The personal blog of Peter Lee a.k.a. "China Hand"... Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel, and an open book to those who read. You are welcome to contact China Matters at the address chinamatters --a-- prlee.org or follow me on twitter @chinahand.
[I've come to the opinion that a not insignificant chunk of China coverage that currently pops up in the Western media is an info op curated by China hawks in order to promote and exploit further polarization between the US bloc and the People's Republic of China. And some of the info ops, including the articles in the big media outlets, don't hold up under close examination.
I extracted this post from the script of a China Watch show I did a year ago. The "Hambantota debt trap" myth has served as the foundation for a year's worth of "Belt and Road" threatmongering for projects in Pakistan, Zambia, Maldives, and even Ecuador. The data concerning Sri Lanka's debt trap--and who set the trap--makes for interesting and enlightening reading. The China Watch episode of December 17, 2017 Donald Trump's China Hawk Clown College Now in Session, can be viewed by newsbud subscribers or rented via Vimeo. CH 12-26-2018]
is a Sinhalese expression meaning “flapdoodle peddled by China hawks and
distributed by credulous anti-PRC journos”.The flapdoodle in question is the assertion that the Hambantota Port is
a scheme to create a debt trap against the island nation of Sri Lanka.
The case is
asserted that the PRC funds costly Belt and Road infrastructure projects the
recipient can’t afford, then takes them over as strategic assets when loan
repayments can’t be met.Case in point:
Sri Lanka, which is crushed by crippling forthcoming loan repayment obligations
equivalent to 95% of its annual revenues.
the Western press on Sri Lanka’s debt crisis are usually illustrated by the Hambantota
Port project on the south coast of Sri Lanka.The Sri Lankan government just finalized an agreement to lease the port,
a notorious white elephant, to the PRC on a 99 year agreement.
like there is indeed a conspiracy here: a conspiracy by the ex-president of Sri
Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to build an impregnable economic, patronage, and
political base in his rural home province on the remote southern coast of Sri
Lanka.Rajapaksa borrowed money from the
PRC to build a world class port, a world class international airport, a world
class cricket stadium, and world class highways linking the prosperous north to
work.All of these magnificent
facilities are unused and generating virtually no cash flow to pay back the
loans to the PRC.
was strongly pro-PRC thanks to the unstinting diplomatic and material support
the PRC provided him during his war of annihilation against the Tamil
insurgency.In a detail neglected by
fans of the world’s biggest democracy and current US Indo-Pacific bestie India--but rather important to our story--the
Hindu Tamil insurgency was originally supported by India, trained by India’s
Research and Analysis Wing, and, in a classic case of blowback, ended up
assassinating Indian president Rajiv Gandhi.
Rajapaksa needed help to crush the insurgency, he turned to the PRC, not India,
and when Rajapaksa wanted to build his follies at Hambantota, Hu Jintao—not
fearsome BRI overlord Xi Jinping—was there to help.
lost his bid for re-election in 2015 partly as a result of alleged Indian
finagling, and the new government had no interest in trying to make Rajaipaksa’s
hometown boondoggle turn the corner.
The whole “Hambantota
debt trap” story plays out in an interesting way.
faces a massive debt repayment burden of almost $4 billion dollars in the
coming year; but the Hambantota port and airport account for less than $200
million of that.That’s just 5% of the
Most of that
obligation is now gone because the PRC took over 80% of the port in a debt for
equity swap.And under the terms of the
lease, the PRC has to make a payment of $292 million dollars immediately out of
total lease payments of $1.2 billion.
that the Hambantota deal has freed up about $450 million dollars in cash for debt
service next year. Pretty sweet.
The Hambantota deal was apparently a factor in
the IMF’s decision to free up another quarter billion dollar tranche of loans on
December 7 to help Sri Lanka with its balance of payments problem.
All in all,
the Hambantota boondoggle is turning into something of a net positive for Sri
Lanka.And, if you look beyond the teeth
gnashing by China hawks, the PRC’s move is a reassuring indication to BRI
partners that the PRC will step up for refis and work outs of really crap
India put in a bid for $300 million to operate the white elephant Rajapaksa
Airport next to the port.Vital counter
chess move to deny air terminal facilities to a potential PRC naval base?Or the price tag for staying in the political
game in Sri Lanka by providing the government with another $300 million dollar
interesting number is this: Sri Lanka’s sovereign external debt is $50
billion.Only $8 billion of that, about
16%, is held by the PRC.
big debt repayment headache is not the Chinese.It’s that the Sri Lankan government sold somewhere between one to two
billion dollars of sovereign debt almost every year at near junk interest rates
for rebuilding and social peace, well, social buy offs, after the catastrophic
civil war with the Tamils.
some economic growth going on but not enough to service those loans.They’re starting to mature and guess
what?Those government bonds are held by
international investors and, unlike the PRC government, those international
investors aren’t interested in delay, rescheduling, renegotiating, or conversion.
Lanka’s in the arms of the IMF for bridge financing—linked, of course, to
demands for domestic revenue and financial reforms—so it can go back to the
international lending well again to roll over the debt it still can’t pay.
the debt trap for Sri Lanka?The usual
suspects: money center banks like Citigroup, Deutsche Bank , HSBC and Standard
Chartered and fund managers primarily in the US and Europe.
How Elvis' Christmas Records Celebrate and Define American Music
Elvis' Christmas recordings provide a remarkable and perhaps unique opportunity to explore his profound gospel, rhythm and blues, country, bluegrass, and polka! dirty ditties! roots, the evolution of the American recording industry and Elvis' career, and the postwar development of African-American music. For people interested in the revolution wrought in gospel music by Reverend Dorsey, race, appropriation, and how Elvis dealt with it, I particularly recommend Day 9: Hearing the Light: Elvis & Black Gospel
It's all here, folks, in a 12 Days of Elvis Christmas epic I originally put together in
2014, now with the Youtube videos recurated. Enjoy! And Happy Holidays!
