in 1977 at age 42. That’s Brad Paisley’s age at the moment. Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban are in their mid-40s, and all of those artists have a lot more music to make.
Anytime you travel to Memphis, you have to think of Elvis. I certainly did earlier this week while passing through the city and seeing the exit for Elvis Presley Boulevard and Graceland.
I know it’s a futile exercise, but when I see those signs, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened to Elvis had he lived. For that matter, I listen to those first three Jimi Hendrix albums while realizing the astounding work accomplished in the ‘60s and what he could have done with the musical equipment and studio technology that exists today.
“Elvis really died the day he joined the army,” John Lennon was quoted as saying. “That’s when they killed him, and the rest was a living death.” (In his defense, Lennon is also credited with saying, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”)
I’ve always contended that what went wrong with Elvis happened sometime after his 1968 NBC-TV special that’s now widely referred to as his “comeback special.” After serving in the military from 1958 until 1960, he embarked on a series of mostly forgettable movies and ultimately became overshadowed musically by the British Invasion led by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and others.
Languishing careers seldom get revived, but the ’68 special surpassed anything even his most devoted fans could have predicted. In particular, the impromptu jam session with his longtime guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana proved Elvis still had the fire. Still just 33 years old, slim and clad in a black leather suit, he wasn’t just looking good. He somehow seemed dangerous again. And with new songs such as “Memories” and “If I Can Dream,” even the production segments showed a renewed vitality.
In an interview in the mid-90s for the now-defunct Nashville Banner newspaper, Moore told me a story I’ll never forget.
During the rehearsals for the NBC special, Elvis invited Moore and Fontana into a room at his house in Los Angeles and asked Moore if he was still operating a recording studio in Nashville. Moore, who had become a successful producer, answered yes, and Elvis asked if he could block out a week at the studio for them to record. Of course, Moore told him he’d be glad to rearrange the studio’s schedule. They taped the TV special, and that was the last time Moore played with Elvis or even spoke to him.
A year later, Moore, Fontana and the Jordanaires vocal group were invited to reunite with Elvis when he returned to the concert stage, but Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, apparently offered them so little money, they declined the opportunity because they could make more money working in Nashville.
Elvis was booked for a four-week, 57 show engagement at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. His live performances were so popular — and lucrative — he took the show on the road, no doubt urged by Parker.
The live recordings from the early Vegas shows are impressive, but his tours began in 1970. I never saw one of those early shows, but I did see him in concert twice — in 1975 and 1976 in Shreveport, Louisiana — and I have to say, I was disappointed by both performances. The show itself was incredible, and his band was always as good as it gets, but Elvis seemed to be going through the motions. Frankly, he seemed bored and only bothered on a couple of occasions to display the vocal tone and power that made him a legend. Still, I’m thankful I was in the room — albeit a huge arena — for those few moments.
Granted, Elvis made some great records in the ‘70s, including “Burnin’ Love,” “Suspicious Minds” and his version of Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land.” But instead of having the time to concentrate on the studio, he was on the road with a flashy stage show, seemingly more concerned at times with handing scarves to his fans than delivering anything of a more universal value.
Thankfully, his recordings remain, and they remain essential listening. His catalog of recordings has been sliced and diced, repackaged and rereleased countless times. His 30 #1 Hits is a good place to start for his most popular singles for RCA. If you want to go a little deeper, Elvis at Sun captures the magic of his first sessions at Sun Studio in Memphis with producer Sam Phillips. Elvis Country compiles his country side, including “Make the World Go Away,” “I Really Don’t Want to Know,” “Faded Love” and a more obscure song, “I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago.”
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1998, Elvis was the No. 3 choice among country artists polled for the recent CMT All-Time Top 40: Artists Choice series on CMT Hot 20 Countdown. Those interviews proved he’s still influencing a new generation of artists.
Frankie Ballard, for instance, was born too late to have seen Elvis perform in person, but he watched a lot of his concert videos.
“He’s the greatest entertainer I’ve ever seen,” Ballard told Hot 20. “And I think the reason why was because … he always did what he felt. Genuinely did what he felt. It wasn’t choreographed. It wasn’t, ‘OK, well, I’m gonna do this move at this time.’ It was coming up from inside of him, and it was coming out. That’s what it was, and that’s why people connected with it. … It was the real deal.”
In his interview for CMT All-Time Top 40, Trace Adkins said, “Elvis came along and changed the world.”
However, Adkins’ recollection of a comment from a well-known magician and comedian probably says it all.
“Penn Jillette said to me one day when we were doing The Apprentice, ‘If you ever get in an argument with a European or someone from any other country on this planet and they’re touting the benefits and the virtues and how great their country is, you can defeat their argument with one word: ‘Elvis.’ We’ve got Elvis, so shut up.”