Born on January 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis Aaron Presley came from very humble beginnings and grew up to become one of the biggest names in the history of rock 'n' roll. His early years have been widely documented -- his family’s financial struggles, his unpopularity at high school where he was considered to be “strange”, his belonging to a Pentecostal Church where he was first exposed to lively Gospel music. Like many of us in the 1950s, he slicked back his thick black hair with Vaseline. He loved playing his child-sized guitar.
I can easily recall that hot, afternoon in July, 1954, when I was in my bedroom listening to CJBC Radio 1010 in Toronto on my Northern Electric box radio. Around 4:30, the deep-voiced announcer introduced a recording by some new singer who was beginning to make a name for himself south of the border. "I think we’re going to be hearing a lot more from this new artist,” he advised his audience.
The song was "Blue Moon Of Kentucky", a bluegrass standard which Elvis sang with his own unique styling. (Wikipedia notes an earlier encounter where the youthful, would-be singer was confronted by a receptionist during his initial foray into Sun Studios. She asked him who he sounded like. His laconic reply? “I don’t sound like nobody.”)
My next vivid memory of hearing an Elvis song comes from the summer of 1956 when "Blue Suede Shoes" was a popular juke box selection in a restaurant I frequented in St.Thomas, ON. I remember thinking how different the lyrics and music were, not to mention the then unconventional, warbling voice of the young man singing it. Blue Suede Shoes remains one of my favorites to this day.
it's, one for the money Two
for the show Three
to get ready Now
go cat, go, But
don't you step on My
blue suede shoes You
can do anything But
lay off of my blue suede shoes..."
Blue Suede Shoes was written by Carl Perkins in late 1955. There are two versions of how Perkins came to write the song. Perkins had said that he played for a high school dance in Jackson, Tennessee, on December 4, 1955. During the dance, he spotted a boy with blue suede shoes dancing with a gorgeous girl. The boy told her, "Uh-uh! Don't step on my blue suede shoes!" Perkins couldn't get the image out of his mind. He awoke at three o'clock the next morning with the lyrics to Blue Suede Shoes and wrote them down on a brown paper potato sack. Originally, the first line was "One for the money, two for the show, three get ready, and go, man, go". But while recording the song at Sun Records, Perkins substituted the word cat for man. That opening phrase was borrowed from Bill Haley's 1953 recording What 'Cha Gonna Do (Essex 321).
Interestingly, Johnny Cash told a different story about the origin of Blue Suede Shoes. While Perkins, Elvis, and Cash were performing in Amory, Mississippi, one night in 1955, Cash told Perkins about a black sergeant he had in the Air Force by the name of C.V. White. Sgt. White would frequently step into Cash's room and ask him how he (White) looked and then say, "Just don't step on my blue suede shoes!" (Never mind that Sgt. White was wearing regulation Air Force shoes). Perkins thought that Cash's story was a good idea for a song. While Elvis was performing on stage one night Perkins, his close pal and frequent member of the Presley band, is said to have written Blue Suede Shoes.
Whatever the true story, Perkins's Blue Suede Shoes (Sun 234) was released on January 1, 1956. By March it was #4 on Billboard's Top 100 chart, #2 on the country chart (Heartbreak Hotel kept it from being number one), and #2 on the rhythm and blues chart, the first song in music history to reach all three charts. Needless to say, the first true rock-a-billy hit, Blue Suede Shoes was a million-seller.
I followed The Pelvis' early TV appearances on then-popular programs the Dorsey Brothers, Steve Allen and Milton Berle. Yet, it was his infamous performance during the Ed Sullivan Show on September 9, 1956, which provoked a controversy which has now become a legend of pop culture. Naturally, I am referring to his “obscene” gyrations which Sullivan insisted not be shown to the watching audience. To my deep disappointment, I saw only Elvis’s top half! On that historic night, an unheard-of 82 per cent of all American television sets were tuned in to that show.
One of my few regrets in life was missing Elvis’s only Toronto appearance when he performed in Maple Leaf Gardens on April 2, 1957. Local conservative music critics and church leaders were appalled by the adulation he received from hysterically-screaming and crying young female fans.
Elvis’s army induction, his movie career and turbulent marriage are too well-known to need any review here. I would sooner focus on his tragic final years. My memory this time is that of a morbidly overweight, sequined, drugged, sweating, tragic figure performing in a gospel concert. As he sang the old Thomas Dorsey hymn “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” I had the distinctly-sad impression that he had at that moment returned to his childhood faith. He was asking God, through this song, to deliver him from the pain and emptiness of his life.
Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn; through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light: take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.
Elvis Presley died on August 16, 1977. A candlelight vigil was held at his Graceland home earlier this month. If he were still living, The King would be 81 years old. It hardly seems possible.