The 1950s are often portrayed as the “calm before the storm” of the turbulent 1960s, a time during which post-war economic growth and industrialization brought suburban prosperity to all. The reality of most of the post-war American South was rather different, with rampant rural poverty and a prevailing social order dominated by racial segregation and Jim Crow.
Out of these conditions sprang music that would change the world, fusing bluegrass and country and western with gospel and rhythm and blues, blurring racial boundaries and creating an internationally prevalent language of popular music. On Saturday, the Yakima Symphony Orchestra celebrates some of that music with “A Tribute to Elvis” starring Kraig Parker, whom The Times of London has dubbed “the world’s foremost Elvis tribute artist.”
Though he (along with Chuck Berry) has been dubbed the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” throughout his career Elvis Presley was quick to point out that he was standing on the shoulders of giants. The song that first landed him on the radio in Memphis in 1954, “That’s All Right,” was written by blues great Arthur Crudup, about whom he said two years later “If I ever got to the place I could feel all old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.”
In 1969, Presley deflected a reporter’s reference to him as “the king” by pointing instead to Fats Domino, having told Jet magazine a decade earlier, “Let’s face it: I can’t sing like Fats Domino can.”
But certainly he could sing. Presley grew up with gospel music in a small Pentecostal church in Tupelo, Miss., where reportedly the Rev. Frank Smith taught him his first few basic chords on a guitar. After his family moved to Memphis in 1948, he had access to a wider swath of popular music, taking in all manner of country, gospel, blues, and then rhythm and blues on the radio, in record stores and in live performance venues.
Hank Snow, Wynonie Harris, Sister Rosetta Tharp, Jake Hess — every influence made its way somewhere into Presley’s singing, guitar playing or stage theatrics as he developed his own unique style and manner, which turned the popular music world on its head. Crudup liked Elvis’ version of “That’s All Right” but noted that he’d never have done it that way himself: “He made it into a kind of hillbilly record.” That made it too white for black radio stations, and the R&B influence made it too black for the white stations; but the deed was done.
Record producer Sam Phillips, whose career had thus far mostly been made recording black artists, had found what he was looking for — as he crudely framed it, a white man who could sing black music and make him rich.
Presley’s legacy is complicated by the fact that the priorities and prejudices of the mainstream music industry led him to became fabulously wealthy and famous, while equally talented and original black artists did not. The “King of Rock ‘n’ Soul,” Solomon Burke, incorporated country elements just as effortlessly into R&B as Elvis incorporated R&B into country, and he virtually gave soul music its name; yet his own name is hardly known.
That said, Presley’s arrival in the Southern consciousness at that particular moment resonated with larger societal currents already in motion under the surface. His enthusiasm for the music and musicians he loved, along with his casual disregard for many of the rules and assumptions of the segregated South, helped open social and economic doors for those artists that had never before been open, enriching all of popular music (artistically, at least) in the process.
In the 1960s, Presley moved away from the rockabilly style that launched his career and focused his musical attention more on pop ballads and soundtracks for his movies. Later, as the music world evolved around him, he leaned more into his original roots in country and in gospel, winning his only three Grammy awards in that category between 1967 and 1974.
All of these “incarnations” of Elvis evoke a time when it seemed like music really could change the world. Like it or not, Elvis is still in the room.
• David Rogers is executive director of the Yakima Symphony Orchestra. Learn more at www.ysomusic.org.