August 1, 2021

the songs that inspired him to become the King

Available on Netflix, Elvis: The King of Rock and Roll reviews the musical influences that were decisive for Elvis Presley’s artistic personality

Premiered by Netflix in Latin America as Elvis: El Rey del Rock and Roll, the documentary series directed by Thom Zinny traces in three long chapters the glory and fall of one of the greatest icons of pop culture of the 20th century. With the 1968 television show marking his return to shows as the narrative core, the testimonies and documents also recreate his origins in Tupelo and Memphis. These are formative years in which the young Presley is enveloped by the intense religiosity of gospel, the fatal attraction of black music and the country sound that arrived on the radio. From that mix, a unique style would come out that would change the second half of the 20th century. What follows is a playlist that reveals the roots of the King generously exposed throughout the documentary to do justice to names far removed to the invisible in the rear-view mirror of history.

“I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire” (The Ink Spots, 1941). The texture of the sound (even if it travels in streaming) reveals the crackle of an old dough record vitrola or the enchantment of a tube radio. This is how the young Elvis must have listened to it when this vocal jazz group formed in Indianapolis in the 1930s advanced some characteristics of the future slow rock, soul and doo wop that would be heard twenty years later. “I Don’t Want to Set The World On Fire” was released as a single with “Hey Doc!” on the B side. They were one of the first groups of what was called “racial music” to win television. The word “riff” that became part of the rock alphabet comes from nothing less than the nickname of its guitarist Ivory Watson, who had lost four fingers playing bowling and who made his limitation a sonic signature of the group. They dissolved in 1964.

“That’s Alright”, de Big Boy Crudup, fue la primera canción que grabó Elvis Presley para Sun Records

“That’s Alright” by Big Boy Crudup was the first song Elvis Presley recorded for Sun Records.

“That’s Alright” by Big Boy Crudup was the first song Elvis Presley recorded for Sun Records.

“That’s Alright” (Arthur Big Boy Crudup, 1946). The original version of the first album released by Elvis Presley & The Blue Moon Boys in 1954 for the mythical Sun label had been released eight years earlier by Crudup, a Delta Blues pioneer born in 1905. In this spontaneous recording and in this high-pitched voice The future of entire pop culture is encrypted. Elvis turned it into the wake-up call of a generation but here the abrupt and syncopated cuts that characterized the entire first wave of rock & roll are already present. Crudup delivers an aggressive lead guitar style that would be the hallmark of everything we call rock from 1957 on: from Chuck Berry to Rage Against The Machine.

“Blue Moon of Kentucky” (Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys,1947). Another song taken up by the first Elvis in his recordings made between 1953 and 1955. It is difficult to distinguish his frenzied rereading of this dreamy piece that we hear generically as “country”, although it is a very particular style that emerged in the Appalachian area (a mountain range that goes from the southeastern United States to the island of Newfoundland in Canada) in the early 1940s. It was the music that was previously known as “hillbilly”, a pejorative way of referring to the rural population of the region. It was the same Monroe in his cowboy outfit who took her to another artistic category and with his style gave her the definitive name of “bluegrass”.

“Chatanoogie Shoe Shine Boy” (Red Foley, 1949). Elvis’s ear was formed between religious music (gospel), blues and part of the country that dominated the radio mainstream. Red Foley (1910-1968) was one of the voices that best contributed to modernizing the American rural genre in the 1940s and when you listen to a song like this, you understand its contribution to the formation of the style of the King of rock & roll. The base, mixed with a kind of tap dance, already suggests the insinuating compass of the future rockabilly that would be the mark of the first Presley and a sound always recycled as a letter of authenticity rocker, either by The Clash (“Brand New Cadillac”) or the Stray Cats in a retro key, in the 80s.

