PEOPLE ON QUORA asking me questions about rock & roll music seems to come in waves. I have answered several in the past few days after going more than a week without—although there were a few that I couldn’t answer because they concerned newer artists with whom I’m unfamiliar (newer meaning artists who recorded after 1980).
This question is now about sixty-four years old and Lawdy, Lawdy but only Miss Clawdy knows how many times it’s been asked: “Did Elvis Presley steal his style?” You can probably spend years looking up all the references to other rtists—black and white, blues and country, gospel and pop—that the young Presley listened to and admired and even aped as a young man.
Did Elvis “steal” from other artists to achieve his style? Of course, he did—just like every artist before him and every artist after him!
The great Igor Stravinsky is reputed to have said, “A good composer does not imitate, he steals.” The more common and popular version of this adage is “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”
“Great artists steal is at its root about finding inspiration in the work of others, then using it as a starting point for original creative output. Artists may recontextualize, remix, substitute, or otherwise mashup existing work to create something new.” (Adam J. Kurtz)
Here the term stealing has nothing to do with anything as crass as plagiarism, but rather that all artists are influenced by what came before them, and a great artist takes ideas from those past masters and makes those ideas his own. So much so that his work or style seems profoundly unique!
So please find my answer to the question “Did Elvis Presley steal his style?” between the images below.
In November 1966, I had bought Elvis’s new single If Every Day Was Like Christmas. It was fine single, displaying the latest incarnation of Presley’s changing voice and style, very welcome indeed after the almost intolerable soundtracks of the mid-’60s. While playing the record on the family stereo, our neighbor Uncle Bob walked in. He stopped, listened, and said, ” I never noticed how much Elvis sounds like Bing Crosby.” I hadn’t either, but this ‘new’ Elvis of 1966 did sound like he’d been listening to a lot of der Bingle’s old sides and they had influenced his singing, especially Presley’s tone and phrasing on ballads.
Something from everybody
First, my answer is not intended to be in the least bit condescending, although it is basic and simplistic. (As good answers should be, yes?)
To the question “Did Elvis Presley steal his style [from other artists]?” the answer is No, he did not.
To the question “Did Elvis Presley steal from other artists to achieve his style?” the answer is Yes, of course he did!
First, Presley had a reputedly near-perfect memory and listened to every kind of music that was out there in his formative years. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller considered themselves hip for knowing just about every black blues and R&B singer who had ever cut a side. When they met Elvis in 1957, they found that he knew everything they did plus lots more—especially gospel music.
Elvis drew from this encyclopedic awareness and knowledge when he nicked something from Big Boy Crudup, Wynonie Harris, Fats Domino, Clyde McPhatter, Big Mama Thornton, and Roy Hamilton.
Elvis drew from this encyclopedic awareness and knowledge of all forms of popular music and took a little something from everybody!
When he took a bit from Hank Williams, Bill Monore, Hank Snow, Bill Haley, and Eddy Arnold.
When he lifted something from Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, and Mario Lanza.
When he siphoned a thing or two from Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Statesmen Quartet, and especially from Jake Hess.
It’s sorta a little something from everybody, just like just about every other artist in just about every other field of creative endeavor.
It’s how these things work; it’s why, in hindsight, there’s a recognizable thread of continuity leading up to and through (almost) every new, avant-garde “break” with the past.Did Elvis steal from other artists? Of course he did—just like every artist before him! Click To Tweet
FEATURED IMAGE: As legend has it, in July 1954, while Sam Phillips was waiting for Elvis Presley to find a song to latch onto in the Sun studio and make it his own, the young singer released his frustration by strumming his guitar and belting out a lively version of That’s All Right. The song had been a hit for Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup for RCA Victor in 1947, one of many for the singer, guitar player, and songwriter in the ’40s.
When coupled with an equally spirited version of Bill Monroe’s take on Blue Moon Of Kentucky and released as Sun 209, the record was a local hit and the beginning of Presley’s career. When Presley signed with Victor, he included two more Crudup songs in his original sessions, My Baby Left Me and So Glad You’re Mine.
While Big Boy’s influence on the nascent style of Presley is indisputable, the moniker “Father of Rock & Roll” hung on him by some critics decades after the fact is disputable, but that’s another story …