Song 185: Elvis Presley, “Blue Suede Shoes” (1956)

elvis

First of all: that album cover is amazing. Everything about it is just so arresting, from Elvis Presley’s expression to the font and colors of the album title. The design is so iconic that the Clash resurrected it for their record London Calling, and the photo substitution swaps one primal urge for another: instead of Presley howling like an animal in the wilderness, bassist Paul Simonon is on the verge of smashing his bass guitar. (Tom Waits took a stab at it, too.)

That rawness is what I love about the cover of Presley’s self-titled debut. I always try to listen to music while imagining what it must have sounded like in the context of its time and place, and I’m sure I could never imagine anything like the fireball of Elvis Presley. Even in that video below (which is Presley’s screen test for Paramount in 1956, the year of his debut), he seems like an uncaged beast, unable to control himself. This was all an act, of course, but the talent was real. Much about Elvis has become cliché and apocryphal, but those early songs, so passionate and unfettered, remain real.

“Blue Suede Shoes” was originally written and performed by Carl Perkins, Presley’s former labelmate at Sun Records. Presley’s new manager, the infamous Colonel Tom Parker, lured Presley away from Sun for the then-unimaginable sum of $35,000. He made an agreement with Sun’s Sam Phillips that, out of respect for Perkins, “Blue Suede Shoes” wouldn’t be released as a single. They kept their promise for about eight months, at which point the song was released as a highly successful single (followed by every other track on the record). Presley recorded the track as a tribute to his colleague, who had just been in a serious car accident; Presley’s single gave Perkins some much-needed financial help.

Comparing Presley’s and Perkins’ versions of the songs is an interesting exercise. They’re both tightly wound, but there’s something a little unhinged about Presley’s delivery. Perkins sings the chorus as a mild admonition, and Presley sounds more than a little angry. Then there’s that famous intro, which Presley makes his own by omitting two beats: whereas Perkins pauses after “one for the money” and “two for the show,” Presley barrels through. This is undoubtedly stretching things, but hearing one version after the other makes it sound like rock ‘n’ roll caught its first major mainstream attention in those two beats. Rock ‘n’ roll had no time to waste: One for the money, two for the show. Let’s do this.

It took me a long time to understand why people love Elvis Presley so much, and why he’s so important to the history of rock ‘n’ roll. But now that I do, it’s not an understatement to say that he’s the reason for everything. He didn’t create rock ‘n’ roll (the blues did that), but he made it appealing to a country that was otherwise unready. From here on, America was all in. And thank god for that.

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