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

That’s All Right Mama, I’ll Get The Guitar: Elvis Presley’s Tupelo, Mississippi

By Ryan Hilligoss, January 2013

Very Humble Beginnings: From Small Things Mama, Big Things One Day Come

Born To Rock,The Alpha and the Omega. Little E in overalls and EP aviator shades,

The Alpha and the Omega. Little E in overalls and EP aviator shades

“A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.” Oscar Wilde

Old Saltillo Road, Tupelo, Ms

Old Saltillo Road, Tupelo, Ms. Painting in Presley Birthplace and Museum

“All my life, I’ve always had a pretty nice time. We didn’t have any money or nothing, but we always managed. We never had any luxuries but we never went hungry.” Elvis Presley, 1956 when asked if he had a happy time as a kid.

‘Leavin’ Tupelo With a Guitar In His Hand, With a One Way Ticket To The Promised Land’

Statue of Elvis Presley, age 13. Elvis Presley birthplace site and museum, Tupelo, Ms

Statue of Elvis Presley, age 13. Elvis Presley birthplace site and museum, Tupelo, Ms


In the 1930’s, Tupelo, Mississippi was a small, bustling manufacturing and commerce trading center in the northern part of the state which drew people from the countryside with the promise of a better life. Two of those people were Vernon Presley and Gladys Smith. While they had hoped that by working in Tupelo they would earn a decent living, they quickly learned a decent life could hang in the balance by a few dollars.  The couple met in early 1933, dated for a short time and then eloped in June of that year. With very little money between them, Vernon had to borrow the $3 to obtain their marriage license. Learning that Gladys was pregnant in 1934, Vernon borrowed $180 to buy the needed materials to build a small home for his wife and newborn. The couple built their humble home in East Tupelo on Old Saltillo Road, considered by many locals to be “the other side of the tracks.”

Elvis Presley Birthplace, Tupelo, Ms

Elvis Presley Birthplace, Tupelo, Ms

In the early morning of January 8th, 1935, Gladys Presley gave birth to a still-born son whom they had named Jessie Garon. While Vernon sent off for the local doctor, the presiding midwife determined there was another baby still to come, another boy, and his parents named him Elvis Aron(Presley later had his middle name changed to the proper biblical spelling of Aaron.) Both parents were distraught over the death of the first-born, but felt something special had occurred with the birth of Elvis. According to biographer Pat Broeske in the incredible documentary, Elvis: Return To Tupelo, “On that morning, Vernon stated when he watched the sun come up that day, he saw a blue streak in the sky. And Gladys swore she saw rings around the moon and believed something special would come of her son and told Elvis this time and again when he was a boy.” After years of reading about Elvis, his life and music, I and my good friends Shawn Poole and Dawn Leinberger, traveled to Tupelo and saw the small house from which big things one day came.

Vernon and Gladys Presley's bedroom/family room

Vernon and Gladys Presley’s bedroom/family room

The Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum consists of the home, the Assembly of God Church the Presleys attended at the time, the Elvis Presley Memorial Chapel, and a museum among other items. The house itself measures roughly 15 feet wide by 30 feet long, without the front porch included, and has only two rooms consisting of a bedroom/family room and a kitchen/dining room. The house now rests in the same location it did in 1935, while the other surrounding houses were demolished over time. Just like many similar houses of the time, it is referred to as a shotgun shack because of the fact that the front and rear doors are directly in line with each other and with such a short distance between the two, it is said you could open the front door, shoot a shotgun through the house and out the back door before the shot spread enough to damage the insides of the home.

Kitchen and dining room

Kitchen and dining room

Bedroom and family room

Bedroom and family room

Guy Harris, a boyhood friend of Elvis’, states, “Vernon worked at a wholesale grocery warehouse and Gladys worked as a seamstress at the Tupelo Garment Co and each earned $2.50 a week for a 40 hour week.” Vernon and Gladys both struggled to maintain steady employment given the fact they were living through the Great Depression. Broeske states, “Gladys worked in a laundry, factory and picked cotton. Gladys took Elvis with her into the cotton fields which was normal at the time and pulled him along on her cotton sack. So, at an early age, little Elvis heard the field songs of the other workers, some blues, some gospel and some African, and absorbed it into his musical DNA.”

The Walk of Life, Elvis Presley Birthplace, Tupelo, Ms

The Walk of Life, Elvis Presley Birthplace, Tupelo, Ms

Outside the house is a concrete circle called the Walk of Life which contains granite blocks denoting key events that took place during Elvis life in Tupelo from 1935 until the family left in 1948 and are listed below verbatim:

– 1935- Birth of Elvis Aron and death of Jessie Garon

-1936- Family and house survive the great Tupelo tornado

-1937- Family began attending the First Assembly of God Church

-1938- Family receives commodities while Vernon was in prison

-1939- Home and car repossessed, Vernon released from prison

-1940- Family listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio powered by car battery

-1941- Elvis entered first grade at East Tupelo consolidated school

-1942- Family spent a lot of time apart due to Vernon’s work

-1943- Family reported income of $1,232.88 and paid $12.56 income tax

-1944- Elvis began singing “Specials” in church

-1945- Elvis sang Old Shep at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show

-1946- Elvis received a guitar for his 11th birthday

-1947- Elvis began listening to black gospel music

-1948- Family moved to Memphis seeking a better living

Elvis with Vernon and Gladys Presley, 1937

Elvis with Vernon and Gladys Presley, 1937

1938 brought heartache to the little Presley family, and according to many, caused mother and son to form an unusually tight bond that may have led to many events of the future. In that year, Vernon Presley and two friends sold a hog to Orville Beane, Vernon and Gladys’ landlord. Beane gave a check to the three men in the amount of $4 which he thought was a fair price. Feeling cheated, the three men decided to change the check to $40. Beane found out, had the men prosecuted for forgery and all were sentenced to three years of prison at the infamous Parchman state penitentiary. The governor of Mississippi described it at the time as a very efficient, well-run slave plantation. Almost every weekend, Gladys and three-year old Elvis would ride the bus for 5 hours to visit Vernon on his day off.

According to their neighbors at the time, Elvis took on an almost paternalistic role and called Gladys little baby and would say, “Does my little baby need anything?”, despite the fact he himself was only three at the time. Due to Vernon’s absence, Gladys couldn’t keep up with the house payments and Orville Beane repossessed the house and their car, forcing the family to move many times during their stay in Tupelo. Gladys worked tirelessly writing petitions and obtaining signatures from neighbors and eventually the governor pardoned Vernon in early 1939. During WWII, Vernon traveled to Memphis to work in a munitions factory while Gladys and Elvis stayed behind in the Shakerag section of Tupelo, one of two historic black districts.

