Friday, January 08, 2010

He Was The King - Happy Birthday Elvis...

Whether he's performing cabaret in heaven or bagging groceries in Kansas, we'd like to wish a happy 75th birthday to the King.

We're not going to wax lyrical about Elvis' impact here at length - plenty of others are doing it already - so we'll not add to the noise. But as a sign of his influence, no artist has been the subject of so many songs by others, and that is what we celebrate here.

We did a rather half-hearted marker of his death last year, but always said we'd come back for more on his birthday, and here we are. Some of the tracks below are repeats, but I figured it was best to get this playlist up in full.

Patti Scialfa - Looking For Elvis (Play It As It Lays, 2007)

We kick it off with this quite beautiful bluesy offering from Patti Scialfa's latest album, one of the two tracks (along with Gillian Welch) that first inspired me to make this compilation about a year ago.

Paul Simon - Graceland (Graceland, 1986)

The most famous song on this list by some margin is one of the defining moments of Paul Simon's solo career. It speaks of the power of Elvis as a cultural icon in modern America, a man who, while he may have been a simple entertainer, was able to unite the country. Dealing with the break-up of his marriage, Simon expects to find solace not in a church or anywhere like it, but at Graceland. "I'm going to Graceland/For reasons I cannot explain/There's some part of me wants to see Graceland/And I may be obliged to defend/Every love, every ending/Or maybe there's no obligations now/Maybe I've a reason to believe/We all will be received/In Graceland".

Gram Parsons - Return of The Greivous Angel (Grievous Angel, 1973)

The Elvis references in this one are less obvious, but Parsons finally gives away the identity of his subject in the final verse as he hints at Elvis' journey from Mississippi and Tennessee to his drug-addled days in Vegas: "The news I could bring, I met up with the king/On his head an amphetamine crown/He talked about unbuckling that old bible belt/And lighted out for some desert town".

Emmylou Harris - Boy From Tupelo (Red Dirt Girl, 2000)

Like Paul Simon, Emmylou Harris seems to have decided that Elvis is the man who can bring solace after a break-up. But rather than head to Memphis, Emmylou wants the boy Elvis, and heads to Mississippi and his childhood home of Tupelo. "Just ask the boy from Tupelo/He's the King and he oughta know..."

Neil Young - He Was The King (Prairie Wind, 2005)

There's no claims of higher powers or anything here - this is a straight homage from one great musician to another. And it's quite wonderful.

Drive-By Truckers - Carl Perkins' Cadillac (The Dirty South, 2004)

One of my favourite songs of all time, the Drive-By Truckers encapsulate the whole wonderful story of Sun Records through the tale of the Cadillac that Sam Phillips offered to the first artist to break

John Fogerty - Big Train (From Memphis) (Centerfield, 1985)

Like Young's He Was The King, this is the musician's tribute to the "Big Train From Memphis" who inspired so many kids across America to pick up guitars and learn to play..."Like no one before/He let out a roar/And I just had to tag along/Each night I went to bed with the sound in my head/And the dream was a song.

Smokin' Dave & The Premo Dopes - The Last Elvis Song (Too Many Years In The Circus, 1989)

Okay, so this one doesn't quite fit into the "tribute" bracket, but Todd Steed and friends let loose their feelings on Elvis in this riotous little song that deals not with the King's impact life but in the continuing obsession with him - which we continue here - after his death.

Bruce Springsteen - Johnny Bye-Bye (Tracks, 1998)

A young Bruce Springsteen first saw Elvis perform on the Ed Sullivan show in 1957. He was seven. "I couldn't imagine anyone not wanting to be Elvis Presley," Springsteen said. He did his best to meet him too, jumping the fence at Graceland in 1976 during an early national tour, and racing to the front door to ask if the King was home. He wasn't. The man who was later seen wearing an Elvis fan club badge on the sleeve of Born To Run wrote this short but sweet account of the night Elvis died but only put it out on the Tracks collection.

Ronny Elliott - Elvis Presley Didn't Like Tampa (Hep, 2003)

I've no way of knowing for sure whether Elvis did or did not like Tampa. I'm sure the tourist board of the Florida city would dispute it, but for now we'll take Mr Elliott's word for it.

Cowboy Junkies - Blue Moon Revisited (Song For Elvis) (Trinity Revisited, 2007)

For footballing reasons, Blue Moon will always stand out as one of my favourite Elvis songs. The Cowboy Junkies first re-did it in 1988 on The Trinity Sessions and then again 19 years later (why not wait for 20?) on Trinity Revisited.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Tupelo (The Firstborn Is Dead, 1985)

In his practically apocalyptic ode to Elvis' original hometown, Cave seems to have compared the arrival of the King to the birth of jesus. Much of the imagery is the same as the town is sinking on its knees "Until the King is born!" like some kind of saviour. And when that happens, it happens like so..."In a clap-board shack with a roof of tin/Where the rain came down and leaked within/A young mother frozen on a concrete floor/With a bottle and a box and a cradle of straw". Elvis was born in his parents' shotgun house in Tupelo, arriving 35 minutes after his stillborn twin brother, a fact Cave does not shy away from: "Well Saturday gives what Sunday steals/And a child is born on his brothers heels/Come Sunday morn the first-born dead/In a shoebox tied with a ribbon of red".

Bob Dylan - Went To See The Gypsy (New Morning, 1970)

There were plenty of claims that Elvis was descended from Romani gypsies on his mothers side - not true, but its a theme Dylan picks up on in another tribute to the enduring power of Elvis, this one released while the King was still very much alive and performing in Las Vegas. "Go on back to see the gypsy/He can move you from the rear/Drive you from the fear/Bring you through the mirror/He did it in Las Vegas/And he can do it here".

U2 - A Room At The Heartbreak Hotel (Angel of Harlem 'B' side, 1988)

Given that U2 went to Memphis to record Rattle and Hum in the shadows of Elvis at Sun Studios, it's no surprise that they wrote and recorded a song about Elvis. But A Room At The Heartbreak Hotel never made the album, instead appearing as a B side to the Billie Holiday ode Angel of Harlem.

Gillian Welch - Elvis Presley Blues (Time (The Revelator), 2001)

It was Advent Calendar panelist Pranam who first pointed out to me the beauty of so many songs about Elvis - and this was the song he first pointed to. One of the two original inspirations for this compilation, Welch's tribute is simple but touching, and a fitting way to round this out. It is taken from the Time (The Revelator) album which also features I Wanna Sing That Rock N Roll, a song not clearly about Elvis but another one that always makes me think of the King and his boundless enthusiasm for music.

Happy birthday, Elvis.

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