Many thanks to Cla for passing on this extraordinary analysis of Elvis Presley’s recording of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”, by Daniel Wolff. You will want to have the recording on hand to follow along with his line by line analysis.
Not only is it an excellent read about an artist on the cusp of a new phase in his career, it is also a criticism of the second volume of Peter Guralnik’s celebrated two-volume biography of the man. I have read both volumes, and will admit that the final 2 pages of Guralnik’s book were so upsetting and yet ultimately celebratory that I broke into tears (the second time only that a biography has made me weep, the first being Patricia Bosworth’s heartbreaking biography of Montgomery Clift).
Guralnik obviously prefers the 1950s Elvis, and his books take the typical “rise and fall narrative” (thank you, Patricia, for that phrase), even in their structure: Book 1 being Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Book 2 being Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. Book 1 takes you up to Presley’s entry into the Army in 1958. The second book, which details the majority of Presley’s career (1958 to 1977), is called “The Unmaking of Elvis Presley”, a rather strange title when you consider all of Presley’s many many successes in those last 2 decades.
This is one of the reasons I want to write about the guy.
Guralnik’s books are certainly not to be missed, not only for any serious Elvis fan, but for any fan of biography, in general. The first volume is an exhilarating blast, and Guralnik’s breakdown of those early Sun sessions, taking us through each take (all of which can be heard on various Sun Session compilations) is invaluable work. But he doesn’t respect the later music. He doesn’t like the ballads. He doesn’t “get it”. That’s all well and good, we all have preferences; However: Millions of fans, millions and millions, did (and do) love the later stuff, and don’t feel at all that those songs represent any kind of “unmaking” of Elvis Presley, but a natural progression for a very specific artist. Daniel Wolff does a far better job than I can of breaking down his problems with Guralnik’s point of view, and he takes, as his launching-off point, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”
Recorded in 1960, immediately following Presley’s return to the United States, it shows Elvis Presley opening up his voice to another kind of sound, it is Elvis Presley stretching, growing, letting go of the jiggling pimply guy who swept away the crowds at the Louisiana Hayride and various television performances. This is a new Elvis. If you don’t grow as an artist, you die. Perhaps Guralnik wished that Presley had been interested in another kind of sound in the last 2 decades of his life, but excuse me: who asked you? I have always felt that Elvis’ music continued to be deeply personal – as a matter of fact, even more so in his 1970s stuff. One need only to listen to the howl of anguish that is “Hurt” (you can’t even believe he hits those notes, he is in total control of his instrument) to realize this is a man making completely personal music still, and baring his soul for all to see.
This is not to discount the raw power of those Sun sessions and that first album, but Elvis Presley was a mixed bag of influences.
In the comments section to my post on “Saved”, the gospel number from the 1968 special, Kent Adamson left a couple of insightful comments (not a shock!), which sum it up for me.
I believe that Elvis is PRIMARILY a gospel performer. This is a sort of open, or best kept, secret aspect of his magic career formula, and various career transformations. I think his adornments, and golden vestments, initially set him apart from other more secular or blues based performers, as well as were a significant part of his “act”. He was as greatly talented and beloved in the gospel world as Sam Cooke. He is one of the greatest gospel singers who has ever recorded, and performed material live and on record that no other secular artist in the top 40 ever attempted. God gave him a mountain.
In secular terms too, he sold like crazy in the gospel category. Without renunciation of rock. Little Richard and Al Green embraced total renunciation and preached, before their gospel works were accepted. The other Sun label acts steered fairly clear of gospel material. Rock writers mostly avoid this area, and so in mainstream press it is rarely acknowledged, and the man is not given his (LONG OVER-) due. Even discussions of Elvis’ extraordinary ability to cross over the established markets of the time focus on Rock/Pop – Country – R&B charts with tunes like Don’t Be Cruel (#1 across the board), never mentioning the widely beloved gospel of How Great Thou Art, one of his greatest, and barely skimming the incredible secular and gospel success of Crying In The Chapel.
It is the gospel thing that Guralnik seems to resist (or, let’s say, not understand). He prefers the r&b influence, that’s what gets his motor running. (Again, Daniel Wolff covers all of this in his excellent piece). But gospel is the meat of Presley’s entire career, the juice of it.
And I think Presley’s later career makes total sense if you look at it in terms not of his sudden creation of the rock and roll sound in the mid-50s, but of his eternal love for gospel music. Even the love songs, the secular ballads, or the sex-frenzied songs like “Polk Salad Annie”, are infused with the grandiose and emotional sound of the gospel music he grew up listening to, the songs that first made him want to get up and MOVE.
It would be extraordinary enough to be a cross-over artist on the pop and r&b AND country charts. Very few artists (as in you can count them on one hand) in the history of the music business have had such a broad and organic appeal with such seemingly different groups of music listeners. But #1 on the gospel charts too? Unheard of.
Please go read Daniel Wolff’s “Elvis in the Dark”.
As a coda: I’ve been obsessing on Presley’s gospel music for the last week. Here is my current favorite: “Milky White Way”.