I’m Gonna Lay Down My Burden, Down By The Riverside

Assembly of God Church, Tupelo, Ms

Assembly of God Church, Tupelo, Ms

Assembly of God Church placard, Elvis Presley Birthplace, Tupelo, Ms

Assembly of God Church placard, Elvis Presley Birthplace, Tupelo, Ms

A short walk from the house, sits the first church Elvis and his family attended, the Assembly of God Church. Originally situated one block away, the building itself has been moved several times and even was converted into a two bedroom residence for a time before being moved to its current location. According to one of the guides, the family who owned it was very reluctant to lose ownership of it but eventually donated it to the site for historical purposes. The Assembly of God Church was founded in 1914 in Hot Springs, Arkansas by white ministers in the African-American Pentecostal church. Based on the Jewish holiday of Pentecost, members and ministers believed in “Baptism in the Holy Spirit.” During services, members were often moved by ‘the spirit’ to sing, dance and sometimes talk in tongues. Brother Frank Smith, the minster at the time, had a guiding hand in the development of Elvis Presley’s musical career by first allowing him to sing with the choir starting at age four and then teaching him the basic guitar chords of G, C, and D as well as how to play Old Shep.

Assembly of God Church, interior view, Tupelo, Ms

Assembly of God Church, interior view, Tupelo, Ms

The inside is very simplistic with six rows, two pews per row. It probably sat 50-60 comfortably during services. At the front is a basic altar with a bench in front for the choir to rest and a piano in the corner. Seeing the house itself was humbling enough, but to sit in the church that the Presley family attended and in which little Elvis Presley first began to develop his musical skills was altogether a different experience that raised goosebumps on my skin due to the efforts of the museum staff. Every 30 minutes, you can view a filmed recreation of a typical 1940s era service that was  in the building itself. As you sit in the pews, with a screen in front of you and screens on either side, you feel like you have been transported back in time and are sitting amongst the congregation as you watch Brother Frank Smith testify, sing and preach in front of you with members to either side. During the service, Brother Frank, played ironically enough by an actor named Memphis Jones, breaks into song several times and brings up young Elvis to sing. Having listened to Presley recordings for much of my life and having heard him sing gospel songs time after time, it was a moving, cosmic spiritual event. Like peeking through a keyhole in time, you can see young Elvis sing along on gospel songs like Just A Little Talk With Jesus, On The Jericho Road, I, John and most movingly, Down By The Riverside, songs that he would sing thousands of times over with friends, family and musicians, songs that formed the core of who he was.

Assembly of God Church, interior shot of altar and piano, Tupelo, Ms

Assembly of God Church, interior shot of altar and piano, Tupelo, Ms

It was also there in Tupelo that Elvis was exposed to  and absorbed the musical styles that would soon form the basis of rock and roll.  He heard the blues while living in the black Shakerag section of town. He snuck over to house parties on Saturday night and watched African-Americans sing and dance to rhythm and blues. He and the family listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the battery operated radio every Saturday night. And, while living in a mixed neighborhood on Green Street, Elvis befriended Sam Bell, an African-American. Speaking in the documentary, Bell says “There wasn’t no black and white thing doing, it was just us boys being boys.” As a boy, Elvis would go with Sam to tent revivals at the black Sanctified church in town. “He wouldn’t stay out of there, he’d be singing all the time. They welcomed him in and once the invitation was extended, he’d get right in the middle of everything. Man, we thought he was fanatical ’cause he liked to go so much. He’d say man, we got to get down to the sanctified church.” Finally, according Gordon Stoker, member of Elvis’s long time backing vocal group The Jordanaires, “Elvis loved black singers and thought God had made a mistake when he was born. He’d say ‘The Lord messed up on me twice. He didn’t make me black and he didn’t make me a bass singer.”

Tupelo Hardware Co: The Jump Start of Rock and Roll

Tupelo Hardware Co, Tupelo, Ms

Tupelo Hardware Co, Tupelo, Ms. Photo by Shawn Poole

For Elvis’ 11th birthday, Elvis and Gladys went to the Tupelo Hardware Co to buy a birthday present using money he had earned running errands for his family and neighbors. Being a young, country boy, Elvis had his heart set on a rifle. According to store employee and Presley raconteur Howard Hite, young Elvis and his mom walked through the front door of the store, strode by the rack of bikes and walked up to the display case with his eye on the rifles on the wall. According to Hite, the salesman that day, Mr. Forrest Bobo, let Elvis hold a rifle for a few minutes, but Gladys wanted Elvis to try something else and said no which caused the young boy to begin crying and carrying on. Bobo then handed Elvis a guitar, $7.75 plus tax, and said, “Why don’t you try this Elvis?” Elvis then played the guitar for a few minutes and Gladys said, “Elvis if you want the guitar, I’ll pay for the difference.” And Elvis responded, “Ok. Ok mama, I’ll get the guitar.” Hite jokingly said he wished Elvis had said, “That’s All Right Mama, I’ll get the guitar.” So in that single moment of time, Elvis and his family’s fate changed with a birthday wish, and an x on the floor marks the spot.

X marks the spot. Location where Elvis stood in Tupelo Hardware Co the day Gladys bought him his first guitar

X marks the spot. Location where Elvis stood in Tupelo Hardware Co the day Gladys bought him his first guitar. Photo by Shawn Poole

That moment was eerily echoed many years later in Freehold, New Jersey, when Presley acolyte Bruce Springsteen asked his mother for an electric guitar for Christmas. The Springsteen family often times was in financial straits, but Adele Springsteen saw the hope and desire in her young son’s eyes and bought a simple electric Kent for young Bruce who took that guitar and ‘learned how to make her talk.’ Gladys Presley’s decision that day speaks power to the love between a mother and her son. And that decision by a financially strapped young mother, made in a small storefront in a small southern town revolutionized the world.

Hite states, “I like to say the Presley house in Tupelo is the cradle of rock and roll, but the Tupelo Hardware Co was the jump-start of rock and roll.” According to Hite, the store gets visitors from all over the world on a daily basis who want to see the spot where Elvis stood. His favorite visitors include:

– Prince Albert II of Monaco- The Prince is apparently a serious Presley fan and travelled to Memphis to see Graceland and other sites, then went to Tupelo to the birthplace and walked into the store, looked around and said, “I’ve now seen it all. This is the end of my pilgrimage.”

Edison Pena, Chilean miner – One of the miners who was trapped below ground for months in 2010. Pena came to the United States to run in the New York City Marathon. Afterwards, he was asked by his guides if there was anywhere in America he wanted to go, and Pena, being a huge Presley fan, immediately said Graceland. He was shown all the sites on the Presley tour and upon coming into the hardware store said, “I want to live here, this feels like home.” You can see some of Edison’s appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman in a link below including a totally improvised performance of Suspicious Minds, with music supplied by Paul Schaffer and the Most Dangerous Band in Television, with an astounded Letterman looking on.

– Joe Perry-  Aerosmith played a concert in Tupelo, and on the way out of town, lead guitarist Perry spied the store and demanded the bus driver pull over so he could come into the store. The driver asked what the big deal was and Perry responded, “Hey man, this is where Big E bought his first guitar.” Perry bought a sunburst acoustic guitar from the store’s selection and a dozen tee shirts.

Tupelo Hardware Co, guitar town

Tupelo Hardware Co, guitar town. Photo by Shawn Poole

Below is Howard Hite recalling much of the above in more detail and in his very colorful delivery.

