Among the people I'm happy not to be is the music teacher at L. C. Humes High School in Memphis who gave a C to eighth-grader Elvis Presley and told him he had no aptitude for singing. The next day, the kid brought a guitar to school, knocked out a little bluegrass ditty, and said she just didn't understand his style of singing. And the teacher agreed.
This incident may have been why, when Sam Phillips' receptionist at Sun Records asked him just what it was he sang, Elvis replied, "I sing all kinds." A couple of acetates went nowhere, Elvis got a job driving a truck, but Sam kept Elvis in mind, just in case he proved to be Sam's meal ticket, a white man who could sing black. A session in July 1954 was going nowhere until just before they hung it up for the night, Elvis started up an idiosyncratic version of Arthur Crudup's 1946 blues "That's All Right." Bill Black and Scotty Moore followed him along, and Sam stuck his head through the door: what are you guys doing? They assured him that they had no idea, and Sam said, "Back up and do it again."
In November 1955, Sam sold Elvis, so to speak, to RCA Victor for $35,000 plus $5,000 in back royalties from Sun, in an era when you could buy a new Cadillac for $6,000. At the end of a year, Elvis was selling more singles than everyone else on RCA. Combined.
The middle 1960s, when Elvis' musical output shrank to the size of movie-soundtrack nice, were the very definition of Going Through The Motions; in early 1964, Terry Stafford, an amiable fellow from southwest Oklahoma with a Presleyish voice, got to #3 with "Suspicion," a song written for Elvis (by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, no less) that barely charted for the King. If Elvis was disturbed by this sort of thing, he didn't say so; that wasn't his way.
But in early 1968, after a year of missing the Top 30 altogether, Elvis turned up with a Jerry Reed song, unapologetically country and packed with more attitude than a dozen iterations of "Do the Clam."
On that guitar is Reed himself, fingerpicking all the way and wondering how the heck he'd gotten himself a session with Elvis. "U. S. Male" barely broke Top 30, but it served notice that Elvis as we remembered him was back. Later that year, he proved it. "I want everyone to know what I can really do," he said, and that's what he did in that legendary "Comebeck Special" on the third of December on NBC.
The rest, as the phrase goes, is history. Forty years after his death in 1977, his estate is earning $35 million a year. RCA Victor has long since been absorbed into Sony. It takes at least $40,000 to get into a new Cadillac. And if you play some obscure deep cut from one of those interminable movie soundtracks, you will be asked to confirm: "That's Elvis, isn't it?" It is, my friend. It is.
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Copyright © 2018 by Charles G. Hill