Donald Trump has made China hot takes a busy and profitable enterprise. Thanks to his tweetings on Taiwan and other matters, I’ve put up a clutch of essays on Asia Times:
November 23, 2016: Atlas Stumbled explores implications of a transactional Trump diplomacy for the tottering US pivot and its promise that China would fall on its *ss in Asia before America did.
December 1, 2016 Donald Trump, Bombs, and Burgers holds out hope that a Trump presidency just might dance its way out of the denuclearization cul de sac of the Obama years.
December 4, 2016 Trump in the Taiwan China Shop looks at the tactical dynamics of diplomacy a la Trump and posits that Trump is going with an aggressive Taiwan policy because the only available FP boffins left standing after the pro-Hillary crowd self-immolated is Dick Cheney’s Taiwan-loving neocons.
December 9, 2016 The hole in the Heart of Asia takes an extremely disapproving look at America’s efforts to keep its fingers in the AfPak pie by putting all its eggs in Modi’s basket while sidelining the PRC. Yes, it’s as ugly as the mixed metaphor I just laid out.
December 14, 2016 One China? Never, Trump! Back into the Trumptweet salt mines. I point out NeverTrump liberals are compelled to consume the rather unpalatable “Donald Trump is too hard on Communist China” menu item and point out that the hand on the wheel is Tsai Ing-wen’s, not Donald Trump’s. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
December 18, 2016 Drone Piracy in the South China Sea! Not a hot take, an extremely cool facty take on the PRC theft of a US Navy underwater glider thingy off the Philippine coast. Marshals a lot of not-widely-known information on the US Navy drone program, the PRC’s interests and concerns, and explains that the core issue the US Navy’s attempt to claim “sovereign US Navy vessel immunity” for these devices. With an absence of modesty I might point out this piece absolutely tore it up on China expert twitter thanks to Bill Hayton faving it. Thanks, Bill!
But the big news is I got totally fed up with the anger and negativity in the world today and decided to do humanity a favor by updating my epochal Elvis Presley Christmas post.
If you don’t have the time to wade through the full Elvis+Xmas, one of the longest pieces I’ve ever written, do yourself a favor and scroll to the very end of the piece. Play Elvis Presley’s rendition of “Peace in the Valley”, listen to the lyrics, and view the magnificent painting by Edward Hicks. You won’t be disappointed!
How Elvis’ Christmas Records Celebrate and Define American Music
Elvis’ Christmas recordings provide a remarkable and perhaps unique opportunity to explore his profound gospel, rhythm and blues, country, bluegrass, and polka! dirty ditties! roots, the evolution of the American recording industry and Elvis’ career, and the postwar development of African-American music. For people interested in the revolution wrought in gospel music by Reverend Dorsey, race, appropriation, and how Elvis dealt with it, I particularly recommend Day 9: Hearing the Light: Elvis & Black Gospel
It’s all here, folks, in a 12 Days of Elvis Christmas epic I originally put together in 2014, now with the Youtube videos recurated. Enjoy! And Happy Holidays!
Elvis’ triumphant synthesis of American music is even more remarkable when you consider that most of his greatest achievements were recorded before he turned 23.
Day One: Santa Claus Is Back in Town
One of the early pinnacles of Elvis’ achievement is, rather surprisingly, the Christmas album he released in 1957. It is divided into secular and sacred sides. On the second side, Elvis beautifully sings some religiously-tinged Christmas songs and delivers magnificent and memorable renditions of “Peace in the Valley” and other gospel standards. It’s clear that Elvis loves his gospel, and his renditions are full of the power and dignity that characterize these noblest of popular songs.
The pop/rock/R&B action is on the first side, and Elvis gets right down to business with the opener, “Santa Claus Is Back in Town”, a blues carol written by ace songwriters Leiber and Stoller in the studio on a dare in fifteen minutes. It is capped by the memorable couplet, sung in an ecstatic shout by Elvis:
Hang up your pretty stockings, turn off the light
Cause’ Santa Claus is comin’ down your chimney tonight!
In their joint autobiography, Hound Dog, Leiber and Stoller recalled:
The Colonel doesn’t laugh and the Colonel doesn’t smile when we run down the song for Elvis. I know the Colonel thinks it’s too bluesy and too black, but just before he can say anything, the King speaks out.
‘Now that’s what I call a goddamn great Christmas song!’ he tells the Colonel, ‘I told you these guys would come through’. And with that, Elvis proceeds to sing the [expletive] out of it.
He does it in just a couple of takes. …
For me, ‘Santa Claus Is Back in Town’ lives on as one of Elvis’ great blues performances. It took him back to his Beale Street roots, a place where he was always comfortable.
Elvis was all of 22 at the time.
I had the honor of communicating with Mike Stoller’s management team (Jerry Leiber has passed on) and was assured that the innuendo was completely intentional.
Given this context, it is rather remarkable that the lyric apparently provoked no conspicuous ruckus.
Maybe Irving Berlin had more than an inkling; he called for a boycott of the album, ostensibly because Elvis took some vocal liberties in his cover of White Christmas, which was sequenced right after Leiber & Stoller’s racy cut. Berlin’s objections did not stop the RCA from selling a mind-boggling 3 million units of Elvis’ Christmas Album in its original release, making it that decade’s biggest seller and a holiday soundtrack for generations of Americans (another 10 million sold as a budget-priced edition in the 1970s; indeed Elvis’ Christmas Album is his top-selling album, period, and No. 142 on Billboard’s all time list).
