Dreaming of a Promised Land: The Music of Elvis Presley and Bruce Springsteen

By Ryan Hilligoss and Shawn Poole, January 8th, 2014

(A version of this was used for a special guest Be The Boss episode on E Street Radio, Sirius/XM which aired January 8, 2013)

Two Hearts: American Icons Elvis Presley and Bruce Springsteen

Two Hearts: American Icons Elvis Presley and Bruce Springsteen

Merry Elvismas!! To celebrate American icon Elvis Presley on what would have been his 79th birthday, I’ve put together something special with a lot of help from my good friend Shawn Poole from Philadelphia, contributing writer for Backstreets Magazine and Backstreets.com. Shawn and I became fast friends through E Street Radio where we both are regular callers on Live from E Street Nation with Dave Marsh.  We’re both major fans of Elvis Presley and Bruce Springsteen.

Just over a year ago, Shawn, his wife Dawn and I traveled to Memphis, Tennessee and Tupelo, Mississippi to see the shotgun shack where Elvis was born, the areas where he grew up, where he made his first records and, of course, Graceland, the legendary house and property that Elvis bought for himself and his family after he became a superstar.  We stood together outside the same wall at Graceland that Bruce climbed back in 1976 in his legendary, though unsuccessful, attempt to meet his hero in person.

Shawn and Ryan jumping the wall, ala 1976. That's a copy of Backstreets Shawn is holding, not Time or Newsweek

Shawn and Ryan jumping the wall, ala 1976. That’s a copy of Backstreets Shawn is holding, not Time or Newsweek

We also saw a special exhibit at Graceland that, for the first time ever, features items belonging to other artists who continue to be influenced and inspired by Elvis, including Bruce Springsteen, but more on that later. We’ve prepared a very special post for you today that was inspired by our travels. Since Elvis’ birthday falls on January 8th, we’re going to play eight tracks that connect Bruce Springsteen to Elvis Presley in some very unique ways.  So let’s get this birthday party started with a double-shot of Elvis-themed songs that were not written by Bruce Springsteen, but on which he appears as a backing singer and musician.  These excellent songs explore both the glory and the tragedy of Elvis Presley’s life and career.  Here are Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers performing Joe’s song Talking to the King with Bruce Springsteen on guitar and backing vocals, followed immediately by Ms. Patti Scialfa performing her song Looking for Elvis with Bruce on harmonica and bullet mic. So take it away, Joe, Bruce and the Houserockers. It’s Elvis’ birthday here at 706unionavenue, let the rocking begin!

 

I think a lot of us have been looking for Elvis down Memphis road in one way or another over the years. For those of you who are interested, you can read my essay on our pilgrimage to Tupelo, Mississippi entitled “That’s All Right Mama, I’ll Get The Guitar”, by clicking on the link in this sentence. I took the title from a joke from Howard Hite, an employee of Tupelo Hardware Co, where Gladys bought Elvis his first guitar in 1946. According to Howard, Elvis came in to store on his 11th birthday to buy himself a present earned by running errands for family and neighbors. He had his eye set on a .22 rifle, but Gladys told him no and the store clerk that day handed Elvis a guitar to avert his attention. After he played the guitar for a few minutes, Gladys said, “Elvis if you want the guitar, I’ll pay the difference.” And Elvis thought a moment and said, “Ok mama, I’ll get the guitar.” In Howard’s version, he has Elvis saying, “That’s All Right Mama, I’ll get the guitar.”

For those of you who may not know, 706 Union Avenue is the address in Memphis, Tennessee of the Memphis Recording Service which later became Sun Studio, owned and operated by musical pioneer Sam Phillips. Many argue that the first rock and roll record was recorded at Sun Studio, Jackie Brenston’s Rocket 88.  Many early American musicians recorded at Sun including Rufus Thomas, Howlin Wolf, BB King, Junior Parker, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and of course Elvis. After hearing Howling Wolf for the first time in the studio, Phillips reportedly said, “Yes, yes. This is it for me, This is where the soul of man never dies.” Just as Phillips and the artists at Sun  mixed musical styles of country, blues, rhythm and blues and gospel among others to form the basis of rock and roll, on this next track, Bruce and Little Steven blend music styles of rock and hip hop in the song’s use of samples, loops and various styles of percussion riding over a driving bass line. So here, in the ‘blessed name of Elvis’, is the Little Steven mix of 57 Channels.

