Sunday, July 03, 2011

Elvis Presley: (The Secret Bass) Guitarman?

Elvis Presley is the King of Rock’n Roll.

I really don’t need to say much more than that. He doesn’t need an introduction.

For as far back as my memory allows me to go, his music has been a part of my life. I must have been about four year’s old when I was dancing on the shag rug to “Hound Dog” as the vinyl record spun on Daddy’s high fidelity turntable.

Now, I’ve got to forewarn you, I’m going to take the scenic route as I discuss my theory that Elvis Presley secretly held a passion for bass guitars and saw himself as a bit of a bassman. He knew how to get down on it and could really play bass guitar.

Did you know that Elvis actually played the bass guitar on the track “You’re So Square (Baby, I Don’t Care)”?

There was no question that the man had rhythm and that even his gyrating fingertip could swoon a crowd of women into a tizzy as it moved back and forth. Watch any film clip of Elvis live on stage (especially post 1967) and you can see his head, hands, body and his whole soul move along with the rhythm that the basslines dropped. Sometimes, when on stage and gyrating in his karate moves, he would even play a bit of “air (bass) guitar” on occasions with his two fingers as if he was “walking the basslines”.

But let’s take the scenic route and build up to discussing his bass playing and passion for Fender basses for later in this blog o’mine as I digress a bit.

One of my earliest memories as a kid was getting my shots for school at the doctor’s office in August 1977. Over the radio, the newscaster announced that Elvis Presley had died. It was like a family member had passed away. I was with my mother in the reception room and it was the first time in my life that I can remember ever seeing my Mama cry. It will be a moment that I will never forget.

I would learn years later, that Mama had met Elvis when she was younger. The story goes something like this… around 1956 or so when my Mama was about eight year’s old, my grandmother took her, along with her sister(s?) and cousin(s?), to see where this local Elvis boy lived in Memphis. This was before he bought Graceland in 1957 and had just made the transition from Sun Records to RCA Victor for his recording contract.

Take this all with a grain of salt (I do believe it is all true), but oral family tradition has it that during the infamous Elvis meeting with my Mama and the girls, they were standing on the sidewalk in front of his house to see if they could sneak a peek of him. They could see Elvis’s mother, Gladys, hanging clothes on the laundry line. Elvis then rode up on his motorcycle wearing his black leather jacket and cap. He had a girl on the back of the cycle with him. Mama says it was Natalie Wood, and would you believe, doing a little Internet research, Elvis did indeed date Natalie Wood in 1956.

Well, the story goes that Elvis pulled over on his bike to say hello to his young fans. He chitchatted with the girls, and then get this… he cuts up a bit with them and then he ruffled my Mama’s hair. She had “Shirley Temple” style curls as a child and Elvis goofed off with her for a moment. He stroked my mother’s hair and played with her curls for a moment. According to Mama, Elvis then invited my grandmother to come back the next day to play cards with his mother but my Granny declined.

“That’s okay. We don’t want to bother.”

Shoot. We could have become Memphis Mafia.

I tell you that story to set up the next story. Yes, indeed, I’m an Elvis fan. By birthright as you can see.

I’ve amassed quite the Elvis record collection myself and I believe I have over 50 different albums that he put out. I even own quite a few Elvis movies on DVD. I love KING CREOLE, CHANGE OF HABIT, ROUSTABOUT, KID GALAHAD, HEARTBREAK HOTEL and so many more. I make no apologies. I’m an Elvis fan.

So, last year, as part of her own birthright, I took a little vacation down to Memphis in May of 2010 to visit my Mama and Daddy. For this trip, I just took my daughter, Rachel, along with me to visit her grandparents. During the trip, we decided to take Rachel on her first pilgrimage to Graceland. It was just me, Rachel and Granny (my Mama) who went as my Dad wasn’t feeling well and stayed home.

[As a side note, you can see our photo journey of our pilgrimage by visiting my Flickr account.]

There is a lot to see at Graceland. I recall them saying that only about a third of their memorabilia is on display while the rest is archived in storage. In some of the halls, you can see many of his Martin and Gibson six-string guitars on display amongst other props, jumpsuits, big buckled belts and movie posters.