Sneaking Santa Claus double entendres into pop songs seems to have been quite the vogue around this time. In 1950 Ella Fitzgerald sang about “fat and round” Santa Claus who “got stuck in my chimney.”
About the same time, Sonny Boy Williamson II recorded “Santa Claus Blues” for Chess Records. Williamson’s double entendre of choice involves “drawers”:
“Lookin all in my baby’s dresser drawers.
Tryin to find out,
What did she bought me for Santa Claus.
When I pulled out the bottom dresser drawer,
The landlady got mad and called the law..”
In fact, in the R&B world in which Leiber and Stoller and Elvis were steeped at the time, “Santa Claus” had been invoked as the good thing, male principle division, since the pre-war era, as Gerry Bowler relates in his Santa Claus: A Biography. Blues scholar Paul Oliver has a chapter on Santa Claus in Screening the Blues and quotes a melancholy lyric from the great Texas country bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson:
Just the day before Christmas let me bring you your present tonight,
I wanna be your Santa Clause even if my whiskers ain’t white.
So Santa is black and white. Get used to it! Happy holidays, everybody.
Day Two: The Passion of Elvis
A listener expresses her approval of Elvis’ canny alchemy of R&B, bluegrass, country, & gospel:
Found this at a reddit photoshop battle (no credit, sorry). Says it was shot in the audience at an Elvis Presley concert in 1957, the year he recorded his Christmas album. What’s with the ping pong balls?
Day Three: The Dirty Xmas Ditty: Who Sang It Better, Elvis or Ella? Or Jimmy Boyd!?!
Elvis, hands down.
Elvis Presley and Ella Fitzgerald both did riffs on the venerable Santa Claus/chimney double entendre described in the First Day of Elvis post above.
Elvis’ rip-roaring performance of Santa Claus Is Back in Town is one of the highlights of his catalogue.
Ella Fitzgerald’s entry, Santa Claus Got Stuck In My Chimney, well, not so much.
In fact, Ella’s Santa dud is frequently invoked to illustrate how she languished in artistic purgatory at Decca Records before she was rescued by impresario Norman Granz in 1956. Granz built the Verve record label around Fitzgerald and secured her finances and artistic reputation with the Songbook series of releases.
Granz also engaged in what might be characterized as d*ck moves to extract Fitzgerald from her management and Decca contracts, so traducing her Decca work is perhaps necessary to burnish his white knight credentials.
Actually, a lot of Fitzgerald’s work on Decca is great, created under the supervision first under her mentor and bandleader, Chick Webb, and then A&R executive Milt Gabler. Gabler is impervious to efforts to paint him as Ella’s Mitch Miller.
Miller notoriously subjected Ol’ Blue Eyes—then Young Blue Eyes and, in the eyes of Columbia Records, a problematic has-been—to a novelty duet with Dagmar (a television personality in vogue in 1951), Mama Will Bark, in which Sinatra impersonates (perhaps the correct term is “indoginates”) a lustful canine.
Gabler’s artistic legacy is secure. Before moving to Decca, he ran Commodore Records, which released the “Song of the Century” according to Time Magazine, Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, when Columbia was afraid to put it out.
Gabler started work with Fitzgerald during the 78/jukebox era, when an individual release was a single song (well, an A side and a B side) and it had to push the popular button on the first try. Gabler worked to ride the trends, and try to score the novelty record that might knock it out of the park, sales-wise (Mitch Miller was the king of novelty tunes; Mama Will Bark might have sunk without a trace and spurred Sinatra’s departure from Columbia, but I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus sold 2.5 million copies in 1952-3).
Yeah, I know. But Columbia scored two gold records for this ditty, in the days when RIAA gold records were literally made out of gold.
Keeping with the theme of Christmas lewdness, the whiff of scandal also helped propel I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus into the sales stratosphere. Per Wikipedia:
Boyd’s record was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church in Boston when it was released on the grounds that it mixed kissing with Christmas… Boyd was photographed meeting with the Archdiocese to explain the song. After the meeting, the ban was lifted.
Gabler also paid attention to art & Ella, using commercial efforts to “pay for all the good things we want to do.” Ella Sings Gershwin, the first of Fitzgerald’s great American songbook triumphs, was actually recorded as an EP for Decca in 1950, immediately before the Santa Claus date.
In 1954, just prior to Norman Granz’s successful effort to wrest Fitzgerald’s recording contract from Decca (Decca could not complete its soundtrack to The Benny Goodman Story biopic without obtaining releases from some Granz artists), Decca presented Ella Fitzgerald with a plaque commemorating sales of 22 million units over her career. Not too shabby.
While celebrating the Granz era, which saw the rise of the LP, massive prestige recording projects like the Songbook series, and Fitzgerald’s elevation to The First Lady of Song, dumping on Santa Claus Got Stuck in My Chimney has become something of a cottage industry.
I’ve seen references on the Intertoobs along the lines that Decca was at first afraid to release it because of its salaciousness (I’ve seen no confirmation of this) and that during Fitzgerald’s lifetime her lawyers blocked its re-release (not sure how they could do this).