Elvis' triumphant synthesis of American music is even more remarkable when you consider that most of his greatest achievements were recorded before he turned 23.
Day One: Santa Claus Is Back in Town
One of the early pinnacles of Elvis’ achievement is, rather
surprisingly, the Christmas album he released in 1957.It is divided into secular and sacred sides.
On the second side, Elvis beautifully sings some religiously-tinged Christmas
songs and delivers magnificent and memorable renditions of “Peace in the Valley”
and other gospel standards.It’s clear
that Elvis loves his gospel, and his renditions are full of the power and
dignity that characterize these noblest of popular songs.
pop/rock/R&B action is on the first side, and Elvis
gets right down to business with the opener, “Santa Claus Is Back in
Town”, a blues carol written by ace songwriters Leiber and Stoller in
the studio on a
dare in fifteen minutes.It is capped by
the memorable couplet, sung in an ecstatic shout by Elvis:
Hang up your pretty
stockings, turn off the light
Cause’ Santa Claus is comin’ down
your chimney tonight!
In their joint autobiography, Hound Dog, Leiber and Stoller recalled:
The Colonel doesn't laugh
and the Colonel doesn't smile when we run down the song for Elvis. I know the
Colonel thinks it's too bluesy and too black, but just before he can say
anything, the King speaks out.
'Now that's what I call a
goddamn great Christmas song!' he tells the Colonel, 'I told you these guys
would come through'. And with that, Elvis proceeds to sing the [expletive] out
He does it in just a
couple of takes. …
For me, 'Santa Claus Is
Back in Town' lives on as one of Elvis' great blues performances. It took him
back to his Beale Street roots, a place where he was always comfortable.
Elvis was all of 22 at the time.
I had the honor of communicating with Mike Stoller’s
management team (Jerry Leiber has passed on) and was assured that the innuendo
was completely intentional.
Given this context, it is rather remarkable that the lyric apparently
provoked no conspicuous ruckus.
Maybe Irving Berlin had more than an inkling; he called for
a boycott of the album, ostensibly because Elvis took some vocal liberties
in his cover of White Christmas,
which was sequenced right after Leiber & Stoller’s racy cut. Berlin’s objections did not stop the RCA from
selling a mind-boggling 3 million units of Elvis’
Christmas Album in its original release, making it that decade’s biggest
seller and a holiday soundtrack for generations of Americans (another 10
million sold as a budget-priced edition in the 1970s; indeed Elvis’ Christmas Album is his
top-selling album, period, and No. 142 on Billboard’s all time list).
Sneaking Santa Claus double entendres into pop songs seems
to have been quite the vogue around this time.In 1950 Ella Fitzgerald sang about “fat and round” Santa Claus who “got
stuck in my chimney.”
About the same time, Sonny Boy Williamson II recorded "Santa
Claus Blues" for Chess Records.Williamson’s double entendre of choice
“Lookin all in my baby's dresser drawers.
Tryin to find out,
What did she bought me for Santa Claus.
When I pulled out the bottom dresser drawer,
The landlady got mad and called the law..”
In fact, in the R&B world in which Leiber and Stoller and
Elvis were steeped at the time, “Santa Claus” had been invoked as the good
thing, male principle division, since the pre-war era, as Gerry Bowler relates
in his Santa Claus: A Biography. Blues scholar Paul Oliver has a chapter on
Santa Claus in Screening the Blues
and quotes a melancholy lyric from the great Texas country bluesman Blind Lemon
Just the day before Christmas let me bring you your present
I wanna be your Santa Clause even if my whiskers ain’t white.
So Santa is black and white.Get used to it! Happy holidays, everybody.
Day Two: The Passion of Elvis
A listener expresses her approval of Elvis' canny alchemy of R&B, bluegrass, country, & gospel:
this at a reddit photoshop battle (no credit, sorry). Says it was shot
in the audience at an Elvis Presley concert in 1957, the year he
recorded his Christmas album. What's with the ping pong
Day Three: The Dirty Xmas Ditty: Who Sang It
Better, Elvis or Ella? Or Jimmy Boyd!?!
Elvis, hands down.
Elvis Presley and Ella Fitzgerald both did riffs on the
venerable Santa Claus/chimney double entendre described in the First Day of Elvis post above.
Elvis’ rip-roaring performance of Santa Claus Is Back in Town is one of the highlights of his
Ella Fitzgerald’s entry, Santa
Claus Got Stuck In My Chimney, well, not so much.
In fact, Ella’s Santa dud is frequently invoked to illustrate
how she languished in artistic purgatory at Decca Records before she was rescued
by impresario Norman Granz in 1956.Granz built the Verve record label around Fitzgerald and secured her
finances and artistic reputation with the Songbook
series of releases.
Granz also engaged in what might be characterized as d*ck
moves to extract Fitzgerald from her management and Decca contracts, so
traducing her Decca work is perhaps necessary to burnish his white knight credentials.
Actually, a lot of Fitzgerald’s work on Decca is great,
created under the supervision first under her mentor and bandleader, Chick
Webb, and then A&R executive Milt Gabler.Gabler is impervious to efforts to paint him as Ella’s Mitch Miller.
Miller notoriously subjected Ol’ Blue Eyes—then Young Blue
Eyes and, in the eyes of Columbia Records, a problematic has-been—to a novelty
duet with Dagmar (a television personality in vogue in 1951), Mama Will Bark, in which Sinatra
impersonates (perhaps the correct term is “indoginates”) a lustful canine.
Gabler’s artistic legacy is secure.Before moving to Decca, he ran Commodore
Records, which released the “Song of the Century” according to Time Magazine,
Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, when
Columbia was afraid to put it out.
