Elvis in the Dark

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.

Comment 1:

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.

Comment 2:

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.


Photo taken by my brother and sent to me via text. He found this on vinyl and bought it for $2.99.

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”.

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21 Responses to Elvis in the Dark

  1. patricia says:

    Elvis In The Dark is really one of the greatest pieces on Elvis – and it is relatively little known, amazing isn’t it?

    • sheila says:

      I am so so grateful it was brought to my attention. Phenomenal.

      • patricia says:

        Does anyone know, if the author did more on Elvis? When I first found Daniel’s essay (strictly by accident somewhere in the depth of the Internet) I was so surprised that there is at least one person out there who thinks a lot like me about Elvis and his biographers.

        • sheila says:

          I haven’t researched it further, Patricia – I should see what else is out there by this guy. I would love to hear more line-by-line analysis of some of Presley’s hits by him.

  2. Nondisposable Johnny says:

    Just want to let you know Sheila that this is an invaluable series. You and your commentors have made more salient ponits about Elvis’ life and music than all of his biographers put together (and in a whole lot less time). One question: In the wonderful post by your brother, I wonder if you have any idea where the picture of Elvis onstage with Bill Black was taken? Or if not, where I might be able to track down that information?…I have an ongoing interest in any photos from the period that show the real makeup of the audience and this is a pretty good one. Would love to track it down, (even if that young woman with the light shining off her glasses who looks so eerily like my mother really isn’t her!)

  3. sheila says:

    NJ – I am so pleased you like what I’m doing here. I get mad about some of the commentary on Elvis Presley. As Ann-Margret has said, never underestimate the power of envy in other people. My site has always been about celebrating those artists I love – even in their fallow periods – I’m no fair weather fan. But again, thank you very much!

    I don’t know where that awesome photo is from … let me see if I can track it down. Yes, I love scanning the crazed faces in the audience! Great pic!

    • Nondisposable Johnny says:

      Thanks Sheila. Any help or hint is greatly appreciated…One reason I have a particular interest in Elvis’ audience is because I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that it had a much larger adult component than is generally admitted or even recognized. My mother was in her mid-thirties when she saw him in ’56 and I never got an idea she was in any way a generational outlier. The young girls got the attention because they pushed to the front of the stage and screamed the loudest (and have been unjustly scorned for doing so but that’s a discussion for another time). But every audience photo I’ve seen from the period, including those of lines around the block, which is deep-focused enough to reveal faces, shows a strong sprinkling of adults. So that’ s one more reason to love these pics. But of course a really good reason to love this one in particular is that it’s just a great freaking photo! Thanks again for these wonderful posts.

  4. sheila says:

    Interesting! I bet you are right. The music scene in the South in those days was so vibrant (oh, for a time machine) that I am sure it was far more mixed, as you say. Even if people just came out of curiosity.

    And I think scorn of Tween girls and their passions is so short-sighted – they are the most loyal fans on the planet, and one of the most powerful demographics there is. Whatever you think of TWILIGHT, it shows the ticket-selling power of young girls when they click with something. They will stick with you to the end. You never forget the first boy performer who made you feel that funny little itchy feeling, to put it bluntly. And in general, you love that performer always.

    One more Elvis post up. I’m on a roll! But that’ll be it for today.

    Thanks again for reading.

  5. sheila says:

    And yes there’s so much that’s great about that photo – Elvis’ face, his pose, his slightly blurred left hand (as always) and Bill Black going NUTS with support. Really captures what it must have been like!

  6. sheila says:

    Found a caption of the photo out on another site: Elvis Presley and Bill Black, Memorial Coliseum Buffalo, NY : April 1 1957.

    • Nondisposable Johnny says:

      Fantastic…at least I know it’s not my mother back there!

      Can you give me the info on the site? (or a link) Would love to find out if it’s available as reprint (book, 8×10, etc.)

      Thanks for the info!

  7. sheila says:

    Here’s the site where I found it – more pics of that show there as well.

  8. sheila says:

    Did your mother describe to you her experience seeing him? Where was it?

    • Nondisposable Johnny says:

      Thanks for the link!

