August 21, 1977 …

Rock Critic Robert Hilburn
Memorialized Elvis Presley

In the first couple of weeks after Elvis Presley died on August 16, 1977, articles remembering him appeared in hundreds of American publications, including professional journals, national magazines, and local newspapers. Most of the memorials were respectful in tone, some quite emotional. In the immediate shock of the moment, most journalists struggled to evaluate Presley’s lifework in a reasoned manner. One writer who was able to step back and do so was Robert Hilburn, rock critic and music editor of the Los Angeles Times from 1970 to 2005. 

During his years with the Times, Hilburn’s reviews and essays appeared in publications around the world. He accompanied Johnny Cash, Elton John, Paul Simon, and Bob Dylan on tour and wrote published biographies of Cash and Bruce Springsteen, as well as a personal history of his work chronicling rock music for four decades. He has been a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee since its inception in 1986.

On August 21, 1977, five days after Presley’s death, Robert Hilburn’s perspective on Elvis' life and legacy appeared in the Los Angeles Times. It began with a shared feeling of disbelief. “Elvis is dead … The words still shock. Presley was to millions the embodiment of the American Dream. He seemed almost invincible. He was rich, talented, good-looking, famous, adored.”

Then Hilburn shifted to a personal level, revealing that Elvis had been his first rock ’n’ roll hero. At age 16 in 1956, he stood in front of a mirror with a $10 guitar mimicking Elvis’ movements as he sang along to records of “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Blue Suede Shoes.” Robert soon learned, however, that he was never going to be a rock ’n’ roll star:

“One day I taped my voice. I played Presley’s ‘Lawdy, Miss Clawdy’ just loud enough for me to hear the band without the tape picking up Presley’s voice. It was a disaster. Far from the deep, confident Presley baritone, my own voice was embarrassingly high-pitched and my phrasing stiff, uncertain. I never tried to sing again.”

• Elvis helped youth establish identity

Still, Hilburn acknowledged that in addition to reshaping pop music in the mid-fifties, Elvis’ “bold, defiant stance” helped give the youth of his generation direction in expressing their identity. Elvis dared to be different. Rock ’n’ roll was already on the scene, but Presley focused it into a rallying point for young people:

“When combined with the primitive, sensual music, Presley’s long hair, flashy clothes and emotional abandon had an electrifying impact on teen-agers. He forged the urgency and celebration of rock music with the powerful sociological undercurrents the drew young people in that era to films like ‘Rebel Without a Cause,’ ‘Blackboard Jungle,’ and ‘The Wild One.’ Elvis was many things to many people. Some liked him strictly as a singer. Others as the sex symbol of America. But neither image explained fully his lure. Audiences sensed something of themselves and their aspirations in Elvis.”

While conceding that Presley’s “artistry failed at various times in his career,” Hillburn noted that Elvis remained a link to his generation’s dreams. When a record, a film, or a concert disappointed, it was no different than when his followers suffered setbacks in life. Just seeing him, Hilburn asserted, allowed his original audience to reconnect with Elvis and the idealism and hope he first inspired in them years before.

Hilburn then recalled how Elvis first stirred his youthful spirit. One night in 1955, he heard Presley singing “Baby, Let’s Play House” on a country music station that broadcasted into L.A. from Mexico. In those pre-“Heartbreak Hotel” days, local U.S. radio stations didn’t play Presley’s Sun recordings. It didn’t fit the stations’ programs. According to Hilburn, “It was too country for black music outlets, too black for country stations.”

Of Elvis’ recording of “Baby, Let’s Play House,” Hilburn raved:

“The record remains one of Elvis’ most compelling works. It combined a bold, teasingly sexual voice with a driving rockabilly beat … Not only was it shocking to hear someone say on the radio something as suggestive as ‘playing house,’ but Presley was riveting. It was a pure mixture of country and blues that sounded wholly authentic. He gave the music the same presence and strength that Brando or Dean brought to the screen.”

• “Elvis—how strange he sounded and looked”

In a late 1955 issue of Billboard, Hilburn first saw a picture of Elvis. When he learned in another issue a couple of weeks later that Elvis would make his first national TV appearance on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show program on January 28, 1958, Hilburn circled the date on his calendar. The night of the broadcast he noticed that Presley received only polite applause from the audience, but it started the kids at Reseda High School talking about Elvis—how strange he sounded and looked. By the time of his last appearance on Stage Show in March, “Heartbreak Hotel” was riding high on the charts, and Presley was becoming embroiled in a controversy over what some called his “blatant sexual behavior.” Young girls loved it, though:

“His female fans were so zealous that a Hollywood record store had to keep copies of Elvis’ debut album under the counter. Every inch of the albums that had been left in the display rack had been covered with lipstick.”

