Rock Fan…Rock Star: Marlon Brando, James Dean, Elvis Presley

When asked his thoughts on Elvis by St. Louis Magazine, Chuck Berry notes:

“I think he had a wonderful manager (chuckles). But one thing Presley had that no other person had was that voice. He had a voice better than Bing Crosby’s. That’s another thing: I came up believing that singing did not mean just saying it with ups and downs and varied melody. Singing is almost like swinging: It vibrates.
Understandably, Chuck Berry and other African-American rockers at the time probably felt at least somewhat bitter and resentful toward this white kid popularizing the hits they created.
In the fifties, white musicians were classified as genuine Rock and Roll, while black artists were filed under the second-class title of Rhythm ‘n’ Blues. Songs were being covered by dolled up white boys and topping the charts, without any credit being given to the original artists.
I would be pissed too.
At the time, the issue reigned supreme on the minds’ of black performers, but in retrospect, with age, distance, and maturity, they can appreciate Elvis for what he brought to music and culture, as illustrated in the more or less favorable quotation from Berry.
In the years following, and to this day, the ‘founding fathers’ of rock n roll, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, are typically given appropriate recognition for their contributions to the genre, allowing a distinction between their roles and what Elvis accomplished.
Each represents two very different sides of the same musical coin.
Berry and friends are the Fathers of Rock, whereas Elvis will always be the King.

Summer, 1953, Elvis walks into the Memphis Recording Service building known as Sun Records. He wants to make a private recording to give to his mom as a late birthday present. (Elvis why are you late?)
In the waiting room, receptionist Marion Keisker notices how nervous the kid seems, initiating a conversation to help calm him down.
It mostly goes like this:
Marion: “Why are you here?”
Elvis: “I’m a singer.”
Marion: “What kind of music do you sing?”
Elvis: “I sing all kinds.”
Marion: “Well, who do you sound like?”
Elvis: “I don’t sound like nobody m’aam.”
Although his answers seem to imply that he had a completely original, innovative style, Elvis actually had many influences.
While at the Memphis Recording Service, Elvis recorded 2 songs, both covering black vocal harmony group the Ink Spots. Bill Kenny, who assumed the role of lead tenor, was one singer Elvis tried to emulate.
Both of these remind me of cowboy country, very sweet and nostalgic.
The Ink Spots “My Happiness” (Elvis Cover–first recording)
 
And the second:
The Ink Spots “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” (Elvis Cover, 1953)
Keisker, in trying to highlight what it was about Presley that was so special, narrows it down to one word–“Soul”. (Flowers in the Dustbin, 72). In this word, she hits on a major source of musical influence for Presley, Gospel
One definition of ‘soul’:
“The word itself is a term of theology, a word for the divine principle in man, his spiritual essence, the immortal core of his being…A code word for something characteristic of African-American culture, it also came to stand for a certain spiritual vitality, a spark of spontaneous feeling” (Flowers in the Dustbin, 72).
It is difficult to talk about soul and truly gain an understanding of its meaning.
A far better approach is to hear it.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe “Down By the Riverside”
Ray Charles “I Got a Woman” (live footage)–later covered by Elvis Presley
Not a Kanye West song.
 
An actively religious man, Elvis enjoyed listening to choirs and spiritual quartets.
One quartet called the Songfellows rejected his induction to the group after an audition. Bad for them…good for music. If they had seen his talent, no King may have existed. He often went to “Negro Sunday services” for the excitement and euphoria induced by the service.

Robert Johnson “Me and the Devil Blues”

The sound of Elvis derives partly from country/hillbilly blues.
Robert Johnson is one excellent example in this style.

Big Joe Turner “Shake Rattle and Roll” Live 1954 Performance

Many artists including Elvis Presley and Bill Haley went on to cover this song, a track which proves to be very important in the formation of Rock and Roll.

Roy Brown (1947)”Good Rockin’ Tonight”

Originally by Roy Brown, “Good Rockin’ Tonight” soon had covers from Wynonie Harris, Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Pat Boone, and others.

 
Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup “That’s All Right” (original version)

The video tells you some fun facts!

