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quora question answered: was elvis presley a great musician?

I RECENTLY DISCOVERED QUORA, a sorta so­cial media web­site with a mis­sion: “To share and grow the world’s knowl­edge.” They do this by al­lowing reg­is­tered mem­bers (it’s free and easy) to ask ques­tions and other mem­bers to offer an­swers. When I signed up, I ticked off a number of cat­e­gories of in­terest to me, and these are the ques­tions that Quora sends me via email every day. One of the first ques­tions on one of my first emails con­cerned Elvis Pres­ley’s “mu­si­cian­ship.”

Of course, I had to an­swer. But it took me more than a week to com­pose the an­swer (I am a slow writer), and by then other an­swers had been posted. As mine was the most com­pre­hen­sive, I posted it anyway.

In my an­swer, I ex­plained that the “ques­tion” con­sisted of two parts: a ques­tion con­cerning Pres­ley’s “mu­si­cian­ship,” and a some­what jum­bled ver­sion of music his­tory. I ad­dressed both.

Below find a slightly al­tered ver­sion of my an­swer to the ques­tion “Was Elvis Presley a great mu­si­cian?

Keep in mind that this is not in­tended for in­formed Presley fans or his­to­rians. It’s a very gen­eral an­swer in­tended for an au­di­ence with little knowl­edge of Elvis or rock & roll.

 

Quora Question: photo of Sam Phillips in his studio in the 1950s.

Sam Phillips at his con­trol board and lathe at 706 Union Av­enue, Mem­phis, Ten­nessee, where he recorded and cut records for local mu­si­cians. (Date un­known.)

Sam Phillips and Sun Records

Sun Records was a tiny, ob­scure com­pany in Mem­phis owned by Sam Phillips. On paper, it was a one-man op­er­a­tion, but he had the as­sis­tance of Marion Keisker, tech­ni­cally his sec­re­tary but in­volved in run­ning many as­pects of the op­er­a­tion. Sam recorded local mu­si­cians in his mi­nus­cule studio, mostly black bluesmen.

The better sides were sold or leased to bigger la­bels, some of which were de­cent R&B hits. Other sides were re­leased on Sun, few of which sold out­side of Mem­phis, hence their rarity as col­lec­tables.

Sam had recorded a few white artists, most of them straight country. It is part of the legend that he said, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a bil­lion dol­lars.” While it’s a great anec­dote, there is no ev­i­dence that he ever ac­tu­ally said it then—aside from his and Mar­i­on’s mem­o­ries.

There is also no ev­i­dence that he ac­tively sought such a talent and he cer­tainly never sent anyone to a black church to hear a young white singer named Elvis Presley.

 

Quora Question: photo of Little Richard in the studio in 1955.

Little Richard recorded his first single for RCA Victor in 1951 but didn’t find his style for al­most four more years when Tutti Frutti rocked the rhythm & blues and pop charts! This photo was taken in the studio in late 1955. (Ooh, my soul!)

Elvis and Sun Records

In 1953, Elvis vis­ited the Mem­phis Recording Ser­vice, a side op­er­a­tion of Sun that al­lowed anyone to make a record. The com­pany claimed, “We record anything—anywhere—anytime. A com­plete ser­vice to fill every recording need.”

Elvis paid to record two cut sides, which were pressed as a one-of-a-kind 78 rpm single. Both sides were bal­lads, fea­turing Presley singing painfully slow a high, some­what soulful, crooning manner.

In 1954, he cut a second, sim­ilar record at Sun. This second ses­sion caught Mar­i­on’s at­ten­tion and she taped part of the record­ings. When Sam needed a local artist for a song he thought had po­ten­tial, she sug­gested the young singer. Elvis was sum­moned to the studio and worked on the song but never got it right.

 

This is a gen­eral an­swer for an au­di­ence with little knowl­edge of Elvis or rock & roll history—meaning most people.

 

But it was ob­vious the kid with the guitar had some talent, so Sam hooked him up with a local mu­si­cian, Scotty Moore, a pro­fi­cient elec­tric guitar player. He brought along Bill Black on standup bass.

The three worked on their sound, with things fi­nally coming to­gether in June or July 1954, when Elvis, Scotty, and Bill cut an up­tempo ver­sion of Bill Mon­roe’s western swing classic Blue Moon Of Ken­tucky. With this number—legendarily achieved while Elvis and the guys were goofing around be­tween takes on var­ious ballads—Sam knew the guys were onto some­thing. It was fol­lowed by the more earthy, more rhythmic That’s All Right.

