By Michael J. Elliott
Raleigh, North Carolina
“Elvis: A Legendary Performer, Volume 1.”
That’s the second record I remember owning. The first was “Mindbender” — a 1975 compilation from K-Tel (“22 Original Hits! 22 Original Artists!”) which somehow crammed 22 songs on one album by editing the life out of them and compressing the sound so much that you had to turn the volume on the stereo almost all the way up.
However, “Mindbender,” which included such hits of the day as “Rock and Roll All Night” by Kiss, “If Ya Wanna Get To Heaven” by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, and the Stampeders version of “Hit The Road, Jack” (complete with a cameo by the one and only Wolfman Jack) — was given to me by my parents because my 5-year-old self apparently exhibited a ridiculous amount of excitement when it was advertised on TV. The Elvis album, on the other hand, I picked out myself in the local record store — Main Street Music — in my hometown of Oxford, North Carolina
I played the album over and over. “That’s All Right” kicked off the album with unbridled excitement and became the standard by which all other Elvis material — and rock music overall — was personally judged. Immediately, however, I found myself skipping “I Love You Because” (syrupy filler even to my young, untrained ears) and moving on to “Heartbreak Hotel” — the Mae Axton co-write that was as great an exercise in less-is-more as rock’n’roll ever heard.
Looking back now, “A Legendary Performer, Volume I” is a near-perfect summary of Elvis’s artistry, and because of this album, he became my first musical hero. Although I was only 7 the year he died, his impact on my budding musical taste was undeniable. He was the perfect encapsulation of the music I’d heard around the house my entire life.
My family loved music, and we always had records around. Our home was fully musically integrated. My dad leaned toward Stax and Motown soul — James Brown, Joe Tex, and the like. Mom was a devotee of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Elvis, Marty Robbins, and (for some reason) Tommy Roe. My maternal grandmother (whom I had referred to as Bum-ma since before I could form words properly) was a huge Charley Pride fan, while my uncle, 10 years my senior, was the one who introduced me to Led Zeppelin and Vanilla Fudge (both via glorious eight-track), plus Lynyrd Skynyrd, Foghat, Ted Nugent, and — oddly enough — Steely Dan and Les Dudek.
I voraciously consumed all this music before I knew of or cared for genres or formats. It pointed the way toward my discovery of Elvis, and it was then I realized that he (along with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino among other heroes I would discover soon after) was the source for many of these artists I’d been hearing around the house my entire life.
Elvis died on August 16, 1977. The same day brought the 39th anniversary of the death of another artist who would expand my love for music, the Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson.
I was 13 years old and visiting the Richard H. Thornton library after school, just killing time. One could check out records as well as books back then. As I was perusing their selection, which was on a tall carousel display, of various operas and musicals from “Oklahoma!” to “The Sound of Music,” I glimpsed a fascinating cover.
It was of a shadowy figure sketched from above seated in a simple wooden chair, no face, just a black shape for a head, bent over an acoustic guitar. It read “Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Singers.” I checked it out without hesitation, went home, read the back cover entirely (recounting producer Don Law’s famous story of how Mr. Johnson phoned him at a restaurant saying he had a lady of the evening who wanted 50 cents and he “lacks a nickel”), and put the needle on the first track, “Cross Road Blues.” While the many kids my age were discovering the wonders of “Thriller” or “Pyromania”, I had just had my first exposure to Delta blues. It was like channeling some distant sound from outer space — terrifying, yet beautiful. I’ve never looked back.
From there, I moved forward, backward, and all around — from Charley Patton to Son House through Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and up through rediscovering the Stones, Zep, and Clapton, but now in their proper context. I’m living proof a public library can enrich your life in many ways.
Between Elvis and Johnson, when I was 10 years old, I discovered a musician that I’ve followed ever since — and he’s still actively recording and touring though he’ll be turning 85 this year, Willie Nelson.
I cannot to this day explain by I was so taken by Nelson, but I know I loved his unique voice, his beat-up yet magical guitar, Trigger, and the ubiquitous and flawless harmonica fills of Mickey Raphael. (Shortly after hearing his solo on “Georgia on My Mind,” I picked up the harp and have tried — unsuccessfully — to emulate Mickey ever since.)
My first Willie album was the then-just-released “Greatest Hits (and Some That Will Be),” which captured the fertile period of his mid-to-late ’70s Columbia recordings. I loved his Family Band, which included, for a time, two drummers (trusty Paul English and Rex Ludwig) and two bassists (Bee Spears and Burrito Brothers alumnus Chris Ethridge). From there I quickly went back and picked up “Red Headed Stranger,” “The Troublemaker,” “The Sound in Your Mind,” “Willie & Family Live,” Willie and Leon Russell’s “One for the Road,” “Honeysuckle Rose” — still all my favorite Willie records. Then, in the midst of this euphoric journey of discovery, in 1982 Willie stepped into the studio with soul producer Chips Moman behind the board and cut “Always on My Mind” with a bunch of professional studio musicians. It became his biggest hit to date, crossing over to the pop charts. It was slick and accessible and made him a superstar.
I hated it.
A year later, he would release “Tougher Than Leather,” which saw him producing himself again with his Family Band in tow, but he would bounce back to using studio aces and outside producers throughout the rest of his career, to very mixed results. However, no matter how slick the production got, it was still that unmistakable phrasing, both by Willie and Trigger, that made the material special. (My favorite album of his over the last couple of decades has been “Spirit,” all written and produced solely by him and featuring only Mickey, his sister Bobbie on piano, and Trigger.)
Although my tastes have grown over the years to include the avant-garde of Frank Zappa, the jazz of North Carolina natives John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk, even the astonishing hip-hop of Kendrick Lamar, it all can be traced back to these three: Elvis, Robert, and Willie. They each showed there should be no borders in musical enjoyment, nor in finding out what’s good about life and other people. All three defied boundaries of genre and culture and made their mark by expanding what blues, rock and roll, and country music are and can be, because in the end, it all branches out from their — and our — Southern roots.