Elvis, Dylan, Roy Orbison and Ricky Nelson

I just found out that Elvis Presley recorded Hound Dog and Don’t Be Cruel on this day, on the second of July, in 1956. Two great songs recorded on the same day by the one and only King.

Listen to him sing, watch his videos on YouTube, and it’s a blast from the past. The Fifties and Sixties were rolling, good times for music. Whether you wanted to rock or take it slow and easy, you could always get some fabulous tunes on the radio or the jukebox.

When the Beatles met Presley

I also love the Beatles and Bob Dylan. The BBC recalls:

When the Fab Four went to see the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll at his Beverly Hills mansion on a night off from their US tour in August 1965, the initially awkward small talk gave way to an impromptu jam session.

The Guardian recalls:

John asked what had happened to the old rock’n’roll Elvis, who at that point was mainly singing the soundtracks to his films,” (Tony) Barrow said. “He was half-joking but he meant it.”

Presley laughed off the comment, but the conversation remained stilted until Presley ordered guitars to be brought into the room. “They all started jamming and that is when the party took off,” Barrow said. “With words, they didn’t have much to say. But as soon as they got into the music the conversation began to spark.”

“Elvis Presley was their idol and one of the prime influences of the Beatles’ music,” said Barrow. He was the Beatles’ press officer from 1962 to 1968.

Dylan on Elvis and Roy Orbison

Bob Dylan had more complicated feelings about the King. He is quoted as saying:“When I first heard Elvis’ voice, I just knew that I wasn’t going to work for anybody; and nobody was going to be my boss…Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.”

But he was less complimentary in this passage from his book, Chronicles, Volume 1, where he speaks highly of Roy Orbison and shrugs off Presley. He writes:

I was always fishing for something on the radio. Just like trains and bells, it was part of the soundtrack of my life. I moved the dial up and down and Roy Orbison’s voice came blasting out of the small speakers. His new song, Running Scared, exploded into the room. Lately I’d been listening for songs with folk connotations… The Kingston Trio and Brothers Four were getting radio play. I liked The Kingston Trio. Even though their style was polished and collegiate, I liked most of their stuff anyway. Songs like Getaway John, Remember the Alamo. There was always some kind of folk type breaking through… Orbison, though, transcended all the genres – folk, country, rock and roll or just about anything. His stuff mixed all the styles and some that hadn’t been even invented yet. He could sound mean and nasty on one line and then sing in a falsetto voice like Frankie Valli in the next. With Roy, you didn’t know if you were listening to mariachi or opera. He kept you on your toes. With him, it was all about fat and blood… He sang like a professional criminal. Typically, he’d start out in some low, barely audible range, stay there a while and then astonishingly slip into histrionics. His voice could jar a corpse, always leave you muttering to yourself something like, “Man, I don’t believe it.” His songs had songs within songs. They shifted from major to minor key without any logic. Orbison was deadly serious – no pollywog and no fledgling juvenile. There wasn’t anything else on the radio like him. I’d listen and wait for another song, but next to Roy the playlist was strictly dullsville, gutless and flabby. It all came at you like you didn’t have a brain. Outside of maybe George Jones, I didn’t like country music either. Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold, it was hard to know what was country about that stuff. All the wildness and weirdness had gone out of country music. Elvis Presley. Nobody listened to him either. It had been years since he had done his hip thing and taken songs to other planets…

Ricky Nelson

Dylan also liked Ricky Nelson. In Chronicles, Volume 1, he writes:

One afternoon I was in there pouring Coke into a glass from a milk pitcher when I heard a voice coming cool through the screen of the radio speaker. Ricky Nelson was singing his new song, Travelling Man. Ricky had a smooth touch, the way he crooned in fast rhythm, the tonation of his voice. He was different than the rest of the teen idols, had a great guitarist who played like a cross between a honky-tony hero and a barn-dance fiddler. Nelson had never been a bold innovator like the early singers who sang like they were navigating burning ships. He didn’t sing desperately, do a lot of damage, and you’d never mistake him for a shaman. It didn’t feel like his endurance was ever being tested to the utmost, but it didn’t matter. He sang his songs calm and steady like he was in the middle of a storm, men hurling past him. His voice was sort of mysterious and made you fall into a certain mood.

I had been a big fan of Ricky’s and still liked him, but that type of music was on its way out. It had no chance of meaning anything… I’d always felt kin to him, though. We were about the same age, probably liked the same things, from the same generation although our life experience had been so dissimilar, him being brought up out West on a family TV show. It was like he was born and raised on Walden Pond where everything was hunky-dory, and I’d come out of the dark demonic woods, same forest, just a different way of looking at things. Ricky’s talent was very accessible to me. In a few years he’d record some of my songs, make them sound like they were his own, like he had written them himself. He eventually did write one himself and mentioned my name in it.  Ricky, in about ten years’ time, would even get booed while onstage for changing what was perceived as his musical direction. It turned out we did have a lot in common.