Y’know, if you get the chance to visit Tupelo, Mississippi, the town where Elvis was born, you’ve just got to stop at Tupelo Hardware, where Elvis’ mother Gladys bought him his first guitar for his 11th birthday.  It’s a great old-fashioned hardware store, where you can stand on the spot marked with an “X” on the very same hardwood floor where Elvis stood and Mr. Howard Hite, Tupelo Hardware’s sales manager and a true Southern gentlemen, will tell you the story of how Elvis got his first guitar.  As Springsteen fans, of course we thought immediately of Bruce’s beautiful song The Wish, which tells the story of how Bruce’s mother Adele bought him his first guitar for Christmas.  The very first time that Bruce performed The Wish publicly, at the November 17, 1990 Christic Institute benefit, he concluded his introduction of the song by saying, “I´m gonna leap into the void and the great line of mother lovers: Richard Nixon, Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard and every country and western singer you ever knew.”  Here is a live version played on the 2005 Devils and Dust Tour including the intro with some discussion on Elvis.

Every year, Graceland is the second most personal residence visited by tourists in America, only behind the White House. Much like Paul Simon, millions have been received in Graceland, ordinary and famous alike. One famous visitor was comedian, actor, performance artist and all around avant-garde artist Andy Kaufman, known by many as Latka from the television series Taxi. Kaufman had an obsession with Elvis starting from childhood. Knowing that Andy and his writing and performance partner Bob Zmuda could play loose with facts and reality, much of what has been said and written about his exploits cannot be verified for certain, but it makes for some very entertaining stories. Knowing that, it can be said Andy had quite the connection with Elvis.

According to Andy, in 1969, he tilted at windmills by hitchhiking  from Long Island to Las Vegas on a quest to meet his idol.  After hiding in a kitchen pantry for hours at the International Hotel where Elvis made regular appearances, Andy burst out when he heard Elvis exit a service elevator and begin walking through the kitchen on his way to the stage. Andy proceeded to show Elvis a manifesto he had written about his love of Elvis and he told Elvis that he was going to be famous some day. Elvis reportedly patted Andy on the shoulder and said he was sure that was true. Elvis has been cited by Johnny Cash and tv host Mike Douglas as stating that Kaufman was Elvis’ favorite impersonator. Elvis was a loyal Johnny Carson viewer and I imagine Elvis did watch Kaufman perform on March 3, 1977 during which Andy turned his clothes into a 70s Vegas jumpsuit and then proceeded to sing Love Me and Blue Suede Shoes in a 50s Elvis style voice replete with the appropriate dance moves. Most interestingly, according to Zmuda in his biography, Andy Kaufman Revealed, he and Andy were in Memphis for the infamous Jerry Lawler wrestling match when they decided to tour Graceland. A few of the guides recognized Andy and took him on a private tour including Elvis personal office and pointed to some video tapes that had Andy’s name written on them in Elvis hand. Kaufman became overwhelmed with emotion at seeing his name written on Elvis’ home recordings and excused himself to “the restroom” where a flush was soon heard and Andy came out and exclaimed, “I used Elvis’ throne,  I mean I really used it. It was amazing.” So in the spirit of two great American artists who were way ahead of their time, Andy Kaufman and Elvis Presley,  from the October 11, 2004 Vote for Change concert, here is Bruce and REM “goofing on Elvis’ on Man on The Moon.

