Before I begin, I just want to point out that I am not equating “Without You” and “Without Love” in this post, although I mention them both. There is some confusion out there as to what exactly Elvis Presley did record on that June day in 1954, and there’s a rumor that it was “Without Love”. That is incorrect. It was “Without You”. Two different songs. But I bring in “Without Love” at the end to make a point, my own subjective point about the vast range and power of his voice, which was not in any way, shape, or form, a done deal in those early days in 1954 (except in his own mind).
In 1954, a year after cutting a small album “for his mother” at Sun Records, and after hanging around Sun aimlessly all year, hoping for a break, Elvis Presley finally got the call. Sam Phillips wanted him to come in and try out a song he wanted to record. Marion Keisker (Phillips’ partner and secretary) had written down that the teenager was a good “ballad singer”, and so when Phillips was stuck, Presley came to mind. The joke was that Marion Keisker (or Sam, depending on who you listen to) called Elvis Presley and asked him to come in, and Elvis arrived in the studio before she even hung up the phone.
This was June 26, 1954, a mere week before history would be made.
It was a trial run.
Sam Phillips had heard a song called “Without You” and wanted to get the boy to record it. The stakes could not have been higher for young Elvis Presley, who was only 19 years old at the time. Information is scarce about what it was actually like to BE him during that time, although the few comments he made are eloquent and potent. He had a tendency to make it all sound accidental, a bolt from the blue, sheer happy accident: “and then suddenly I was famous, who knew?” but one can’t blame him: it had to have actually felt like that. A miracle, a divine intervention. But there had to be a pre-existing ache in him, a hunger, an ambition at odds with what was expected of him in his life. At odds, too, with his Christian conviction that one shouldn’t grasp and struggle to be better than your fellow man. Presley did not express any of this, but his hunger is apparent. By the same time the following year he would be famous. Hell, it wouldn’t even take a year. Nationwide fame wouldn’t come until 1956, but in a matter of months following that fateful July 5, 1954 – Elvis would be on the road, the girls were screaming, he was jiggling, and it all was exploding like an organic phenomenon.
It is not just the speed of the ascent that is startling, although it is startling. (Besides, the music business moves quick. People really can become famous almost overnight. Whether or not the fame lasts beyond the one hit is another story.)
But it’s not just the steepness and speed of the actual climb.
It is the speed in which Elvis, a shy inarticulate boy, adjusted to his rightful place: downstage center. The second he took up that spot, he essentially never left it – until he died in 1977. It’s like one of those Japanese paper flowers that immediately explodes into full blossom when placed in water. That’s how quickly Elvis Presley adjusted to the spotlight. Meaning: it was instantaneous. He was not groomed for it, or pampered for it, he had not been treading the boards for a couple of years. No. The spotlight focused on him in 1954, and he exploded into full bloom. In the autumn of 1954, when he and Scotty and Bill started playing out, Scotty and Bill actually had to show him how to adjust the mike stand. That was how green he was.
But his awkwardness with practical matters was irrelevant. Adjusting the mike stand can be learned. Elvis learned quick. Show him something once, he got it, and remembered it for all time. He didn’t just learn fast. He assimilated things, a giant sponge, influences and information pouring into his flexible mind, and he was able to juggle this in the midst of his brand-new fame. He was able to adjust mid-performance. This happened to him immediately and is often something that needs to be learned over the course of a long career, with experience, as the artist gets more comfortable with himself in front of people. That was not the case with Elvis. He learned things instantly, and adjusted instantly. If he went too far during a performance, he could sense it, and would pull back immediately, going very still, drawing the crowd in again with his unpredictability. If he made a gesture that made the girls go nuts, he’d try it again, to test their willingness of what they would accept. If they failed to respond the second time, then he’d give it up, and move on to the next thing, maybe coming back to it later. Repetition for the sheer sake of repetition is the death to any artist’s growth. He knew that instinctively. I would guess also that he had zero tolerance for boredom (something in evidence in his personal life as well). When he was bored, he was lost. And being bored onstage would be death. So he would switch it up, he would purposefully tease his audience, withholding what they expected, until they screamed with agony. It fed him. It helped him. He didn’t “schtick” himself out of reality. His sexuality expressed itself in visceral inventive humorous ways, and he had a lot of it to give. I suppose we all do (although perhaps I should just speak for myself), but he took the fall for the rest of us, saying, essentially, “I could hump all day long. Wanna join?” Uhm, sure, Elvy! If you can take it, I can! This ain’t no “one-sided love affair”.
