American Heritage Assessed
Elvis Presley’s Musical Legacy

“Elvis Today: The King lives on—but he’s not who you always thought he was.” That was the title of an article by Will Friedwald that appeared in the February/March 2008 issue of American Heritage magazine. The essay deserves serious consideration, not only because it appeared in a prestigious publication, but also because it assesses Elvis’ musical legacy from an unusual point of view.

Most Elvis fans today fit into one of two categories. The first includes those who became Presley fans early in their lives, while Elvis was still alive. I’m a member of that group. We followed his career, mourned his death, and have remained loyal to his memory through the decades. The other group includes younger fans, most of whom were toddlers or not even born when Elvis died. The majority of these Elvis fans seem to have inherited their love of Elvis from their parents.

Will Friedwald falls into neither category. In fact, I would categorize him as an Elvis “appreciator” rather than as an Elvis “fan.” A note at the end of his article identifies him as “the jazz reviewer for the New York Sun and the author of seven books on music and popular culture.” So, he certainly has the credentials to comment on Elvis’ musical legacy.

“My father was born the same year as Elvis,” Friedwald explains, “and I came along a season or so after the King returned from the Army. My dad was slightly too old to be part of the demographic that made Elvis a superstar, and I was too young to get it.”

• As a teenager, writer didn’t know what to make of Elvis

Friedwald first became interested in popular music as a teenager in the 1970s. He recalls, “One thing that I did have in common with most rock fans of my generation was that none of us knew what to make of Elvis Presley. By the time of his death he was a joke to high school kids born in the sixties.”

After ignoring Elvis for decades, Friedwald finally gave into the prodding of two fellow music writers and looked into what the Presley mystique was all about. In 2004 he got all of RCA’s Essential Masters Elvis box sets. “By the time I finished listening to them, I was completely hooked,” he confessed. “I was amazed by what I heard. After a lifetime of not getting it, I finally experienced my very own Elvis epiphany, and the mystery of why he is considered one of the great pop performers of all time was revealed to me.”

That sounds like Friedwald suddenly became a devout Elvis fan, but the fact is that he was a music historian who appreciated many kinds of music. And so his perspective was different from most newcomers to Presley’s music. For example, he rejects the commonly held notion that Elvis represented the beginning of a music trend. (“Before Elvis, there was nothing,” John Lennon had said.) “It’s plain that both rhythm and blues (and black artists in general) and country and western had been making significant inroads into the pop mainstream long before the Presley explosion of 1956,” Friedwald reminds us. In fact, back in 1956 Elvis himself often explained that he had not created rock ’n’ roll, and that his kind of music had been around for a long time. Still, we Elvis fans like to feel that somehow the whole thing started with our guy.

• Elvis not first white man to sound black, says Friedwald

As for Elvis being the first white pop singer who sounded like a black man, Friedwald contends that other singers (he gives Frankie Lane and Johnny Ray as examples) had already achieved success by patterning themselves after black rhythm and blues singers.

And Friedwald also contends that Elvis was not the first pop singer to capitalize on the growing popularity of country and western music. He gives two examples. “Patti Page was best known in her day for straddling both the pop and country charts, and her ‘Tennessee Waltz’ was a blockbuster because it appealed to New Yorkers and Okies alike. There was also Guy Mitchell, who had a vaguely Western sound and made hits out of manufactured folk songs.”

The notion that Elvis had anything in common back then with the likes of Patti Page and Guy Mitchell is heresy to most Elvis fans (me included). In fact, Friedwald seemingly spends the first half of his article debunking all claims of Presley’s originality in the 1950s. Reading on, however, the author’s apparent objective was only to clear up some historical misconceptions before discussing Elvis’s true contributions to popular music in the second half of his article.

“Presley’s innovation wasn’t that he sounded either black or like a hillbilly;” Friedwald explained, “it was the brilliant way he drew on all three strains of pop music: blues, country, and traditional ‘classic’ pop (that of the crooners, big bands, and Broadway shows).”

• From Bing Crosby through Dean Martin to Elvis

It’s amusing how Friedwald makes the connection between Elvis and crooners Bing Crosby and Dean Martin. “If you start with Crosby,” he theorizes, “and you add occasional Italian curse words and mannerisms intended to suggest states of inebriation, then you’ve got Dean Martin. Take away those Neapolitanisms, replace with a whole lot o’ shakin’, and essentially you’ve got Elvis.”

For those who like to see Elvis as a clear break from the past in popular music, Friedwald does allow that Presley represents one clear point of demarcation in the field. It was the sudden shift in marketing pop music away from adults and toward teenagers. Presley’s first recordings on the Sun label were meant to appeal to a wide range of age groups, according to Friedwald, but as soon as RCA realized Elvis was selling millions of records to teenagers, they began dumbing down Elvis’s material to appeal to adolescents alone. Friedwald names songs like “Teddy Bear,” “The Girl of My Best Friend,” and “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck” as representative of the “most forgettable aspect of his legacy.”

As for Elvis, Friedwald believes that he never considered himself a rebel. “Far from wanting to antagonize grownups,” Friedwald explains, “he addressed everybody older than he was as ‘mister’ and ‘ma’am.’ He was a sweet-natured, levelheaded boy … and he deported himself more like Perry Como than like Jim Morrison.”

• Elvis broadened his horizons in the sixties

The writer’s sense was that when Elvis emerged from the Army he was tired of rehashing his old rock ’n’ roll hits and began broadening his horizons. “He continued to grow as an artist after 1960, and to my ears his post-Army work continued to get better and better.” Friedwald points to Elvis’ branching out into adaptations of Italian tunes (“It’s Now or Never”), Hawiian music (“Blue Hawaii”) samba and bossa nova (“Viva Las Vegas”) and gospel music. The latter represented Presley’s “greatest work,” judged the writer.

Friedwald ends his article with a twist on the nature of Elvis’ musical legacy. It challenges the long-held belief that Presley’s most influential work was done in the fifties. Still, it’s a conclusion that most Elvis fans can agree with.

“His death obviously left a gap that no one has been able to fill. And after all these years it seems clear that Elvis Presley was not he beginning of something but the end. John Lennon had it the wrong way around: After Elvis, there was nothing.” | © Alan Hanson (October 2008)

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