Certainly, Santa Claus didn’t re-emerge during her lifetime. Verve did put it on a Christmas release bizarrely titled Yule Be Miserable a few years back. It was also repackaged into an omnibus Ella Fitzgerald Christmas CD titled Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas. Since this CD includes the full Ella Fitzgerald Wishes You a Swinging Christmas—her first Christmas album, and an extremely successful release for Verve in 1960—some Internet commentators have incorrectly inferred that Santa Claus was cut in 1960 instead of 1950. I passed this error on to readers of China Matters in the original edit of the First Day of Elvis segment, and take this opportunity to issue a correction and an apology!
As an example of 1) Ella Fitzgerald’s achievements during the Decca era 2) her fondness for novelty songs and 3) transgressive subject matter, here is a joyful performance of When I Get Low I Get High from 1936. Yes, it means exactly what you think it means.
Day Four: The Elvis Presley Debt to Polka
On the adult side of the pop music spectrum, “Santa Claus” can refer to the mindless male member…or the generous sugar daddy.
Elvis recorded a rollicking cover of “Just Because” at Sun Records in 1954. It includes the verses:
You’ve caused me to spend all my money.
You laughed and called me old Santa Claus.
Well, I’m telling you,
Baby, I’m through with you.
Because, well well, just because.
Well, well, well,
There’ll come a time when you’ll be lonesome
And there’ll come a time when you’ll be blue.
Well, there’ll come a time when old Santa
He won’t pay your bills for you.
Ample qualification, therefore, for an Elvis/Christmas tie-in.
“Just Because” is a country perennial that first surfaced in the 1920s during the Hawaiian craze in pop music. It was first recorded by the “Nelstone Hawaiians”, an Alabama combo led by Hubert Nelson & James Touchstone (hence the portmanteau name), which was a pioneer in the use of the Hawaiian steel guitar.
In 1933, Leon’s Lone Star Cowboys, a seminal blues/western swing group, took an uptempo crack at “Just Because”:
Then the Shelton Brothers (who had been involved in the founding of the Lone Star Cowboys and, depending on whose story you read, either wrote the song or ripped it off), recorded their version in 1935. The Shelton Brothers were a big deal in country music in the 1930s, recording 150 or so sides for Decca.
America’s Polka King Frankie Yankovic launched his lengthy career with a cover of “Just Because” in 1948 (“Who Stole the Kishka?”, one of his last records, released in 2001, featured a cameo by the puckish, accordion-inclined, but unrelated “Weird” Al Yankovic). Yankovic believed so strongly in “Just Because” he offered to buy the first 10,000 copies himself to overcome the resistance of Columbia Records to releasing it. His confidence was rewarded as “Just Because” struck gold (actually platinum, selling over two million units).
Elvis was, in his early years, serious about his music. One of the most striking photos of young Elvis shows him riding “the train” (what we rode before airplanes, kids) back to Memphis and listening again and again to the the acetates of his latest “records” (oversized storage media) on his “portable turntable” (like an iPod but the size of a small suitcase).
However, he was no obsessive musical archivist with a stack of Bluebird and Decca 78s in his basement. Elvis showed up at Sun Records with little more than bits and pieces:
You know, he sang a bunch of the old songs, but he didn’t know much of them—maybe just a verse and a chorus of each!
When they got together at Sun, it was undoubtedly Scotty Moore—a veteran of the local music circuit, and member of a country band, the Starlight Wranglers, that was probably intimately familiar with the Shelton Brothers repertoire—serving as de facto arranger, who helped Elvis put the pieces together.
This July, on the 60th anniversary of the first Sun session, Peter Cooper recreated the scene in the pages of the Tennessean:
The evening began in self-conscious discomfort as Presley stumbled through versions of pop and country songs.
Moore and Black were good enough musicians to replicate famous recordings, but Presley was raw and green and nervous.
Phillips wasn’t interested in replication. The room filled with frustration, with failure in sight. This wasn’t working. It was getting late, and early morning would mean hats and tires to make, and a Crown Electric truck to drive. The men took a break, and Presley started fooling around and banging on his guitar. If he was going to blow his big audition, he might as well act like it was no big deal.
That night, in staunchly segregated Memphis, Presley started goofing on an old blues song, “That’s All Right, Mama,” by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. Black jumped up and grabbed his bass, and Moore started playing some speedy guitar fills.
“Fast music was what I liked,” Moore wrote in his memoir, “Scotty & Elvis: Aboard the Mystery Train.” “For years I had been making up guitar licks for uptempo music. … It wasn’t until Elvis was flailing away at his guitar that I suddenly knew where those licks belonged.”
Turns out, those licks belonged everywhere. Phillips rushed to turn the microphones back on and captured the sound of the world’s shifting axis.
A few weeks later, with ”That’s All Right” a local sensation, the trio took a crack at “Just Because”.
Even though Elvis’ version seems closest in style and spirit to the Lone Star Cowboys’ take, I doubt anybody dug up that old chestnut. I expect the Yankovic polka was in the air when Elvis was a kid, and he was entranced with the clever lyric and the melody. Presley, Moore, and bassist Bill Black then put their heads together in Sun’s recording studio and came up with an fresh, energetic reboot.
The alchemy that Elvis, Moore, and Black achieved with a stripped-down band, an untrained amateur singer, and a tired old retread of a country song that had most recently been fed through the Polka-matic is quite remarkable. Elvis gives a confident, joyful performance (he was 19 at the time) and Scotty Moore generously showcases Elvis’ vocal while at the same time driving the tune forward instrumentally with a forceful guitar-picking style that made a virtue of the empty spaces left by the small combo and inadvertently revolutionized popular music.
