Mark Duffett [+–]
University of Chester
Mark Duffett is Reader in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Chester.
Elvis Presley remains the single most important figure in twentieth century popular music. By 2005 the ‘Memphis Flash’ sold over a billion records worldwide, yet his cultural significance cannot be measured by these extraordinary sales figures alone. The big question about Elvis is not just how a poor boy from Tupelo, Mississippi used popular music to become, in Greil Marcus’ words “a supreme figure in American life,” but also its inverse: what did Elvis do for America? First, as the most prominent figure of the rock’n’roll era, then as a charismatic superstar, he raised questions in the public sphere that allowed a global superpower to explore the limitations of its own project. Those questions concern the relationship between the individual and society, how popular art might be assessed, whether it can be fostered by the marketplace and the extent to which modern society can accommodate social difference. In effect, then, Elvis was made to carry the weight of contradictions in his own culture.
The aim of Elvis Presley is to provide an analytical portrait that introduces the major debates around him and interprets his music and image to reveal why they intersect to construct a particularly powerful and appealing myth that has important functions in wider society.
Series: Icons of Pop Music
Table of Contents
Debates in this section will include: • In what context did Elvis emerge as a recording artist? • How did Elvis’s music relate to those who came before him? • What was Elvis’s role in the rock’n’roll era? • How is Elvis’s story used to represent the South in transition? • How do notions of Southern modernity authenticate his phenomenon? • What can be said about Elvis’s controversial relationship to black culture? • What role did Elvis play in the sexual revolution? • How was Elvis’s authenticity constructed and what can analysis of it contribute to debates around authenticity in popular music? • How was Elvis’s stardom engineered and how should it be conceptualized? In the 1950s, Memphis emerged from a South that had been decimated by the Great Depression but was nevertheless modernizing at a rapid rate. As part of a series of industrial and economic shifts (notably the rise of local radio and cheaper recording technology) independent producer Sam Phillips was able to set up a small recording studio and label that aimed to capture the rawest and most authentic voices on the Memphis r’n’b scene. Elvis’s visits to Sun studios to record two unreleased amateur singles marked the start of an association which saw him paired with musicians Scotty Moore and Bill Black and urged to create something interesting. The result was Elvis’s first single ‘That’s All Right’, a breezy uptempo country blues number backed with a cover of Bill Monroe’s ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky.’ On the strength of the 1954 single The Bluemoon Boys, as they were known at the time, started to perform as a local trio. When Elvis was contracted to sing weekly on the Louisiana Radio Show he quit his day job driving a truck for Crown Electric and started a twenty three year career as a professional musician. Sun then released a series of singles that catapulted him to regional stardom. In the wake of this success he became contracted to manager Colonel Tom Parker, an experienced promoter who worked on the country circuit with Hank Snow. Parker landed Elvis a $35,000 contract with the major label RCA Records that included national TV appearances and later a contract with Hal Wallis in Hollywood. After repressing and promoting Elvis’s fifth and final Sun single ‘Mystery Train’, RCA in turn released a series of singles, EPs and albums that cemented Elvis as a superstar at national and global levels. Elvis’s contribution to the rock’n’roll era placed the music firmly in the mainstream and showed the power of the youth market. It also indicated that white artists could perform r’n’b (Sun dropped its black roster), caused a national controversy over his racial associations and sexually suggestive gyrations, transformed country music (reducing the role of fiddles and steel guitars) and had international ramifications. With a unique package of youth, looks and music, Elvis emerged as the key figure in rock’n’roll at the same time that individual style was becoming celebrated in consumer society and populist was becoming crucial to electoral politics. His particular advocacy of conspicuous consumption rode the wave of materialism of his era (increased leisure time, cars, fast food, flash clothes) and offered a critique of its failings (perceived sexual repression, a lack of social inclusion). For some, Elvis’s fusion of vernacular music genres located him as a traitor to both his own race and its project of social progress. His own stance constantly disowned the code of rebellion and showed deference to family and the commercial process as a way of pleasing the people. Indeed, Elvis’s refusal to enter the fray of political causes was itself political in locating his image as the ambassador for an inclusive form of universal humanism. In effect he was the young populist who spearheaded mass culture. While his effort to become a family entertainer and buck the controversies surrounding rock’n’roll succeeded when he joined the army, for many the move also marked the end of his time as the unwitting leader of a youth rebellion. Such perceptions provide a good example of how Elvis was made to carry the whole weight of social change. His return to performance in a tuxedo on Frank Sinatra’s television special, and his return to cinema screens in a GI uniform in GI Blues, are often said to presage the bland (but fan-friendly) face of Elvis in the following decade.
