Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Rock and Roll Hierarchy: The Myth of Elvis

Chuck Berry Live at The Heat, NYC 3/1/80 (c) Robert Barry Francos

After having heard Elvis Presley being called the king of rock’n’roll for my whole conscious life, the possibility of seeing Chuck Berry in the 1980s was very exciting to me. I’ve come to believe that while Elvis’ (pre-army) music could be hard-hitting, he was overrated. What made him so big, from my perspective, was he bridged “white” pop music and what was then commonly known as race music, or rhythm & blues.

In the pre-Elvis 1950s, if black artists wanted their music to be played on “mainstream” radio or television, they had to not only sell away their rights, they would have to let a white musician play it, with all the “slang” and soul eradicated – hence, the popularity of the largest-selling bridge-stander of the period, Pat Boone. Have you ever heard Boone’s version of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” or Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” (reduced to “What Did I Say”)? I remember a taped, televised image of Boone singing “Tutti Frutti,” snapping his little fingers and trying to look so cool while actually looking uncoordinated and rhythmless, with a big, goofy smile across his face. Surely, the bridge on which he and other white musicians stood was the backs of the black artists, who were measly compensated for the use of their material.

Elvis, on the other hand, was a white musician who whitewashed the sound of a song. This made the possibility of soulfulness of the black artists more acceptable to the mass 1950s white audience, presenting it in a way imaginable to opening the door to more competent musicians who could actually play their instruments and write their own songs. Elvis famously yearned to be Dean Martin and Bobby Darin. He didn’t necessarily want to be a rock’n’roller; he wanted to be a pop crooner.

Even before the popularity of Elvis, he was not the first sincere white “bridge” bringing the soulful music of rhythm and blues to a mainstream white audience; some pioneers include songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, disc jockeys Zenas “Daddy” Sears (Atlanta), “John R.” Richbourg (Nashville), Hunter Hancock (Los Angeles), Dewey Phillips (Memphis), and Alan “Moondoog” Freed (Cleveland, then New York), and record producers and label owners, such as Leonard Chess (Chess Records, Chicago) and Sam Phillips (Sun Records, Memphis).

I see rock’n’roll having a whole different hierarchy of royalty. The true king of rock’n’roll is Chuck Berry. It was Berry that brought an “almost grown” rock’n’roll sound to the fore. While based on basic I-IV-V R&B and Blues chord structures (“Johnny B. Goode” is one example) with a mixture of pop and even some country, Berry was also intelligent in his use of manipulating and playing with language (“As I was motor-vatin’ over a hill/I saw Maybellene in a Coupe DeVille”), witty in his phrasing (“Roll over Beethoven/And tell Tchaikovsky the news”), and steamrolling. He expressed the sheer joyousness of the music for the music’s sake: “Hail, hail, rock and roll/Deliver me from the days of old/Long live rock and roll/The beat of the drum is loud and bold/Rock rock rock and roll/The feeling is there body and soul.” And I agree with his sentiment that “It’s gotta be rock and roll music/If you wanna dance with me.”

The “queen,” or diva of rock’n’roll is Richard Penniman, better known as Little Richard. This is not meant in any reference to Richard’s varying sexual preferences, but rather that he brought a “fem” edge of flamboyance: glitter and bouffant hair, the make-up and the whooping, and a strong flavor of sexual tension that was different than any previous rock’n’roll headliner. In one “whooooo,” he could convey more overt sexuality than Elvis did with any hip wiggle. He brought to rock’n’roll a sense of camp and grandness.

The brother of the king (next-in-line) is Jerry Lee Lewis. His stylings are similar to Little Richard’s, both being heavily influenced by a combination of R&B, gospel and boogie, but Jerry Lee’s message was devious, less subtle, and a whole lot hornier. While Little Richard was the sex object from the ying perspective, saying, “take me” (“You keep a-knockin’ but you can’t come in/Come back tomorrow night and try again”), Jerry Lee Lewis – nicknamed “the Killer’ – was pure yang, into being the seducer and predator (“C’mon baby, don’t be shy.../You leave me/breathless-a”). Both also used the piano (along with their own physicality) as a raucous instrument of tension, frustration, and longing. Marshall McLuhan probably made a notation somewhere about the piano being a different kind of extension of these two artists.

The crown prince is Buddy Holly (during and post-Crickets). He managed to merge mainstream pop with country and swing, codifying his sound with emotion and meaning that people like Pat Boone could never achieve. It also explains Buddy’s successful gig before the infamously demanding audience at the Apollo Theater in New York. His message was one of innocence mixed with longing and, well, a Lubbock-fed Texas twang. His phrasing, both musically and lyrically, was unique (“Well All Right,” “True Love’s Ways”), sounding simple while actually being built upon innovative, complex and intricate rhythms. To take a slogan out of context, on the sexual battlefield, Buddy wanted to make love, not war in the musical arena.

Elvis, being a bridge, albeit an important and groundbreaking one, even while pre-dating Holly’s rise (and literal fall), actually brought the least to the table, except for his voice. He did not write his own music, and his guitar playing was nothing more than rudimentary. I tend to think the importance of the big “E” as the messenger, spreading the gospel of rock’n’roll to the masses, sort of like the role Paul was to Jesus. What he brought was important, but he was not the innovator.

There were also many strong women who had a pull on the direction of rock’n’roll as well, such as Big Momma Thorton, Wanda Jackson, Etta James, and Ruth Brown, but because of the period of history in which rock and roll developed and came to the forefront, women’s roles were mostly marginalized. There were more women with power behind the scenes than there were in front of the microphone. This included production, session musicians (such as bassist Carol Kaye, who, for example, played the intro to the Beach Boys “Good Vibrations”), promotion (British series Ready, Steady Go was produced by Vicki Wickham), and especially in the area of songwriting (Delores Fuller, Elli Greenwich, Carol King). It was not until the folk scene in the sixties, which had a heavy focus on both class and gender politics, did women start getting the acknowledgement they earned. Punk, too, would be heavily have a female influence, such as Patti Smith and Debbie Harry. But even then, many were treated as second class.