He sang songs differently every time he approached them (which is why his multiple takes of songs are fascinating in and of themselves). He changed lyrics, just to joke around. He made stupid jokes. His puns were horrible. People loved them. He would cross his eyes while singing a sincere love song. He would freeze himself in the middle of a wild gyration and hold the pose, while people went nuts. He was a brat. People loved it. He could sense boredom in others like an invisible fog. He worked to overcome it.
One of the most touching live recordings of his in existence is his final show in Las Vegas in 1956, a run that did not, to put it mildly, go well. The audience was a well-dressed middle-class middle-aged audience, and they were not used to the level of engagement he demanded, and that the teenagers gave willingly. They sat in silence while he sang, and then clapped politely at the end. Scotty and Bill said it was the only time ever in touring with Elvis that they could actually hear the music they were making. It was disorienting. Elvis was devastated, but you can hear him, in the recordings of these shows, still trying to get the audience on his side. His stage banter was always a little awkward and stuttering (throughout his career), but he made a joke out of it. Tepid laughter. At one point he is engaging the Vegas band leader behind him onstage in banter, and he says, “Friends, this next song I hope you’ll like. It’s been a big hit for us and it’s called ‘Get Out of the Stables, Grandma…. You’re Too Old To Be Horsing Around.’”
I realize my sense of humor can be quite juvenile but I burst out laughing every time I hear him say that. In a way, it’s desperate. He’s desperate to get a rise out of the audience, make them laugh, make them SOMEthing. But the way he says it, the way he drawls lazily, “You’re Too Old To Be Horsing Around” is hilarious to me. I ache for him, though. Because the audience laughs politely… sort of. Elvis keeps trying. Saying to the orchestra leader, “Do you know that song? No?” Then he says, “Well how about ‘Take Back Your Golden Garter, My Leg is Turning Green’, do you know that one?” Again, the audience laughs, but Elvis is used to out-and-out mania even when he burps into the microphone, which he did do from time to time. Like I said: BRAT. Finally, he gives up on trying to make jokes (which I find very funny in a stupid kind of way) and launches into Blue Suede Shoes. There isn’t a PEEP out of the audience during the whole thing.
It’s odd to listen to, and Elvis wouldn’t return to Vegas (as a performer) until 1969 when, of course, he took over the town. But it left a sour taste in his mouth, one of his few failures.
What is touching about the recording of that show is how he keeps trying, how he keeps joking, and how he still (along with Scotty, Bill and DJ) performs those songs within an inch of their lives. Inside he may have been plummeting into a pit of despair, but his instinct is to still, always, go 100%.
Some people have to learn how to be professional. Elvis was born knowing it.
It is hard to be fully aware and present when thousands of people are staring at you and screaming like maniacs. He always was fully aware and present, but perhaps most so when he was in front of an audience. In this respect he is in very rare company. Like, Judy Garland company, another phenom who knew the ropes early, remembered everything, and always always played to her strengths. Very rarely did her show biz instinct fail her.
So yes, the speed of his actual ascent is startling. He was famous in a matter of months.
But it is more the speed to which the pimply teenager with only a couple of flashy suits in his closet adjusted to his new situation that speaks to his great and divine gift. No other place for him to be. He knew it. I suspect he knew it even BEFORE he was famous, which is where his nervous energy came from. The famous jiggling leg was apparent to his first girlfriend, Dixie Locke, who dated him throughout 1954, when all of these giant events happened to him. He’d sit in her living room and drive her crazy with the jiggling leg. She’d reach out and put her hand on his knee to relax him, to calm down the movement. Dixie’s parents would say to her after he left, “Can’t that boy sit still?” When he became famous with that jiggling leg a matter of months later, and all hell broke loose due to the “scandal” of his movements, Dixie and her family (who loved Elvis, who were upright proper Christian people, identical to Elvis’ background) – weren’t surprised at all. They saw nothing dirty or nasty about it. “Of course the boy jiggles his leg onstage. Didn’t he drive us insane with that jiggling leg sitting in our living room?”
Anything he had he used. He forgot nothing. He added to it, he morphed with it, he gave up on things that didn’t work, he tried things, he threw them away, he horsed around, he made fun of himself, he got serious instantly afterwards, and then would fool around again … and every person who watched him followed him on that ride.
