Sometimes, however annoying it may initially look, utilising a cliche can often be the best way of introducing any topic. So it is with ‘Elvis has left the building’ – the phrase often used by announcers whenever an Elvis Presley gig was over, in a bid to clear the auditorium of screaming fans. The singer would have turned 80 today, had he not Left The Building for good in August 1977. Another oft-used cliche when discussing talented late musicians is ‘(S)He is dead but his/her music lives on’, and Presley is no exception to that rule: immensely popular though he was for most of his lifetime, sales and radio plays of his recordings have remained consistently healthy over the last 37 years. Moreover, you do not have to subscribe to any of the various outlandish claims of how The King faked his death to know that the Building in question is allegorically too big and secure for him ever to leave it fully.
Elvis was of course enormously commercially successful – he was, after all, the biggest-selling solo artist in the history of recorded music (one journalist in 2009 estimated his global album sales as topping the 600 million mark) – but commercial success on its own can barely explain his enduring influence and importance. Were commercial hitmaking all that mattered in the game, then every single X-Factor winner in the show’s history would be a household name. Quite apart from raking in the millions, Elvis was pivotal in the rise of rock ‘n’ roll music, arguably the single most revolutionary musical genre of the last century. The genius behind Elvis was selling a black music style to a white record-buying public, in the States and beyond, at a time when America was sharply racially divided in all areas of life. Quoted in Gilbert Rodman’s 1996 book “Elvis after Elvis: The Posthumous Career of a Living Legend”, Presley’s contemporary Little Richard summed it up:
‘He was an integrator. Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn’t let black music through. He opened the door for black music.‘
There is, additionally, the association of Presley and his music to youthful rebellion and racy dancing. At one point early on in his career, TV cameramen were ordered never to show him from the waste down, owing to the supposedly suggestive nature of his hip swivelling while performing. It is no coincidence that the word “teenager” first started to appear in the mid-1950s, to denote a spirit quite different from that of “adolescent”. More fortuitously, the rise of Elvis coincided with the explosion in ownership of radio and TV sets in the States and beyond. Guided by the ever-present Colonel Tom Parker, Presley was one of the first popular music singers to exploit the then-novel medium of television to the fullest. Also, whatever we think of the several thousand Elvis impersonators enjoying steady work all over the world, it at least underlines his status as a timeless icon of popular culture.
Another cliche when discussing the King’s influence is that he peaked just before he was drafted into the US Army in 1958, but this is both unfair and untrue. As ex-UUP leader David Trimble argued in BBC Radio 4’s “Great Lives” series in August 2007 (and the former First Minister remains the only public figure to have nominated Presley in that biography series), Elvis actually had more than one peak (in Trimble’s words, ‘He was not just a rock ‘n’ roller’). To dismiss everything in the Presley back catalogue from his army years onwards is to miss stirring social-conscience numbers like “In The Ghetto” and “If I Can Dream”, as well as touching ballads like “Crying In The Chapel” and “Anything That’s Part of You” (my personal favourite among the Presley oeuvre).
As if further proof of Elvis’s status as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll were needed, we can also coolly pore over the plaudits of his contemporaries to understand how crucial an influence he was. In the words of Buddy Holly, ‘Without Elvis, none of us could have made it,’ while John Lennon opined ‘Before Elvis, there was nothing. Without him, there would be no Beatles‘, and Bob Dylan once referred to hearing Presley’s music for the first time as “like busting out of jail“.
Perhaps the final word on the King’s impact belongs to DJ Mark Radcliffe, who summed it up in a 1999 BBC Radio 2 documentary thus:
‘The Elvis story isn’t part of rock ‘n’ roll history, it’s just part of history in general, and if you don’t like a single Elvis record, well then, you don’t really like pop music at all.’