Gabler started work with Fitzgerald during the 78/jukebox
era, when an individual release was a single song (well, an A side and a B side) and
it had to push the popular button on the first try.Gabler worked to ride the trends, and try to
score the novelty record that might knock it out of the park, sales-wise (Mitch
Miller was the king of novelty tunes; Mama
Will Bark might have sunk without a trace and spurred Sinatra’s departure
from Columbia, but I Saw Mummy Kissing
Santa Claus sold 2.5 million copies in 1952-3).
Yeah, I know.But
Columbia scored two gold records for this ditty, in the days when RIAA gold
records were literally made out of gold.
Keeping with the theme of Christmas lewdness, the whiff of
scandal also helped propel I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus into the sales
Boyd's record was
condemned by the Roman Catholic Church in Boston when it was
released on the grounds that it mixed kissing with Christmas… Boyd was
photographed meeting with the Archdiocese to explain the
song. After the meeting, the ban was lifted.
Gabler also paid attention to art & Ella, using
commercial efforts to “pay for all the good things we want to do.”Ella
Sings Gershwin, the first of Fitzgerald’s great American songbook triumphs,
was actually recorded as an EP for Decca in 1950, immediately before the Santa Claus date.
In 1954, just prior to Norman Granz’s successful effort to
wrest Fitzgerald’s recording contract from Decca (Decca could not complete its
soundtrack to The Benny Goodman Story
biopic without obtaining releases from some Granz artists), Decca presented
Ella Fitzgerald with a plaque commemorating sales of 22 million units over her
career.Not too shabby.
While celebrating the Granz era, which saw the rise of the
LP, massive prestige recording projects like the Songbook series, and Fitzgerald’s elevation to The First Lady of
Song, dumping on Santa Claus Got Stuck in My
Chimney has become something of a cottage industry.
I’ve seen references on the Intertoobs along the lines that
Decca was at first afraid to release it because of its salaciousness (I’ve seen
no confirmation of this) and that during Fitzgerald’s lifetime her lawyers
blocked its re-release (not sure how they could do this).
Certainly, Santa Claus
didn’t re-emerge during her lifetime.Verve did put it on a Christmas release bizarrely titled Yule Be Miserable a few years back.It was also repackaged into an omnibus Ella
Fitzgerald Christmas CD titled Ella
Wishes You a Swinging Christmas.Since this CD includes the full Ella
Fitzgerald Wishes You a Swinging Christmas—her first Christmas album, and an
extremely successful release for Verve in 1960—some Internet commentators have
incorrectly inferred that Santa Claus
was cut in 1960 instead of 1950.I
passed this error on to readers of China Matters in the original edit of the First Day of Elvis segment, and take this opportunity to issue a correction and an apology!
As an example of 1) Ella Fitzgerald’s achievements during
the Decca era 2) her fondness for novelty songs and 3) transgressive subject
matter, here is a joyful performance of When
I Get Low I Get High from 1936.Yes,
it means exactly what you think it means.
Day Four: The Elvis Presley Debt to Polka
On the adult side of the pop music spectrum, “Santa Claus”
can refer to the mindless male member…or the generous sugar daddy.
Elvis recorded a rollicking cover of “Just Because” at Sun
Records in 1954.It includes the verses:
You've caused me to spend all my money.
You laughed and called me old Santa Claus.
Well, I'm telling you,
Baby, I'm through with you.
Because, well well, just because.
Well, well, well,
There'll come a time when you'll be lonesome
And there'll come a time when you'll be blue.
Well, there'll come a time when old Santa
He won't pay your bills for you.
Ample qualification, therefore, for an Elvis/Christmas
“Just Because” is a country perennial that first surfaced in
the 1920s during the Hawaiian craze in pop music.It was first recorded by the “Nelstone
Hawaiians”, an Alabama combo led by Hubert Nelson & James Touchstone (hence
the portmanteau name), which was a pioneer in the use of the Hawaiian steel
In 1933, Leon’s Lone Star Cowboys, a seminal blues/western
swing group, took an uptempo crack at “Just Because”:
Then the Shelton Brothers (who had been involved in the
founding of the Lone Star Cowboys and, depending on whose story you read, either
wrote the song or ripped it off), recorded their version in 1935.The Shelton Brothers were a big deal in
country music in the 1930s, recording 150 or so sides for Decca.
America’s Polka King Frankie Yankovic launched his lengthy career with a cover of "Just Because" in 1948
(“Who Stole the Kishka?”, one of his
last records, released in 2001, featured a cameo by the puckish, accordion-inclined, but unrelated
“Weird” Al Yankovic). Yankovic believed so strongly in
“Just Because” he offered to buy the first 10,000 copies himself to overcome
the resistance of Columbia Records to releasing it.His confidence was rewarded as “Just Because”
struck gold (actually platinum, selling over two million units).
Elvis was, in his early years, serious about his music.One of the most striking photos of young
Elvis shows him riding “the train” (what we rode before airplanes, kids) back
to Memphis and listening again and again to the the acetates of his latest “records”
(oversized storage media) on his “portable turntable” (like an iPod but the
size of a small suitcase).
However, he was no obsessive musical archivist with a stack
of Bluebird and Decca 78s in his basement.Elvis showed up at Sun Records with little more than bits and pieces:
You know, he sang a
bunch of the old songs, but he didn’t know much of them—maybe just a verse and
a chorus of each!
When they got together at Sun, it was undoubtedly Scotty
Moore—a veteran of the local music circuit, and member of a country band, the
Starlight Wranglers, that was probably intimately familiar with the Shelton Brothers
repertoire—serving as de facto arranger, who helped Elvis put the pieces
This July, on the 60th anniversary of the first
Sun session, Peter Cooper recreated the scene in the pages of the Tennessean:
The evening began in self-conscious
discomfort as Presley stumbled through versions of pop and country songs.