“Rocket 88” (Ike Turner, 1951). For some musicologists this is the first recorded song that can be considered under the parameters of what we call rock and roll. Sam Phillips recorded it at Sun studios putting on the chart the name Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats who were also Ike Turner’s backing band under the name Kings of Rhythm. This is how the dispute over the authorship originated, which on the single disc belongs to the saxophonist Brenston (1928-1970) but which the much better known Turner (Ike & Tina in the 60s) has been attributed until his death, in 2007. The The voice that is heard is that of Jackie Brenston but the piano and all the arrangements belong to Turner, who combined two popular rhythms of the time: the jump blues and the swing combo. It is an unleashed evolution of the swing of the 30s and 40s but, in addition, being dedicated to a new car model anticipates the mythologem of the rock and roll route. Everything around this piece is hearsay, legend: the distorted guitar sound, for example, is said to have been caused by an accident on the way to the studio that damaged guitarist Willie Kizart’s amp.

Elvis Presley flaunts his guitar vice while doing military service in Berlin, Germany

Elvis Presley shows his vice with his guitar while doing military service in Berlin, Germany

Elvis Presley shows his vice with his guitar while doing military service in Berlin, Germany

“Just Walkin’ in the Rain” (The Prisonaires, 1952). The link between the blues and the slow rock is featured in this magnificent vocal piece by The Prisonaires who were indeed inmates at Tennesssee State Jail. Written and sung by Johnny Bragg (who was serving a sentence for six attempted rapes) and Robert Riley, it hit the Billboard chart in 1953 but the best known version was that of the sugary Johnnie Ray, part of the conservative reaction against rock and roll. , released in 1956. The vocal harmonies of these blacks that made the authentic doo wop However, they were the ones who captivated Elvis, who would soon become the top star of the label that had released them: Sun.

Elvis on his return to American television in 1968

Elvis on his return to American television in 1968

Elvis on his return to American television in 1968

“Old Country Church” (The Blackwood Brothers, 1954). The white voices of The Blackwood Brothers carried gospel throughout the United States in the immediate years to the Great Depression, and the deep style of JD Summer who joined the group in the early 1950s was instrumental in shaping Elvis’s voice, as mature, at 18 years. Summer was not only the composer of this song, always present in the playlist of El Rey, but sang at the funeral of his mother Gladys in 1958 and would do it again at that of Presley himself. His vocal group, The Stamps, joined as a chorus on the 1971 tour with which Elvis, commanding a big band, sought to make up for lost time in the 1960s between innocuous films and at least erratic artistic direction.

“In the Jailhouse Now” (Webb Pierce, 1955). The greatest success of the most successful country singer of the 50s was this tune in whose rhythmic guitar arrangement echoes or winks are heard to the emerging new genre that, soon, would go around the world in the form of a frenzied dance classified as “diabolical ”. It is interesting to observe how the prison issue runs through this songbook Elvis was raised with: from The Prisonaires to his own mega hit “Jailhouse Rock” (1958). It was no coincidence: his father Vernon had spent almost a year behind bars for forging a check and Elvis himself was somehow captured and imprisoned in that military service in Berlin that absorbed the revulsive impulse of his pelvis. Webb is one of the artists that his widow Priscilla mentions in the documentary series as the ones Presley always came back to.

Elvis early in his career

Elvis early in his career

Elvis early in his career

“Stagger Lee” (Lloyd Price, 1959). It is true that by the time the mythical tale of “Stagger Lee” (a song that recreates a murder from the late 19th century) reached number 1 on Billboard in this energetic interpretation of Lloyd Price, Elvis was already more than established. But Price’s success had already started in 1952 when rock and roll had not yet conquered the radio waves. His song “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” meant a before and after for rhythm and Blues and Elvis would not hesitate to cover it years later. There are some commonalities in the biography as well: Price, like Elvis, was brought in by the Army to serve in Korea which made Little Richard’s rise possible. Thus, it is one of the last voices to be heard deconstructing its style, on the verge of its premiere in front of the microphone.

“Amazing Grace” (The Jordanaires; remastered version, 2021). It is difficult to pin down when The Jordanaires first sang and recorded this 1779 Christian hymn since they formed in the late 1940s. This undated version is included on the last compilation album of this gospel group that functioned as a choir of Elvis between 1956 and 1972, which is to say his entire career. Presley himself, of course, would record it several times, including a version with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Following the trail, Rod Stewart would leave an unforgettable a cappella version on the album Every Picture Tells a Story (1971).