  1. I realize that this blog will be hotly disagreed with, and I'm fine with that. Remember, I'm not saying Elvis is unimportant, just not the "King." Let me add that Gary Pig Gold is not only one of the finest rock writers / musicians / rock'n'roll historians out there, he's also a non-repentant Elvis fan. Please read his opinion on why he feels I'm wrong by clicking on his comment link, or go here:

  2. rock and roll is the best genre there is, his best seasons were the 70s, 80s and 90s. Thank God for rock and roll yeahhh!

  3. Hey Andres,

    I'm not quite sure who you're talking about, since Elvis died in '77, as I am assuming you mean years when you say seasons. Feel free to elaborate! Thanks for your relpy.

  4. Hi RBF

    Interesting blog. I wanted to write to you because I worked at the Alpine Theater until late 70s.
    We should talk.

    But I just had to comment immediately on your take on Elvis.

    Your opinion is so totally cliched, typical academic whitebread opinion that many E fans have had to deflect for decades.

    You simply don't get it which is OK with me because others get Elvis completely including James Brown, Al Green, Barry White, Dylan, Springsteen, Lennon ...... you get the picture right?

    Mmm, let's see - Lennon, Springsteen, Al Green, Dylan on one side you and silly Northeastern academics on the other side, mmm.., I think I'm going to go with the former

    A hundred years from now, while we roll around with the worms, largely forgotten Elvis will still fire up imaginations and remain a cultural God.

  5. Hey SG, Thanks indeed for writing. Not sure what you have against academic thinking (i.e., logic, hopefully), whether you agree with me or not. I'm fine that you don't, this was just a thought/opinion piece. I agree that without Elvis Presely rock'n'roll would be substanially different if non-existent, much as Christianity without Paul. I'm not trying to put Elivs (nor his fans) down, I just think that in the scheme of things, there were architects of the sound who get short attention because of this cultural monolith that is not even Elvis, but ELVIS (to be read in an booming, echoy voice).

    Cool you worked in the Alpine, we should definitely talk. On on Facebook (as Robert Barry Francos) and my email is Were you there when Crazy Larry the security guard put a gun to our individual heads? Good times...

    1. Great blog, and I know this article was written long ago but I just have to say Elvis invented rockabilly, period. That's a lasting contribution. His voice, as you said, was distinctive, widely imitated (like, say, Buddy Holly....where'd you think he got the hiccup from?). He also physically embodied the rock and roll image in a way that Fats Domino, Bill Haley and even Chuck Berry, could never equal (James Dean had just been killed a couple of years earlier, I'm sure that had something to do with it).

      This whole holier-than-thou "King Of Rock and Roll" argument has always been idiotic. Back then, they weren't taking rock and roll very seriously, and his fans (and the press) dubbed him (quite rightly, due to sales figures) as the King of Rock and Roll. They also call Chuck Berry (who by the way, is predated by Elvis by an entire year), the Father of Rock and Roll (which is quite right), so I don't really see the big deal.

      I'm not even particularly an Elvis fan!

      If Elvis hadn't sold as many records, no one would say a thing. How many great records did Zeppelin, or the Stones rip off? No one makes a peep.

      When you're at the top of the heap, people just want to take shots at you. And that's what has been going on with poor Elvis since he first popped on the scene.

      Like I said, I'm way more of a Chuck Berry fanatic than I ever have been about Elvis.....but arguments like these have no place in music. It was enough that Elvis could put over a song, and entertain people for two and a half minutes. This was music for children at the time, nobody took it's just hilarious that people would still pit Chuck Berry against Elvis.....something people didn't do at the time, by the way, and why should they? Their musics have absolutely nothing to do with each other, other than the umbrella of "rock and roll" that the music business put over all these regional musics.

      You don't have to attack Elvis to praise Chuck Berry.

    2. PS: Next up: debating the Stones claim of being "the greatest rock and roll band in the world"

  6. I was not attacking Elvis, I was placing him where I saw him in the hierarchy. This is a thought and opinion piece, which I still stand by. Chuck Berry may have recorded after Elvis, but he was touring around before that and I'm betting Elvis saw him. I have no proof of this at all, but this is not a factual piece anyway. Also I envision rockabilly's formation more with Chuck bringing in some country to R&B, and then Carl Perkins bring in some bluegrass. Am I right? Some will say yes. Am I wrong? Some will say yes. I am okay with that. Taste in music has never been consistent. Just ask someone what was the first rock'n'roll record and you'll get "Roll Me Henry," or "Rock Around the Clock." The real answer is that there is no first of anything, in most cases. It's all a conglomeration of what was before with an added ingredient or twist. Some will see that as one thing, another something less. They are both right and both wrong. Look at some of the nominations at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Some of them I wouldn't even consider rock'n'roll, such as Michael Jackson, Chic or even Peter Gabriel (as a solo artist). So, don't get worried about what someone thinks if you disagree with it when it comes to music. It's like hot and sour soup: it's all a matter of taste. Thanks for taking all the time for your answer, I appreciate that. Shame you needed to use "Anonymous," though.

  7. The Rolling Stones were great up until about 1970, just about the time they claimed the title of "Greatest Rock and Roll Band." Nah. There were too many other great bands out before, during and since. I'd listen to Tommy before Their Satanic Majesties Request, for example.