Did you know that Elvis Presley possessed genuine rhythm guitar chops? According to contemporary Johnny Cash’s 1997 autobiography entitled Cash, the “I Walk the Line” balladeer concurred, considering Elvis’ skills as a rhythm guitarist to be significantly underrated. Having first encountered Elvis on Sept. 9, 1954 playing an acoustic Martin guitar during the special grand opening of Katz’s Drug Store in Memphis, Cash next caught him wowing the spectators at the intimate Eagle’s Nest nightclub.
“The thing I really noticed that night, though, was his guitar playing,” recalled Cash. “Elvis was a fabulous rhythm player. He’d start into ‘That’s All Right, Mama’ with his own guitar alone, and you didn’t want to hear anything else. I didn’t anyway. I was disappointed when Scotty Moore and Bill Black jumped in and covered him up. Not that Scotty and Bill weren’t perfect for him—the way he sounded with them that night was what I think of as seminal Presley, the sound I missed through all the years after he became so popular and made records full of orchestration and overproduction. I loved that clean, simple combination of Scotty, Bill, and Elvis with his acoustic guitar. You know, I’ve never heard or read anyone else praising Elvis as a rhythm guitar player, and after the Sun days I never heard his own guitar on his records.”
Don’t believe the Man in Black? Then check out Elvis’ historic early recordings with producer Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis [e.g. “That’s All Right,” “Mystery Train,” “Baby Let’s Play House”], the 1960 sessions at RCA Studio B in Nashville that firmly re-established the artist as a contemporary force after his Army sojourn (e.g. “Reconsider Baby,” “I Will Be Home Again”), or the ’68 Comeback Special NBC television broadcast.
On the 1954-1955 Sun recordings, it’s just Elvis on vocals and rhythm acoustic guitar, Scotty on lead electric guitar, and Bill on doghouse bass. There was no drummer present for ninety percent of the recordings, so Elvis’ acoustic guitar was crucial in driving the rhythm section. Anytime you are trying to pick Elvis out in the mix, listen for the tell tale lick in E on the low strings on cuts like “Funny How Time Slips Away” or “One Night.”
On the cover of the terrific Suspicious Minds: The Memphis 1969 Anthology (included at right), Elvis can be seen sitting onstage during his celebrated August 1969 return to live performing at the Las Vegas International (renamed the Hilton several years later). He is playing his Gretsch Country Gentleman electric guitar, which continued to pop up during short unplugged segments usually comprised of the singer’s early hits through 1971 (he plays it repeatedly during the That’s the Way It Is documentary). Three songs recorded during the Memphis sessions with plenty of Elvis’ rhythm guitar are “Stranger in My Hometown,” “If I’m a Fool for Loving You,” and “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road.”
Don’t waste your time analyzing the overwhelming majority of the ’60s movie travelogues or later ’70s concerts like Aloha from Hawaii which obfuscate Elvis’ musical abilities and lend credence to the widely held belief that his guitar served as an unnecessary prop. The superstar didn’t help matters when he occasionally ad-libbed to his loyal audiences, “I only know three chords.”
In the unplugged video segment accompanying this article, Elvis sits in the boxing ring and takes over Moore’s 1963 Gibson Super 400 guitar on the spur of the moment. If you wanna see the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll attack an electric guitar with unmitigated passion, the ’68 Comeback Special is the ultimate way to go.
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! The Master of Telecaster, James Burton, is a charter member of L.A. studio wizards the Wrecking Crew and has supported a who’s who list of preeminent movers and shakers in a nearly 60-year career—notably Elvis, John Denver, the Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, Merle Haggard, and Brad Paisley. Burton joined Rick Nelson in late 1957 for the classic “Stood Up” b/w “Waitin’ in School” driving rockabilly single, actually rooming with the Nelson family and ultimately forging an 11-year friendship with the handsome singer. To read a revealing in-depth feature with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer commemorating his fascinating journey with Nelson [“Six String Brothers: James Burton Champions the Timeless Allure of Rick Nelson”], simply click on the highlighted link.