Sun didn’t release the cut, but the master followed Elvis to RCA and was released on his first RCA LP.
Amazingly, 37 years after Elvis’ death, Scotty Moore is still with us at the age of 83 (though he isn’t a much of a presence on his website & facebook pages and gave up personalizing guitars and other memorabilia a while back). The title of his autobiography, That’s All Right, Elvis, while riffing on one of the first revolutionary cuts at Sun, “That’s All Right”, refers to Moore’s grace in forgiving Elvis for letting Colonel Parker’s management team kick Moore to the curb and replace him with Hollywood studio talent after the move to RCA. The contribution of polka to Elvis’ sound may be forgotten, but Scotty Moore’s is, thankfully, remembered.
Day Five: Blue—woo-woo-woo Christmas
I am glad to learn that Elvis Presley apparently shared my lack of enthusiasm for “Blue Christmas”, a New York jingle writer’s gambit to cash in both on Irving Berlin’s White Christmas and white audiences’ rising postwar interest in the blues. Earnest Tubb had a hit with “Blue Christmas” in 1950, turning the mopey ballad into a mainstay of country acts during the holiday season. So it isn’t surprising that the sheet music for “Blue Christmas” found its way into the pile of possibilities for the 1957 Elvis’ Christmas Album recording session.
We can thank Millie Kirkham for the fact that “Blue Christmas” actually made it onto the album.
On December 16 of 2014, Millie Kirkham, who provided the distinctive soprano backing for the track, passed away at the age of 91. Her obituary noted:
Singing as a sort of unofficial fifth member of The Jordanaires, Kirkham didn’t just lead the “whoo-ooh-oohs” on “Blue Christmas,” her first session with Elvis in 1957 — she came up with the part. As the story goes, The King originally didn’t want to record the song, but had to, and called on the singers to come up with something silly enough to keep RCA from releasing it.
“I started going ‘Whoo-oo-oo-oo,’ “…[Elvis] motioned for me to keep doing it, so I did it all the way through the whole song. When we were through, we all laughed and said ‘That’s one record the record company will never release.’ But they did. And if I got royalties, I’d be a rich old woman.”
When he sang it during his 1968 comeback special, Elvis called “Blue Christmas” his favorite Christmas song “of the ones he recorded.” He was perhaps engaging in some sly mockery.
Wikipedia has something more favorable to say about the high level of musicianship that Kirkham and the Jordanaires brought to their work with Elvis:
Presley’s version [of “Blue Christmas] is notable musicologically as well as culturally in that the vocal group the Jordanaires (especially in the soprano line, sung by Millie Kirkham), replace many major and just minor thirds with neutral and septimal minor thirds, respectively. In addition to contributing to the overall tone of the song, the resulting “blue notes” constitute a musical play on words that provides an “inside joke” or “Easter egg” to trained ears.
Well, if you say so.
The Jordanaires were a successful vocal quartet A.E. (Ante Elvis) with a recording contract, a spot on the Grand Ole Opry, and a lot of backing work for country vocalists. They also had several gospel songs in their performing repertoire, apparently a distinctive feature at the time.
After hearing them perform their version of “Peace In the Valley” (much more about that on subsequent Days), Elvis, at that time still on the financially-strapped Sun label, declared to them that, if he got a big record company deal, he would use them as his backing group. Indeed, when he joined RCA, the Jordanaires, after some minor hiccups, joined him.
The Jordanaires became pillars of the Nashville music scene and a major catalyst for its growth to prominence. The Jordanaires backed an astounding 2,000 artists and are heard on records with cumulative sales of 2.6 billion units. They also created the Nashville commercial jingle segment and are commemorated in the biz for their important role in setting up the Nashville branch of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists/Screen Actors Guild union.
The Jordanaires also developed an easy-to-use musical notation, the now universally employed “Nashville Number System” or NNS, which assisted musicians without formal musical training to identify & play chords and was also present at the spawning of thousands of garage bands. Here’s what “Blue Christmas” looks like with NNS notation.
I have a blue Christmas without you
I’ll be so blue just thinking about you
E E7 A
Decorations of red, on a green Christmas tree
won’t be the same dear, if you’re not here with me.
And when those blue snow flakes start falling,
that’s when those blue memories start calling,
E E7 A Bbdim7
you’ll be doing alright, with your Christmas of white,
but I’ll have a blue blue Christmas.
Ohh, ohh, ohh Ahhh Ahh ahh a ahh ohhhh
ohh, ohh, ohh Ahhhhh Ahh ahh a ahh ohhhh
E E7 A Bbdim7
You’ll be doing allright with your Christmas of white
but I’ll have a blue blue Christmas,
And if you’re really, really hooked on “Blue Christmas” and NNS notation, and want to play the song yourself, here’s a nice tutorial from Eric Blackmon.
Photo of Elvis Presley with Millie Kirkham and the Jordanaires copyright James Roy http://www.pbase.com/jroy/image/58198631
Day Six: Black Christmas
Ironically, I guess, the blackest song on Elvis’ Christmas Album is “White Christmas”.
Elvis’ version doesn’t harken back to Bing Crosby’s iconic 1942 version.