Epilogue: ‘Someday You Will be The Leader of a Big Old Band’

1939 Plymouth, replica of vehicle used by the Presleys to move from Tupelo to Memphis

1939 Plymouth, replica of vehicle used by the Presleys to move from Tupelo to Memphis. Photo by Shawn Poole


In 1948, Vernon decided it was time to give up on Tupelo and left once more in search of a better life in Memphis, Tennessee. The family packed what belongings they could into a borrowed 1939 Plymouth and headed north. Elvis attended and graduated from Humes High School and while driving a truck for Crown Electric, decided to stop into the Memphis recording Service, located at 706 Union Avenue to record a demo for $4 dollars. While Elvis presented himself to Marion Keisker, Sam Phillip’s secretary, as recording a birthday present for his mother, he most certainly knew that Phillips, as head of Sun Studios, was recording some of the finest music of the time including BB King, Jackie Breston’s Rocket 88(many claim this as being the first rock and roll song), Howlin Wolf, Rufus Thomas, and many more. On that day in 1953, Keisker asked Presley who he sounded like and Presley responded, “I don’t sound like nobody.” Which was only partially true, for he sounded like an incredible, electric, door busting amalgamation of a lot of people he had heard sing over his lifetime, going all the way back to Tupelo, Mississippi. He gave the music all he had because all he had was the music. As Jimmy Lafave sings in his great song Elvis Loved His Mama,  Elvis ‘left the streets of Tupelo for Memphis and made that yellow Sun glow.’ And he rose to incredible heights of fame and fortune, and all the rewards and dangers that came with it. He earned critical and financial acclaim, but, always going back to his roots, he gave it all away to friends, family, charities, and strangers. For a man who dreamed of a ‘better land where all my brothers walk hand in hand’, what else could a poor country boy from Tupelo do?

I’ll leave the last words to Elvis’ daughter Lisa Marie, “He was always giving. Sometimes he gave more than he kept for himself. He never forgot where he came from and what it was like to have nothing.”

Elvis Presley, Tupelo, Ms

Elvis Presley, Tupelo, Ms

Thanks for your time, thank ya very much

Thanks for your time, thank ya very much

More Pictures, Notes, Sources and Odds and Ends

Shawn Poole and Ryan Hilligoss and Little E, Tupelo, Ms

Shawn Poole and Ryan Hilligoss and Little E, Tupelo, Ms. Photo by Dawn Leinebarger

Pictures taken by Ryan Hilligoss, Shawn Poole and Dawn Leinberger

Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum: http://www.elvispresleybirthplace.com/

In the Blessed Name of Elvis, Shawn Poole's Elvis spectacular article, Backstreets Magazine

In the Blessed Name of Elvis, Shawn Poole’s Elvis spectacular article, Backstreets Magazine, with contributions from Christopher Phillips and Paul Trimble

Elvis: Return to Tupelo, documentary. Written and produced by Michael Rose, narrated by Kris Kristofferson. A great film for any music fan and especially for any serious Elvis fan. Below is a link to their website.

Elvis: Return To Tupelo

Elvis Presley with Vernon and Gladys at Tupelo fairgrounds, 1956

Elvis Presley with Vernon and Gladys at Tupelo fairgrounds, 1956

Below you can hear Jimmy Lafave sing Elvis Loved His Mama and see some great pictures.

“At Sun Studio in Memphis, Elvis Presley called to life what would soon be known as rock and roll with a voice that bore strains of the Grand Ol’ Opry and Beale Street, of country and the blues. At that moment, he ensured-instinctively,unknowingly- that pop music would never again be as simple as black and white.” David Fricke, Rolling Stone

Guitar Man, here's one for my son, Graham Hilligoss

Guitar Man, here’s one for my son, Graham Hilligoss. Photo by Shawn Poole

James Brown. “I wasn’t just a fan, I was his brother. He said I was good and I said he was good; we never argued about that. Elvis was a hard worker, dedicated, and God loved him. Last time I saw him was at Graceland. We sang Old Blind Barnabus together, a gospel song. I love him and hope to see him in heaven. There’ll never be another like that soul brother.” Brown was one of the few entertainers allowed into Graceland for Elvis’ private funeral, held in the Music Room where Elvis and James had jammed on gospel songs in the past. Brown requested and was granted a few moments alone with Elvis’ casket and was overheard to say emphatically, time and again, “Why’d you do it Elvis?”

The Music Room, Graceland. The piano in back is the one Elvis and James Brown used on their jam session

Graceland’s Music Room decorated for Christmas. The piano in back is the one Elvis and James Brown used on their jam session

Edison Pena, Chilean Miner on Late Night with Letterman. Below is a clip of the interview Pena did with Letterman, and if you wait until the end, you’ll hear and see a little Suspicious Minds.

3 6 Mafia

In 1969, Elvis recorded several songs at the American Studios in Memphis with the help of producer Chips Moman. One of the songs recorded was In The Ghetto, which Elvis could empathize with much of the meaning of the song personally due to his own background. It became one of his first Top Ten hits in years. Years later, the song was used as the basis for the Memphis hip-hop group Three Six Mafia’s cover version of In The Ghetto with some new lyrics. Two members of the group have stated that they grew up in houses within a few miles of Graceland and their mothers used to listen to Elvis records when they were kids. Check it out for yourself below.

A Throne fit for a "King". Sun Studio mens room, Memphis, Tn

A Throne fit for a “King”. Sun Studio mens room, Memphis, Tn

Born in the Promised Land: When Politics and Rock and Roll Collide

By Ryan Hilligoss, September 2012

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

Elvis Presley with Richard Nixon at White House along with aides Sonny West and Jerry Schilling, December 21, 1970

Fitzgerald’s quote above first appeared in The Crack Up, a posthumous collection of the artist’s work a few years after his death in 1940. The quote is often used by writers in an attempt to justify or rationalize the thought process or philosophy of persons who seem to carry extremely discordant views with nary a concern or thought to the irony and unsound mental footwork needed to keep from toppling over from the weight of mental dishonesty. Fitzgerald probably was being ironic, as I think another of his lines from the same work better speaks to the heart of his thoughts on the matter: “Of course all life is a process of breaking down.”

A little known historical fact: during the height of the anti-communist McCarthy hearings in the early 1950’s, Senator Joseph McCarthy listed Woody Guthrie as one of his favorite singers despite the fact Guthrie was known to travel in circles populated with well-known communists. OK, you got me. I dreamed that scenario after recently reading an article on Republican Vice-President Paul Ryan‘s love of the music of Rage Against the Machine. In an article published in the New York Times (my conservative friends can insert proper shudder here) on August 13, 2012, Ryan is described as follows: ” Yet even if he is viewed as politically pure by the modern-day standards of his party’s base, he is not without contradictions. The nation’s first Generation X vice-presidential candidate, he is an avowed proponent of free markets whose family has interests in oil leases. But he counts Rage Against the Machine, which sings about the greed of oil companies and whose Web site praises the anti-corporate Occupy Wall Street movement, among his favorite bands.”

If this were a dance club and the DJ was playing Bombtrack on the turntable, the needle just jumped and scratched the hell out of the vinyl. Paul Ryan, the newly named Republican vice-presidential candidate, who is the ardent right-wing, fiscal conservative poster boy of the Tea Party and whose main focus the last few years has been in dismantling Medicare and other social services for the poor and disenfranchised likes the music of ultra left-wing Rage Against The Machine?? RATM, an LA based rap/metal/punk band released their first album in 1992 and played together until 2000, released songs such as Voice of the Voiceless, Know Your Enemy, Vietnow and People of the Sun which spoke out against, to name a few, the American  two-party political system being controlled by corporatist, cultural imperialism, and the treatment of Native Americans while supporting leftists rebels in Mexico, labor unions, the homeless, immigrants  and social justice for all here in America and around the world.