The first single, Sun 209, That’s All Right / Blue Moon Of Ken­tucky, was re­leased in July, cred­ited to Elvis Presley with Scotty and Bill. Both sides cre­ated a stir and be­came local hits, es­pe­cially in Mem­phis. But very few people out­side of a few states in the South heard the record at the time.

 

Quora Question: photo of Bill Haley and His Comets in London in 1957.

Clowning around on stage was part of Bill Haley and His Comets’ reg­ular rou­tine, here at the Do­minion The­atre in London, Eng­land, in Feb­ruary 1957. It was things such as this that pre­vented many second-generation fans and critics to un­der­es­ti­mate his ac­com­plish­ments and im­por­tance in the his­tory of rock & roll. 

The state of rock & roll in 1954-1955

At the time Elvis recorded that first single, rock & roll hardly ex­isted as a form or genre. It was a term ap­plied by a few disc jockeys in Northern states to what­ever black records they chose to play for their growing au­di­ence of white lis­teners, mostly urban teenagers.

Cer­tainly, there had been records that were re­ferred to as rock & roll, but few had made the na­tional pop charts. While Big Joe Turn­er’s Shake, Rattle And Roll had been #1 on the rhythm & blues charts in June 1954, white radio sta­tions did not play it. Con­se­quently, it did not make ei­ther the Bill­board or Cash Box Top 100 pop charts.

Bill Haley & His Comets then cut Shake, Rattle And Roll in June 1954, while Turn­er’s was still on the charts. Ha­ley’s reading was cruder but more “fun” and was a Top 10 smash on both the Bill­board and Cash Box pop charts!

 

The 1955 movie Black­board Jungle fea­tured Rock Around The Clock, helping it be­come the rock & roll hit heard ’round the world!

 

The Crew Cuts took Sh-Boom to the top of the pop charts in Au­gust 1954. But their reading was a very ho­mog­e­nized ver­sion of the Chords’ orig­inal, a hit in the R&B market.

Oth­er­wise, 1954 was fairly barren in terms of big hits that could be ar­gued to be rock & roll. A few other white “cover ver­sions” (a term that did not mean then what it means now) of black songs made it to the Top 40 in 1954 and later in ’55.

Then came Black­board Jungle, a movie about ju­ve­nile delin­quency in an in­te­grated, inner-city high school. Re­leased in March 1955, the film was an im­me­diate hit with the kids. The pro­ducers chose Bill Ha­ley’s Rock Around The Clock to play be­hind the film’s opening and closing credits, giving Haley the big break he had been looking for.

Rock Around The Clock spent all of July and Au­gust 1955 as the #1 record in the country and went on to be a major hit (and so­cial cat­a­lyst) in Eng­land. It may not have been the first rock & roll hit, but it was the rock & roll hit heard ’round the world and the one that got things all shook up.

 

Quora Question: publicity photo of Chuck Berry in 1956.

Chuck Berry posed (rather awk­wardly) for this pub­licity still some time in 1956, when he was riding high on the R&B charts but still not con­necting in a big way on the pop charts.

About Little Richard and Chuck Berry

There has long been some con­fu­sion about who did what first with many people cred­iting Chuck Berry and Little Richard with making the charts be­fore Elvis. That’s not quite the way it hap­pened. Here is an out­line for 1955:

April 1955

Sun re­leased Pres­ley’s fourth record, Baby, Let’s Play House / I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone. The A-side was his first single to reach a major survey, making it to the Top 10 on Bill­board’s na­tional C&W charts.

July 1955

Chess re­leased Chuck Berry’s first single, Wee Wee Hours / May­bel­lene. It flopped. Then DJs turned the record over and played the B-side, which reached #1 on the R&B charts and was a Top 10 hit on both Bill­board and Cash Box’s pop charts in Au­gust and Sep­tember.

August 1955

Sun re­leased Elvis’s fifth single, Mys­tery Train / I Forgot To Re­member To Forget. The record was a double-sided Top 10 hit on Bill­board and Cash Box’s na­tional C&W charts for Sun Records. When RCA Victor took over man­u­fac­turing and pro­moting the record in late 1955, they pushed it to #1 in Feb­ruary 1956!

October 1955

Little Richard had re­leased six ear­lier sin­gles (1951 and 1954) for RCA Victor and Pea­cock rem­i­nis­cent of the jump-blues style of Louis Jordan. None of these sides were heard by more than a few people and none made any na­tional chart. In Oc­tober, Spe­cialty re­leased Richard’s Tutti Frutti / I’m Just A Lonely Guy. The A-side was a Top 10 hit on the R&B charts and even­tu­ally reached the Top 10 of the na­tional pop charts in Feb­ruary 1956.