Moore and Black were good enough
musicians to replicate famous recordings, but Presley was raw and green and
Phillips wasn't interested in
replication. The room filled with frustration, with failure in sight. This
wasn't working. It was getting late, and early morning would mean hats and
tires to make, and a Crown Electric truck to drive. The men took a break, and
Presley started fooling around and banging on his guitar. If he was going to
blow his big audition, he might as well act like it was no big deal.
That night, in staunchly segregated
Memphis, Presley started goofing on an old blues song, "That's All Right,
Mama," by Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup. Black jumped up and grabbed
his bass, and Moore started playing some speedy guitar fills.
"Fast music was what I
liked," Moore wrote in his memoir, "Scotty & Elvis: Aboard the
Mystery Train." "For years I had been making up guitar licks for
uptempo music. ... It wasn't until Elvis was flailing away at his guitar that I
suddenly knew where those licks belonged."
Turns out, those licks belonged
everywhere. Phillips rushed to turn the microphones back on and captured the
sound of the world's shifting axis.
A few weeks later, with ”That’s All Right” a local sensation,
the trio took a crack at "Just Because".
Even though Elvis’ version seems closest in style and spirit
to the Lone Star Cowboys’ take, I doubt anybody dug up that old chestnut.I expect the Yankovic polka was in the air
when Elvis was a kid, and he was entranced with the clever lyric and the
Moore, and bassist Bill Black then put their heads together in Sun's
recording studio and came up with an fresh, energetic reboot.
The alchemy that Elvis, Moore, and Black
achieved with a stripped-down band, an untrained amateur singer, and a tired
old retread of a country song that had most recently been fed through the Polka-matic
is quite remarkable.Elvis gives a confident,
joyful performance (he was 19 at the time) and Scotty Moore generously
showcases Elvis’ vocal while at the same time driving the tune forward instrumentally
with a forceful guitar-picking style that made a virtue of the empty spaces
left by the small combo and inadvertently revolutionized popular music.
Sun didn’t release the cut, but the master followed Elvis to
RCA and was released on his first RCA LP.
Amazingly, 37 years after Elvis’ death, Scotty Moore is still
with us at the age of 83 (though he isn’t a much of a presence on his website &
facebook pages and gave up personalizing guitars and other memorabilia a while
back).The title of his autobiography, That’s All Right, Elvis, while riffing
on one of the first revolutionary cuts at Sun, “That’s All Right”, refers to
Moore’s grace in forgiving Elvis for letting Colonel Parker’s management team
kick Moore to the curb and replace him with Hollywood studio talent after the
move to RCA. The contribution of polka
to Elvis’ sound may be forgotten, but Scotty Moore’s is, thankfully,
of Elvis Presley by Alfred Wertheimer. N.B. The Internet tells me the
illustration for the Nelstone's Hawaiians on the video clip is actually a
photograph of some other group.
Day Five:Blue—woo-woo-woo Christmas
I am glad to learn that Elvis Presley apparently shared my lack of enthusiasm for “Blue Christmas”, a New York jingle writer's gambit to cash in both on Irving Berlin's White Christmas
and white audiences' rising postwar interest in the blues. Earnest Tubb
had a hit with "Blue Christmas" in 1950, turning the mopey ballad into a
mainstay of country acts during the holiday season. So it isn't
surprising that the sheet music for "Blue Christmas" found its way into
the pile of possibilities for the 1957 Elvis' Christmas Album recording session.
We can thank Millie Kirkham for the fact that "Blue Christmas" actually made it onto the album.
On December 16 of 2014, Millie Kirkham, who provided
the distinctive soprano backing for the track, passed away at the age of 91.Her obituary noted:
Singing as a sort of unofficial fifth member of The Jordanaires, Kirkham
didn't just lead the "whoo-ooh-oohs" on "Blue Christmas,"
her first session with Elvis in 1957 — she came up with the part. As the story
goes, The King originally didn't want to record the song, but had to, and
called on the singers to come up with something silly enough to keep RCA from
“I started going ‘Whoo-oo-oo-oo,’ "...[Elvis] motioned for me
to keep doing it, so I did it all the way through the whole song. When we were
through, we all laughed and said ‘That’s one record the record company will
never release.’ But they did. And if I got royalties, I’d be a rich old woman.”
When he sang it during his 1968 comeback special, Elvis
called “Blue Christmas” his favorite Christmas song “of the ones he recorded." He was perhaps engaging in some sly mockery.
Wikipedia has something more favorable to say about the high level of musicianship that Kirkham and the Jordanaires brought
to their work with Elvis:
Presley's version [of “Blue Christmas] is notable
musicologically as well as culturally in that the vocal group the Jordanaires
(especially in the soprano line, sung by Millie Kirkham), replace many major
and just minor thirds with neutral
and septimal minor thirds, respectively.In addition to contributing to the overall
tone of the song, the resulting "blue notes" constitute a musical play
on words that provides an "inside joke" or "Easter egg" to
Well, if you say so.
The Jordanaires were a successful vocal quartet A.E. (Ante Elvis) with a recording contract, a
spot on the Grand Ole Opry, and a lot of backing work for country vocalists.They also had several gospel songs in their
performing repertoire, apparently a distinctive feature at the time.
After hearing them perform their version of “Peace In the
Valley” (much more about that on subsequent Days), Elvis, at that time still on
the financially-strapped Sun label, declared to them that, if he got a big
record company deal, he would use them as his backing group.Indeed, when he joined RCA, the Jordanaires,
after some minor hiccups, joined him.
Jordanaires became pillars of the Nashville music scene and a major
catalyst for its growth to prominence. The Jordanaires backed an
astounding 2,000 artists and are heard on records with cumulative sales
of 2.6 billion units. They also created the Nashville commercial jingle
segment and are commemorated in the biz for their important role in
setting up the
Nashville branch of the American Federation of Television and Radio
Artists/Screen Actors Guild union.