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Further Reading: Elvis Presley and Johnny Carson were two kings in their respective fields who admired each other’s work immensely. However, Elvis swore off watching The Tonight Show on the evening of his 40th birthday after Carson supposedly uttered a “fat and forty” joke in his nightly monologue. Subsequent retellings of the episode by members of Elvis’ Memphis Mafia have painted Carson in a negative light. But did the King of Late Night actually say those words 40 years ago? A viewing of the original televised clip and accompanying Tonight Show transcript presents stone cold evidence that will lay the claim to rest. Investigate “What Johnny Carson Really Said About Elvis” for the lowdown.
Exclusive Interview: Trailblazer Tommy Edwards was the first deejay in Cleveland to actively promote Elvis Presley. His bold efforts ultimately broke Elvis north of the Mason-Dixon Line, virtually a racial divider during the 1950s. The deejay also had a prominent role in the highly sought after but still lost concert film, The Pied Piper of Cleveland, which documented the first time Elvis was filmed by a professional camera. To read about the King of Rock and Roll’s meteoric rise to worldwide fame, why one prominent authority controversially believes “Mystery Train” was the singer’s last honest recording, and a surprising defense of the actor’s widely panned film, Tickle Me, visit the following link: [“Recognizing the Incendiary Deejay Who Broke Elvis North of the Mason-Dixon Line”].
Exclusive Interview No. 2: In modern times the Jordanaires appeared as very special guests on hundreds of concerts headlined by natural-born raconteur and all-around Nashville entertainer Ronnie McDowell, who scored 27 Top 40 country singles between 1977 & 1990. Remember “The King Is Gone,” “Wandering Eyes,” “Older Women,” “Watchin’ Girls Go By,” “Step Back,” “You’re Gonna Ruin My Bad Reputation,” “You Made a Wanted Man of Me,” and his duet with Conway Twitty on “It’s Only Make Believe?” When “The King Is Gone” sold six million copies in late 1977, McDowell had a potentially life-altering choice—should he don a jumpsuit and become another Elvis tribute artist, or should he strike out on his own merit as a country singer? In “Still Keepin’ the Fires Burning: A Step Forward with Entertainer Ronnie McDowell,” the consummate crooner leaves no stone unturned as he recalls a 40-year career in front of the limelight.
- Exclusive Interview No. 3: “‘Heartbreak Hotel’ categorically knocked Mark Lindsay flat on the ground. The ferocious former lead singer of ’60s garage rockers Paul Revere and the Raiders left home at the tender age of 15 to pursue a rockabilly career in southern Idaho. Lying about his age so he could play seedy nightclubs, Lindsay ultimately met the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll during the filming of the iconic ’68 Comeback Special and during one of the entertainer’s final engagements at the Las Vegas Hilton. He even went so far as to persuade the TCB Band to back him on a studio rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools.” Interested in the complete juicy enchilada? Then click here.
Exclusive Interview No. 4: Rick Nelson ruled pop airwaves in the ’50s and ’60s, sailing 35 Top 40 singles onto the charts with relative ease. Female fans felt comfortable bringing him home to meet their parents, while guys had no qualms taking him out for a round of drinks. Three-time Grammy winner Jimmie Haskell got his start producing Nelson’s impressive oeuvre. In “Just Go in the Studio and Make Hit Records: Jimmie Haskell Revisits Rick Nelson”, Haskell sets the record straight on the day Nelson nearly got in big trouble with his demanding father for smoking in the studio, Glen Campbell’s largely unrecognized guitar and vocal contributions to Nelson’s music, a premonitory conversation about the unsafe 40-year-old Douglas DC-3 airplane that the singer refused to sell, and where he was when he received the news of Nelson’s cruel date with destiny on New Year’s Eve 1985.
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