Instead, he invokes the spirit of Clyde McPhatter, who cut a doo-wop version of the song with the Drifters in 1954.
I daresay McPhatter is mostly remembered today by doowop, R&B, and rock musicologists. But he was a major figure in the development of R&B, soul, and rock, and a major artistic and commercial force in the music business, most notably with the Drifters and as a solo act, in the 1950s.
McPhatter started out in gospel, and is credited with being one of the first—and most successful—at transferring the emotional gospel sensibility to secular pop. Sam Cooke, among many others, followed in his footsteps.
So did Elvis. Indeed, Elvis’ long reach into gospel, both directly and via R&B, and appropriation of its vocabulary of emotional transcendence is perhaps what made him the transformative pop culture figure we know today, and not just another in a long line of smooth-voiced entertainers.
Elvis adored McPhatter’s singing, as Sam Phillips recalled:
‘You remember Clyde McPhatter? Elvis thought Clyde McPhatter had one of the greatest voices in the world. We were going somewhere one time – down to the Louisiana Hayride or to Nashville – and we were singing in the car. Well, Bill Black couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, and Scotty was worse.
So Elvis and I were the only good singers in the car. But we were talking about Clyde McPhatter, and he said, ‘You know, if I had a voice like that man, I’d never want for another thing.’
McPhatter deployed melisma and slipped on and off the beat as he embarked on his emotional and musical journeys. In other words, he took liberties. I will admit I am not a fan of McPhatter’s demented-castrato take on “White Christmas”, but it was very popular with record buyers, and with Elvis Presley. It not only rose to No. 2 on the R&B chart in 1954 and reappeared on the chart the next two years, it was the first Drifters record to crack the mainstream i.e. white pop dominated Billboard 100 chart.
When Elvis mimicked the Drifters’ “White Christmas”, these liberties attracted the baleful attention of the tune’s author, Irving Berlin.
Berlin had not taken public notice of the Drifters’ version, but when the wildly popular Presley converted his beloved standard into a doo-wop yodelfest, Berlin took umbrage. In addition to resenting the rise of the loosy-goosy rock and roll performer at the expense of respect for the material and the Tin Pan Alley songsmith, Berlin may have had additional reasons for his anger. His three-week old son had died on Christmas Day, and Berlin and his wife visited the grave on every anniversary.
In any case, Jody Rosen, the author of a book on White Christmas, told NPR:
“Berlin couldn’t stand Presley, and Presley recorded a cover version of ‘White Christmas’ for his Christmas album, which Berlin took as kind of sacrilege,” Rosen says. “He really thought it was degrading to his song. So he and members of his staff launched a furious campaign to try and get radio stations to ban the Presley record.”
The campaign to get radio stations not to play the song didn’t really get anywhere, though one DJ was reportedly fired. The Elvis commercial and artistic juggernaut could not be sidetracked even by Irving Berlin, composer of “God Bless America” and perhaps the most successful and prolific pop songsmith in American history.
So Elvis’ take on “White Christmas”, though bland and unthreatening, is perhaps the most revolutionary cut on the album.
Day Seven: Elvis/Jesus
“Will Elvis take the place of Jesus, in a thousand years?”
Maybe he already has.
Yes, it’s a thing, though tongue in cheek. I think.
- Jesus is spelled with five letters, ending in S.
- Elvis is spelled with five letters, ending in S.
- A star appeared when Jesus was born. (Matthew 2:2)
- Elvis almost appeared in A Star Is Born.
- Joseph wasn’t Jesus’ father.
- Elvis didn’t think Vernon was his real dad.
- Jesus’ parents took him to Memphis, Egypt (to escape Herod).
- Elvis’ parents took him to Memphis, Tennessee (to find work).
- Jesus said, “Don’t store away gold or silver, travel without money.”
- Elvis never carried any money on his person.
- Jesus is the Lord’s shepherd.
- Elvis dated Cybill Shepherd.
Visit the web page of The Velvet Elvis homage artist (not “Elvis impersonator”, please!) for more parallels and imagery.
Day Eight: Elvis/Nixon
On December 21, 1970, on the cusp of Christmas, this historic meeting took place:
This indelible image is the most requested photograph from the U.S. National Archives.
In 1970, Elvis flew to Washington to request credentials as “Federal Agent at Large” to help the government deal with the illegal drug problem. Beatle envy–resentment that the drugged-out Fab Four had eclipsed the King–has been cited as the underlying motivation. In any case, Elvis, an avid police badge collector, sought out President Nixon because the Bureau of Narcotics and Drugs had denied him the precious tin.
A George Washington University website documents the meeting and includes a PDF of Elvis’ letter to Nixon setting up the meeting. It states, in part:
“I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing…”
The punch line is that Elvis was allegedly stoned at the meeting.
I guess we could recapitulate the Elvis/Jesus meme as Elvis/Nixon:
“Elvis” & “Nixon” both have five letters, two syllables, two vowels, and one funky consonant each
Both broke nationally in 1956
Both had comebacks in 1968
Both hated Communists and the Beatles
Both abused licit psychoactive chemicals and both became more than a little paranoid
And so on…
Day Nine: Hearing the Light: Elvis & Black Gospel
On his 1957 Christmas album, Elvis essays a gospel standard, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”.
It is, to my ears, pretty but also pretty bland. And that, unfortunately, is something of an indictment of Elvis.
