ELVIS PRESLEY’S MUSIC CHANGED AMERICAN CULTURE
“THE HIGHLIGHT OF MY CAREER, THAT’S EASY, ELVIS RECORDING ONE OF MY SONGS.”
|My favorite painting of Elvis - by artist David Uhl|
Elvis Presley’s music career really began when he was three years old. “Man, the very first thing I could remember in my life was sittin’ on my mama’s lap in church. I didn’t know much, but I did know one thing for sure: all I wanted to do was run down that aisle and go sing with the choir. It was just something I had to do. I’ll tell you something else too, the people in that ol’ church might seem strange to some folks, but they know how to be free. They’re not afraid to move their bodies, and that’s where I got it from. When I started singing, I just did what came natural, what they taught me. God is natural. Some people said what I was doing was dirty. I guess if you have a dirty mind that’s exactly what you’re gonna see in others.” Elvis pondered for a moment. “When I first got into this business, when I went on stage I heard people screaming - but it all happened so fast...I just went with it. All I knew was, the only way to do it, the only way to make it, an’ what got to me to this point, was to just be natural and let it happen. And don’t stop. Don’t stop movin’; don’t think. The minute I started thinking, it would turn off. So, you don’t think. Just do it. Just be it.”
In August of 1965 The Beatles were in Los Angeles to give their historic Hollywood Bowl concerts. Everyone in town wanted to meet The Beatles, but the only American they wanted to meet was Elvis. Colonel Parker had arranged with Beatles manager Brian Epstein that their clients would get together at Elvis’ Bel Air home on the evening of August 27.
I arrived at Elvis’ house several hours before the historic meeting was to take place, to take care of his hair. Typically, Elvis and I were always engaged in some sort of conversation whenever we were together. This night as I stood behind him looking at him in the mirror brushing his hair, Elvis was stone silent, staring into space with a faraway look in his eyes. His right leg was shaking with nervous energy, the fingers of his right hand tapping away on the marble ledge. I kept quiet, respecting his mood, when suddenly he swung around and said emotionally,” I know exactly what those guys are goin’ through. I’ve been there, an’ done it. So believe me I know what that’s all about. And I respect them for what they’re doin’. They’re in front of a live audience, that’s where the energy is; everything is happening all at once, and ya never know what might happen, because it’s real, it’s natural, not like those God-awful phony movies I’ve been doin’. Singing to live audiences and getting their response and love right there on the spot is where it’s at. Man, I’d love to get back performing live again!”
Elvis shrugged his shoulders and said, “To tell you the truth. I’m embarrassed to go out there an’ meet those guys tonight. I’ve been told all they want to do is meet “Elvis”, because of what I’ve done back then, and everyone knows what I’ve been doin lately’…turning out meaningless, crappy, corny movies.”
After completing Elvis’ hair we joined the rest of our group in the den awaiting the arrival of The Beatles. Elvis appeared very relaxed even though he was, as always, fidgeting. Suddenly we heard what sounded like an explosion. The front door opened and The Beatles entered, led by their manager Brian Epstein. As the doors closed we heard the thunderous roar of the throngs of fans outside the gates.
After the introductions John, Paul, Ringo and George sat down on the floor at Elvis’ feet, cross-legged in a semi-circle. You could see that The Beatles were awed by Elvis. All they did was stare at him, as if they couldn’t believe their eyes. They continued gaping at Elvis, and this might have gone on all night if Elvis hadn’t said, “Look guys. If you’re just going to sit there and stare at me, I’m going to bed.” This broke the ice.
Paul told Elvis that if it weren’t for him there would be no Beatles, that he made it possible for everyone else, that he was the king. Then John said, “Elvis, these crowds, man, they can get wild and crazy, I mean we put our lives on the line. It’s scary.” Elvis replied in his best down-home tone. “Son, if you’re really scared, you’re in the wrong business.”
Colonel Parker and Brian Epstein played roulette in another room, talking shop for most of the night. Ringo and George and some of our guys spent most of the evening shooting pool.
Elvis, John, and Paul remained in the den. Several of Elvis’ guitars were propped up on their respective stands. John asked if he could play one, Paul followed, and then Elvis picked up his favorite Martin guitar and the three of them jammed for about thirty minutes. When they broke into song, I thought to myself: At this moment there’s nowhere on earth I’d rather be. I am sitting at the very center of the universe!”
Unfortunately for everyone, the always-controlling Colonel Parker laid down the law: there were no pictures of any kind to be taken that night, let alone the recording of musical history.
About two weeks after meeting The Beatles, while I was cutting his hair, Elvis smiled and said, “I figured something out; tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to record a gospel album. I want everyone to know that there’s more to me than a lot of people might think.”