As a high school junior in late 1956, Robert Hilburn wrote his first article about Elvis Presley. It was a review of Presley’s first movie for the Reseda High School newspaper. To see “Love Me Tender,” Hilburn had stood in line for an hour at a theater on Hollywood Boulevard. However, he found Elvis’ second film, “Loving You,” far more satisfying. “I saw it 14 times,” he recalled. “I know the number because I worked at a drive-in theater that summer and it played two weeks … Lots of music in it. ‘Jailhouse Rock’ and ‘King Creole,’ his next films, also were fun. They, too, were packed with solid songs.”

Hilburn acknowledged, but didn’t dwell on, Presley’s decline in the sixties:

“The films became increasingly bland. His records, too, suffered from lack of passion and spark in the mid ’60s. The Beatles, Dylan and other forces who had been influenced by Presley began taking over the leadership reins in rock. Elvis, who hadn’t toured in years, was no longer an important part of the music scene.”

• Elvis’ greatest artistic triumph came in late ’60s

While some contend that Elvis’ best records were made at Sun Records before he attained national fame, Hilburn focused on the significance of Presley’s work after the movie years.

“There’s a case to be made that Presley’s greatest artistic triumph came in the late ’60s when he reestablished himself as a force in pop music. Apparently bored with films, Presley began reasserting himself on records. The musical rebirth can be traced to his 1968 recording of two Jerry Reed tunes, ‘Guitar Man’ and ‘U.S. Male.’ The beat, once again, was intense. It was the sound of Memphis/Nashville rather than Hollywood.”

Acknowledging that the 1968 NBC-TV special helped restore Elvis’ credibility, the real key to his comeback, said Hilburn, was his return to live shows in 1969. It demonstrated his continuing box office power and exposed him to a new generation of critics.

“The praise bordered on ecstatic. The performances were stunning. His country-blues voice was purer and more controlled than ever and his karate-like moves nicely updated his flamboyant performing style.”

“But Presley didn’t maintain the pace,” Hilburn noted. “Perhaps the decline was inevitable. It soon became apparent both in Vegas and on concert tours that seeing Elvis was enough reward for the audience. The quality of a particular show didn’t seem to have noticeable impact on audiences. Everything was loved.”

• Hilburn: Elvis was almost a total stranger

Shifting his perspective to life after Presley, Hilburn noted that, although Elvis was the “most famous male entertainer of his generation,” little was known publicly about him. Elvis had said very little of substance about himself, and Colonel Parker had discouraged interviews, demanding fees he knew publications would refuse. (Hilburn recalled that several years earlier the Los Angeles Times had been quoted a price of $500 for a Presley interview. The paper turned it down.)

“The irony is that someone who was so beloved was almost a total stranger. We knew him only by his voice and his smile. I’ve seen him perform perhaps 25 times and he always had a somewhat self-effacing, mocking, light-hearted approach to all the adoration hurled at him. But we never knew for sure.”

Hilburn met Elvis just once, backstage in Vegas in 1970. Colonel Parker permitted it because he liked something Hilburn had written about Presley. “Not an interview,” the Colonel cautioned. “Just a hello, you know.”

“We talked about some of his musical influences, the early days at Sun Records, the role producer Sam Phillips played in developing his music. But it was little more than confirming what had been printed. He had the self-protective air common among the famous. Wary of misquote and someone trying to take advantage, he remained distant. But polite.

“I’d have to wait to learn what his feelings were. Someday perhaps he’d open up. He never did. Not publicly. He remained secluded. There’ll be an avalanche of material written about Elvis over the years, but it, too, sadly will be second-hand. It already has begun. He was ‘desperately lonely,’ 0ne commentator said this week. ‘He was overwhelmingly generous’ said another. He was … ”

• At the end, Elvis still capable of immense power and emotion

Robert Hilburn last saw Elvis perform at the Long Beach Arena on April 25, 1976. “Against Presley’s best shows,” the critic judged, “the concert was only 40 to 50% effective.” Still, there were moments that made Hilburn optimistic that another artistic comeback was still possible. “He was still capable of immense power and emotion … Time ran out before he found a new challenge.”

Robert Hilburn closed his perspective on Elvis Presley by trying to assess the impact his loss would have on the dreams he had fostered in the hearts of young people in the fifties and nurtured for two decades thereafter: 

“An era over? Most certainly. But Presley’s legacy will continue as long as rock ’n’ roll is played. You can see evidence of his influence in virtually every rocker who steps on stage.

“But Elvis changed more than our music. He helped change the way we dressed, thought and aspired. As long as he was alive, there was the chance he would again approach his music with the energy and desire that brought him closer to perfecting his art in the ’50s than anyone else in rock.

“That possibility somehow kept the rest of his generation in touch with their own dreams, however elusive and distant they had become. His death forces us to reflect more realistically on those goals and ambitions. The answers aren’t always pleasant. It’s no wonder we feel a sense of loss. It’s not easy to part with a hero.” — Alan Hanson | © April 2015

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“When combined with the primitive, sensual music, Presley’s long hair, flashy clothes and emotional abandon had an electrifying impact on teen-agers."

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