While I whole heartedly believe that all people have the right to listen and support the music of their choosing, I don’t understand the dichotomy of listening to the music of a band that stands in direct opposition to everything you stand for politically and philosophically. Ryan has said he likes the band’s sound but willfully tunes out the lyrics. This is like someone saying they are die-hard anti-war pacifists, but they like country music and can’t help be drawn to Toby Keith’s Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue. While the band’s pounding beats, driving rhythms and guitar hooks can be hypnotizing, it’s hard to miss the meaning of the lyrics to songs such as Bombtrack:

Instead I warm my hands on the flames of the flag

As I recall our downfall

And the business that burned us all

See through the news and views that twist reality

Enough/I call the bluff/Manifest destiny

Landlords and power whores

On my people they took turns

Dispute the suits I ignite and then watch em’ burn

The thoughts of a militant mind

Hardline, hardline, after hardline

And it’s hard to ignore the lyrics and meaning in another Rage track, Killing In The Name, when lead singer Zach de la Rocha implies that some law enforcement and military personnel may also be part of the KKK, “The same that were enforcers, are the same that burn crosses.” de la Rocha then launches into the phrase “F$%@ you I won’t do what ya’ tell me” repeatedly at the top of his lungs, over and over. 16 times to be exact. This is why I think Ryan is being more than just a little disengenous, to borrow John McCain‘s description of Michael Moore at the 2008 Republican convention.

Tom Morello, the band’s guitarist who, since the band broke up in 2000, has been performing under the guise of The Night Watchmen, spoke out emphatically against Paul Ryan’s politics in Rolling Stone on August 16, 2012 in a piece entitled, Paul Ryan Is the Embodiment of the Machine Our Music Rages Against, in which he writes, “Ryan claims that he likes Rage’s sound, but not the lyrics. Well, I don’t  care for Paul Ryan’s sound or his lyrics. He can like whatever bands he  wants, but his guiding vision of shifting revenue more radically to the one  percent is antithetical to the message of Rage.”

“I wonder what Ryan’s favorite Rage song is? Is it the one where we condemn  the genocide of Native Americans? The one lambasting American imperialism? Our  cover of “F$!# the Police”? Or is it the one where we call on the people to  seize the means of production? So many excellent choices to jam out to at Young  Republican meetings!”

Read the full article here: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/tom-morello-paul-ryan-is-the-embodiment-of-the-machine-our-music-rages-against-20120816#ixzz24uH6c9Iz

And apparently, Rage and Morello are not the only ones who feel this way as in the past week alone, Dee Snider of Twisted Sister asked Ryan’s office to stop using We’re Not Gonna Take It and Silversun Pickups requested Ryan stop using their song Panic Switch.

In another political campaign song choice gone awry, last year Michelle Bachmann chose to open many of her campaign stops with Elvis Presley’s cover version of Chuck Berry’s The Promised Land. While not nearly as politically divisive or perplexing, but to me equally disturbing, given the original intent and meaning  of the song for both Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, and Bachmann’s far right conservative views, Bachman misappropriated the song for her political agenda and, given her beliefs and statements in religion, meant the song to be thought of by her supporters as a biblical theme.

Elvis recorded his cover of Chuck Berry’s Promised Land in 1973. Berry wrote his version in 1963, ironically enough, while he was serving time in prison. Given that Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream Speech” was given in August of 1963  in which he talked about making it to the “promised land”, it is very possible that Berry was influenced by King. Elvis Presley covered many of Berry’s songs, both in concert and in recording studio. Presley’s recording of Promised Land stands as one of his finest rock recordings ever, driven by the core of his touring band musicians, and was almost a telling of Presley’s own story of a poor boy from East Tupelo, Mississippi finding his way to the American Dream through sheer tenacity and determination.

During the Republican presidential race last year, Bachmann told a crowd of supporters that they needed to say happy birthday to Elvis despite the fact the date, August 16th, was actually the 34th anniversary of Elvis Prelsey’s death, not his birthday which was January 8th, 1935. She told the crowd, “You can’t do better than Elvis Presley.” Well, I guess there is one thing she and I can agree on.

But I digress. Back to Morello’s main argument about the inherent contradiction of Paul Ryan being an ardent supporter of RATM. I think his concern is the same of many artists who struggle, through their work, to reach their observers and fans and to truly communicate a part of themselves only to find out the message isn’t clear. Morello writes, “Paul Ryan’s love of Rage  Against the Machine is amusing, because he is the embodiment of the machine  that our music has been raging against for two decades. Charles Manson loved the Beatles but didn’t understand  them. Governor Chris Christie loves Bruce  Springsteen but doesn’t understand him. And Paul Ryan is clueless about his  favorite band, Rage Against the Machine.”

Morello’s use of Springsteen here carries significant weight for a few reasons. First, Morello is a die-hard  fan of Springsteen’s music and has guest appeared with Springsteen on stage to play scorching guitar solos on The Ghost of Tom Joad and appeared together again on  Late Night With Jimmy Fallon on Death To My Hometown from the Wrecking Ball album, for which Morello added incredible guitar solos on recorded versions to My Depression and Jack of All Trades. Secondly, Springsteen and Morello have similar thoughts on some political and social justice issues. But more importantly, Morello may have mentioned Springsteen’s name in this situation given what happened when Ronald Reagan misappropriated Bruce’s name and song Born in the USA during the 1984 presidential campaign.

‘Yankee Doodle Springsteen’

In June 1984, Springsteen, the self-described “hardest working white man in show business” (James Brown being the hardest working black man in show business), released the album Born in the USA, a collection of songs he had been working on since The River album was released in 1980. The album’s title track was a song he had originally written during the Nebraska project and which was recorded in a solo, acoustic fashion that leant great credence to the power of the lyrics which told the story of a Vietnam veteran who came back to the United States only to find there was no place for him anymore at work, at home or in society in general and was told by his VA man, “Son you just don’t understand.”

The album became a smash sensation, propelling Springsteen from a rock star into a world-wide phenomenon. The album sold 15 million copies in the US alone, peaked at #1 on the Billboard chart, spawned seven top ten singles, and remained on the charts for over 2 years. Speaking on this new stage of his career, Springsteen said, ” I don’t really think [money] does change you. It’s an inanimate thing, a tool, a convenience. If you’ve got to have a problem, it’s a good problem to have. (…) Money was kind of part of the dream when I started. I don’t think…I never felt like I ever played a note for the money. I think if I did, people would know, and they’d throw you out of the joint. And you’d deserve to go. But at the same time, it was a part of the dream.” Another part of that dream was getting unwanted and misunderstood attention from media members and even politicians.

In early September, 1984, conservative columnist George Will attended a Springsteen concert at the invitation of E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg and his wife. A few days later, his column, entitled Yankee Doodle Springsteen was published in papers across the country and contained this, “I have not got a clue about Springsteen’s politics, if any, but flags get waved at his concerts while he sings songs about hard times.  He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: ‘Born in the U.S.A.!’”