In the 1960s, Elvis’s cycle of teen movies represent a period where the singer is said to have lost his social significance and creative edge. Indeed the contradiction between Elvis performing formulaic songs for children on the movie lot and then meditating off stage allows fans to see him as a figure bored by his own media output; a shift that enables them to collude with Elvis himself in dismissing the worst of his catalogue during this period. Elvis’s Hollywood years raise the issue of the exploitation of labour power, and his complex relationship with the Colonel. The movies nevertheless represent a rapidly evolving genre that greatly extended Elvis’s musical reach, audience base and global brand. As a singer, Elvis made a number of changes during the period, adding a variety of musical styles to his catalogue. He also made his interest in gospel more prominent and gradually shifted into a revamped, funkier, more soulful sound that reflected the changing preferences of the period. Towards the end of his film cycle he contradicted his manager several times, making crucial decisions about his NBC TV special (sponsored by Singer and known then simply as then as Elvis), and then, for example, rebelliously recording ‘Suspicious Minds’ during the famous American Sound sessions in Memphis. Rather than attempting to critically rescue his narrative films, my aim in this section is to understand the extent to which those seemingly apolitical moments of entertainment spectacle were permeable to the historical concerns of their era. Elvis worked as an ambassador for Hollywood in this phase of his career. His films drew upon and inflected his image to carefully address changing gender and class relations. They reference both past roots (cowboys, communities, steamboats, carnivals) and future technologies (media industries, helicopters, racing cars, jet airplanes). Through the chocolate box patina of family entertainment, Elvis’s Hollywood features chart the changing social relations of a particularly tumultuous era of American history characterized by the rise of the baby boomer generation, the emergence of the permissive society and the growing independence of women. The movies frequently portray Elvis as an itinerant Southerner comfortable in a new society. Scholars such as Peter Nazareth (1997) have begun to understand Elvis as an intercultural figure. Beyond the predictable comedy moments and fist fights, a chronological viewing of Elvis’s movie cycle suggests that the singer was carefully positioned as a citizen of the melting pot who kept his Southern charm and could therefore act is an intermediary who could show those of other ethnicities how they might be integrated into the modernist project. Debates introduced in this section will include: • How and why has canonization developed in relation to Elvis’s catalogue? • What agency did Elvis have in his own career, and why does asking that question matter? • How have the diverse aspects of Elvis’s image and music reinforced each other? • How did the Hollywood era position Elvis in relation to the concerns of a rapidly changing modern society?
Elvis’s legendary NBC TV Comeback Special marked his return to live music. The Singer-sponsored show, discussed by Ian Inglis (2006) and others, is seen as the intimate and incendiary moment where the King reclaimed his crown from the British invasion by returning to the passion of his roots. The Special was constructed to reflect the two sides of Elvis’s image, as movie showman and as an electric live singer; the latter segment was so influential that it has been seen as accidentally inaugurating the unplugged format. In it Elvis returned to the Sun recordings within a studio setting that produced some of the rawest recordings of his career. His choice to contradict the Colonel (who wanted to create a Christmas Special along the lines of those made by Perry Como) has been located as a career defining moment, but several other decisions contributed to the success of the show including the black leather outfit with the Napoleonic collar created by Bill Belew and the choice of musical material. In an era when civil rights turmoil was at a peak, the show has some interesting and resonant connections to black culture, notably the specially written closing song, ‘If I Can Dream’. It was followed by several further triumphant Elvis comebacks: first to Las Vegas, where he established an ongoing annual residency, and second to live touring and the third, later, to the New York audience. Starting at the Huston Astrodome in February 1970, in an early example of arena rock Elvis did several shows that, to an extent, emulated the Beatles performances at the Shea Stadium. Throughout the next few years a pattern of annual residency in Las Vegas and then Lake Tahoe developed, and combined with periodic national tour schedule. It was during this period that Elvis assembled and led a competent, flexible rock band featuring guitarist James Burton and drummer Jerry Scheff. He also added soprano Kathy Westmoreland, black female backing troop the Sweet Inspirations, a gospel quartet and a full orchestra led by Joe Guercio. The result was an extremely full and flexible sound that he could arrange to