TMHPL is, without too much exaggeration, the national anthem of American black gospel. It was composed in 1937 by Thomas A. Dorsey, himself the progenitor of 20th century black gospel.
It was Martin Luther King’s favorite song. Literally his last words before he was shot down on the balcony in Memphis were to musician Ben Branch: “Ben, make sure you play “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”
Mahalia Jackson, per King’s stated wish, sang “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” at his funeral in Atlanta (the private service). Aretha Franklin sang it at Jackson’s funeral in 1971. Leontyne Price sang it at LBJ’s funeral in 1973. And so on.
The song is most closely identified with Mahalia Jackson, who had performed it since the 1930s in her role as Thomas A. Dorsey’s chosen musical emissary to the African-American religious community. Her first known recording was on a Columbia LP released in 1956.
Jackson keeps her fires well-banked in this version, probably reflecting the careful direction of Dorsey, who developed some “slow sentimental songs” like TMHPL for Jackson to use to reassure conservative churchmen about the dignity and value of his gospel approach.
This Jackson version is, perhaps, more definitive:
The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church (Harris, Michael W., 1992 Oxford University Press, New York) links his music to the social and economic revolution wrought by the emigration of impoverished African-Americans to northern cities, especially Chicago, and the challenge they brought to “old-line” African American urban churches and their “talented tenth” emphasis on European music, seemly upper-class behavior, and the preacher’s dominance over the emotional and religious content of the church service.
TMHPL seems to have created a sensation in African-American congregations with its direct emotional appeal for divine help. To my unreligious ears, it seems to partake of the same sort of emotional outcry directed by Catholics to the Virgin Mary and by Buddhists to Kuan Yin for merciful intercession that belies the theology of a stern and/or indifferent universe.
In 1973 Dorsey supervised a recording of the song by Marion Williams. This track includes Dorsey’s first-person account of the terrible personal trial that inspired him to write the song and also perhaps best illustrates the kind of vocal Dorsey valued: one that used “trills, twists, and turns” both to excite the audience and elevate it to a religiously exalted state of awareness.
The proliferation of African-American churches with a “gospel choir” headed by a female fire-eater, often trained in the school of Dorsey, leading a call and response with the audience, completely changed American perceptions of the character of black worship.
Aretha Franklin’s first record, recorded in 1956 when she was 14–and a year before Elvis recorded his take–gives an idea of the kind of workout a gospel diva would bring to the tune.
Compared to this incendiary performance, Elvis’ dutiful version is pretty much a damp squib.
Elvis’ love of gospel, including black gospel is well-known.
However, his perception of what was the best and most suitable presentation of gospel was filtered through his love of the white gospel quartets that dominated the southern scene when he was a boy. Elvis, if I may say so, religiously attended the monthly gospel musicales at the Ellis Auditorium in Memphis, a stone throw from the Presley home.
The most conspicuous display of Elvis’ love for these quartets is his elevation of the Jordanaires to the position of his backing group on secular as well as religious recordings. As this documentary demonstrates, Presley was besotted with all gospel quartets and, indeed, had auditioned for membership in one the leading groups, the Blackwells.
The white quartets often included black gospel numbers in their repertoire. However, it appears inclusion was often an act of appropriation, substituting the controlled, disciplined presentation by a white quartet for the emotive desperation frequently seen in black performance.
As black assertiveness became more political and social and not just religious, white gospel seems to have become more defensive, retreating to a “southern white gospel” affirmation of white social and moral attitudes that, I suspect, always cohabited with the religious universalism that the white quartets could assert so blandly in more secure times.
And Elvis, I’m afraid, turned to gospel to achieve the feelings of control and unity he craved in his increasingly disordered life, not the release and liberation he had witnessed in black churches.
Day Ten: Death, Rebirth, and Elvis
Alfred Wertheimer passed away in October of 2014. Wertheimer created a brilliant photographic record of “Elvis at 21”, following Presley as he navigated the choppy waters of celebrity in 1956.
Wertheimer’s most famous picture is “The Kiss”.
Vanity Fair tracked down the woman involved in 2011, just soon enough for Wertheimer to enjoy a final jolt of fame and prosperity before he died.
Interestingly, Wertheimer does not credit Presley’s narcissism for the intimacy he allowed the photographer:
Elvis was unique in that he permitted closeness, not six to eight feet away, which was standard, but right up close, three to four feet away. He was so intensely involved with what he was doing: it was as if he were laser focused; whether he was combing his hair or chatting up the girls, he would be himself.
Here’s another great but less-known Wertheimer photograph: Elvis relaxing with his musicians while recording “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel” at RCA’s 24th Street studios in New York City.
The background to this photo is provided by Baruch College, which took over the building from RCA for its “Newman Vertical Campus” and contributed a historical essay:
The seven floor stable next to the horse mart [in the pre-automobile era, 24th Street was the equine center of the universe just as New York City was the world capital of horsesh*t—ed.] became a recording studio in 1955 when RCA-Victor Records moved their offices there from Rockefeller Center. A few months later, a young, still relatively unknown singer named Elvis Presley visited the studio and recorded some of his first songs that would make him known worldwide. Alfred Wertheimer, a photographer who followed Elvis described the last time that they had recorded in that studio.