George Will alone cannot be held responsible for hearing the thundering, anthemic song as recorded on the album and performed in the same arrangement on that tour, as a patriotic, flag waving send up to Old Glory and all it stands for, because millions of other listeners made a similar mistake. The ‘cheerful affirmation’ Will wrote of was written specifically as a paean to the trials and tribulations of returning military personnel best exemplified by Ron Kovic, who wrote Born on the Fourth of July about his own experiences. While Springsteen often played concerts on that tour with a huge American flag behind him, ala Bob Dylan in 1960s, that flag might have easily been turned upside down, which is the universal sign of distress for those Springsteen was singing about.

George Will had some friends within the Reagan White House who either were impacted by Will’s column or were whispered advice, and worked a Springsteen reference into a campaign stop speech within days of the column’s publication. In a stop in Hammonton, NJ, Reagan told the crowd,  “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.  And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.” Reagan’s office also quietly reached out to Springsteen’s management about the possibility of using the song for their campaign interests, and the request was politely declined.

Playing a concert on September 22, 1984 in Pittsburg, Springsteen addressed the situation directly with his audience while introducing his song, Johnny 99, a song about an unemployed auto worker who turns to murder.  “The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been.  I don’t think it was the Nebraska album [about hard times in America].  I don’t think he’s been listening to this one” [“Johnny 99”].

To clarify his thoughts even further, Springsteen told Rolling Stone, “I think people have a need to feel good about the country they live in.  But what’s happening, I think, is that need — which is a good thing — is getting manipulated and exploited.  You see it in the Reagan election ads on TV, you know, ‘It’s morning in America,’ and you say, ‘Well, it’s not morning in Pittsburgh.’”

If you strip down the song to its’ bare essentials and look at the song in the stark realities of black and white by reading just the lyrics on the page, it’s hard to miss the true meaning of this enduring song:

I had a brother at Khe San

Fightin’ off the Vietcong

They’re still there, but he’s all gone

He had a woman that he loved in Saigon

I got a picture of him in her arms

Down in the shadow of the penitentiary

Out by the gas fires of the refinery

I’m ten years, burning down the road

Nowhere to run now ain’t got nowhere to go

I was born in the USA

I’m a long gone daddy now

You can also get a full sense of the meaning and emotion of the song by watching the clip below of the blues version, played solo with a slide on a 12-string acoustic taken from the Live in New York video.

Earlier this year, Springsteen released his 17th studio album, entitled Wrecking Ball, which partially plays as a retelling of what happened with our economy and society over the last four or five years. The first track on the album is We Take Care of Our Own. On first glance, the song plays as a scorching indictment of the Bush presidency response to Katrina and the aftermath with the following verse and chorus:

From Chicago to New Orleans
From the muscle to the bone
From the shotgun shack to the Superdome
We yelled “help” but the cavalry stayed home
There ain’t no-one hearing the bugle blown
We take care of our own
We take care of our own
Wherever this flag’s flown
We take care of our own

With pounding drums, guitars wailing a warning call, catchy guitar hooks and the refrain that “wherever this flag is flown, we take care of our own,” the song is a perfect companion piece in the irony of Bruce Springsteen. What he really thinks is that we haven’t and don’t take care of our own, whether here or around the world, as a people and as a government. In 2008, Springsteen openly campaigned for Barack Obama and sung at many campaign rallies. Since then, like many who supported the president, Springsteen has quietly separated himself and has openly stated he will not campaign for the president this year. However, Obama has begun using We Take Care of Our Own at some campaign stops, apparently with Springsteen’s blessing as Obama has not been asked to stop using it. The past truly is prologue.

To bring this back around, in a 1987 BBC interview Springsteen said, “Born in the USA is not ambiguous. All you gotta’ do is listen to the verses. If you don’t listen to the verses, you’re not gonna get the whole song, you’re just gonna get the chorus. What you do if someone doesn’t understand your song is you keep singing it.” If that is true, then I guess Tom Morello needs to stand outside of Paul Ryan’s campaign headquarters with a boom box held aloft over his head, just like John Cusak in Say Anything, while blaring Know Your Enemy over and over until Ryan can no longer just hear the catchy beat but has to confront the verses.

I wonder what songs Paul Ryan likes from Morello’s latest album entitled Union Town that was recorded and released in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement, as well as the demonstrations in Wisconsin last year surrounding Governor Walker’s actions against state employee unions, for which Morello travelled to Madison, WI to play and support the cause. Maybe it is Morello’s cover of Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land, or maybe What Side Are You On,  or just maybe it is the title track. I can’t quite remember the lyrics, something about if you live under a bridge, then all roads lead to  home and this being a union town all down the line. Not sure what that guys is saying, but it sure is a foot stomper and a catchy little ditty.

Notes of Interest:

Elvis meets Nixon– In true irony, Elvis Presley went to the White House on a whim a few days before Christmas without an appointment or prior notice to ask the President to issue him official documents certifying Elvis as an honorary member of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency. Elvis and two of his friends/body guards Sonny West and Jerry Schilling, flew from Memphis to Washington without notifying anyone else of their whereabouts. On the flight, Elvis met a serviceman returning from Vietnam who was in route to visit his family for Christmas, and in typical Elvis fashion, gave the soldier the only cash the three had on them, $500, so the soldier could buy his family and friends gifts, much to the consternation of his aides. After arriving in Washington, Elvis went to the White House and gave a guard a personal letter he had written to the President along with a gift of a pearl handled, Colt .45 pistol. Shortly after, a presidential aide reached out to Elvis at his Washington area hotel and made arrangements for the meeting. After some wrangling and arm twisting, President Nixon obtained the papers and DEA badges Elvis requested and presented them to him along with White House trinkets for Sonny and Jerry and their wives.

While Nixon was President, his office contacted Colonel Parker to request Elvis to perform at the White House. Parker demanded a performance fee of $150,000  which was declined as all such performances up to that time had been done gratis.

Vietnam/Light of Day/Born In The USA:

In 1981, Springsteen was asked to write music for a film by Paul Schrader called Born in the U.S.A. (Schrader’s movie would eventually be released 1987, entitled Light of Day, featuring Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett). Shortly after, when Springsteen was working on a song titled “Vietnam,” he glanced at the script and sang the title. The song, entitled as the work-in-progress movie, was already finished during the sessions of Springsteen’s introspective album Nebraska, and Springsteen originally wanted to include it on the album. However, it was removed as it did not coincide with the dark feel of the rest of the songs.

Chris Christie on Bruce: Christie is an ardent, militant Springsteen fan who has seen him in concert more than 200 times and has the ticket stubs to prove it. Christie recently gave the opening keynote address at the 2012 Republican Presidential convention and dropped this line into his speech, “I was her son as I listened to “Darkness on the Edge of Town” with my high school friends on the Jersey Shore.”


Elvis Is Everywhere: Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town and The Promise

A Lonely Life Ends on Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis Press Scimitar headline August 17, 1977

“There’ll never be another one like him. He was the king of everyone and especially of our people. He was the king of gypsies. He was ours.”