The Jordanaires also developed an easy-to-use musical
notation, the now universally employed “Nashville Number System” or NNS, which
assisted musicians without formal musical training to identify & play chords
and was also present at the spawning of thousands of garage bands.Here’s what “Blue Christmas” looks like with
have a blue Christmas without you
be so blue just thinking about you
of red, on a green Christmas tree
be the same dear, if you're not here with me.
when those blue snow flakes start falling,
when those blue memories start calling,
be doing alright, with your Christmas of white,
I'll have a blue blue Christmas.
ohh, ohh AhhhAhh ahh a ahh ohhhh
ohh, ohh Ahhhhh Ahh ahh a ahh ohhhh
be doing allright with your Christmas of white
I'll have a blue blue Christmas,
And if you’re really, really hooked on "Blue Christmas" and NNS notation, and want to play the song yourself, here’s
a nice tutorial from Eric Blackmon.
Photo of Elvis Presley with Millie Kirkham and the Jordanaires copyright James Roy http://www.pbase.com/jroy/image/58198631
Day Six: Black Christmas
Ironically, I guess, the blackest song on Elvis’ Christmas
Album is “White Christmas”.
Elvis’ version doesn’t harken back to Bing Crosby’s iconic 1942
Instead, he invokes the spirit of Clyde McPhatter, who cut a
doo-wop version of the song with the Drifters in 1954.
I daresay McPhatter is mostly remembered today by doowop,
R&B, and rock musicologists.But he was
a major figure in the development of R&B, soul, and rock, and a major
artistic and commercial force in the music business, most notably with the
Drifters and as a solo act, in the 1950s.
McPhatter started out in gospel, and is credited with being
one of the first—and most successful—at transferring the emotional gospel
sensibility to secular pop.Sam Cooke,
among many others, followed in his footsteps.
So did Elvis.Indeed,
Elvis’ long reach into gospel, both directly and via R&B, and appropriation
of its vocabulary of emotional transcendence is perhaps what made him the
transformative pop culture figure we know today, and not just another in a long
line of smooth-voiced entertainers.
Elvis adored McPhatter’s singing, as Sam Phillips recalled:
'You remember Clyde McPhatter? Elvis
thought Clyde McPhatter had one of the greatest voices in the world. We were
going somewhere one time - down to the Louisiana Hayride or to Nashville - and
we were singing in the car. Well, Bill Black couldn't carry a tune in a bucket,
and Scotty was worse.
So Elvis and I were the only good
singers in the car. But we were talking about Clyde McPhatter, and he said,
'You know, if I had a voice like that man, I'd never want for another thing.'
McPhatter deployed melisma and slipped on and off the beat
as he embarked on his emotional and musical journeys.In other words, he took liberties.I
will admit I am not a fan of McPhatter’s
demented-castrato take on “White Christmas”, but it was very popular
record buyers, and with Elvis Presley. It not only rose to No. 2 on the
R&B chart in 1954 and reappeared on the chart the next two
years, it was the first Drifters record to crack the mainstream i.e.
white pop dominated Billboard 100 chart.
When Elvis mimicked the Drifters’ “White Christmas”, these
liberties attracted the baleful attention of the tune’s author, Irving Berlin.
Berlin had not taken public notice of the Drifters’ version,
but when the wildly popular Presley converted his beloved standard into a
doo-wop yodelfest, Berlin took umbrage.In
addition to resenting the rise of the loosy-goosy rock and roll performer at
the expense of respect for the material and the Tin Pan Alley songsmith, Berlin
may have had additional reasons for his anger.His three-week old son had died on Christmas Day, and Berlin and his
wife visited the grave on every anniversary.
In any case, Jody Rosen, the author of a book on White
Christmas, told NPR:
"Berlin couldn't stand Presley,
and Presley recorded a cover version of 'White Christmas' for his Christmas
album, which Berlin took as kind of sacrilege," Rosen says. "He
really thought it was degrading to his song. So he and members of his staff
launched a furious campaign to try and get radio stations to ban the Presley
The campaign to get radio stations not to play the song didn’t
really get anywhere, though one DJ was reportedly fired.The Elvis commercial and artistic juggernaut
could not be sidetracked even by Irving Berlin, composer of “God Bless America”
and perhaps the most successful and prolific pop songsmith in American history.
So Elvis’ take on “White Christmas”, though bland and
unthreatening, is perhaps the most revolutionary cut on the album.
Day Seven: Elvis/Jesus
"Will Elvis take the place of Jesus, in a thousand
years?" Jello Biafra
Maybe he already
Yes, it’s a thing, though tongue in cheek. I think.
·Jesus is spelled with five letters, ending in
·Elvis is spelled with five letters, ending in
·A star appeared when Jesus was born. (Matthew
·Elvis almost appeared in A Star Is Born.
·Joseph wasn't Jesus' father.
·Elvis didn't think Vernon was his real dad.
·Jesus' parents took him to Memphis, Egypt (to
·Elvis' parents took him to Memphis, Tennessee (to find work).
·Jesus said, "Don't store away gold or
silver, travel without money."
·Elvis never carried any money on his person.
·Jesus is the Lord's shepherd.
·Elvis dated Cybill Shepherd.
Visit the web page of The Velvet Elvis homage artist (not "Elvis impersonator", please!) for more parallels and imagery.
Day Eight: Elvis/Nixon
On December 21, 1970, on the cusp of Christmas, this
historic meeting took place:
This indelible image is the most requested photograph from
the U.S. National Archives.
