Why Elvis Was So Important
[pullquote quote="They knew it was more than just music...it was a cultural revolution." credit="Terri Hemmert"]Why is Elvis Presley more than just another dead rock star that sold (and is still selling) a lot of music and other “product”? I could make a long list, but let me focus here on one reason.
In the mid-1950’s when racial segregation was still the law of parts of the land, and would be for another nine years, African-American artists would release great R&B songs that would chart on the R&B charts, but seldom cross over to the Pop Charts. These artists would seldom get exposure on TV, or any big promotional budget. The record companies would have white artists do wimpy “covers”, and those would often end up the “hits.” Until Elvis entered the building. Yes, he was white, covering R&B, getting the promotional support including plenty of TV time (sometimes waist up). The difference? Elvis put his own stamp on the song, with plenty of energy, soul, and sexuality.
Hot Hot Hot. That was a game changer. Once teenagers heard Elvis, there was no going back. Forget the cover versions. Elvis helped open the door for black artists, because the kids demanded to hear the more soulful versions. Fats Domino, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and others ended up on TV, Top 40 radio, and the coveted Pop Charts. Elvis took the kids off the farm. One of the reasons adults hated and feared him. They knew it was more than just music…it was a cultural revolution. Thank you, Elvis. Let’s illustrate.
Take the song Tutti Frutti. Here’s the original, and I mean original in every way…Little Richard.
Pat Boone, Mr. Clueless, went into the studio and sang it phonetically. Mr. Boone did not like the “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bop-bop!” part of the song, but the producer insisted he sing it anyway. Boone’s version did better than Little Richard’s on the Pop Charts. Anyone other than me embarrassed by this?
But then Elvis recorded his version. Wow. Luckily we don’t have to choose between Little Richard and Elvis. We can love them both. But Elvis brought the energy to his cover that was missing on the Pop Charts of the day.
Georgia Gibbs was another artist used by record companies to record bland covers of contemporary R&B hits. Here’s her version of Dance With Me Henry.
This is what you could see on television on Your Hit Parade. You don’t have to watch the whole thing.
Etta James recorded the original, known as The Wallflower. Etta’s version topped the R&B charts, but it was Gibbs’ version that made in the top ten of the pop charts. No cross over here. No justice. No taste. Lordy.
Here’s another chance to see the genius of young Elvis. Here’s Big Mama Thornton’s original version of Hound Dog (a mid 1960’s TV performance with a very young Buddy Guy on guitar!!)
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