I have no idea which of my mother’s Elvis 45s I played first. She had so many: “Jailhouse Rock,” “All Shook Up,” “Are You Lonesome To-Night?,” “Too Much,” “Love Me Tender,” for example. I played all of them a lot when I was a kid. My first record player, which I received as a 5th birthday present, was the old school kind that was in a box with a handle so you could carry it around to DJ at elementary school friends’ parties. And it was an awesome sight to behold. Not one of those cheapie plastic deals, no way! I think it was wood, but covered in some sort of denim-themed sheet of something that was the texture of wallpaper. I always loved denim, probably because of that record player.
When I was trying to decide which record to write about for this first of what will be many Elvis blogs, I looked through those 45s to remember which records I played the most. That was tough. They were all amazing, all easy to sing along to, and I knew the lyrics to every song. I am writing about “One Night” and its B-side, “I Got Stung,” because I remember listening to them a little bit more than the others, at least for a time. Each of them was my favorite at some point, of course.
“One Night” is fucking sexy. I’m not sure that I necessarily identified it as such when I was a child, but it got to me on a very deep level. It is Elvis doing his thang, and looking back, I can see why people were offended by him and thought he was corrupting the youth of America. The song is about a guy begging a woman to spend just one night with him. The original version by Smiley Lewis was called “One Night of Sin,” but Elvis cleaned that shit up to get it on the radio.
One night with you
Is what I’m now praying for
The things that we two could plan
Would make my dreams come true
Just call my name
And I’ll be right by your side
I want your sweet helping hand
My love’s too strong to hide
Still pretty risqué for 1957 (though it was not released until 1958 because Elvis was trying to perfect his version), but better than singing about the one-night stand Smiley regretted. Black artists could get away with dirty lyrics because they were not usually played on the radio with white artists, so there was not as much monitoring by the powers that be. When Elvis’ version was released, black performers were becoming more popular and mainstream than they had been (Nat “King” Cole was popular, but he was attacked by white supremacists onstage in 1956 during a performance in front of an all-white audience in Birmingham), but it was still common practice for white artists to record songs originally performed by black artists, and to have much greater commercial success with those songs. Elvis has often been accused of “stealing” black music, a claim that is ridiculous and simply not true. Elvis had many black fans back in the day, something people tend to forget. Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” calls out Elvis for what they saw as his thievery of black music:
Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me, you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother fuck him and John Wayne
So fucking stupid. How can artists who sample other artists’ music call somebody else a thief? Stealing not just the sound or the lyrics, but the actual recording is thievery. Elvis was inspired by black music, and he always acknowledged that. As a poor white southerner Presley lived in similar economic circumstances to most black southerners. His religious upbringing influenced his racial attitudes which, despite contemporary urban myths, were quite progressive. Presley was uninterested in politics and rarely spoke in any direct way about civil rights, but his very essence, his ability to easily communicate with and relate to blacks and whites as a southerner, was inherently political. This did not go unnoticed by many in the black community. “He was more liberal to black people than any of the other artists that I know of. Period,” singer Lou Ragland told me a few years ago when I interviewed him for my thesis. The popular black magazine Tan praised Presley in 1957 for not keeping secret “his respect for the work of the Negroes, nor of their influence on his own singing. Furthermore, he does not shun them, either in public or private.” Even Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver later gave him credit for daring to “[consort] on a human level with blacks” in an open fashion. The Call and Post, the popular Cleveland black newspaper,published a portion of a sermon by Dr. Milton Perry, pastor of the Deliverance Temple in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1957, in which he expressed admiration for Presley’s racial views. Dr. Perry provides examples of Presley’s devotion to charity events benefiting black children as well as his gracious attitude toward his black fans. “It would be good for America if Presley’s legions of devotees in the South and other parts of the nation emulated his attitude,” the pastor asserted.
So fuck you, Public Enemy! Learn some motherfucking history before you talk all that shit.
Anyway, “One Night” is a kick-ass song. It’s a blues song posing as rock ‘n’ roll. And that’s what I love about it. 1957 was still very early in the rock phenomenon, and many people still thought of it as a trend that was due to disappear any day. They looked at it as immoral and just plain in bad taste, and wanted Elvis and those like him to just go away. But Elvis and rock ‘n’ roll were here to stay.
“I Got Stung” is very, very Elvisy.
A land sakes alive
I never thought this could happen to me
Uh huh huh, yeah
Uh huh huh, yeah
What I remember most about it, besides being super fun to sing along with in my best Elvis voice, was that it always sounded liked he was singing “I got stung in the butt.” The Jordanaires’ backing vocals made it sound like the word “butt” was part of Elvis’ “I got stung.” My sister and I used to laugh like crazy, thinking that Elvis got stung in the ass by a bee! What the hell kind of song was that? To this day, I sing “I got stung in the butt” whenever I hear it.
It’s fast, catchy, and the quintessential Elvis. You can just imagine him shaking his leg and twitching his lip as he sangs that shit! Nothing else sounds like it. Now I can see why people didn’t like Elvis. They were jealous. Who else could do what he did? Who else could work up a crowd just by moving his leg? He barely had to sing a word and female fans were fainting. That is sex appeal, my friend. And it was a dangerous thing in the 1950s. Nobody has that kind of appeal today. Most performers are skanks in their videos and onstage, I mean, that’s just what it’s all about anymore. It’s so orchestrated, so rehearsed and phony most of the time. Some people, whether they are performers or not, just have sexiness oozing out of them. Talent is sexy. Trying to be sexy is not sexy. Being overtly sexual is not the same thing as being sexy. Elvis was not trying to be sexy. He was natural. He just let his body move with the music. The music was sexy, it made you really feel some shit, it got all up in ya and you had to express yourself accordingly.
Young people who did not grow up listening to Elvis and knowing the context out of which he and the music came have no idea that people were so violently opposed to rock ‘n’ roll. It seems strange, though there is controversy these days over the sexual nature of so many music videos. But there is fucking in these videos, there is near-nudity or full-on nudity most of the time. Back in the day, it was all about the suggestion of sexuality that bothered people. Movies were still under the restrictions of the Hays Code, but filmmakers had found ways around them. Music had to keep up.
I feel sorry for kids these days. They have very few true artists to worship. And I can count the number of real rock stars on one hand, and none of them are under 35. I was 4 years old when Elvis died, and when I started listening to his music in the years that followed I had no idea he was gone. I did not realize that this music was “old;” to me, it was just great music that I could sing along to that made me feel happy. And that is what music is supposed to be. You need to get something meaningful out of it, not necessarily any social commentary, though there is subtext and context for all music. If the music doesn’t do anything for your soul, it’s no good for you at all.
Elvis has left the building