As many Elvisologists will tell you, there has often been debate about how well Elvis actually played guitar. He may have appeared to be a “Guitarman", but his Sun Records guitarist Scotty Moore eluded that Elvis was not really an accomplished musician, though he had an “uncanny and amazing sense of timing and rhythm.”

In the early performance career of Elvis and as seen in both his movies and album covers, he was often holding one of his acoustic six-strings. During an interview that I recently caught on the Elvis XM Radio (XM 18) with host George Klein, I heard photographer Robert Dye mention on air that he remembers how aggressively Elvis strummed the guitars that he broke two strings of a guitar he had borrowed from a musician at performance in Memphis’s Overton Park.

A similar account was written about in Paul Hemphill’s book, The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music in which country singer Bob Luman recalls that during a show in Kilgore, Texas, Elvis “…hit his guitar a lick, and he broke two strings. Hell, I’d been playing for ten years, and I hadn’t broken a total of two strings. So there he was, these two strings dangling, and he hadn’t done anything except break guitar strings yet, and these high school girls were screaming and fainting and running up to the stage, and then he started to move his hips real slow like he had a thing for his guitar.”

This kind of jives together that Elvis used the guitar as more of a prop in his performance and to give his hands something to do in his jitteriness. I’m sure the heavier EADG gauge strings of a bass would have suited him better!

Sure, he knew the guitar chords and could strum and keep rhythm. It has been suggested on Scotty Moore’s website in an article by James V. Roy that “…perhaps the lack of a microphone on his [Elvis’s] guitar most of the time contributed to the development of his aggressive style in an attempt to be heard.”

[Sidenote: I highly recommend visiting www.scottymoore.net.epguitars.html for more on the scope of Elvis’s guitar playing and a look at some of his guitars.]

Amidst the guitars and memorabilia on the main Graceland museum, there is a very snazzy 1972 Fender Jazz Bass on display that we saw on the tour. It is a beautiful sunburst with tortoise shell pick guard. It has two pickups and a three knob arrangement. It stuck out amongst the many guitars, because, well, I’m a bassman myself, and I love looking at bass guitars.

With a man who had three televisions in his living room in the early 1970’s and was known for giving passerby individuals the keys to free Cadillacs all the time, it didn’t seem all that out of the ordinary that Elvis may have ventured out and bought a bass to fiddle around with and experiment. I remember seeing this particular bass many years ago in one of my visits to Graceland.

It is a very swank bass and definitely has that early 70’s feel and look. If I recall correctly, bassist Geddy Lee plays one.



But while on our pilgrimage with my daughter and mother, something else caught my eye this time in one of the museums across the street from Graceland. There was another bass guitar. It was a Fender Precision 1951 bass guitar originally owned by Bill Black that was pretty much a spitting image of my own bass guitar. It had a chrome pickup and bridge cover like mine.

My primary bass guitar is a “Sting Signature Series” reissue of a 1953 Fender P-Bass that I bought customized with those same style added chrome pickup and bridge cover. Before customization, my bass guitar is a replica of the one used by one of my favorite artists – Sting (lead singer and bassist of The Police).

Again, my bass set up looked just like the Bill Black Fender bass that I saw in the display case. Then, something caught my eye. It was the placard next to the bass that read:

Fender Electric Bass ca. 1957

This Fender Precision Bass Guitar (owned by Bill Black) was played by Elvis during the final version of the song “You’re So Square” in his 1957 film “JAILHOUSE ROCK”. – On loan from the private collection of Judy and Larry Moss, Memphis, TN.


Also, next to the photo, was a black and white picture of Elvis holding the bass that stood right before me. It is an amazing photo. It was doubly amazing to know that Elvis was holding a bass guitar that looked just like mine. It brought me a bit closer to the King at that moment!

I had never known that Elvis played bass guitar on an actual recording. Especially one that had perhaps the most memorable bassline of any Elvis song. It made me a bit curious.

I did a little bit of homework because I was curious about why Elvis played bass on the song and not Bill Black. What I found online was this recollection from deejay and close personal friend of Elvis, George Klein.




