Elvis: Can’t help thinking a lot about you

Column by Jim Bishop

Elvis Aron Presley – actually, all one needs to say is “Elvis,” and you know who I mean – would be 73 years old on Saturday, Aug. 16, the 31st anniversary of his death.

Some insist he still is, spotted at K-Mart, at Burger King or being chauffeured in one of his many custom Cadillacs. It’s part of the legend of the King of Rock and Roll who altered the sound of popular music from the release of his first Sun recordings in 1954 through his physical demise in Memphis, Tenn., in 1977.

I’ve reflected quite a bit recently about the man and his music, triggered by a visit to the studios of WVPT public television.

WVPT, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary of service to the Piedmont region of Virginia from its base in Harrisonburg, is doing another round of special programming as part of its regular appeals for viewer support for station operations. Among its offerings are two programs on Elvis.

“Elvis Lives: The 25th Anniversary Concert” offers, through modern technology, a seamless blend of taped segments of Elvis singing on stage with a live band and backup singers. “He Touched Me” focuses specifically on Elvis’ love and performance of gospel music.

The station is offering DVD copies of both programs, with bonus footage and features, along with CDs of Elvis’ gospel selections, for contributions at various levels. These would make excellent keepsake additions to anyone’s home entertainment library.

Ironically, Elvis’ label, RCA, wanted him to keep pumping out the rock ‘n’ roll hits that followed each other to the top of the charts and not to venture into uncharted musical territory. Nor did Ed Sullivan want him to perform “Peace in the Valley” with the Jordanaires on one of his Sunday evening shows on CBS. But Elvis was persistent, and Sullivan gave him the green light. The audience responded enthusiastically. His gospel albums, not his long string of No. 1 hits, went on to receive Grammy® awards.

Elvis’ first gospel album, “His Hand in Mine,” was released in 1960. I have a copy of that recording, on vinyl, of course, which I displayed during one of our fund appeals during the pledge breaks on WVPT.

The erstwhile truck driver from Tupelo, Miss., knew what he wanted. He used the best studio musicians, top-notch songwriters like Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and Doc Pomus and Mort Schuman and the distinctive vocal backing of the Jordanaires on many of his hits and the Stamps and Imperial Quartets on his gospel numbers.

Remarkably, Elvis only performed five times outside the U.S., three of them in Canada, during his career, yet he enjoyed worldwide fame. He made 31 movies, most panned by critics, yet all did well at the box office. Several of his releases rescued financially-struggling movie studios.

Think of some of Elvis’ contemporaries no longer living, i.e., Rick Nelson, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Richie Valens, Marty Robbins. They’re still remembered, but are seldom heard on the radio today. What other artist continues to sell more recordings than when they were alive or has an industry of impersonators built around them?

The Elvis persona was something unique. A great voice? I don’t think so, but he somehow managed to blend black, gospel and country/rockabilly music with on-stage theatrics that mesmerized audiences.

I may be way off base, but as I watched the remarkably well-done “He Touched Me” special that includes clips of Elvis performing gospel selections, it felt to me that he was in deep emotional turmoil, cognizant that the strong spiritual messages coming through in many ways smacked up against issues he was facing in his personal life.

I commented off-camera to WVPT station manager David Mullins, whom I was working with, that if Elvis had taken the counsel offered in the very songs he sang so fervently, especially “Crying in the Chapel” and “Lead Me, Guide Me,” he might still be with us today.

A personal favorite among Elvis’ numerous hits is “Fame and Fortune.” Might it be that the king fell from Graceland because he ultimately found it impossible to deal with the adulation from millions of loyal subjects in his kingdom, combined with an inability to handle his riches that can so easily skew personal values, especially for one of such humble beginnings?

Readers are encouraged to watch the Elvis specials today on WVPT, not because I come on periodically to invite financial support of public television – worthy cause that it is – but because you’ll see and learn much about this amazing artist who forever changed the cultural landscape.

“Elvis Lives” airs at 3:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. with “He Touched Me” at 5 p.m. on WVPT public television.

The king is dead, but, 31 years later, his music and legacy live on. Thank you. Thank you very much.


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