It takes great arrogance, wisdom, self-knowledge, self-confidence, and joy to allow that sort of freedom when you are in front of people. Everyone’s a genius alone in their bedroom. Can you be that private, that unselfconscious, in front of a crowd?
I’ve said it before: when Elvis catapulted himself into the limelight in 1954, he was already in full-bloom. He needed no gestation period. He was a virgin in 1954. He was a teenager. He had never slept away from home. His mother still wiped his mouth at the dinner table. These are facts. And irrelevant in terms of what happened when the spotlight focused in on him. He was ready. God put him there. He believed that. And so when the moment arrived, he knew exactly what to do.
But I want to go back to that incident in June 1954, when Sam Phillips called Elvis Presley into the Studio to give “Without You” a crack. With all of the stories of Elvis’ politeness, his deference, his good manners, his submissive nature, this incident stands out. Elvis threw tantrums sometimes in the privacy of his home, amongst friends, but almost never in the workplace. You can count his workplace tantrums on one hand, and he usually had a damn good reason.
He had the self-confidence to say to Marion Keisker in 1953, “I don’t sing like nobody.” He fully believed that. He knew he was special. This was not smoke and mirrors or wishful thinking. I believe he was one of those special people who knew certain things about himself before he had the opportunity to show them. Lots of people say, “I don’t sing like nobody” but only one person who said it turned out to be Elvis Presley. This is akin to the famous stories of Barbra Streisand’s earliest auditions, when she was a teenager, singing out in nightclubs, and a total unknown. She was far more tricky than Presley, making up names and behavior and creating huge weird circumstances that she would act out DURING the audition, but it came from the same place of concrete self-knowledge gained while very very young. She knew she looked different, she knew she would be considered ugly, and not leading-lady material, but she knew that if she could just get in the door, if they could just hear her … she would transform their ideas. Not just about her, but about theatre in general, and castability, and who was and was not a leading lady. Her fame was that transformational, and she knew it would be. Read the story in the link above. Think about the courage and the brass balls that took. 9 people out of 10 would get away with a stunt like that. Only a professional would dare attempt it and Barbra’s status at that point was amateur. Didn’t matter. She was full-blown, too. She arrived that way. Fully formed. She just needed the opportunity.
Elvis Presley’s swagger had the same rocket-to-the-moon improbability, and similar grounded roots.
But on June 26, 1954, Sam Phillips called him in to record “Without You”.
I’ll let Dave Marsh tell the story from here.
The song was called “Without You”, and Keisker has described it as a “single voice with a single guitar, a simple, lovely ballad.” Phillips was prepared to release the tune as it was – he loved not only the song, but the singer. Unfortunately, as often happened, the demo singer was an unknown black kid who just happened to be hanging around the studio. No one knew who he was or where he was now. Phillips was stuck.
Because of the material Elvis had chosen for his recording service demos, Phillips and Keisker thought of him as a ballad singer. So this time Sam agreed to call him. Elvis came running like a shot – so quickly, Phillips would later say, that he’d barely been able to hang up the telephone before Elvis came bursting through the door, eager to start.
Not so fast. Elvis was game, but “Without You” was a difficult song to begin with, and Elvis was soon swamped in its subtleties. He tried the song again and again, but the results weren’t simply inadequate, they were terrible, and getting worse.
They took a break and came back to do some more takes. Still, “Without You” remained beyond Elvis – he had met his match. In the wee hours of the morning the session ended. Brutally frustrated, humiliated at the futility of the experience, Elvis exploded, and began pounding the wall with his fists, screaming out his rage against the singer he could not equal. “I hate him!” he cried over and over. “I hate him! I hate him! I hate him!”
This is fascinating.
Elvis had no experience except for two talent shows at that point, one when he was 10 years old, and one when he was a senior in high school. He played around school sometimes, he played for his friends, he had auditioned for a couple of people, but he had no experience. Nothing that would warrant such certainty that no singer on earth should be able to beat him. His confidence is basically unwarranted. Only his self-belief makes any of this make sense.