My buddy Shawn Poole and I are the bosses today here at 706unionavenue and we’re celebrating the birthday of Bruce Springsteen’s very first musical hero, Mr. Elvis Presley.  We just told you some interesting stories about Graceland, Elvis’ legendary home and last year there was a special exhibit at Graceland’s Sincerely Elvis Museum.  It was called ICON: The Influence of Elvis Presley and it marked the very first time that an official Graceland exhibit had included items from artists other than Elvis.  Among the many artists included were Bruce Springsteen, of course, along with some video and displayed quotes on the walls from Bruce, Nils Lofgren and Patti Scialfa, too.  There’s also a glass case with a copy of the Born To Run LP, one of Bruce’s black leather jackets from the seventies and an authentic Elvis Presley King’s Court fan club button, just like the one you can see on the cover of Born To Run and in many other photos taken by photographer Eric Meola for the Born To Run album-cover photo sessions.  And right next to that, in the very same glass case, is a large display copy of a Backstreets Magazine article that Shawn wrote back in 2004.

Shawn Poole with a copy of his article from Backstreets magazine inside the ICON exhibit on the Graceland Grounds, December, 2012

Shawn Poole with a copy of his article from Backstreets magazine inside the ICON exhibit on the Graceland Grounds, December, 2012

It’s all about Al Hanson, the man who designed the Elvis fan-club button that Bruce is wearing on his guitar strap on the Born To Run album-cover.  I’m sure you’ll understand that, as a longtime fan of both Bruce and Elvis, I was immensely thrilled and honored to see my article on display in an official Graceland exhibit right alongside some of Bruce’s Elvis-related items.  Backstreets Magazine and Backstreets.com was honored, of course, to be a part of this unique exhibit, and we hope that many of you got the chance to see it before it closed last February. 

For a fascinating read on what might have happened if Bruce Springsteen had met his idol before Elvis’ concert in Philadelphia in the spring of 1977, click here to get a download of Shawn’s great story “Didn’t Have To Die: How an Encounter That Never Happened Might Have Helped to Change History If It Had” which was originally published in Spanish in The Stone Pony Magazine issue 53, September 2009.

And speaking of Born To Run, we think “She’s The One”, thanks to its Bo Diddley beat and Bruce’s singing style on it, is the Born To Run track that most closely resembles the musical styles found in many of the great Elvis Presley records.  So here is an incredible live version played in 1975 at the Hammersmith Odeon in London, England on the band’s first trip overseas.

We’re back, rolling along on this great Mystery Train of Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen and American music.  In 1978, after enduring a struggle for his artistic freedom, Bruce wrote Promised Land for the album, Darkness On The Edge of Town. While it is unknown if it was purposeful, it shared the same title of a song written by one of his, and countless other’s, musical heroes, Chuck Berry, a man from a poor family living in a segregated St.Louis, Mo. Chuck’s version, written in 1964 while he was in jail and possibly influenced by Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech in 1963, tells the tale of a poor southern boy dreaming of a better life in California and struggling to make his way across the country in search of that dream. With names like Rock Hill, Atlanta, and Birmingham, some have claimed that Berry was writing a coded song about the Civil Right Movement. In the later stage of his career, Elvis recorded Berry’s Promised Land and turned it into one of his last great rock recordings.

Springsteen with Elvis button, BTR cover outtake from Eric Meola

Springsteen with Elvis button, BTR cover outtake from Eric Meola

Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, two huge influences on the music of Springsteen, were two of the most influential ”fathers” of rock and roll, one of the great unifying forces in modern American life and one that greatly influenced the civil rights movement. Elvis’ first recordings took place in a small, dusty Memphis studio called Sun Records situated at 706 Union Ave. In his extraordinary work on Elvis, Careless Love, author and music historian, Peter Guralnick writes “…in the end, there is only one voice that counts. It is the voice that the world first heard on those bright yellow Sun 78s, whose original insignia, a crowing rooster surrounded by boldly stylized sunbeams and a border of musical notes, sought to proclaim the dawning of a new day. It is impossible to silence that voice. Elvis continued to believe in a democratic ideal of redemptive transformation. He continued to seek out a connection with a public that embraced him not for what he was but for what he sought to be.”

We would like to dedicate this next song to two Beautiful Dreamers, Elvis and Bruce, who both dreamed of a promised land, a better country and world for all to be treated fairly and humanely. On those early Sun recordings, it was only Elvis, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. So, to create some percussion, Elvis would use his hand to bang on the guitar body to keep the beat along with Black’s bass line. Here is Bruce creating his own percussion, in a haunting, ghostly fashion on an acoustic version of the Promised Land, recorded June, 2005 during the Devils and Dust Tour.

