Elvis’ baritone blurred racial lines, combined genres created the blueprint for modern rock

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Endowed with a soothing baritone and an ironically rich falsetto, Elvis used his emotive music, tons of self-confidence, a reservoir of charisma and inescapable gyrations, to define youthful freshness and social defiance.

Elvis Presley. Picture from Twitter

In #TheMusicThatMadeUssenior journalist Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri recounts the impact musicians and their art have on our lives, how they are shaping the industry by rewriting its rules, and how they make us the people we become: their greatest legacy

He is widely and rightly considered the king of rock n’ roll, whose three competitive Grammys have come for gospel offerings. Despite spanning bluegrass, country, rock and pop, and having sold over 500 million records in his career to date, Elvis Presley has written none. Certified as the best-selling solo artist of all time by the Guinness Book of World Records, Presley gave the world the model for modern rock.

With his signature swag, sleek, billowing hair and exaggerated sideburns, Elvis had a presence that went beyond his music and eagle-capped jackets. Like Baz Luhrrman’s new movie Elvis (starring Austin Butler in the lead role and Tom Hanks as his manager, Colonel Parker) chronicles the legend’s success story and his complicated dynamic with Colonel Parker, now is the perfect time to look back on how the music of Elvis Presley made generations of us who we are today.

A self-taught performer who could not read sheet music, Elvis relied entirely on his ear and his ability to replicate on the guitar. Boasting a soothing baritone and a falsetto rich in irony, the power of his early works lies in his penchant for emotive music that can be both joyful and dark, tapping and melancholy, wild and subdued. With heaps of self-confidence, a reservoir of charisma and unmissable gyrations, Elvis defined the freshness of youth and challenge.

The cover of his self-titled debut album featured a big-mouthed Elvis with a guitar in his hand, codifying him as the instrument of this new genre, one that evolved from rockabilly and is far removed from piano melodies. His influences were numerous because Elvis appreciated his gospel as much as he immersed himself in the blues. He drew inspiration from white and African-American musical cultures and created his own sonic and scenic personality that resonates with musicians to this day.

From Bruce Springsteen, Jimi Hendrix, Freddie Mercury and John Lennon to Madonna, Beyonce and even The Killers, the spirit of Elvis is very much alive through their performances on stage or their ability to sing a song so intimately even though it’s a stadium concert. Unlike most white musicians, Elvis embraced R&B with all its rough edges, honing it when he needed it and allowing it to breathe when the song commanded it.

Of course, in his time, Elvis being a white man who popularized an African American sound, came with its own complications. His sexually charged moves didn’t help, and the legions of screaming female fans meant his music didn’t initially find many radio takers. Against the background of the civil rights movement in the United States to abolish racial discrimination, segregation and disenfranchisement, especially in the Southern states, we can now understand how meteoric his rise has been.

So much hinged on Elvis’ voice and personality on stage, but his career was also a construction of the people who tirelessly helped him define his sound. Elvis’ early numbers that propelled him to superstardom will always resonate with the booming bass and sometimes 12-bar blues lines of Bill Black’s double bass. Think about Such a Night, Fever, I Got Lucky, Lucky Charm, Heartbreak Hotel, Jailhouse Rock and so many more, and you’ll find that it’s actually the bass that gives your step a lift.

If Black nailed the double licks and created the wild sound for Elvis to thrive on, then it was actually guitarist Scotty Moore’s Gibson labor that powered the King’s melody. The man behind the Blue Moon Boys backing band, Moore has hit the mainstream with Jailhouse Rock.

Drummer DJ Fontana used drumming techniques he learned at a strip club and complemented Elvis with accented beats to help his infused moves on stage. These early musicians gave Elvis the foundation from which to spring his talent. A whole team of songwriters who have written Elvis’s music over the years, and with whom the singer shares credits largely through a contractual clause, not creativity, have played a huge role in supporting his genius.

As a rockabilly pioneer who later became a modern rock predecessor, Elvis and his all-encompassing hair-clothes-shoes-shades presence towered over his contemporaries and gave later generations the confidence to sing in their own voice. His ability (largely guided by director Colonel Parker) to bounce back, whether from army duty or a series of Hollywood flops, is remarkable. Beyond all the other attributes of his image, Elvis always remained a singer with a decisive mastery of his voice.

Knowing when to resort to his vocal tricks and when to allow real emotion to come through, or when to dial in his vibrato and when to emphasize his falsetto, were all part of his arsenal. Even when starring in a steady stream of grotesquely mundane films, his music for the soundtracks could not be faulted for its sincerity despite the songs themselves often being below average.

All told, when you think about how most pop and rock musicians today enjoy six degrees of separation from the king, we recognize that above all that Elvis gave the world of music, that was his greatest legacy.

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