Wissot: Elvis changed everything | VailDaily.com

Wissot: Elvis changed everything

The quote, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” comes from a 1968 brochure for an Andy Warhol art exhibit in Sweden. In today’s social-media-obsessed culture, 15 minutes has been shaved to 15 seconds, the posting time for a TikTok video. The democratization of fame has resulted in the bastardization of fame. When you can get a million hits for skateboarding off a roof and doing a face-plant on the driveway below, the glamour of fame has taken on the trappings of a dumpster fire.

Elvis Presley earned every minute of the fame and adulation showered upon him. He didn’t invent rock ‘n’ roll but he popularized it for mass consumption directed at white teenagers growing up in the 1950s like me. The anointed “King of Rock ‘N’ Roll” publicly acknowledged that Fats Domino was the true monarch of the music. In 1957, he told Jet Magazine, “Rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along … Let’s face it. I can’t sing like Fats Domino. I know that.”

Elvis began his music career in the epicenter of the creative cauldron for indigenous American music: Memphis. His genius rested with his capacity to absorb and synthesize the blues, gospel, country and bluegrass music he heard growing up in nearby Tupelo, Mississippi. His first record for Sam Phillips on the legendary Sun Records label was an “A” side take on the black bluesman Arthur Crudup’s song “It’s All Right Mama” and a “B” side rendition of Bill Monroe’s bluegrass classic, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”

Before Elvis arrived on the scene, the rhythm and blues music commonly played in juke joints throughout the South and on Black radio stations was derisively referred to in the music industry as “race music” because it was produced for an exclusively Black audience. Elvis changed that.

Sam Phillips at Sun Records had been looking for years for “a white boy who could sing like a Black boy and carry the beat of Black music.” Phillips had confided to an associate that “if I could find a white man with a Negro sound I could make a billion dollars.” Elvis didn’t make a billion dollars for Phillips but he did make him wealthier after he sold Elvis’s recording contract to RCA records.

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Memphis was a rigidly segregated city in the 1950s when it came to the streets, schools and public buildings, but not at night when it came to the airwaves. Dewey Phillips (no relation to Sam), a local disk jockey on WHBQ radio despised by the city’s segregationist establishment, helped launch Elvis’s career by featuring his first records alongside those of popular R&B black artists.

In New York City where I’m from, disk jockeys, Alan Freed and Bruce “Cousin Brucie” Morrow on WINS radio, tirelessly played the newly christened rock ‘n’ roll. As a consequence, I was treated to the music of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers along with their white counterparts, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley and the Comets.

The influence of Elvis on an entire generation of musicians who followed him was remarkable. John Lennon famously said, “Before Elvis there was nothing.” For Bob Dylan, “Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.” Bruce Springsteen commented that “Elvis is my religion. But for him, I’d be selling encyclopedias.”

Black contemporaries of Elvis also acknowledged his influence and greatness. James Brown, “The Godfather of Soul,” insisted that “Elvis and I are the only true American originals. There’ll never be another like that soul brother.” Little Richard expressed gratitude: “I thank God for Elvis Presley. I thank the Lord for sending Elvis so I could walk down that road.”

Elvis’ cultural impact went beyond music. The eminent maestro, Leonard Bernstein, said that “Elvis Presley was the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century.” Bernstein further explained, “He introduced the beat to everything and he changed everything — music, language, clothes, a whole new social revolution — the Sixties came from it. Because of him a man like me hardly knows his musical grammar anymore.”

One way to evaluate the power of fame is to consider how long it lasts. Elvis has been dead for 45 years but it’s like he never died. After Santa Claus, I can’t think of another individual who has as many imitators. Graceland, Elvis’s cherished home in Memphis (3764 Elvis Presley Boulevard), is modest by today’s McMansion standards. But you don’t visit Graceland to simply tour a house. You visit Graceland to see the empire Elvis built.

Here on an almost 14-acre estate visited by 650,000 tourists annually rests Elvis’ vast collection of clothing, cars, motorcycles and airplanes. The property was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006, the first site related to rock music to ever be given that honor.

Graceland is a testament to the values and tastes of Elvis. Some might see it as a vulgar display of extravagant materialism. I didn’t when I visited four years ago. I saw it as an example of the American dream writ large, a classic Horacio Alger story, a stunning symbol of what it’s like to be born dirt poor and end up filthy rich.

Elvis was a man blessed with dazzling gifts and cursed with debilitating addictions. Unlike unbelievably wealthy men of today such as  Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos playing with their rocket ship boy toys, Elvis provided so much pleasure to so many for so long that he earned the right to enjoy his baubles, bangles and beads.

Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at jayhwissot@mac.com


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