      As for my mother…let me put it this way. She quit school at sixteen to work in a factory and support her aging parents (and also put her older brother through seminary) in the thirties. Married young, never finished school, etc. Deeply religious. Loved her family to death and never said a word of regret about what she was forced to do. Just took it as the way life is. She told about half-a-dozen stories of her life and it wasn’t until after she passed away that I realized every single story was from her early childhood–except going to see Elvis at the Charlotte Coliseum in ’56 (when she was thirty-seven and had two kids, though I wasn’t born yet). She talked at length about it over the years–how people stood in line for hours to get in and the screaming was so loud and intense through the whole show you could hardly hear him.
      Even though I knew she was a huge fan and had heard those stories my whole life I never knew how much she had invested in him until he died. I happened to be the one who delivered the news and I thought she was going to fall over. I had to walk across the room and hold her on her feet and in a sense she never really got over it. I think that emotional connection is one thing no music critic has ever truly understood. How much he meant to so many working class people who had to put their own dreams on hold and how many of those dreams he was carrying. I think Elvis knew and I think it weighed on him for the very good reason it’s a burden no one should have to carry. (And mind you, my depression-raised mother never spent a dime on anything as luxurious as records, let alone the sort of crazy memoribilia that would mark her as a fanatic. Not that there is anything wrong with that, it’s just that wasn’t her particular connection. It was purely the memory of the music wherever she happened to hear it.)
      And one final note: Just before she died I happened to be talking to her about some Elvis matter or other and she was laying on her bed. She was incredibly sick and I don’t think she had smiled for a year and all of sudden she leaned back and gave me a big smile and said “I skipped work to see him. Called in sick….Only time in twenty years I ever skipped work.”
      Let’s just say I came by my fandom honestly and that’s one reason it’s been such a pleasure to read all your clear-sighted commentary!

  9. Lisa says:

    Johnny’s story reminds me of the OTHER time I went to Graceland.

    We met my parents in Memphis for Easter weekend about eight years ago. My mom grew up in West Tenn. before they moved to Illinois, and she mentioned she’d love to see the zoo again with her grandkids (it is a really good zoo, btw) so we planned a weekend of Graceland (they’d never been) on Friday, the zoo and Pink Palace on Saturday, blah blah blah touristcakes.

    Anyhoo. My mother’s parents, especially my granddaddy, were EXTREMELY strict fundamentalist Christians. Not in a Carrie’s Mom way, but more in a Duggars way. Dancing was outlawed, and my Mee-Mommie didn’t even allow the radio to be played unless it was a religious-themed program. So you can imagine how well “Elvis the Pelvis” went over. My mom (and her sisters) knew who he WAS, of course (they didn’t live under a rock) but they weren’t allowed to “participate” in the whole fangirl adulation thing that their friends did.

    Part of the Graceland tour is going into what was formerly his racquetball/gym area. That has been made into sort of a shrine of ALL his gold records and various memorabilia. We’d been enjoying the house, of course, and my mom was making comments about the decor and stuff, but when we walked in that next building, her eyes just LIT. UP. “My friend Donna had that poster!” and “Oh, I wanted that Elvis purse SO BAD!” She just went on and on and on. It was like I was seeing her as this young girl — she would’ve been a tween when he first came on the scene — who wanted SO BADLY to be a part of the whole Elvis experience, but wasn’t allowed to. It was extremely touching.

  10. Nondisposable Johnny says:

    That’s a lovely story. There are definitely a LOT of ways to get Elvis…The only time I went to Graceland (late eighties sometime) my nieces took me (they liked him well enough but knew I was a big fan). We got the whole package and when we’re walking through the plane we’re behind a tiny little gray-haired woman and her husband. We get to the middle of the plane where they have the bed Elvis used for sleeping on flights and the woman turns to her husband and points at the bed and says: “That HUNK slept right there!” I thought my nieces were going to die laughing but they were kind of in awe too. So was I.

  11. sheila says:

    Johnny/ Lisa – are you two trying to KILL me with these stories? I’m crying on the subway platform. Thank you for sharing!

  12. sheila says:

    Also – “that HUNK” – hahahaha

    The man’s sexual charisma lasts generations.

  13. patricia says:

    NJ and Lisa – I really love your stories. NJ do you have the new box set “Young Man With The Big Beat”? In the book that comes with it there is mentioned that the demographic of Elvis’ audience was not teenagers altogether and a percentage is mentioned, if I remember this right – I will to look it up for you and post it.

  14. DJ says:

    I’ve always been split on Peter Guralnik’s two-volume biography of Elvis. Remember on the one hand, that before Last Train to Memphis, Albert Goldman’s “biography” of Elvis was considered the definitive biography. That hit job is a vile piece of crap, to put it lightly! I have no qualms about discussing Elvis’ drug problem etc., but Goldman’s “biography” goes way beyond that, fueled only by hatred for his subject. Once Guralnik’s biography of Elvis came along, Goldman’s “biography” was relegated to the trash heap of history where it always belonged. But on the other hand, Guralnik’s two-volume reinforces the simplistic, unfortunately dominant view that Elvis’ life is a cautionary tale of talent wasted and brilliance early on never again equaled.

    Another thing that leaves me unsettled about Guralnik’s second volume is that a lot of the FTD material has debunked his descriptions of certain sessions as being glum etc. etc. It makes me think that he sought information which would fit best with his “unmaking” narrative.

    P.S. . . The second someone says the real Elvis died in the Army, I stop listening. That means they never took the time to listen to Elvis Is Back. Tracks like Such a Night and Reconsider Baby easily match any recordings he made in the 50′s.

    Also, it’s fine that some people don’t like the ballads, but Elvis loved them. He knew what he was doing when he recorded them.

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