On July 2, 1956, a defining moment in the history of rock and roll took place. Elvis recorded “Hound Dog” and “Don’t be Cruel,” which were released by RCA as two sides of one single. This was the only time both sides of a single reached number one on the charts. The session at RCA Studio was also the last time Elvis would record in New York. Of course, I wasn’t aware of any of this when I arrived at the building on 24th street between Lexington and 3rd Avenues. I did sense that this recording session would provide with me[sic] a rare opportunity to observe another stage in the evolution of my subject.
Located on the ground floor, the main studio where Elvis recorded was a large room with a lot of acoustical padding covering the walls. There were two small adjoining rooms, one of which was reserved for the sound engineers. Instead of having to book orchestra musicians for three-hour gigs, Elvis brought his own crew – Scotty Moore on guitar, DJ Fontana on drums, Bill Black on bass, and four Jordanaires as back-up. Shorty Long was hired as the piano player. Also present were Steve Sholes from RCA and the always necessary Junior, Elvis’s go-fer. The recording session began early in the afternoon and lasted until dusk. (The Recording Session: Studio One in Elvis at 21, San Rafael: Insight Editions, 2006)
Death and rebirth are the traditional preoccupation of the winter solstice, and got rolled into the Christian celebration of Christmas. The sun goes out; the son is born.
Elvis himself has enjoyed post-mortem vitality, and dominated the Forbes list of top-earning dead celebrities until Michael Jackson, onetime spouse of Presley’s daughter, exploded onto the scene in 2009. Today, Elvis is a solid No. 2, his earnings eclipsed by Jackson but, at $40+ million dollars, but way ahead of Albert Einstein (who earns a relatively paltry $11 million for his estate).
Day Eleven: The Power and the Glory…Without the Joy
Elvis’ life transition from pure joy to pure bullsh*t was pretty quick.
In 1956—the period so hauntingly documented in Alfred Wertheimer’s photos—Elvis experienced music, fame, girls, and an intoxicating awareness of his own achievement.
By 1958, Elvis was in the Army (where he apparently commenced his lifelong romance with amphetamines and, eventually, other legally prescribed pharmaceuticals); his adored mother, Gladys, had passed away; and the stage was set for a decade of fame, financial security, growing emotional and spiritual turmoil, and an infuriating harvest of crappy music and crappy movies courtesy of Colonel Tom Parker.
A clear sign of where things were headed is Elvis’ historic 1956/57 TV appearances on the Milton Berle Show, the Steve Allen Show, and the Ed Sullivan Show.
On June 5, 1956, Elvis appeared on the Milton Berle show in full gyrating fig. The Elvis Australia fan site has done a great job of locating and archiving Elvis footage and you can see Elvis’ performance of “Hound Dog”—which Elvis has clearly worked up as a salacious crowd pleaser for his live performance (with a slowdown grinding interval) even before he went into the studio to cut the track. When Elvis recorded the song in New York a month later, he pushed his musicians through 31 takes, a sign of the high expectations he held for his music at the time, and his respect for Leiber & Stoller.
Berle is generous and good natured and the after-song patter celebrates Elvis’ burgeoning status as a sex symbol, while coyly dances around Berle’s legendary sex-machine prowess (google Jackie Gleason’s plea “Just enough to win, Milton” to get the idea).
In an interview that Berle did for the Archive of American Television, he recollects that he got 400,000 “pan”– “not fan”–letters after the appearance, a sign not only of the powerful reaction that Elvis’ sexual display had on Americans, but also of the central place broadcast TV occupied in the US psyche in the 1950s.
This was when the “sh*t got real” for Elvis. . Elvis was reportedly driven to tears by the imputation that he was “vulgar”. In July Steve Allen imposed his vision of the “new” housebroken Elvis, subjecting Elvis to the humiliation of dressing up in a tuxedo and singing “Hound Dog” to a noticeably disinterested basset hound.
When it came time for Elvis to collect $50,000 dollars of Ed Sullivan’s money for three appearances in the fall of 1956 and early 1957, the game got more complicated. Sullivan, who considered Elvis’ act insufficiently family friendly, rather counterintuitively let Elvis do the full hound-doggin’ act on the October 28, 1956 show. Well, maybe not counterintuitively. After Elvis’ performance elicited a spasm of outrage—which apparently included burning him in effigy in two towns—and stoked the publicity engine, Sullivan, ostentatiously exercising his responsibilities as gatekeeper of American entertainment decency, ordered up some adjustments for the final show, on January 6, 1957.
This was the notorious show in which Elvis was shot only from the waist up in efforts to transform him into a pop-music eunuch. Elvis’ sudden interest in world affairs and Hungarian relief, I suspect, is a further piece of image-burnishing that emerged from a summit between Sullivan and the Colonel. At the end, Sullivan gives the condescending showbiz “he’s a real decent fine boy” imprimatur, confirming, I guess, that Presley was qualified to follow the same path to the non-threatening adult entertainer pioneered by Crosby & Sinatra.
In this context, Elvis’ closing number, “Peace in the Valley”, is quite interesting. “Peace In the Valley”, together with “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” (see Day 9) are the two signature creations of Thomas A. Dorsey, the founding father of 20th century black gospel.
I have my issues with Elvis’ take on “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”, whose core identity as a desperate black call for religious support he doesn’t quite seem to grasp. “Peace In the Valley” is much less problematic, a reassuring vision of sanctuary, safety, and acceptance that had already been a huge hit for Red Foley, a talented and sophisticated star who could be considered the Bing Crosby of country music.
