Writer Tom Sinclair says Elvis sucks.
Rather than just call him an idiot, a musical moron, a tone-deaf jackass, I’ll explain why I think he’s shown his ignorance.
But my problem with Elvis has always been the absurd degree to which this guy — the bulk of whose post-’50s career was, by most yardsticks, an extended embarrassment — has been lionized. Jeez, the cat didn’t even write his own songs, and he barely played guitar, pioneering the use of that instrument as pure prop. Stacked up against his contemporaries — Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis — Elvis falls short in terms of both artistry and creativity.
Never in the history of Western civilization has a supposed music critic written such a load of crap.
Granted, Elvis did some exceedingly silly things in the ’60s and ’70s, but his musical output was far from an embarrassment. Few artists — possibly no artists — during the same period recorded as many great songs, so many great performances as Elvis Presley. I’ve made my own custom CDs of Elvis’ best work from that period, and it fills nearly four 75-minute CDs. That’s a hell of a lot of music. I can’t do that with either the Beatles (unless I include all of the solo work by the four lads) or Led Zeppelin.
As a performer in the in those two decades, Presley was unmatched. Nobody had his charisma, his dynamism or his sense of showmanship.
He “barely played guitar”? Listen to those Sun recordings again, Mr. Sinclair. There are few finer rhythm guitarists in the history of rock and roll. Elvis was a natural. Listen to “That’s All Right, Mama.” It isn’t Scotty Moore or Bill Black who created that acoustic guitar part. It was Elvis. And it’s dead on perfect and it revolutionized popular music and solidified the beat of rock and roll. Scotty is brilliant, of course, and his leads and fills give the song added excitement, but the foundation of the song, as with most of the Sun sides, is the acoustic guitar. And nobody I’ve ever heard did that better than Elvis.
Elvis also played bass and piano. He was no slouch as a musician.
Which brings up another point. Singers are musicians, too. It takes just as much musical talent to be a good singer as it does to play another other instrument. It also takes practice and hard work, just like any other instrument. There have been few singers in the history of popular music who have even come close to matching Elvis’ vocal range, or his range as a performer. Song interpretation is one of the great arts of civilization. It is also, largely, a dead art. Elvis may have been the last of the true masters, in the tradition of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Pearl Bailey, Peggy Lee and Tony Bennett.
As for writing his own songs — which of the greats in the preceding paragraph was also a songwriter? It is a greatly misguided conceit of many a modern music critic that only performers who write their own songs are worthy of veneration. There’s only one word for the conceit: stupid. It demonstrates a huge misunderstanding of what goes into a great song. Frankly, there are many songwriters who probably shouldn’t be performing their own songs. Dave Matthews springs readily to mind. As much as I love Bob Dylan, the best versions of his songs are usually performed by other artists. And in today’s studios, who knows how many contemporary singer-songwriters really suck as performers? The worst flaws can now be digitized away. Pro Tools is the sucky musicians’ best friend. But when you hear Elvis, you are getting the real deal — pure analog, baby.
As for Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis — as wonderful as they were in their prime, what did they do besides record a handful (each) of great songs that pretty much all sound alike? They all made tremendous contributions to the history of rock and roll, but none of them can match (it’s an insult to Presley and every intelligent music fan to even make the comparison) Elvis for artistry and creativity. None of them recorded the vast body, the vast repertoire of Presley. None of them would even attempt it. None of them had even a tenth of the talent for it.
Like Sinclair, I wasn’t around in the 1950s. My first exposure to Elvis was an LP my dad bought me called “Elvis Presley Gold Vol. 1.” It had such great songs “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Honey Don’t,” and “All Shook Up.” I wore the LP out, I played it so much. As a child, I also watched Jailhouse Rock many times, along with other Elvis movies. I was mesmerized. I tried to imitate his every move. The night of his Aloha special, my parents went out to dinner and it was my first night home alone without a baby-sitter. I danced all over the house during the entire concert. Elvis was King.
It wasn’t until high school that I heard Elvis’s Sun Sessions. I immediately gravitated toward those records to the neglect of everything else Elvis ever did. The raw energy was the epitome of rock and roll. Elvis was the first punk. I bought into the common notion that only Elvis’s ’50s sides mattered. Years later, when I got the ’60s and ’70s box sets, and bought some of Elvis’s gospel records (Elvis may be the greatest gospel singer ever), I came to appreciate the artistry and creativity of his later career.
Face it, Elvis is the King. Only a few musicians from the 20th Century are even worthy to share his stage — Hank Williams, Frank Sinatra, Patsy Cline, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and U2 round out the list.
Sinclair is an idiot.