 
My personal favorite: After finishing the recording session, Bill Black remarked “Damn. Get that on the radio and they’ll run us out of town.”
The 1954 cover from Elvis marked his fourth visit to Sun Records.

With Sam Phillips, Sun Records

Dean Martin “I Don’t Care If the Sun Don’t Shine”

The King officially designated Dean (Dino!) Martin “The King of Cool”.

Dino sang in Bel Canto style, usually in the form of ballads with smooth vocals and a touch of danger. He’s so cool random ladies just walk up and start dancing and harmonizing with him.

Ike Turner “Rocket ’88” (Credited to Jackie Brenston and His Delta Kings)

The story of “Rocket ’88” briefly goes like this:

While traveling to Memphis, Ike Turner’s guitar amp falls off the car, causing the speaker cone to burst. Once at Sun Records, the resourceful Sam Phillips rectifies the situation by stuffing some paper into the burst cone in order to progress through the session.

Although usable, Phillips’ solution results in a fuzzed-out, over-amplified sound.
Nevertheless, combined with a boogie-woogie beat and great lyrics, it becomes a number one hit in 1951.
Many have credited it as the first rock and roll record.

At the very least, it provides good insight into what rock and roll would sound like…a few years later…when it was ready.

With his sound intact, Elvis just needed the look. Cinema provided the necessary inspiration for completing his rock star transformation.

“Rock needed film to create personas for its performers. While rock and roll would have been a momentous musical force by itself, by marrying sound with image, the movies made rock a cultural juggernaut” (Rickey 115, from Rock Film, Roll Film)

 

Knock On Any Door (Clip, 1949)

No one really knows where rock and roll officially began. One idea is that it started with an attitude, growing out of a need for rebellion.

Some critics believe that the teenager in Knock on Any Door gives the original
cinematic voice to rock and roll philosophy, even if the film is otherwise forgettable, except for this one important quote:

“Live fast, die young, and have a good-lookin’ corpse!”

Watch the first 20 seconds, then you can stop. You could also keep going.

In this brief statement, he manages to sum up the essence of rock attitude, even if doing so unintentionally. Living fast and dying young means drugs, sex, death, beauty, defiance of convention…all that rebel shit.

With the rock and roll attitude in place, the film simultaneously provides foreshadowing for the music of the following decade, and helps to catalyze it into existence.

Bill Haley and His Comets “Rock Around the Clock” (1954)

The opening title sequence of Blackboard Jungle introduced cinema audiences to the sounds of early rock and roll. As heard loudly through movie theater speakers, “Rock Around the Clock” marked the first time this type of music was heard by the public on such a large scale.

Throughout the narrative, themes of struggling youth and generational discord prevail, finally giving an artistic voice to their search for identity.

The concept of ‘teenager’ was not only a relatively new phenomenon, but a completely unexploited demographic.
Adults began staying home to watch TV, while teens, with all their extra spending money, opted for the movies.

Prior to this, music had been included in film for 30 years, although it was mostly on the side of classical or theatrical, such as musicals.

Bill Haley, with his weird puffiness that bordered on sex appeal, had the original white Rock and Roll hit, and is often considered the original rock-film star.

The Wild One, Marlon Brando,1953

In the TV miniseries Elvis, they show him sitting in the theater, intently watching The Wild One and mouthing every line, demonstrating Presley’s debt to Brando, in style, sex appeal, attitude, and

love for animals!

With kitty, trying to type

Elvis reading with his monkey Scatter

With Sweet Pea, another adorable gift for his mom, 1956

 
Girl (to Brando): “What are you rebelling against?”
Brando (to Girl): “What do you got?”
Girl and Guy: Hahaha (not taking him seriously)
He’s serious guys.
Filmed years before Rock and Roll, they listen to Jazz throughout the film, which seems oddly discordant for the characters, almost as if waiting for their musical counterpart to arrive.
Rebel Without a Cause-James Dean

James Dean lived a short life (1931-1955), unfortunately staying true to the ‘live fast, die young’ motto.
He crashed his Spider Porshe one late September evening at the age of 24.