create an inclusive sense of musical community. Elvis’s standard 1970s set would open with ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ (a rousing, Nietzschean instrumental marking the triumph of humanity in the space age) and then segueway straight into ‘CC Rider’ (an equally rousing up-tempo number led by a horn section that made it sound like a game show vamp). He would treat many of his rock’n’roll numbers in a punchy, throwaway style, perhaps performing them because they were expected by fans. While his set list gradually changed over the years, certain numbers like the ballad ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ were regular favourites. It is evident that the list was engineered to suit the demands of his fan base. If his flamboyant jumpsuits, concert feature film Elvis That’s The Way It Is, and famous global television concert Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii marked high points of his singing career, its nadirs included his divorce, occasional stage outbursts, struggle with weight gain and prescription drugs. The star became so jaded that he was eventually touted round smaller provincial towns across America and recorded on mobile equipment from Graceland rather than entering an outside studio. Scandalized by a sensationalist book written by two of his disaffected bodyguards, he died of heart failure in August 1977. Debates in this section will include: • What concepts can be used to examine and define Elvis’s musical creativity? • To what extent was Elvis’s post-Comeback image and music permeable to the social concerns of his day? • How can we talk about Elvis’s contribution to popular music? • Is it possible to understand Elvis beyond simplifications that focus on exploitation? • Why has Elvis’s weigh gain become a point of contestation for fans and critics? • How is Elvis’s later career used to talk about the value and pressures of stardom? • How did perceptions of Elvis’s death change his phenomenon and why has it become a focus of such intense debate?
When Elvis Presley died there only a tiny handful of biographies existed in print. His death launched a wave of grief that became the top national news story. It also generated an extraordinary demand for his music that saw RCA use additional facilities to press more records. Since 1977 fans have been presented with a vast outpouring of vault releases, bootlegs, repackages, outtakes and remixes from both RCA and specialist imprints like Follow That Dream. Meanwhile, a steady avalanche of popular books have marked his presence as a popular phenomenon: after the parodies and buddy books, a wave of more objective accounts, some of them forensic in their attention to detail, have framed specific moments in his career (see Lacy 2006 and Gaar 2010, for instance). Members of his family and former entourage have also become workers in an increasingly lucrative Elvis heritage industry. Aided by licensing policies Elvis’s merchandising firm Elvis Presley Enterprizes (now reformulated as his estate corporation EPE), the royalty deal they struck with RCA, and the opening of Graceland as a public monument in 1982, Elvis Presley has remained a global brand and become the highest paid posthumous entertainer in popular music history. As Greil Marcus showed in Dead Elvis, the star’s image and ideas it represents have become a contested terrain spread across a wide field of popular culture. Elvis has inspired a legion of tribute artists and since the late 1990s returned to the stage once again on video accompanied by his 1970s band as an unexpected, spectacular live concert draw. Emerging from the shadow of critical dismissal and class-based jokes in the 1980s and 1990s, thanks in part to the methodical image reconstruction work of Ernst Jorgenson and Roger Sermon, in the new millennium Elvis has re-entered the building as a chart presence and family entertainer. Approaching the fourth decade anniversary of his death, the Elvis phenomenon shows no sign of stopping, because the legacy of his music and the concerns that he represents still circulate in capitalist society. Above all, Elvis bequeaths a legacy of performance moments, costumes, catch phrases, ideas and songs. His universal inspiration, which remains both a contested symbol of social unity and a commercial brand, naturally leads to consideration of Vernon Chadwick’s (1997: xvi) suggestion that “Elvis performed in song what Martin Luther King Jr proclaimed in sermon.” Debates in this section will include: • What can the Elvis phenomenon tell us about the way audiences read star performers as complex and contested inter-textual entities? • Why has Elvis’s fan base been hailed as a substitute for religion and to what extent is the comparison useful? • How has Graceland as place, product and story interacted to resurrect Elvis’s popular profile? • What role has impersonation played in maintaining Elvis’s image? • How has Elvis’s estate attempted to police, control and revise the portrayal of his image? • How has the Elvis myth been extended to sustain such a diverse array of signifiers? • How and why has Elvis’s posthumous reputation fluctuated with changing times? • What is Elvis Presley’s real musical and social legacy?