Elvis’ humility was real and came from his upbringing, his parental guidance, and his religion. But his confidence/arrogance was real, too, and came from the natural performer within him. The young boy who would punch a wall because he couldn’t go where some other singer went. You never had to teach Elvis a lesson like that twice. There are stories throughout his career of how hard he worked to deepen his vocal talent, to push his voice, to expand where it could go. This is called training, and Elvis had no formal training, but he didn’t rest on his laurels. June Juanico, his girlfriend in the summer of 1956, describes how he would listen along to records and practice his voice going deeper. He would struggle to reach lower and lower notes, while still keeping the sound pure and whole. She has pictures of him in a porkpie hat, bare-chested, in her bedroom, singing along to a record, his chin jutted down low because he was trying to work on his lower register. The man obviously was born with a gifted voice. But he knew it could do more than he just did naturally. It would take pushing it, it would take going to places that seemed scary at first: the falsetto, the vibrato – playing with it, toying with it, pushing it – seeing how much his voice could take before tipping over into parody, or into something not beautiful to listen to.
He WORKED that sucker. During his two years in the service when he didn’t perform or record, what he did in his off-hours (aside from grieving his mother’s death, a full-time job, and juggling about 5 steady girlfriends slash bed-mates, a dizzying parade) was work on his voice. He had a couple of army buddy friends who would give him challenges – “reach this note, Elvis” – and Elvis would try to get there. If he couldn’t get there on the first try, he would try again. And again. And again. He loved Mario Lanza, he loved operatic voices, he loved Dean Martin’s crooning. Could he do that too? He knew he could. It was the kind of sound he loved. When he came out of the army, his first single was “Now or Never” (“O Sole Mio” with different lyrics), and one only has to listen to the song and what he does with it, to realize how much he had stretched his instrument in his time away. It is a phenomenal performance.
But that man was already there in 1954. That man punched the wall of Sun Studios, crying out against an unknown singer, “I hate him!”
Elvis Presley would not have become what he became without whatever it was inside him that made him punch that wall.
The breakdown led to a breakthrough, as often occurs in such matters.
Dave Marsh writes:
That his career didn’t end on the spot can be attributed to that bizarre combination of luck, persistent arrogance, raw talent and gross ambition that sustained Elvis whenever he seemed about to sink. During a break, Phillips asked Elvis what sort of music he could sing. That was the luck.
“I can sing anything,” Elvis replied, showing his persistence and arrogance.
“Do it,” said Sam, and the talent and ambition took over. Elvis began singing everything he knew or imagined doing: blues songs, gospel hymns, honky tonk hits, old standards and a good deal of the pseudo-sophisticated pop in which Dean Martin then specialized. It poured out of him, a torrent of sound, sometimes just snatches, sometimes whole songs, anything and everything he could think of. And it worked.
Sam Phillips was quite taken with Elvis. “He tried not to show it,” Sam told Robert Paler in 1978, “but he felt so inferior. He reminded me of a black man in that way. His insecurity was so markedly like that of a black person.” Elvis probably never exposed himself to another person as he did to Sam Phillips that night.
Phillips then decided to hook him up with Scotty and Bill the following week, and we all know what happened next.
One week Elvis is punching the wall with frustration because he is failing and failing publicly. A week and some days later, Dewey Phillips played “That’s All Right Mama” all night long on his radio show in Memphis, with requests pouring in, and fans gathering around the radio station looking for copies, wanting to know WHO IS THAT SINGING? WHO IS THAT SINGING?
Elvis had the security of his mother’s love and his belief in God to take him through (and it’s my belief that that was what helped him to be so fully-formed and fully-whole in the first place). Not that belief in God necessarily makes you fully-formed, but that the nature of his belief is what helped him to be so comfortable in the spotlight. He was picked. He was chosen. He knew it.
Elvis performed well when the stakes were high, as is clear in those early days in 1954, and would be true later, when the groundbreaking 1968 comeback special happened. But in 1969, he went into the studio again to record. He had been making soundtracks for 10 years. He made a couple of gospel albums which did really well for him (an understatement). Elvis fans had been contenting themselves through the 1960s with purchasing songs like “There’s No Room to Rhumba In a Sports Car”. Those are some loyal fans. 1969 was a big big year for Elvis. He had been recording in Nashville, but he never liked the RCA Studios there so he decided to record at American Studios in Memphis, which turned out to be an excellent choice. The songs that came out of those sessions in January 1969 would end up being the album From Elvis in Memphis.
The tracks on that album were “Wearin’ That Loved On Look”, “Only the Strong Survive”, “I’ll Hold You In My Heart (Till I Can Hold You in My Arms)”, “Long Black Limousine”, “It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin”, “I’m Moving On”, “Power of My Love”, “Gentle On My Mind”, “After Loving You”, “True Love Travels On A Gravel Road”, “Any Day Now” and “In The Ghetto”.
