Thursday, January 8, 2009

Let's Don't Let a Good Thing Die

Had he lived, Elvis Presley would have been 74 today. That's not so old - in fact, it's young enough that he'd probably still be on a stage somewhere if he were alive. Elvis was younger than Chuck Berry, or Little Richard, or Frankie Valli. Elvis was younger than Leonard Cohen.

Elvis was younger than Clint Eastwood, or Philip Roth, both of whom still appear to be at the peak of their powers. He was younger than Hank Aaron, or Dame Judi Dench, or Mel Brooks, or Janet Malcolm, or Pat Boone, or Tim Conway. He should still have a career.

People these days seem to think that Elvis wasn't much more than his epochal Fifties recordings, that after he went into the army his musical output wasn't worth a whole lot. I'm more inclined to listen to his recordings from around 1968 to 1972, about the time he stopped making movies (his last being 1969's Change of Habit, with Elvis as a doctor in the ghetto and Mary Tyler Moore as a nun). He cut a lot of very adult, complicated material around then, half-country and half-pop, and everything he did was worth hearing. He did a lot of covers then, too, of songs such as B.J. Thomas' "I Just Can't Help Believin'" and Dusty Springfield's "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me." And no matter who did the song originally, Elvis was a better singer.

Here's Elvis doing his 85th Top Forty hit, "Kentucky Rain," which stalled out at Number 16 in 1970. My lord, what a singer he was - just listen to the desperation and determination in his voice. This recording is also notable for having the most reverb on the vocal of any single I can think of; Elvis sounds like he was singing from the middle of an emptied-out Linens n Things. Was it yesterday - no wait, the day before!

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