“Elvis Presley doesn’t die. I die, you die, but he doesn’t. And he damn sure did.”

By Ryan Hilligoss, August 2012

The Promise of Rock and Roll: 35 years burning down that road; A great American artist dies and a young American musician comes to terms with his childhood dreams and the reality of adult life

On May 28th, 1977, after a legal dispute that kept him from making records for over a year, Bruce Springsteen finally wrested control of his music and career by formally settling the dispute with former manager Mike Appel.On that same date, Springsteen attended an Elvis Presley concert in Philadelphia, and it was not one of Elvis’ better performances according to reviews and fan accounts, including Bruce’s own account, as he related it to Ed Sciaky…”that wasn’t a very good night.” Within days, Springsteen entered the recording studio for the first time in nearly two years and began recording material that would make up one of his greatest albums, Darkness on the Edge of Town, released in 1978.

During those sessions, Springsteen and the E Street Band recorded over seventy songs, of which only ten made it onto the Darkness album. Two of the new songs were given away to other artists. A partially completed version of  Because the Night was given to Patti Smith, who was also working on a new album at the time that was being produced by Springsteen’s then recording engineer, Jimmy Iovine. The song Fire was given to Robert Gordon. More than thirty years later, twenty-one more of those songs were released as The Promise: The Lost Sessions – Darkness on The Edge of Town.

At the time Springsteen was recording songs for Darkness, a tell-all book on Elvis Presley, Elvis: What Happened?,based on material presented by three of his former body guards, was being readied for publication. What many had been whispering about Presley for years regarding pharmaceutical drug abuse and sometimes bizarre behavior was soon to be affirmed as partial truth by those who knew him the best, including Red West who had been a high school classmate of Elvis at Humes High School in Memphis, a close friend, bodyguard and sometimes even a songwriter for Presley (“Separate Ways,” “If You Talk in Your Sleep” and “Indescribably Blue.”)

According to Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh, “Intrigued by the hero others saw in him, Bruce also took a closer look at his own role models. In July, soon after moving to the Record Plant, Bruce and the band found some advance copies of  Elvis: What Happened?, Steve Dunleavy’s muckracking book about Presley, in a bookshop around the corner. The influence of the King clicked back in, and for several weeks, the studio took on the look of an Elvis shrine. Bruce identified with Elvis’s career, the way it seemed totally in the artist’s control at one moment, and careening without guidance the next.”

Just a few weeks after the book was published and just as he was getting ready for yet another tour, Elvis Presley died on August 16th, 1977 at the age of forty-two. Elvis Presley was born on January 8th, 1935 to Gladys and Vernon Presley in Tupelo, Mississippi in a one room shotgun shack (Wrecking Ball “…from the shotgun shack to the Superdome”) The Presleys lived economically troubled and Vernon was actually sent to prison for three years for trying to forge a check to buy the family groceries. During his formative years living in mostly black, east Tupelo, in a part of town called Shake Rag, Presley was exposed to myriad musical styles: hard, rough blues, gospel at church every Sunday and country and western while listening to the radio. Presley then forged his musical tastes into a new sound that revolutionized American popular music which reverberated around the world.

As the keynote speaker this year at the South by Southwest music festival in Autstin, Tx, Springsteen said, “Remember, it wasn’t just the way Elvis looked; it was the way he moved that made people crazy, pissed off, driven to screaming ecstasy and profane revulsion. That was television. When they made an attempt to censor him from the waist down, it was because of what you could see happening in his pants. Elvis was the first modern 20th-century man, the precursor of the sexual revolution, of the Civil Rights revolution, drawn from the same Memphis as Martin Luther King, creating fundamental outsider art that would be embraced by a mainstream popular culture.

Television and Elvis gave us full access to a new language; a new form of communication; a new way of being; a new way of looking; a new way of thinking about sex, about race, about identity, about life; a new way of being an American, a human being and a new way of hearing music. Once Elvis came across the airwaves, once he was heard and seen in action, you could not put the genie back in the bottle. After that moment, there was yesterday, and there was today, and there was a red-hot, rockabilly forging of a new tomorrow before your very eyes.”

No one knows for sure exactly when, but sometime during the Nixon administration, Elvis lost the fire to give it his best effort and became lost in a fog of “nothing running through his veins”, loneliness and depression.  In 1976, Elvis told his recording producer Felton Jarvis, “I’m so tired of being Elvis Presley.” But the never ending carnival of constant touring, playing extended stands at Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe, and recording low rent songs like Three Corn Patches and a self-parody, self-referential Raised on Rock, was the only way he knew to keep himself and those around him afloat financially. On August 16th, 1977, Springsteen’s first and most powerful rock inspirations, broke that promise in the most ultimate and final way. Elvis dreamed and sang about the ‘Impossible Dream’, but once he obtained it, or at least his own idea of the American Dream, he didn’t know what to do with it other than to give some of it away to friends, family and strangers in the forms of cars, houses and jewelry, or by renting out the local amusement park at night.The greatest lesson Springsteen learned from his idol was that “it’s easy to let the best of yourself slip away and dreams don’t mean nothin’ unless you’re strong enough to fight for them.”

If you listen to the Born To Run album and many of the songs on The Promise, they play as love letters to the nostalgia of musical influences of Springsteen’s childhood and early days of playing swim clubs and Jersey shore bars. Listen to these songs,  and you can hear the influence of Duane Eddy’s guitar on Save My Love, Roy Orbison’s It’s Over drum beat on Breakaway, Buddy Holly drum beat and rhythm guitar on Outside Looking In, and Beach Boy and The Crystals background harmonies on many songs. After Elvis died, the past was over and dark times were here in America and “calling out around the world” and Darkness was a refutation of those earlier sounds.

“When Elvis died, the event was a kind of explosion that went off silently in minds and hearts; out of that explosion came many fragments, edging slowly into the light and taking shape, changing shape again and again as the years went by,” wrote Greil Marcus in Dead Elvis. Springsteen, in many ways, both consciously and unconsciously, proved Marcus’ theorem true in the work he completed at the time of Darkness recording sessions which begat both Darkness on the Edge of Town and The Promise. 35 years later, if you listen hard enough to the music and the lyrics within that work, you can clearly hear the influence of Elvis Presley’s music and Presley’s death everywhere.

Rock and Roll as The Promise:Two things happened during Darkness: the punk explosion and Elvis died. It was the beginning and ending and a fascinating moment. Everything shifted at that moment.” Bruce Springsteen, 2010 E Street Radio interview with fans

It’s also hard not to hear the next comment from Springsteen, speaking in Thom Zimny’s film The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, as anything but a direct statement on Elvis’ death: “The success of Born To Run brought me an audience. It also separated me from all the things in life I had been trying to make connections to my whole life. And it frightened me because I understood what I had of value at my core was rooted in the place that I had grown up, the people I had known, the experiences I had. And if I moved away from those things into a sphere of just freedom as pure license, to go about your life as you desire, without connection. That’s where a lot of people I admired had drifted away from the essential things that made them great. And more than rich, more than famous, more than happy, I wanted to be great.”