Elvis, backed by the Jordanaires, turns in a flawless performance, delivered with a style of “Do my vocal demonstrations please you, Earthlings?” detachment that became more and more pronounced in his later years.
The most convincing stories I’ve seen state that Elvis insisted on closing with a gospel number over the objections of CBS. I tend to think Elvis turned to gospel in order to asset his identity, dignity, and self respect as a musician and entertainer, maybe to his mom as well as to himself, and defy the “rock and roll vulgarian”/”safe as milk popstar” pigeonholes that the music industry and his manager had prepared for him.
Elvis’ subsequently recorded a four song EP of gospel tunes (“Peace In the Valley”, “It Is No Secret (What God Can Do)”, “I Believe” and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”), which became the core of the second, “religious” side of the 1957 Christmas Album.
Elvis was not an enthusiast for the Pentecostal theology his parents practiced, and his own religious views became more and more idiosyncratic—and more scandalous to close and critical observers in the Christian world– as he grew older.
Elvis’ hairdresser and close confidante Larry Geller presented this authentic-sounding account of the King’s table talk:
“I’ll tell ya, Larry, I’ve always believed in God, but my church really turned me off,” Elvis said. “I always knew there was a truth to my religion, and somehow I never lost faith in God, despite those ol’ preachers tryin’ to make people feel guilty for things they never done. I always knew that deep inside me there were answers that went beyond their rigid old closed minds.”
“The first time I ever heard about the Almighty I Am was from my mom when I was a little kid. She believed in the supernatural and the Holy Spirit. She was mystical, man. She just naturally knew things. She raised me on it.”
When Elvis’ father, Vernon, not a religious man, took his son to his first movie, the innocent “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” it was their secret, not to be shared with Gladys. She would have disapproved very strongly of her son going against the strictures of the church, which forbade attendance at motion pictures. Considering Elvis’ later involvement with the movie industry, it’s interesting to note that it was the discovery of this forbidden medium that was the first fissure in his relationship with the church of his youth. He was at the naturally rebellious age of thirteen, but he was also realizing for the first time that the preachers were humans whose teachings were colored by their own personal values and opinions. What was so bad about a funny movie? Was it indeed evil—and was he evil for seeing it?
“They said movies were the work of the devil. But after I saw “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” with my daddy, I knew somebody had to be wrong. And it for sure wasn’t Abbott and Costello.” Elvis’ eyes sparkled. “Man, I loved that movie. We laughed all the way through it.”
He turned serious again. “I’ll never forget that movie. You know, there’s got to be something wrong with a religion where everything you like is a sin. Man, that congregation would jump up and down, stomp their feet, and get themselves worked up to a frenzy. It really got wild. And there was the preacher threatening us with Satan. It used to scare me half –to death. He would march across the platform, screaming bloody murder, yelling about hellfire and damnation, fire and brimstone. I guess he was afraid God wouldn’t hear him if he didn’t yell.
“But something good did come out of it. All that dancin’ and the free movement, it taught me that God is natural, and to move my body was natural. I give credit to my church for that. You know, I took a lot of heat when my career first took off. They said I was ‘controversial.’ And there were some preachers who actually said that my music was dirty, and I was leading the kids to hell. They even had a bonfire and burned my records and albums. Can you imagine that? Hell, all I did was what came naturally—what I learned when I was a little kid in church, movin’ my body to the music.”
Religious orthodoxy, aside, Elvis appears to have maintained a core identity as a singer who understood, respected, & delivered genuine gospel music, even as his mind and body were inexorably blown by the unprecedented fame, temptation, weakness, and manipulation he experienced from the time he exploded on the scene as a 21-year old.
Perhaps this sense of inner worth is what allowed him to sleepwalk through his movie and musical career under the direction of the artistically maladroit and venal Colonel Tom Parker; but it also allowed him to return to the power and glory of his first year of fame when he felt he needed it.
Elvis’ twin 1960s triumphs are his 1968 NBC comeback special and the 1969 “Memphis Record” sessions.
The TV special was an embarrassing necessity; the steady procession of dismal movies and soundtracks had eroded Elvis’ appeal to the point that the Colonel needed to throw in a TV program as a lagniappe in order to keep Elvis’ asking price from falling below the iconic $1 million/picture level.
The TV special was originally planned as a cheapie Christmas schlockfest with Elvis singing a few carols. We can thank producer/director Steve Binder for reimagining the program—which aired on December 3, 1968– as a triumphant return to Elvis’ musical roots. In the end, the only Christmas song performed was “Blue Christmas,” off the 1957 album. Though I have my reservations about the original recording (Woo-oo-oo-oo-oo; see Day 5), Elvis nails it in this version.
Day Twelve: Peace In the Valley
To accompany Elvis’ rendition of Reverend Thomas Dorsey’s “Peace in the Valley” from his Christmas album, here is a supersized image of Edward Hicks’ The Peaceable Kingdom, inspired by the same passage from the Book of Isaiah,for viewing, contemplation, reflection, and consolation (use your scroll bar!) during Elvis’ magnificent performance. Hicks, an itinerant Quaker preacher in Pennsylvania, painted this blissful scene approximately one hundred times.
Happy Holidays, Everybody! Peace on Earth!