In 1970, Elvis flew to Washington to request credentials as
"Federal Agent at Large" to help the government deal with the illegal
drug problem. Beatle envy--resentment that the drugged-out Fab Four had
eclipsed the King--has been cited as the underlying motivation. In any
case, Elvis, an avid police badge collector, sought out President Nixon because
the Bureau of Narcotics and Drugs had denied him the precious tin.
A George Washington University website
documents the meeting and includes a PDF of Elvis' letter to Nixon setting up
the meeting. It states, in part:
"I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing
techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing..."
The punch line is that Elvis was allegedly stoned at the meeting.
I guess we could recapitulate the Elvis/Jesus meme as
"Elvis" & "Nixon" both have five letters, two syllables, two
vowels, and one funky consonant each
Both broke nationally in 1956
Both had comebacks in 1968
Both hated Communists and the Beatles
Both abused licit psychoactive chemicals and both became
more than a little paranoid
And so on…
Day Nine: Hearing the Light: Elvis & Black Gospel
On his 1957 Christmas album, Elvis essays a gospel standard,
"Take My Hand, Precious Lord".
It is, to my ears, pretty but also pretty bland.And that, unfortunately, is something of an
indictment of Elvis.
too much exaggeration, the national anthem of American black gospel.It was composed in 1937 by Thomas A. Dorsey, himself the
progenitor of 20th century black gospel.
It was Martin Luther King’s favorite song.Literally his last words before he was shot
down on the balcony in Memphis were to musician Ben Branch: "Ben, make
sure you play "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" in the meeting tonight.
Play it real pretty."
Mahalia Jackson, per King’s stated wish, sang “Take My Hand,
Precious Lord” at his funeral in Atlanta (the private service).Aretha Franklin sang it at Jackson’s funeral
in 1971.Leontyne Price sang it at LBJ’s
funeral in 1973.And so on.
The song is most closely identified with Mahalia Jackson,
who had performed it since the 1930s in her role as Thomas A. Dorsey’s chosen musical
emissary to the African-American religious community.Her first known recording was on a Columbia
LP released in 1956.
Jackson keeps her fires well-banked in this version,
probably reflecting the careful direction of Dorsey, who developed some “slow
sentimental songs” like TMHPL for Jackson to use to reassure conservative
churchmen about the dignity and value of his gospel approach.
This Jackson version is, perhaps, more definitive:
The Rise of Gospel Blues:
The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church (Harris, Michael W., 1992
Oxford University Press, New York) links his music to the social and economic
revolution wrought by the emigration of impoverished African-Americans to
northern cities, especially Chicago, and the challenge they brought to “old-line”
African American urban churches and their “talented tenth” emphasis on European
music, seemly upper-class behavior, and the preacher’s dominance over the
emotional and religious content of the church service.
TMHPL seems to have created a sensation in African-American
congregations with its direct emotional appeal for divine help.To my unreligious ears, it seems to partake
of the same sort of emotional outcry directed by Catholics to the Virgin Mary
and by Buddhists to Kuan Yin for merciful intercession that belies the theology
of a stern and/or indifferent universe.
In 1973 Dorsey supervised a recording of the song by Marion
Williams.This track includes Dorsey’s first-person
account of the terrible personal trial that inspired him to write the song and
also perhaps best illustrates the kind of vocal Dorsey valued: one that used “trills,
twists, and turns” both to excite the audience and elevate it to a religiously
exalted state of awareness.
The proliferation of African-American churches with a “gospel
choir” headed by a female fire-eater, often trained in the school of Dorsey,
leading a call and response with the audience, completely changed American
perceptions of the character of black worship.
Aretha Franklin’s first record, recorded in 1956 when she
was 14--and a year before Elvis recorded his take--gives an idea of the kind of workout a gospel diva would bring to the
Compared to this incendiary performance, Elvis’ dutiful
version is pretty much a damp squib.
Elvis’ love of gospel, including black gospel is
However, his perception of what was the best and most
suitable presentation of gospel was filtered through his love of the white
gospel quartets that dominated the southern scene when he was a boy.Elvis, if I may say so, religiously attended
the monthly gospel musicales at the Ellis Auditorium in Memphis, a stone throw
from the Presley home.
The most conspicuous display of Elvis’ love for these quartets
is his elevation of the Jordanaires to the position of his backing group on
secular as well as religious recordings.As this documentary
demonstrates, Presley was besotted with all gospel quartets and, indeed, had
auditioned for membership in one the leading groups, the Blackwells.
The white quartets often included black gospel numbers in
their repertoire.However, it appears
inclusion was often an act of appropriation, substituting the controlled,
disciplined presentation by a white quartet for the emotive desperation
frequently seen in black performance.
As black assertiveness became more political and social and
not just religious, white gospel seems to have become more defensive,
retreating to a “southern white gospel” affirmation of white social and moral
attitudes that, I suspect, always cohabited with the religious universalism
that the white quartets could assert so blandly in more secure times.
And Elvis, I’m afraid, turned to gospel to achieve the
feelings of control and unity he craved in his increasingly disordered life,
not the release and liberation he had witnessed in black churches.
Day Ten: Death, Rebirth, and Elvis
Alfred Wertheimer passed away in October of 2014.Wertheimer created a brilliant photographic record
of “Elvis at 21”, following Presley as he navigated the choppy waters of
celebrity in 1956.
Wertheimer’s most famous picture is “The Kiss”.
Vanity Fair tracked down the woman involved in 2011,
just soon enough for Wertheimer to enjoy a final jolt of fame and prosperity
before he died.
Elvis was unique in that he permitted
closeness, not six to eight feet away, which was standard, but right up close,
three to four feet away. He was so intensely involved with what he was doing:
it was as if he were laser focused; whether he was combing his hair or chatting
up the girls, he would be himself.
