Exactly 35 years since he left a huge Elvis-shaped hole in the world, the king of rock n’ roll still exerts his influence over musicians. I am no exception – indeed, during this strange summer of ever-changing weather, my covers of some of his early Sun records has been the only reliable and consistent sun in my life!
Millions love the jumpsuited Vegas Elvis, or the black leather prowling ‘comeback special’ Elvis or perhaps ‘gold spandex’ Elvis. My favourite is his earliest incarnation, forging that fabulous partnership with Scotty Moore.
But what made him so special? Leaving aside his vocal and musical ability which on their own will never ensure success, his most obvious defining quality was the stadium-sized charisma that accompanied him like a ahem, ‘hound dog’.
You can’t teach charisma and you can’t fake it either. You can develop it if you already possess it, but no amount of time and money can make anything other than fool’s gold out of an average performer. There is no formula to charisma, which is what makes it so engaging.
Most enduring performers have it to varying degrees and it can come in all shapes and sizes, from the understated Rowan Atkinson to the full-blown Freddie Mercury. It commands attention and retains interest; and Elvis had enough of it to make most of his largely average movies not only watchable but often enjoyable.
So charisma made him a beloved performer, but it was his originality that sealed his musical legacy. Of course Elvis did not invent rock n’ roll. Jazz, blues, boogie woogie and R&B artists had been developing it for years (notably the brilliant Louis Jordan).
Elvis wasn’t even the first white artist to get hold of the genre, but he was just about the first to imbue it with the soul of its black originators. To this he added a hunk o’ hunk o’ hunk o’ country, a strain of gospel and – crucially – some pop sensibilities courtesy of one of his vocal heroes, Dean Martin.
I don’t think he did all that deliberately. I believe he was simply having a stab at a whole heap of music that he liked that crossed genres and race divides and instinctively created a sound that totally changed the course of popular music.
So here’s to you Elvis and thanks for bringing Sun to the world.