Klein said, “On 'Baby I Don't Care' , the Fender electric bass had just come out at that time and Bill Black was using the upright bass. In live concerts, you really couldn't hear the upright, they couldn't ‘mike it up’ well cause the sound systems in those days weren't very good. So it was really just for effect. When the Fender bass came out, it was electrified. And Elvis loved it because it'd be great in concert. It gave him a bass sound behind him. So when it first came out, Bill Black had to learn how to play it and he was having a little trouble. On the 'Jailhouse Rock' session when they got to 'Baby I Don't Care' and the intro that's on there, Bill couldn't get it down like Elvis wanted it. So Elvis played it. He recorded it and then he sang over it. I think he played guitar on 'One Night' too, I'm not sure, perhaps Scotty played that ...”

Wow.

Listen to the song and you will hear that it has a solid bassline.



Do you know how one thing can trigger another thing? How one memory can reopen another that you had stored in the attic of your mind?

Well, I’m also a big Beatles fan. I recalled an interview with Paul McCartney during their official documentary, THE BEATLES ANTHOLOGY, where the lads from Liverpool were reminiscing about their first (and only) meeting with Elvis Presley at his Bel-Air Los Angeles home in August 1965.

McCartney said, “That was the greatest. Elvis was into the bass, So there I was, "Well, let me show you a thing or two, El..." Suddenly he was a mate. It was a great conversation piece for me. I could actually talk about the bass, and we sat around and just enjoyed ourselves. He was great. Talkative. Friendly and a little bit shy. But that was his image. We expected that, we hoped for that.”



A moment of digression… Sir Paul, a legendary bassman himself, also ended up buying Bill Black’s stand up bass years later.



(Photo by Charles Nicholas © The Commercial Appeal)

But getting back on track, I then started looking around in books and found another famous photo from 1965 published in The Commercial Appeal of Elvis playing a 1962 Olympic White Fender Precision Bass Guitar on his loooooooong stretch white couch in the front living room. I’ve got a hunch that this was the same bass that McCartney and Elvis played around on during their infamous get together that same year. If I’m correct, I believe that this is also the same bass guitar on the guitar stand behind in his movie, SPINOUT from 1966. He would also be pictured with a different Fender Sunburst P-Bass in the 1965 film GIRL HAPPY and the 1967 film EASY COME, EASY GO.




(Screen capture © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

All very swank. All very deep.

So with that, I’m lead to believe that Elvis deep down was a bass enthusiast who loved to play those various Fender basses. But he knew. He knew that his primary instrument would always be his voice. He had to take care of business in flash with that first and foremost.

Often imitated but uniquely his.

To quote a line from one of his songs, “I thought my pickin’ would set ‘em on fire, but nobody wanted to hire a guitarman.”



(Screen capture © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

But, I’ll secretly know (and maybe you too will now) that Elvis was really a (secret bass) guitarman in his heart. I just can’t help believing.

Scott

4 comments:

Enrique said...

Well, this is the first comment haha. Man, Scott, you made my day. I'm a Beatles fan and Also an Elvis fan. I'm a Bassman myself and I didn't know ANYTHING about this. Discovering Elvis was a (secret) bass player, is so cool. Thanks for your little (Great) research on this. Peace.

TR1-Guy said...

Greetings! I too am a fellow bass player and just this past weekend visited the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and saw that Elvis had played bass guitar. I was as surprised as you! They had a Fender bass in a case and it seems he also played bass on "Suspicious Minds" as well.

I remember the day Elvis died as I was practicing my bass on my parents front porch for an upcoming gig when Elvis's pic came up on the TV announcing his death. Seems even more appropriate now that I was playing my bass when he passed away.

Great post!

James Milton said...

Thanks for the post. It was always obvious from the video that Bill Black was not playing the bass on 'Baby I don't Care' and I've been curious about it for a long time. I can well believe that Elvis played it himself, that makes sense. BTW, I believe that Elvis played guitar on 'One Night'.

elviskess said...

Elvis was not a great fret man as most guitarists well know. However, as you stated Scott he was a natural rhythm guitarist. That being said, on Reconsider Baby he plays the acoustic guitar throughout. Also on Blue Christmas, as you stated One Night, and of course you can watch him play Baby What You Want Me To Do in the Comeback Special. There's a couple more I am forgetting where you can clearly hear him playing acoustic guitar.