Below, I’m going to describe some of the connections that I hear as an Elvis and Springsteen fan in the music that Bruce made during this very important period of his career, a period that also happened to coincide with the tragic death of his original musical inspiration. The beauty of any art, whether it be music, painting, photography, or literature, is that it is open to the interpretation of each and every individual. This is what I hear in my own head. It’s not necessarily what Bruce intended for listeners to hear, either consciously or unconsciously. It’s also not all that I think these songs are “about.” Of course, if you don’t hear the same connections or hear variations of the same, that’s okay, too.

The Promise: This song’s writing started in 1976 but was not completed until 1978 and the lyrics vary throughout the various recorded versions. Yes, it was partially written well before Elvis died, but again, these are the images that come to my mind as a fan of both artists.

The Promise is a song Springsteen described at a concert in March,1977 in Boston as “a song I wrote about a year ago and kind of a return to Thunder Road.”

Terry works in a rock and roll band

Searching for that million dollar sound 

The name Terry can stand as a metaphor for many American pop musicians, many of whom came from a background of hard lives. Musicians ranging from Elvis, Johnny Cash, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Springsteen himself  and everyone in between. Rock and roll has become for both artists and listeners, a ‘Mystery Train’  steaming through a ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’.

Some nights I go the drive-in, some nights I stay home

I followed that dream just like those guys do way up on the screen

As a teenager growing up poor in Memphis, Elvis worked various jobs to help support the family, then living in the Lauderdale Courts public housing projects. One of those jobs was an usher at Loew’s State movie theater in downtown Memphis. He worked from 5-10, 5 nights a week for $12.50/week. He would watch the movies on the screen during showings and repeat the lines of his favorite actors like Tony Curtis and Marlon Brando and dreamed of being up on that screen one day ‘just like those guys do’.

Also, one of Presley’s 31 Hollywood films, not counting 2 full length documentaries, was entitled Follow That Dream, released in 1962 and contained a song of the same name. In the late 80’s, Springsteen began performing the song in concert, and his version had radically different lyrics including

Now every man has the right to live
The right to a chance, to give what he has to give
The right to fight for the things he believes
For the things that come to him in dreams

Watch Springsteen’s  live performance of his version of Presley’s Follow That Dream, , containing radically revised lyrics by using below link.


When the promise was broken, I cashed in a few of my own dreams

Well now I built that Challenger by myself

But I needed money and I sold it

Elvis built his “Challenger” by himself, i.e his version of rock and roll by incorporating all the various styles that formed early rock: rhythm and blues, blues, country, bluegrass, and gospel into one style. Elvis sold it by “selling out” his dreams by acting in sub-par movies, recording less than stellar material to meet demanding contracts from RCA and touring around the country playing, often times, half-hearted concerts. In the last four to five years of his performances, Elvis’ stage show played as pure paint by numbers with the occasional performance of a new song from the latest album such as Hurt, T-R-O-U-B-L-E, and Fairy Tales. If you listen to some of concert recordings released under the Follow That Dream label through EPE, you can hear the same songs, vocal stylings and arrangements from one show to another. While many bands have done this for years,  Elvis broke his ‘promise’ to his fans by forgetting the ultimate relationship all performers should have with their audience. This relationship is best summed up in Springsteen’s own words, “Part of what pop promised, what rock promised was the never-ending now. No no no, it’s about living right now. All of a sudden you were lifted up into a higher place of living and experience. There was this beautiful, ever-present now.”

Everyday it just gets harder to live

This dream I’m believing in

Springsteen said on jumping the wall at Graceland in 1976, “When I jumped over the wall that night, I didn’t know who I was gonna meet. And the guard who stopped me at the door did me the biggest favor of my life. I had misunderstood. It was innocent and I was having a ball, but it wasn’t right. In the end, you cannot live inside that dream.”

In an earlier version of The Promise, Springsteen sang, “Thunder Road, yeah I sit up every morning til it turns light, Thunder Road” in a plaintive, wail of pain.

Elvis’s “normal” sleep schedule was to stay up throughout the night and then sleep during the day. In hearing the wail of pain in Springsteen’s voice on this line, I can picture Elvis sitting up many nights, alone in his secluded room and imagining what his life and career could have become if he were able to play the movie roles he really wanted such as Robert Mitchum’s brother in Thunder Road which he was offered to play in 1958, or roles he was offered or wanted to play in films like The Rainmaker and A Star is Born. On the Born To Run album, Thunder Road was the road of hope, renewal and self-realization for the song’s characters. Elvis saw the role in the movie Thunder Road as an opportunity for ‘real acting” and developing his overall abilities as an artist. There Elvis sits in his bedroom, looking out the window off into the distance and yelling out Thunder Road into the dark of night, with no one to hear or help, as if him crying out could change anything, a dream deferred.

In the last live recorded version of The Promise before Springsteen and band entered the studio, the song contained the lyric,  ‘There’s something burning out on the highway tonight.’

The version of the song contained on The Promise album that was recorded after Presley’s death , has this revised lyric, ‘There’s something dying down on the highway tonight.’

Two things come to mind with searing power with this one line:

(1)Elvis’ recording of Long Black Limousine in 1969 which contained ‘There’s a long line of mourners driving down our little street/Their fancy cars such a sight to see/And now they finally brought you home/When you left me/ you said you’d be returning in a fancy car for all to see/Now everyone is watching you/You finally had your dream/Now you’re riding in a long black limousine‘. Also interesting to note that Elvis’ recording starts with ominous church bells and drum cymbal played in time that is very similar to drummer Max Weinberg’s time keeping rim shots during Racing in the Street that is supposed to signify the passage of time. On Racing’, the same time keeping is akin to Al Jackson’s drumming on Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness

(2)I have a “sound picture” of Elvis’s funeral procession with its’ long white limousine, as opposed to long black limousine Elvis sang about in 1969 recording, travelling down Elvis Presley Boulevard. Indeed, something is dying down on the highway tonight.

Elvis Presley’s funeral procession leaving Graceland past musical gates, August 18, 1977

I won big once and I hit the coast

Elvis “hit it big” with Sun Studio recordings of Mystery Train and That’s All Right Mama and then signed with RCA and recorded in New York City

Inside I felt like I was carryin’ the broken spirits of all the other ones who lost

Elvis often times told people that he felt like he was living enough for two people because he was carrying the soul of his still-born twin brother Jesse Garon.

Like when the truth is spoken and it don’t make no difference

Elvis: What Happened? being published and the truth being spoken of his drug use and bizarre behavior, but it didn’t help as he died within weeks of advance copies hitting the streets.

The Promised Land, echoes of Presley and Chuck Berry

In 1973, amidst his devastating divorce from Priscilla, Elvis recorded a cover of Chuck Berry’s Promised Land. Berry wrote his version in 1963, ironically enough, while he was serving time in prison. Given that Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream Speech” was given in August of 1963  in which he talked about making it to the “promised land”, it is very possible that Berry was influenced by King. Elvis Presley covered many of Berry’s songs, both in concert and in recording studio. Presley’s recording of Promised Land stands as one of his finest rock recordings ever, driven by the core of his touring band musicians, and was almost a telling of Presley’s own story of a poor boy making his way to the golden state.  Given the influence of both Berry and Presley on Springsteen’s own music, it is not difficult to assume, his own Promised Land may have been inspired by their versions. In Springsteen’s indelible farewell to Elvis Presley, Johnny Bye Bye, he references Chuck Berry’s song in telling Elvis’ story: He left Memphis with a guitar in his hand/On a way one ticket to the Promised Land.

