Essentials: Elvis Presley “Trying To Get To You”

I don’t sing like nobody.” ~ Elvis

“He was white, but he sang black” ~ Chet Atkins

“I don’t want him on my show. I don’t care what anyone says about him- how great a talent he is- he just won’t be in my show and that’s that.” ~ Ed Sullivan

“Trying To Get To You” reeks of sex, the possibility of physical and emotional fulfillment, and the beginning and end of desire. It’s full of the early Elvis hooks, twists, and vocal turns that made him unique. Another young singer by the name of Ricky Nelson recorded this song a year or two later, and the differences between their versions are instructive. Ricky’s take on the tune is pale, bland, and inexperienced. No juice, no passion. By contrast, Elvis pulls out all the stops. This song was deemed good enough to appear on his first RCA album in 1956.

Funny how one artist can make something out of nothing at all. I’ll give you another example: listen to Aretha Franklin singing “I Say A Little Prayer For You”, and you will hear a strong, passionate, sexually-free woman singing about the ecstasy of being with the one you love. Listen to Dionne Warwick singing the same number and you will hear someone who has gone down to defeat, someone who doesn’t understand the song at all, someone who thinks the song is about longing for something you can’t have. Aretha’s version is a celebration; Dionne’s is a lament. With the right song, Dionne Warwick was an incredibly talented singer: listen to her sing “Anyone Who Had A Heart” and then tell me that Celine Dion and Beyonce aren’t shameless third-rate imitators.

What Elvis could do with mediocre material is amazing, but what he did with the best material was awe-inspiring and life-changing. Listen to what he does with these two lines:

“There were many miles between us,
But they didn’t mean a thing.”

He goes from 60 miles an hour to a dead stop on the final word “thing”, making 4 syllables out of one with all the finesse of an Indy 500 driver. Anyone else would have crashed, burned the tires, lost control and flamed out, but Elvis is both creative and graceful in his approach. His greatness was in the controlled passion he brought to every performance. You might have thought watching him or listening to him that he was over the top, but he would fool you every time.

Elvis came out of nowhere and invented himself. He had no predecessors. No one ever looked like he did, dressed like he did, or sang like he did. Well, maybe Otis Blackwell sang like Presley, or was it the other way around, as Gary Giddens claims in his article on the influence of Otis on Elvis. He makes a convincing case that Presley that copped a lot of mannerisms from that Otis feller who penned “Don’t Be Cruel” (among many other great tunes)and made a demo that Elvis imitated note for note, sneer for sneer, cowlick for lick. What Elvis did went far beyond an imitation: he took  black music and transformed its presentation into something electrifying.

Richard Thompson, the British folk-rocker, once said something to the effect that without Elvis, nothing that followed would have been possible. Every lead singer in a band who steps up to the microphone owes something in his performance to Elvis. I’m thinking of Jim Morrison of the Doors, Dion, ZZ Top, Prince, and every garage-band rocker, every air-guitar hero everywhere.

He caused a sensation that was neither vulgar nor offensive. What it was, was erotic. You could hear it in his voice; it didn’t matter that the cameramen on The Ed Sullivan Show were directed only to film him above the waist. He had his mojo working, and it worked on everybody, even on the classical music superstar Leonard Bernstein, who said about him:

“Elvis Presley is the greatest cultural force in the 20th century. He introduced the beat to everything and changed everything – music, language, clothes – it’s a whole new social revolution. Because of him, a man like me barely knows his musical grammar anymore.”

Elvis was one of the few who appeal equally to men and women. When he appeared on the scene, he spawned a host of imitators, from Gene Vincent to Buddy Holly to, well, you name it. All of a sudden it became cool for guys to collect records.

With Elvis, it suddenly became cool to be in a band. Without Elvis, I don’t think this would have happened until The Beatles came along. Les Paul didn’t make every guy want to buy a guitar and learn complicated chords and over-dubbing. Cozy Cole didn’t make every guy want to be a drummer. Elvis put it all together, and as the front man of all front men, he made it possible for just about any young guy with long hair, a tuneful voice and an attitude, to bed dozens of eager young ladies. Ask any honest musician and he’ll tell you, if he dares, about life and times on the road. There wouldn’t be any road without Elvis.

Elvis created the music industry as it exists today, and the secondary but no less important industry of instrument sales to the youth of America. Ask Bob Dylan if he would have picked up a guitar if it hadn’t been for Elvis. It wasn’t Woody Guthrie that got Dylan started; it was rock and roll, in my humble opinion. Bob, after all, did play piano in North Dakota for Bobby Vee, who was an imitator of Buddy Holly, who was an imitator of Elvis. Later at university, Bob picked up some new friends who introduced him to the rarefied air of folk music.

We’ve been over-exposed to the endgame images of Elvis and those pictures and stories were not a pretty sight: a bloated, drug-addled has-been who died at the same age as his beloved mother Gladys. Elvis had lost his looks,  his talent, and the discipline required to make a comeback. Dead at 42, his mojo exhausted. His legend, however, lives on.

You need only go back to his early recordings to sense the excitement young people felt in hearing and seeing him. Audiences had gone crazy in the past for performers such as Caruso, Frank Sinatra and Hank Williams. But Elvis was different.  There was something life-changing about him.

I could have chosen any of a dozen Elvis tunes. “Love Me”, “Good Rockin’ Tonight, “Little Sister”, “His Latest Flame”, or “Baby, Let’s Play House”. But for me, “Trying to Get To You” is perfect; it’s the whole of Western literature in less than 3 minutes; it’s the Romantic quest, the willingness to make any sacrifice that in this song sums up the Western notion of the importance of a man’s love for a woman. It’s instructive that this song is one of the few that Elvis performed without fail at every one of his concerts.

“I’ve been traveling over mountains
Even through the valleys, too
I’ve been traveling night and day
I’ve been running all the way
Baby, trying to get to you.”  ~ first verse lyric

“I love and seek her so eagerly that I believe the very violence of my desire for her would deprive me of all desire whatsoever could one lose aught by loving well. For her heart drowns mine in a never-diminishing flood.” ~ (Arnaut Daniel, quoted by Denis de Rougement in Love in the Western World)

Give this song a spin and see if you agree.