Elvis played piano on a few record­ings and was known to pick at Beethoven when alone. Click To Tweet

Quora Question: photo of Sam Phillips and Marion Keisker with Elvis, probably in 1955.

Sun Records founder Sam Phillips and his righthand-man Marion Keisker with Elvis in front of the studio at 706 Union Av­enue, Mem­phis, Ten­nessee. (Date un­known, but prob­ably 1955.)

The state of rock & roll in early 1956

De­spite the in­ter­na­tional suc­cess of Rock Around The Clock, the only record that fol­lowed it be­tween Sep­tember 1955 and March 1956 that reached #1 on ei­ther Cash Box or Bill­board’s Top 100 that could even be con­sid­ered to be “rock & roll music” was the Pre­tenders’ The Great Pre­tender.

Then, in Jan­uary 1956, Sun re­leased Carl Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes and RCA Victor re­leased Elvis Pres­ley’s Heart­break Hotel and all Hell broke loose!

 

Quora Question: photo of Elvis in RCA Victor's New York studio in 1955.

Elvis in RCA Vic­tor’s New York stu­dios in No­vember 1955, posing for his first of­fi­cial pub­licity shots for his new record com­pany.

Elvis’s musicianship

Ex­cept for some diehard fans, I don’t think anyone has ever ar­gued that Presley was a “great” mu­si­cian. He was a fine rhythm guitar player: see two hours of taped per­for­mances from June 27, 1968, that were used for his NBC-TV spe­cial that year. He played on most of his record­ings through 1960, then stepped aside for more ac­com­plished players.

One of my fa­vorite sto­ries took place during the sound­track ses­sions for the Jail­house Rock movie in May 1957. Bill Black was using a Fender bass for the first time, in­stead of his usual standup bass. While cut­ting (You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care, Black threw the in­stru­ment to the floor in frus­tra­tion at the dif­fi­culty in playing his part and left the studio. Where­upon Elvis walked over, picked up the Fender, and then recorded one of the most mem­o­rable bass lines of the ’50s!

He was a good key­boardist who played oc­ca­sional piano on his record­ings and was known to pick at Beethoven when alone. He also played drums and, ap­par­ently, a little sax­o­phone, al­though never on record.

He was es­sen­tially self-taught on all these in­stru­ments, which would seem to in­di­cate a “nat­ural” ability with music and in­stru­ments. That is, we can argue that he had the po­ten­tial for great­ness as a“musician.” Had he de­voted the time to prac­tice one or two in­stru­ments, he may have be­come a great gui­tarist or pi­anist.

But he was too busy being Elvis Presley …

 

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Loved every word! Johnny Cash men­tioned in his ‘Au­to­bi­og­raphy’ that he was first at­tracted to Elvis’ and his ‘guitar chops’.….…more so than his singing. Al­ways felt he never got the credit de­served for his ability as a ‘gui­tarist’! TCB

With re­gard to Elvis’ mu­si­cian­ship as a gui­tarist, he ac­tu­ally never stopped playing guitar to­tally on his record­ings. During his sound­track years and af­ter­wards, he didn’t play guitar all that often, but he was a better gui­tarist than the mu­sical snobs ever gave him credit for being. D.J. Fontana said Elvis knew enough about all the in­stru­ments to ask the mu­si­cians what he wanted and what he could play. And he said Elvis was ca­pable of playing a little lead. D.J. also said Elvis played the drums on one of his record­ings but couldn’t re­call which song it was. Not to men­tion bass and piano.

Elvis’ last gig as a mu­si­cian on one of his recording ses­sions was playing bass on one of the ver­sions of Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain in 1976. There have also been ru­mors Elvis also played guitar on one or two of the songs from the 1976 ses­sions.

As to why Elvis didn’t play guitar all that much after 1960, I don’t think it had to do with his mu­si­cian­ship so much as it had to do with the ma­te­rial he had to work with. I couldn’t see Elvis get­ting ex­cited about playing guitar on Do The Clam or many of the other sound­track dreck he had to put up with. He had some good songs from Amer­ican Stu­dios on­ward, but that doesn’t mean he was ex­cited about every 70s song he recorded. Some of the 70s songs RCA should’ve just left in the vault! Or re­leased as non-album B-sides.

When it came to Elvis, they and their new al­bums every three or four months made it dif­fi­cult for any one album to be a best selling album. It should’ve been one new album per year. By the time Elvis died, artists had de­vel­oped a habit of re­leasing a new album every other year. That prob­ably would’ve been better for Elvis and al­lowed him time to pick and choose better songs. And maybe want to play the guitar a whole lot more.

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