Keith Richards on Elvis Presley: “It Was Almost As If I’d Been Waiting For It To Happen.”

Elvis was born on this day in 1935, Tupelo, Mississippi.


From Keith Richards’ wonderful Life:

I think the first record I bought was Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally”. Fantastic record, even to this day. Good records just get better with age. But the one that really turned me on, like an explosion one night, listening to Radio Luxembourg on my little radio when I was supposed to be in bed and asleep, was “Heartbreak Hotel”. That was the stunner. I’d never heard it before, or anything like it. I’d never heard of Elvis before. It was almost as if I’d been waiting for it to happen. When I woke up the next day I was a different guy. Suddenly I was getting overwhelmed: Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, Fats. Radio Luxembourg was notoriously difficult to keep on station. I had a little aerial and walked round the room, holding the radio up to my ear and twisting the aerial. Trying to keep it down because I’d wake Mum and Dad up. If I could get the signal right, I could take the radio under the blankets on the bed and keep the aerial outside and twist it there. I’m supposed to be asleep; I’m supposed to be going to school in the morning. Loads of ads for James Walker, the jewelers “in every high street,” and the Irish sweepstakes, with which Radio Lux had some deal. The signal was perfect for the ads, “and now we have Fats Domino, ‘Blueberry Hill,'” and shit, then it would fade.

Then, “Since my baby left me” – it was just the sound. It was the last trigger. That was the first rock and roll I heard. It was a totally different way of delivering a song, a totally different sound, stripped down, burnt, no bullshit, no violins and ladies’ choruses and schmaltz, totally different. It was bare, right to the roots that you had a feeling were there but hadn’t yet heard. I’ve got to take my hat off to Elvis for that. The silence is your canvas, that’s your frame, that’s what you work on; don’t try and deafen it out. That’s what “Heartbreak Hotel” did to me. It was the first time I’d heard something so stark. Then I had to go back to what this cat had done before. Luckily I caught his name. The Radio Luxembourg signal came back in. “That was Elvis Presley, with ‘Heartbreak Hotel.'” Shit!

That passage reminds me of George Harrison’s answer to the question: “What are your musical roots?” He said that he had no musical roots. The only “root” he could think of was hearing “Heartbreak Hotel” through an open window when he was a kid.

Another excerpt, this one about “the rhythm of the tracks”:

There’s something primordial in the way we react to pulses without even knowing it. We exist on a rhythm of seventy-two beats a minute. The train, apart from getting them from the Delta to Detroit, became very important to blues players because of the rhythm of the machine, the rhythm of the tracks, and then when you cross onto another track, the beat moves. It echoes something in the human body. So then when you have machinery involved, like trains, and drones, all of that is still built in as music inside us. The human body will feel rhythms even when there’s not one. Listen to “Mystery Train” by Elvis Presley. One of the great rock-and-roll tracks of all time, not a drum on it. It’s just a suggestion, because the body will provide the rhythm. Rhythm really only has to be suggested. Doesn’t have to be pronounced. This is where they got it wrong with “this rock” and “that rock”. It’s got nothing to do with rock. It’s to do with roll.

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4 Responses to Keith Richards on Elvis Presley: “It Was Almost As If I’d Been Waiting For It To Happen.”

  1. Keith Richards is able to explain rock’n’roll better than any music critic and manages to never sound like he’s full of it. It’s just in the guy’s system – he breathes and bleeds this music.

  2. Patrick says:

    I think the reaction Richards and Harrison and the others had can only happen once. Once it’s out there, that sound is absorbed/adopted by musicians and becomes part of the music of the era. After that, for someone hearing Elvis for the first time, he’s another person playing in that tradition they already know, versus someone who is revolutionary to those who didn’t grow up with him. (not trying to be a heretic by the way)

    Back when I had XM radio, they had stations with music by decades. You could very clearly hear the break that happened between the 1940’s and the 1950’s. The 50’s were closer in sound to us here in the 2000’s than they were to the 1940’s just 10 years earlier.

    • sheila says:

      Dave Marsh, in his Elvis book, describes “That’s All Right,” Elvis’ first “hit” – as “the Rosetta stone.”

      Described as the birth of rock ‘n’ roll – or at least the first one to get out there in a real way (Ike Turner’s Rocket 88 is the one that came before it: the REAL birth, the birth before the birth) – it’s hard to hear in “That’s All Right” what everyone heard at the time. The revolution of it. The danger of it. Guitarist Scotty Moore joking after they recorded it, “They’re gonna run us out of town for that one.”

      But that’s why Dave Marsh says that every rock journalist, every music writer, goes back to “That’s All Right” again and again and again, trying to parse it, trying to understand it, trying to transport themselves back into 1954, to hear what people heard back then.

      It’s important to do so – otherwise history is lost, the chain is broken.

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