Why Elvis Matters

Elvis Presley Logo

I was eight (and a half) years old on Tuesday, August 16, 1977.  That was the day that Elvis Presley died.

I don’t remember where I was when I first heard the news, but the specific memory of his death is distinct in my mind.  What I do remember is humbly asking my mother “Who is Elvis?”  It’s likely she doesn’t remember my asking her that, but I do, as clearly as I remember her reply, “He was famous, he was the King.”

Mom and Dad had only one Elvis album, and if it weren’t for the event of his passing my curiosity would have likely never been sparked, but as it goes it was, I listened to that album. At eight years old I was captivated by songs like Hound Dog, Don’t Be Cruel, Heartbreak Hotel and Jailhouse Rock, and although the music was twenty years old, it was new to me. Elvis was my entree to popular music.

In 1977 we didn’t have the luxury of the internet. I couldn’t put imagery with the sounds I heard, nor did I need to. MTV wouldn’t be a reality until August of 1981, and back then we relied on our ears to discern the sounds we liked and didn’t like. My ears told me that Elvis was good when I was eight years old, but it took me another three decades to understand how good… to really understand why Elvis matters.

John Lennon said, “Before Elvis there was nothing”.  I could probably hinge this whole article on that statement, but it falls short of the bigger picture of perspective.  At the end of the day, Elvis was an extremely talented singer with seething sex appeal and a demure yet charming disposition, who won super-stardom’s lottery – being in the right place at the right time.

So if there was nothing before Elvis as Lennon suggests, wouldn’t that make it easy to achieve greatness in an environment with no competition?  One might think so, yet few of his contemporaries achieved even a fraction of the success and notoriety of Elvis Presley.  Putting his movie career aside, when Elvis performed on stage he did it in a way that inspired a generation of performers, changing the way that live performance happened along the way.  Above all else, Elvis Presley matters because his successors, as well as his predecessors say he does.

He helped to kill off the influence of me and my contemporaries, but I respect him for that. Because music always has to progress, and no one could have opened the door to the future like he did.
~Bing Crosby

I’m sitting in the drive-through and I’ve got my three girls in the back and this station comes on and it’s playing “Jailhouse Rock”, the original version, and my girls are jumping up and down, going nuts. I’m looking around at them and they’ve heard Dad’s music all the time and I don’t see that out of them.
~Garth Brooks

It was like he came along and whispered some dream in everybody’s ear, and somehow we all dreamed it.
~Bruce Springsteen

If it hadn’t been for Elvis, I don’t know where popular music would be. He was the one that started it all off, and he was definitely the start of it for me.”
~Elton John

It’s rare when an artist’s talent can touch an entire generation of people. It’s even rarer when that same influence affects several generations. Elvis made an imprint on the world of pop music unequaled by any other single performer.
~Dick Clark

Elvis is the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century. He introduced the beat to everything, music, language, clothes, it’s a whole new social revolution – the 1960’s comes from it.
~Leonard Bernstein

A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man’s music, when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis.
~Jackie Wilson

I remember Elvis as a young man hanging around the Sun studios. Even then, I knew this kid had a tremendous talent. He was a dynamic young boy. His phraseology, his way of looking at a song, was as unique as Sinatra’s. I was a tremendous fan, and had Elvis lived, there would have been no end to his inventiveness.
~B.B. King

Before Elvis, everything was in black and white. Then came Elvis. Zoom, glorious Technicolor.
~Keith Richards

And the list goes on and on.  Elvis Presley’s mannerisms and performance style inspired – by their own admission – The Beatles, Robert Plant, Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart and countless others.

MTV’s Unplugged is Elvis, live performance as we know it is Elvis, the record industry itself is Elvis, today’s popular music, as well as popular music in general is in essence the echo of Elvis Presley.  The most telling quote of all was that of Bing Crosby, “No one could have opened the door to the future like he did”.

As each generation goes by, it becomes more and more difficult to understand the immense  contribution of Elvis Presley.  As a Gen-X’er myself, and for the Y’s, Millenniums as well as everyone that comes after will, like me, exist in a post-Elvis reality.  Our perspective is clouded by, well, by perspective itself.  We are that future that Bing Crosby speaks of, and so is our popular culture.  The “before” is just too foreign to us, and takes more than a casual glance or fleeting thought to truly perceive.

To imagine the world before Elvis Presley would be like trying to imagine a world before the invention of the air conditioner… after them things just got a whole lot cooler.

-Craig Sumsky


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