Increasingly dissatisfied with the direction his career was taking and those “damn, embarrassing, teenybopper movies” he was making, Elvis wanted to express himself creatively in new ways. He expected more from himself and wanted others to know that he had much more to give as an artist and as a serious, caring person. Since he had early in his career relinquished control over the movies he was making and their soundtracks, Elvis decided to do what he did best—sing.
As a public expression of his evolving spiritual life, “How Great Thou Art” was a collection of gospel hymns that eventually earned Elvis two of the three Grammy Awards of his career, for Best Sacred Performance and Best Inspirational Performance in 1972. His only other Grammy was for Best Inspirational Performance, 1972, for “He Touched Me.” Significantly, none of his rock-and-roll records was ever acknowledged with this highest music industry award, although Elvis Presley remains to this day the biggest selling artist (individual or group) in music history.
Elvis was bursting with creativity and became increasingly involved in the process, his flame reigniting as he handpicked every song. This album would be very different from his movie soundtracks, with their redundant and cliché movie filler songs. He took months, meticulously poring over countless selections from his own collection of LPs he had lovingly assembled over the years. Immersing himself in a way he hadn’t done since he oversaw his music in the fifties, he listened intently to hundreds of the famed black gospel singers of the past, some on old, worn-out, scratchy 78 rpm records. “Black musicians,” he told me, “have more soul in their little fingers than most whites have in their whole bodies.” Whenever he listened to a song that he particularly loved, something stirred inside him, a liquid joy spread under his skin, lifting him out of the world to a better, happier place.
This time, Colonel Parker and RCA were in the backseat—Elvis was in charge. He relied heavily on Red West and Charlie Hodge, who played significant roles screening tons of demos they received from Tom Disken, Colonel Parker’s assistant, and Freddy Bienstock of Hill & Range Music. They passed along songs that they felt might interest Elvis, and were instrumental in helping Elvis prepare for this upcoming album in many ways.
Elvis’ vision and passion could be best expressed by the classic gospel song “How Great Thou Art,” which became the title of the album, recorded at RCA in Nashville in May 1966.
Sifting through every known religious song and then digging into some old, obscure gospel records, there was one individual with whom Elvis became enamored: Jimmy Jones, the greatest basso in gospel history. Elvis reveled in the stories circulating about Jones. “Man, that man can sing. They say that he could get the devil himself to change his ways if he heard him.”
Above all, Elvis sought guidance from another Source. We were ready to leave Elvis’ room at the Albert Pike Motel for the first session at the RCA recording studios. When the guys went downstairs to load up the vehicle, he asked me to stay with him for a few minutes.
“Larry, millions of people around the world are going to hear this album. It’s not rock and roll, man; it’s God’s music, and it’s going to reach people in ways we can’t even imagine. And you know as well as I do that God works in mysterious ways. So I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. We’re going to close our eyes, still ourselves, and meditate. I can’t be a channel if my ego is in the way. I have to empty myself so that the message can be heard loud and clear. And I’m not going to use my voice or even get out of this chair until I’m guided by that still, small voice within.”
I turned the lights off and sat in a chair facing Elvis, and we began meditating. Except for brief opening and closing prayers we sat in silence in the dark, still room. Then about twenty minutes later, as if on signal, we both opened our eyes and I turned the lights back on.
He stood up. “So be it,” he said. “Let’s hit it, I’m ready.”
Elvis is known throughout the world as the King of Rock ‘n Roll. Yet he transcended that genre, his musical genius and his magical voice conquering gospel, rhythm and blues, country, rockabilly and even pop. As if that wasn’t enough, he was also a major movie star. Yet Elvis always shied away from that title bestowed upon him by the world, the fans and the media.
One evening in 1965, as I was styling his hair upstairs at Graceland, Elvis and I were talking about certain aspects of his career. We started discussing all the various styles and categories of music that he’s known for. All of a sudden Elvis leaned forward in his chair and said, “Ya know Larry, people call me the king, like I invented rock n’ roll or something. No way man, no way. It all goes way, way back to the days in the old Deep South when the slaves were working and slaving their lives away. I mean those poor old people knew what real pain an’ suffering was all about. They used to sing and pour out their hearts to God just to get through the day. That’s where most of our real gospel music comes from. When the sun came up to when it went down, they sang and made up the words as they went along, in the cotton fields an’ plantations. And their slave music found its way right into their churches; then white folks picked up on it and began singing the slave songs in their own way in their churches. Then music began to change and went beyond the churches and grew into honky-tonk and Dixieland. Then it spread north to St. Louis and Chicago where the blues and jazz took off; then in our times it evolved into rhythm n’ blues then rock ‘n roll. The truth is, I was just lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time - and all I did was to take their music and introduce it to a white audience.”