Despite the absence of rock music in the soundtrack, Dean symbolizes the prototypical rock fan.
Cool, smooth, funny, vulnerable, introspective, and defiant.
He had unparalleled magnetism, especially in the iconic red jacket.

The homo-eroticism in the film appears fairly obvious to those with gaydar, and probably to those without.
Rumors state that Dean was bisexual, which may have contributed to this extremely gay vibe, although the truth of that statement can never be confirmed.

Interestingly, James Dean also marks one root of  the 1960s Beat Movement, which had tons of homosexual activity. Hmmmm.

I like bongo

“To read makes our speaking English good.” -Xander Harris, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Released after his death, Rebel instantly cast James into the iconic status of ghost and cult figure.

“Chickie Run” clip from Rebel Without a Cause

Prior to the chicken car scene, Dean’s character asks Buzz (his ‘rival’):

“Why are we doing this?”…who responds: “Well, you gotta do something.”
A line extremely reminiscent of Brando’s defiant remark.

These guys are cool

 

Elvis “Hound Dog” (Milton Berle Show, 1956)

Elvis covering Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog”. He knew how to work a crowd, giving the audience what they wanted, and the critics what they didn’t. They said his ‘exaggerated gyrations and bodily movements’ were affecting the impressionable youth in a negative manner, which lead to a heated indecency debate. Out of fear, those adverse to Elvis called him vulgar, obscene, untalented. Complaints from the press came in, and TV hosts were hesitant to book him again. Many feared the integration of African American music with white musical forms and dances.

Elvis “Heartbreak Hotel” (Live 1956)
Probably my favorite Elvis song. You can really hear the vibrato in his voice, similar to Chuck Berry’s initial description.
Elvis “Jailhouse Rock”

Here, Elvis gets to be James Dean with a guitar, becoming the official, all encompassing film rock-star. Originally written by Leiber and Stoller, the jailhouse setting loosely connects rock music with crime, showing the link between juvenile delinquency and ‘deviant’ music.

According to the book Flowers in the Dustbin, the scene works as such:

“Spontaneous in feel, spectacular in execution, the film’s treatment of “Jailhouse Rock” validates rock and roll on something close to its original terms, while at the same time integrating its aura of menace into a classical piece of Hollywood stagecraft” (Flowers, 155).

The film premiered in October of 1957. Elvis was drafted into the Army in 1958.

 

After the Army, Elvis made a bunch of beach movies.

My favorite part about daytime is the sun.

Then he had a comeback special.

Elvis “Heartbreak Hotel” (1968 Comeback Special, live)

This video is great, he messes up so many times and laughs about it.
I love it when musicians can make mistakes, it shows humanity.

And charm…It’s definitely charming.

He was probably nervous as hell going back in front of these people.

Elvis “That’s All Right Mama” (1968 Comeback Special, live)

Originally by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup.

To sum up the demise of Elvis as quickly as possible:

In the 70s he became fat/Graceland/bored/Vegas Elvis

The one most people impersonate.
Bubba Ho-tep.
By 1977, he was dead.
Heart Attack? Conspiracy? Constipation? Overdose? Assassins? Suicide? Faked? Vampire bite? Still alive and frequenting the local Burger King??

Nothing is certain.

What’s important now is remembering Elvis Presley for all the cultural significance he brought to the States.
Rock and Roll represents all of American society, the good and bad, and Elvis is the King, making him a symbolic American.

Before the fame, the drugs, the money, the creepy orgies…
he was just a guy who loved going to church, and his mom, probably even going to church with his mom. And giving her adorable puppies.

How can you say no to that face?

I was surprised to find that Elvis had a twin brother named Jesse, a stillborn.
Apparently, Elvis’ mom claimed that her surviving son retained superhuman abilities because of the loss. One died, and the other got stronger.
Kinda sweet, pretty believable, fairly unsettling.
Perhaps Elvis and Jesse made a deal with the big guy, that if he got to become the King of Rock and Roll, he had to die at a relatively young age, in the dumbest place imaginable…the bathroom.
Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor?

And with that interesting tale, I leave you with another jolly photo

and this haunting song

“Blue Moon” (Elvis Cover)

Thank ya very much,

graymonster

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