Here’s another great but less-known Wertheimer
photograph:Elvis relaxing with his
musicians while recording "Hound Dog" and "Don't Be Cruel" at RCA’s 24th Street studios in New
The background to this photo
is provided by Baruch College, which took over the building from RCA for its “Newman
Vertical Campus” and contributed a historical essay:
The seven floor stable next to the horse mart [in the
pre-automobile era, 24th Street was the equine center of the
universe just as New York City was the world capital of horsesh*t—ed.] became a
recording studio in 1955 when RCA-Victor Records moved their offices there from
Rockefeller Center. A few months later, a young, still relatively unknown
singer named Elvis Presley visited the studio and recorded some of his first
songs that would make him known worldwide. Alfred Wertheimer, a photographer
who followed Elvis described the last time that they had recorded in that
On July 2, 1956, a defining moment
in the history of rock and roll took place. Elvis recorded "Hound
Dog" and "Don't be Cruel," which were released by RCA as two
sides of one single. This was the only time both sides of a single reached
number one on the charts. The session at RCA Studio was also the last time
Elvis would record in New York. Of course, I wasn't aware of any of this when I
arrived at the building on 24th street between Lexington and 3rd Avenues. I did
sense that this recording session would provide with me[sic] a rare opportunity
to observe another stage in the evolution of my subject.
Located on the ground floor, the
main studio where Elvis recorded was a large room with a lot of acoustical
padding covering the walls. There were two small adjoining rooms, one of which
was reserved for the sound engineers. Instead of having to book orchestra
musicians for three-hour gigs, Elvis brought his own crew - Scotty Moore on
guitar, DJ Fontana on drums, Bill Black on bass, and four Jordanaires as
back-up. Shorty Long was hired as the piano player. Also present were Steve
Sholes from RCA and the always necessary Junior, Elvis's go-fer. The recording
session began early in the afternoon and lasted until dusk. (The Recording
Session: Studio One in Elvis at 21, San Rafael: Insight Editions, 2006)
Death and rebirth are the traditional preoccupation of the
winter solstice, and got rolled into the Christian celebration of Christmas.The sun goes out; the son is born.
Elvis himself has enjoyed post-mortem vitality, and
dominated the Forbes list of top-earning dead celebrities until Michael Jackson,
onetime spouse of Presley’s daughter, exploded onto the scene in 2009.Today, Elvis is a solid No. 2, his earnings eclipsed by Jackson but, at $40+ million dollars, but way ahead of
Albert Einstein (who earns a relatively paltry $11 million for his estate).
Day Eleven: The Power and the Glory...Without the Joy
Elvis’ life transition from pure joy to pure bullsh*t was
In 1956—the period so hauntingly documented in Alfred
Wertheimer’s photos—Elvis experienced music, fame, girls, and an intoxicating
awareness of his own achievement.
By 1958, Elvis was in the Army (where he apparently
commenced his lifelong romance with amphetamines and, eventually, other legally
prescribed pharmaceuticals); his adored mother, Gladys, had passed away; and
the stage was set for a decade of fame, financial security, growing emotional and
spiritual turmoil, and an infuriating harvest of crappy music and crappy movies
courtesy of Colonel Tom Parker.
A clear sign of where things were headed is Elvis’ historic
1956/57 TV appearances on the Milton Berle Show, the Steve Allen Show, and the
Ed Sullivan Show.
On June 5, 1956, Elvis appeared on the Milton Berle show in
full gyrating fig.The Elvis Australia
fan site has done a great job of locating and archiving Elvis footage and you
can see Elvis’ performance of “Hound Dog”—which Elvis has clearly worked up as
a salacious crowd pleaser for his live performance (with a slowdown grinding
interval) even before he went into the studio to cut the track.When Elvis recorded the song in New York a
month later, he pushed his musicians through 31 takes, a sign of the high
expectations he held for his music at the time, and his respect for Leiber
Berle is generous and good natured and the after-song patter
celebrates Elvis’ burgeoning status as a sex symbol, while coyly dances around
Berle’s legendary sex-machine prowess (google Jackie Gleason’s plea “Just
enough to win, Milton” to get the idea).
In an interview that Berle did for the Archive of American Television, he recollects that he
got 400,000 “pan”-- “not fan”--letters after the appearance, a sign not only of
the powerful reaction that Elvis’ sexual display had on Americans, but also of
the central place broadcast TV occupied in the US psyche in the 1950s.
This was when the “sh*t got real” for Elvis..Elvis
was reportedly driven to tears by the imputation that he was “vulgar”.In July Steve Allen imposed his vision of the
“new” housebroken Elvis, subjecting Elvis to the humiliation of dressing up in
a tuxedo and singing “Hound Dog” to a noticeably disinterested basset hound.
When it came time for Elvis to collect $50,000 dollars of Ed
Sullivan’s money for three appearances in the fall of 1956 and early 1957, the
game got more complicated.Sullivan, who
considered Elvis’ act insufficiently family friendly, rather counterintuitively
let Elvis do the full hound-doggin’ act on the October 28, 1956 show.Well, maybe not counterintuitively.After Elvis’ performance elicited a spasm of
outrage—which apparently included burning him in effigy in two towns—and stoked
the publicity engine, Sullivan, ostentatiously exercising his responsibilities as
gatekeeper of American entertainment decency, ordered up some adjustments for
the final show, on January 6, 1957.
This was the notorious show in which Elvis was shot only
from the waist up in efforts to transform him into a pop-music eunuch.Elvis’ sudden interest in world affairs and
Hungarian relief, I suspect, is a further piece of image-burnishing that
emerged from a summit between Sullivan and the Colonel.At the end, Sullivan gives the condescending
showbiz “he’s a real decent fine boy” imprimatur, confirming, I guess, that
Presley was qualified to follow the same path to the non-threatening adult
entertainer pioneered by Crosby & Sinatra.