Just looking at that list gives me goosebumps.
It is one of Elvis’ best albums. It may even be his best album ever because of all that came before (the soundtrack years, the coasting). It put him back on the charts, certainly. But the tracks that ended up on the album were only a smidgeon of what they had recorded, so yet another album was released, a double one this time, in November of that year made up of more of the Memphis sessions as well as some live performances from Vegas called From Memphis To Vegas/From Vegas To Memphis.
The tracks on that album from the Memphis sessions included “Inherit the Wind”, “This Is The Story”, “Stranger In My Own Home Town”, “A Little Bit of Green”, “And the Grass Won’t Pay No Mind”, “Do You Know Who I Am”, “From a Jack to a King”, “The Fair Is Moving On”, “You’ll Think of Me” and “Without Love”.
These are some of Elvis’ finest songs, but not only that, some of his best vocal performances. He had never been in better voice. The variety of the song styles is daunting, from the bluesy “Stranger In My Home Town”, which feels like it could go on forever, in one long riff, to “The Fair Is Moving On” (which is one of my favorite examples of the sheer bravura power of Elvis’ voice: an emotional and passionate and flexible instrument. Listen to that song and then, oh, listen to one of his recordings from 1956, like “Blue Suede Shoes”, and you know he can do anything.) And “Long Black Limousine”? Forget about it.
With all of the great stuff that came out of those 1969 Memphis sessions, my favorite is “Without Love”. Recorded on January 22/23, 1969, Elvis got it in three takes. It is not an easy song. It has a giant build, it’s emotional (perhaps some would say over-emotional, but I think it’s just right: the emotion fits the sound, as well as the words), and the emotion is built into the music. You can’t phone this one in. You have to mean it. The song requires great range, and great staying power. You can’t run out of steam before the end. Elvis was obviously a master at such things, from the very beginning of his career.
But here, you see the real fruition of the kind of confidence and self-awareness that Elvis had as a performer from his earliest days.
Talent can die, you know. You actually can “lose it” if it is not nurtured, challenged, pushed.
Those who dislike Elvis’ power ballads seem to miss the raw edges of his 1956 bad-boy self. That “self” is more validating to their own ideas of who they want to be. But the Elvis who recorded “Without Love” was not the same man as the raw kid being coached by Sam Phillips into his already-existing greatness in 1954. And it is unreasonable to expect that Elvis would stay stationary. That he would not follow that gift of a voice where it wanted to go.
He gloried in himself. In the sounds he could make.
He always had more to give than regular people. It was a lonely position to be in. He was impatient for results when he was 18. Maybe he knew there would be limited time for him. Not that he had a premonition that he would die young (although people in his family tended to die young). But that he sensed the magnitude of what he wanted to do and be, and knew he needed to start to work on that immediately.
“Without Love” comes a mere 15 years after Elvis punched Sam Phillips’ studio wall.
Listen. Listen to that VOICE.
On June 26, 1954, unable to re-create the vision in his own mind of “Without You”, he punched the wall in frustration. What he saw in his own mind, what he heard, is there in that recording of “Without Love”. He knew his potential. He saw where he wanted to go. He could see it and to not be able to get there at that very moment was agony. He got somewhere else, though, in 1954. He had people who saw what he had to give, gave him the space to give it, and he gave it like nobody’s business. He gave it like he would die tomorrow.
It’s interesting that although Sam Phillips, Marion Keisker, and Dewey Phillips all were instrumental in putting that boy downstage center where he belonged, none of them really take credit for it (in the way that the Actors Studio tries to take credit for Brando, Dean, all the rest). The Phillips’ and Keisker are all clearly proud that they were somehow involved, but their tone about 1954/55 is more in line with the survivors of some natural event, an earthquake or a volcano. “Yup. I was there. I saw it all.” But they can’t own it. They don’t even try. Because it was so obvious that Elvis owned himself.
There is no explanation for this occurring in someone so young and so untried. But that is how it happened.
What do you do when you bloom so quick? When you open to the sunlight of fame and your own potential as quickly and easily as if it were happening with time-lapse photography?
This is why I do my best to refuse to be sad about Elvis Presley.
Listen to “Without Love”. Listen to his 1975 album Promised Land. Listen to Moody Blue.
To my mind, he just kept blooming. And blooming. And blooming.
A natural continuation of that same organic phenomenon.