"Rock and roll music, if you like it and you feel it, you can’t help but move to it. That’s what happens to me. I have to move around. I can’t stand still. I’ve tried it and I can’t do it." Elvis Presley, 1956
January 8th, 2009 will mark what would have been the 74th birthday of Elvis Presley. Years ago such an anniversary would have meant little to me. I grew up knowing only the bloated caricatures of Elvis; the overweight impersonators in sequin jumpsuits, the cardboard star of a multitude of abysmal movies, and the lurid tabloid tales of demented decadence behind the gates of Graceland. In my youthful arrogance I dismissed the cult of personality around Elvis as merely the musty byproduct of nostalgia. Only recently, upon seeking out the man behind the myth, would I find an artist of extraordinary consequence that remains fully worthy of his legendary status.
More than any other artist of the 20th century, Elvis Presley liberated performers from the constraints imposed by morality watchdogs, leading a revolution through uninhibited, impassioned movement. Backed by a combustive rockabilly beat, an alien fusion of country with rhythm and blues, Elvis literally vibrated with the music. And his voice, capable of dynamic shifts from velvety soft lullabies to exuberant howls, was the ultimate instrument for channeling cathartic release.
From 1954 - 1957 Elvis Presley and his alchemically charged band (principally Scotty Moore on lead guitar, Bill Black on bass, and D.J. Fontana on drums) barnstormed throughout the country, driving crowds to hysterics everywhere from rowdy backroad bars to small-town auditoriums to farmland-surrounded country fairgrounds. Even those that detested his performance, deriding Elvis an obscene degenerate corrupting the morals of young fans,had to admit that he was one of a kind. To Elvis, who viewed his performances as spiritual celebrations of the music, the controversy around his movements never made sense.
In interview after interview Elvis defended his "vulgar gyrations" as sincere manifestations of the rhythm and beat. While he certainly understood the effect his gestures had on an audience (and consciously adjusted movements to provoke the maximum response) there was nothing ingenuous or sinister in his intent. By virtue of being completely enraptured in the music, Elvis tore apart the bonds of repressive cultural mores. Elvis might never have intended for his raw movements to be interpreted as anything more than individual expression, but to millions of Americans his performances were nothing short of a revolutionary art form.
1950s America represented a world of tremendous social repression where firm moral codes were stringently followed. Nonconformity was suspect in most circles and proper etiquette dictated behavior. Expressions of excessive emotion, no matter how sincere, were simply not compatible with mainstream values. Certainly anything suggestive of sex was considered the providence of loathsome deviants, not respectable citizens. Elvis was a cultural bomb that obliterated such repressive thinking, igniting explosive concerts where audience members shed inhibitions through outpourings of emotion. A judge in Jacksonville, FL considered Elvis such a threat to moral codes that obscenity charges were promised if Elvis were to perform as usual. While Elvis toned down his movements for that one particular performance, he couldn’t resist the convulsive wiggling of a rebellious finger throughout the show.
After Elvis was drafted into the army in 1957, things just weren’t the same. He continued to be a popular recording artist for many years, but the work was increasingly substandard. The old passion seemed gone, smothered under soulless movie roles meant to economically capitalize on his appeal but ultimately sanitized his image, making him seem uncool and outdated. Though the old spirit occasionally resurfaced (most notably during the televised ‘68 "Comeback" Special and subsequent concert tour) a combination of insulated living, drug dependency, and uninspired projects crippled his artistic drive, making Elvis a victim of his own success, buried beneath the weight of his own excessive iconography.
Yet the discredited, the man sparked a cultural revolution that stands as one of the most significant in the 20th century. For evidence of his genius, just listen to his early recordings on Sun Records or his first two albums with RCA. Better still, seek out footage from his early concerts and witness the unleashed explosion of exuberance that suggested a body utter incapable of containing such a raucous spirit.
In the words of Bob Dylan, "Hearing him (Elvis) for the first time was like busting out of jail.