In this context, Elvis’ closing number, “Peace in the Valley”,
is quite interesting.“Peace In the
Valley”, together with “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” (see Day 9) are the
two signature creations of Thomas A. Dorsey, the founding father of 20th
century black gospel.
I have my issues with Elvis’ take on “Take My Hand, Precious
Lord”, whose core identity as a desperate black call for religious support he
doesn’t quite seem to grasp.“Peace In
the Valley” is much less problematic, a reassuring vision of sanctuary, safety,
and acceptance that had already been a huge hit for Red Foley, a talented and
sophisticated star who could be considered the Bing Crosby of country music.
Elvis, backed by the Jordanaires, turns in a flawless
performance, delivered with a style of “Do my vocal demonstrations please you,
Earthlings?” detachment that became more and more pronounced in his later
The most convincing stories I’ve seen state that Elvis
insisted on closing with a gospel number over the objections of CBS.I tend to think Elvis turned to gospel in
order to asset his identity, dignity, and self respect as a musician and
entertainer, maybe to his mom as well as to himself, and defy the “rock and
roll vulgarian”/”safe as milk popstar” pigeonholes that the music industry and
his manager had prepared for him.
Elvis’ subsequently recorded a four song EP of gospel tunes
(“Peace In the Valley”, “It Is No Secret (What God Can Do)”, “I Believe” and “Take
My Hand, Precious Lord”), which became the core of the second, “religious” side
of the 1957 Christmas Album.
Elvis was not an enthusiast for the Pentecostal theology his
parents practiced, and his own religious views became more and more
idiosyncratic—and more scandalous to close and critical observers in the
Christian world-- as he grew older.
“I’ll tell ya, Larry, I’ve
always believed in God, but my church really turned me off,” Elvis said. “I
always knew there was a truth to my religion, and somehow I never lost faith in
God, despite those ol’ preachers tryin’ to make people feel guilty for things
they never done. I always knew that deep inside me there were answers that went
beyond their rigid old closed minds.”
“The first time I ever heard
about the Almighty I Am was from my mom when I was a little kid. She believed
in the supernatural and the Holy Spirit. She was mystical, man. She just
naturally knew things. She raised me on it.”
When Elvis’ father, Vernon,
not a religious man, took his son to his first movie, the innocent “Abbott and
Costello Meet Frankenstein,” it was their secret, not to be shared with Gladys.
She would have disapproved very strongly of her son going against the
strictures of the church, which forbade attendance at motion pictures.
Considering Elvis’ later involvement with the movie industry, it’s interesting
to note that it was the discovery of this forbidden medium that was the first
fissure in his relationship with the church of his youth. He was at the
naturally rebellious age of thirteen, but he was also realizing for the first
time that the preachers were humans whose teachings were colored by their own
personal values and opinions. What was so bad about a funny movie? Was it
indeed evil—and was he evil for seeing it?
“They said movies were the
work of the devil. But after I saw “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” with
my daddy, I knew somebody had to be wrong. And it for sure wasn’t Abbott and
Costello.” Elvis’ eyes sparkled. “Man, I loved that movie. We laughed all the
way through it.”
He turned serious again.
“I’ll never forget that movie. You know, there’s got to be something wrong with
a religion where everything you like is a sin. Man, that congregation would
jump up and down, stomp their feet, and get themselves worked up to a frenzy.
It really got wild. And there was the preacher threatening us with Satan. It
used to scare me half –to death. He would march across the platform, screaming
bloody murder, yelling about hellfire and damnation, fire and brimstone. I
guess he was afraid God wouldn’t hear him if he didn’t yell.
“But something good did come
out of it. All that dancin’ and the free movement, it taught me that God is
natural, and to move my body was natural. I give credit to my church for that.
You know, I took a lot of heat when my career first took off. They said I was
‘controversial.’ And there were some preachers who actually said that my music
was dirty, and I was leading the kids to hell. They even had a bonfire and
burned my records and albums. Can you imagine that? Hell, all I did was what
came naturally—what I learned when I was a little kid in church, movin’ my body
to the music.”
Religious orthodoxy, aside, Elvis appears to have maintained
a core identity as a singer who understood, respected, & delivered genuine
gospel music, even as his mind and body were inexorably blown by the
unprecedented fame, temptation, weakness, and manipulation he experienced from the time
he exploded on the scene as a 21-year old.
Perhaps this sense of inner worth is what allowed him to
sleepwalk through his movie and musical career under the direction of the
artistically maladroit and venal Colonel Tom Parker; but it also allowed him to
return to the power and glory of his first year of fame when he felt he needed
Elvis’ twin 1960s triumphs are his 1968 NBC comeback special
and the 1969 “Memphis Record” sessions.
The TV special was an embarrassing necessity; the steady
procession of dismal movies and soundtracks had eroded Elvis’ appeal to the
point that the Colonel needed to throw in a TV program as a lagniappe in order to keep Elvis’
asking price from falling below the iconic $1 million/picture level.
The TV special was originally planned as a cheapie Christmas
schlockfest with Elvis singing a few carols.We can thank producer/director Steve Binder for reimagining the program—which
aired on December 3, 1968-- as a triumphant return to Elvis’ musical
roots.In the end, the only Christmas
song performed was “Blue Christmas,” off the 1957 album.Though I have my reservations about the
original recording (Woo-oo-oo-oo-oo; see Day 5), Elvis nails it in this version.
Day Twelve: Peace In the Valley
To accompany Elvis' rendition of Reverend Thomas Dorsey's "Peace in the Valley" from his Christmas album, here is a supersized image of Edward Hicks' The Peaceable Kingdom, inspired by the same passage from the Book of Isaiah,for viewing, contemplation, reflection, and consolation (use your scroll bar!) during Elvis' magnificent performance. Hicks, an itinerant Quaker preacher in Pennsylvania, painted this blissful scene approximately one hundred times.