One might think that calling a performer “underrated” for whom 84,000 people have list their profession as “Elvis Impersonator” on tax returns is a crazy statement. Yet, with the upcoming Elvis movie (June 24), he will still not be regarded as the remarkable vocalist he was before he left us.
The idea of calling him “underrated” might immediately be rejected because his career was overwhelmingly successful. But that career never totally veered from the moment he burst on to the scene with his September 9, 1956, tamed-down, hip-swiveling performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. As a rock ‘n’ roller, he was never considered a vocalist especially compared to the era’s greats, including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Tony Bennett.
Elvis was a victim of his own success. From the time of his first recordings at Sun Records he changed the face of the music business. Sam Phillips was seeking a white singer who could capture the essence of the black artists he had been recording. When Elvis broke out into a revved-up version of an old blues classic, That’s All Right Mama, Phillips knew he had his man and the world changed.
One need only listen to his CD 30 #1 hits to question calling him underrated. Not only that, but you can also obtain an album called 2nd to None of his 30 hit songs that did not make it to number one. An album you can listen to and think, oh my, how were these not number ones? Songs like Little Sister, An American Trilogy, Viva Las Vegas, and Kentucky Rain. Many of these songs provide a hint about what a great vocalist he was; he was not just a rock ‘n’ roller.
Elvis was carefully managed in terms of his music from the moment he left Sun Records, which likely kept him from being regarded as such a great singer. His contract was sold to RCA, where he had greater song choices, but public perception kept his persona as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Elvis aficionados know that Elvis did not just record a song. Elvis started in the era before singer-songwriters became common and had remarkable success long after Bob Dylan and The Beatles became famous. As a songwriter, who would you want to sing your song other than Elvis Presley? The Colonel set up a system of testing songs for Elvis long before Elvis got to them.
A full-out recording of a particular song was done with another singer in place of Elvis. For a long time that singer was a gentleman named Glen Campbell. If you do not know the name, Campbell was a fabulous guitarist who became a wildly successful recording artist in his own right. Campbell recorded songs for Elvis from 1964-1968. This was in between his many recordings with the famous Wrecking Crew, a premier studio ensemble who you have listened to all your life.
You can now find 18 of those Campbell recordings on a recently released album called Sings for the King. One gets a sense of the process employed to evaluate a potential Elvis Song. After the songs got a full-out production with a first-class singer they were presented to Elvis. Twelve of the songs on the album were chosen to be recorded by the King.
Elvis thought his career was over while he spent two years in the Army. He returned to record the album Elvis Is Back! He began to display is vocal dexterity partly enhanced by the fact his vocal range was extended one octave while in the service. Just two of the cuts show his evolution with his recording of the Peggy Lee classic, Fever, and The Drifters, Such a Night.
Delve into the four-record set Elvis Back in Nashville or Elvis with the Royal Philharmonic. You begin to sense his greatness as a singer and the diversity of his range. Pick up one his Christmas CD’s where he makes Christmas a delight. Or there is Elvis: Great Country Songs where is conquers another genre. Elvis in Memphis is another means to grasp what a great vocalist he had become.
I first learned of Elvis’ diversity when he recorded in 1966 Bob Dylan’s Tomorrow is a Long Time. Dylan stated it was his favorite recording of one of his songs by another artist. Elvis also recorded Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right.
The movie Elvis will remind you of the Elvis we all know. Spend some time learning about the Elvis that is not as widely circulated. You will be richly rewarded.