by Frank Muller
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There has been a great deal of interest in Elvis Presley and his music since the recent release of the biopic “Elvis”. I grew up an Elvis fan and remain so to this day. I had the great fortune of my parents taking the family to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in 1974 and was absolutely mesmerized by the presence of the man.
Then, like now, we can see the clips of thousands of women swooning over Elvis and this even as a young boy of twelve at the time seemed utterly impossible to understand prior to that show. And then, I understood that afternoon in Houston, Texas when I not just witnessed but more importantly experienced something that I still ponder over.
What was it that made Elvis this iconic figure both during his life and now some forty-five years later after his death? At first, it seemed to me that it was his distinctive looks. Naturally photogenic with smooth and clear skin, thick hair stylishly handled but rebellious in its’ attitude (especially during performances), and his almost androgenous features. He seemed to capture the masculinity of men and yet also the beauty and subtlety of women. These nonverbal and instinctually visual cues remain to this day the goal of any performing artist.
I still think that his physical appearance was a vital part of this image, but it was more than just bodily gifts. Elvis had a distinctive and trend setting way with wardrobe. His use of large collars and lapels was an intentional way of drawing attention to his face. This was wise and intuitive as his natural sense of performance art is clear from his earliest performances.
Look back at his movies and all the thousands of pictures and you will see that in no matter what setting he was placed in he had mastered the art of how to wear clothes. This is what drew Hollywood to him as he was unique in the music world of combining immense vocal talent and innovation but just as vitally, he could express himself through movement, wardrobe, facial expressions and speech. His ability to learn hundreds of songs and yet intimately express those songs remain right on par with the greats like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.
Through the years as I pondered this question of Elvis, I began to realize that it was the music itself that held the key. In his 1968 comeback TV special was an approximately two-minute commentary on modern rock and roll that at first seemed polite to his competitors. Then in all seriousness he begins to tell us how it was rhythm and blues and notably gospel that informed his heart for music. He then goes on to correctly claim that all rock and roll owes its creation to the gospel and blues music of the African American community which in that day and time was incredibly courageous for a white performer.
It was at this point in 1968 that Elvis made a transition from a rhythm and blues-based fusion with rock and roll to where his heart actually resided and that was in gospel music. This was the music he loved. This was the music that united him to his mother. This was the music sung at revival tents with unabashed joy and ecstatic movement. It was in praise and mystery that Elvis found himself and as he aged right up to his last concert it was clear that this is what his voice was destined and desired to do.
Linked below is a video clip of Elvis recreating with his original band members “That’s all right little momma” which was an African American rhythm and blues song, and this was the song he chose to record for his mother who loved it and ironically was the song that burst onto the music scene in America, and that scene was changed forever. It was a hit in the 1950’s and then again in 1968 and if one takes the time to listen and watch it today it becomes crystal clear that this was the real Elvis Presley.
Elvis, like all of us, struggled with sin and temptation. But it was the Grace of the Gospel that brought light and creativity to Elvis Aron Presley. From 1968 forward Elvis turned towards this Love and in my opinion the greatest music he left us was his Gospel recordings. There, his voice found meaning and it was there whilst on stage singing Gospel music that he could for a moment leave behind the pains of betrayal, financial ruin, and loneliness. He had climbed the ladder of success and suffered, he then descended into darkness, and I think found his soul again in all that pain.
In my opinion, what makes Elvis a transcendent character is that he was in his heart a transcendent soul. Blessed with rhythm and looks and a voice that imparted meaning to the lyrics and the skill to effortlessly skip across many different musical genres and make each song still sound like he was precisely the right person to sing them at precisely that moment in time.
This is what drove in my view the Elvis phenomena. He was the rare person with immense talent who could appeal to both sexes, across age generations, and across time precisely because he so clearly embodied a deep spirituality that could be expressed in body, mind and soul. It was this freedom that took peoples breath’s away (for better or worse), and one today can still sense that in 1958, 1968, and even one month before his death in 1977 this freedom that music brought to him.
There is a great lesson for us all. We can find peace when we lift up our talents to our Lord and express a unity of life in using those talents, we can then align ourselves with something bigger than ourselves. We only get in trouble when we think those gifts come from us. When we stay humble and grateful for our gifts, our souls can sing and be free.
May Peace be with us all.