If I Can Dream Of A Better Land

We’ve been the ‘bosses’ today at 706unionavenue  in a special post celebrating the birthday of Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen’s original and enduring influence. Well, we’re going to close our work today with one of Bruce’s songs from his Wrecking Ball album released in 2012, We Take Care Of Our Own.  The lyrics make direct reference to a shotgun shack and, if you get the chance to visit Elvis’ birthplace as we have, you’ll see that he really was born in a shotgun shack, which is an extremely small house built by Elvis’ father Vernon , who had to borrow $180 to build it.  Like Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Presley was a very poor young man who later became very wealthy.  Elvis’ greatest music, however, was always about the struggle to dream the biggest dreams we can of a world in which everyone, not just a lucky few, can be liberated and free from poverty, loneliness and suffering.

For most of his life, Elvis lived and worked in Memphis, TN, a city with deep ties to the Civil Rights movement, and at the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum we learned how so much of the music made by Elvis and so many other musicians was strongly connected to that great struggle.  It forced us as a nation to reconsider our assumptions about how we identify ourselves as both individuals and groups, how our culture should look, sound and feel.  That’s why it continues to influence and inspire so many people around the world today, over thirty-five years after Elvis himself died so tragically.  Bruce Springsteen, one of Elvis’ biggest fans, is making music now that continues to ask us the question that Elvis asked when he sang If I Can Dream on his 1968 “comeback” television special, a night of performances that Bruce himself counts among Elvis’ greatest.  That night, Elvis asked all of us, “If I can dream of a warmer sun where hope keeps shining on everyone, tell me…Why won’t that sun appear?”  Happy birthday, Elvis, and rest in peace.  Thanks for inspiring Bruce Springsteen and all of us to ask ourselves the questions that still need to be asked.

Coda: Sources, videos and other material

*Sirius/XM’s Outlaw Country, NASCAR Radio, Blue Collar Radio and Raw Dog Comedy DJ Mojo Nixon did one of the best E Street Radio Guest DJ segments ever.  Bruce Springsteen himself loved it so much that he asked E Street Radio’s Dave Marsh to get a copy of the show for him.  Back in the eighties, Mojo wrote and recorded the great, hilarious tribute record “Elvis Is Everywhere.”  Mojo also has called Dave Marsh the man who’s forgotten more than the rest of us will ever know about Bruce Springsteen.  In 1973, Dave wrote his very first Springsteen record-review of Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. coincidentally in the same Creem Magazine column that also featured his review of the album Elvis Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite. Speaking of Greetings…, although we won’t be playing it on today’s show, that album’s closing track, “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City,” is one of the earliest examples of Bruce singing in the tough, bluesy style that Elvis used on many of his best records.

Prince From Another Planet

Prince From Another Planet

On June 9, 1972, the same day he was signed officially as a Columbia Records recording artist, Bruce Springsteen attended Elvis’ very first Madison Square Garden concert.  Bruce said that Elvis’ performance that night was “really great.”  Almost thirty years later, when Bruce released the Live In New York City CD and DVD of some of his own Madison Square Garden concerts, he could be heard shouting “Elvis is alive!” during “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” after an audience member threw a white shirt onstage.  Bruce mopped his sweaty face with the shirt and threw it back into the audience like Elvis used to throw his scarves into the crowd during the seventies, and he even copped an Elvis-like stage move.  The cover for Bruce’s Live In New York City CD booklet was created using an old-fashioned letterpress concert-style poster designed by the legendary Hatch Show Print with die-cut star designs used originally on a 1956 Elvis Presley concert poster.

A toilet fit for a King, restroom in Sun Studios, Memphis, Tn

A toilet fit for a King, restroom in Sun Studios, Memphis, Tn

5 thoughts on “Dreaming of a Promised Land: The Music of Elvis Presley and Bruce Springsteen

  1. Pingback: Songs by U2, Yo La Tengo, Janet Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Robbie Williams have just been played on Radio Sunset! | Sunset Daily

  2. Pingback: Elvis is The King of Collectibles | GETREALCOLLECTIBLES.COM

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