In Springsteen’s Promised Land, he wrote:

Blow away the dreams that tear you apart

Blow away the dreams that break your heart

Blow away the lies that leave you nothing

But lost and brokenhearted

After Elvis died, many of the dreams he had inspired in millions including a seven year-old boy growing up in Freehold, NJ, were shown to be false; ‘you can’t live inside those dreams.’ Bruce Springsteen was brokenhearted at the death of Elvis and was inspired to include the above lyrics in The Promised Land, one of his finest songs of his career. He was also inspired to write the song The Brokenhearted which has a vocal style and phrasing very similar to Elvis. The song’s atmosphere reminded me so much of Heartbreak Hotel that a more fitting title might be Heartbreak Hotel, Part II.

From The Promise documentary, Springsteen said of his Promised Land lyrics, “You had to lose your illusions while still holding onto some sense of possibilities. But more so, your illusions of adult life and a life without limitations. Which, I think, everyone dreams of and imagines at some point. The song that needs to be sung is one about how to deal with those things and move onto a creative life, a satisfying life and a life where you can get through the day and sleep at night. That is what most of those songs were about.”

The illusion of the dreams Bruce had, inspired by Elvis, were shattered when Elvis died.

Graceland: The original Darkness on the edge of town

As has been reported and discussed many times in the past, Springsteen went to Graceland in 1976 after playing a concert in Memphis. He wanted to see if Elvis was home and jumped over the wall and made a run up to the house before being stopped by a security guard.

This is the version Springsteen relayed to Rolling Stone in 1977, “When we played Memphis, we decided we wanted to get something to eat after the show. We told the cab driver, take us some place quiet. He said, ‘Are you guys celebrities?’ Yeah. So he said he’d take us out along the highway by Elvis’ house. I said, ‘You gotta take me to Elvis’ house.’ He says, ‘Do you mind if I call the dispatcher and tell him where we’re going?’ So he calls the guy and says, ‘We got some celebrities here. We got…’ and he shoves the mike in my face, so I say, ‘Bruce Springsteen.’ They didn’t know who I was, but they were pretending to, you know? He told the dispatcher, we were going to Elvis’ house; he was crackin’ up because the dispatcher thought we were going to drink coffee with Elvis.”

In the novel, The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby would walk out into the darkness of his yard at night and stare off into the distance at a green light at the end of a far away pier that turned out to be the house of his long-lost love, Daisy. That green light symbolized his hopes and dreams of pure love for which he stretched his arms out in an attempt to make it real. In the novel, the green light plays a mysterious, recurring role and it comes to symbolize the American Dream itself. Jay Gatsby, originally from South Dakota, turned himself into a wealthy, cosmopolitan New Yorker. Gatsby’s life story and the green light created a new sense of identity in a new place reflected all individuals and the power of their dreams. On that night in April 1976 in Memphis, Tennessee, Springsteen said he saw a light in a room on the second floor and thought for sure that was Elvis sitting up reading and, just like Gatsby drawn to the green light, Bruce was drawn to Elvis’ light and his own dreams.

At the time of Springsteen’s magical run while chasing his dream, the physical surroundings of the area would have been dark at 3:00 am. And, Graceland is on a hill and it was out on the edge of Memphis at the time. Graceland is in the Whitehaven part of Memphis on the south edge of town, several miles from Memphis proper. At one time, Whitehaven was its’ own municipality, but has been annexed by Memphis as the area has grown since Elvis passed away. So, it’s not difficult to imagine Graceland as being in the darkness on the edge of town.

Now I hear she’s got a house up in Fairview

Written to give the impression that the “she” is doing financially well and living in a nice area with a style she’s trying to maintain. To Elvis, buying Graceland in 1957 constituted fulfilling the dream of a better life and taking care of his parents. But when you look at the house and see beyond the four columns out front, it’s really just a big house that pales in comparison to the houses celebrities and power brokers live in today.

Everybody’s got a secret, sonny

Something they just can’t face

Some folks spend their whole lives trying to keep it

They carry it with them, every step that they take

In the recording, there is a discernible jump in music level and intensity, and plays as the wish that Elvis could have shaken his secret of drug abuse and cut it loose because it dragged him down and led to his untimely and premature death. After the second verse, Springsteen exhales a series of grunts along with jangle of a tambourine that sounds like chains and gives the impression of someone tied with chains struggling to walk, like they are carrying the ghost of their past and their sins up that hill. When Elvis started recording music and made his way up the hill of Graceland, he did so while carrying a lot of chains: the chains of prejudice, the chains of poverty, and the chains of self-doubt.  Also, Sonny West was Red West’s cousin and fellow friend/body guard to Elvis who co-authored Elvis: What Happened?. Perhaps Sonny West can be taken as the “sonny” in these lyrics.

Some folks are born into a good life

Other folks get it anyway, anyhow

Springsteen could be writing about both Elvis’ and his own very humble background and how they both worked to grab the good life, the American Dream through the only means they knew how, rock and roll.

I lost my money and I lost my wife

Elvis’ divorce of Priscilla and paying money as part of legal settlement haunted him daily and led to him picking very telling songs to record such as Hurt, It’s Midnight, I Miss You, and For Old Times Sake.

Of special note, Elvis’ last studio recording album, Moody Blue, was released in July 1977, just weeks before his death, and the last track is titled, ‘It’s Easy For You’ The song, written by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice, and recorded in 1976 amidst his traumatic breakup with long time companion Linda Thompson and the recent firing of long time friend and bodyguard Red West, contains lyrics that seem written just for Elvis. If you listen to the recording, you can hear Elvis’ voice literally cracking with emotion as he sings the story of couple’s breakup:

You might not mind that it’s over

But I’ve got a different point of view

Even though I am shattered

It’s easy for you

You don’t have to face the music

You don’t have to face the crowd

I had a wife, I had children

I threw it all away

I found it hard to leave them

The saddest thing I ever had to do

According to Ernest Jorgensen’s Elvis Presley a Life In Music, after the line “I threw it all away’ Elvis ad libed ‘I get carried away/Emotional son of a bitch’ Appears as self-effacing recognition of his own behavior and the effects it had on those closest to him. Listen for yourself by clicking on link below:


Tonight, I’ll be on that hill, because I can’t stop

On the night Springsteen jumped the wall at Graceland, he said to Steven Van Zandt who rode with him in the cab, while they were standing by the music gates looking up at the house, that he “just had to go up there and see if Elvis was home.”

I’ll be on that hill with everything I got

Lives on the line where dreams are won and lost(literally as in Elvis dying)

I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost

ie riding in a taxi with the meter running being the time and the cost is the fare for cab ride out to Graceland. Springsteen is singing about both Elvis own journey up that hill to Graceland, literally and figuratively, and about Bruce jumping the wall and trying to follow in Elvis’ footsteps.

For wanting things that can only be found,

In the darkness on the edge of town

Taxi Cab, Taxi Cab, City of Night: Let’s cross that river, to the other side

I imagine that in the sequencing of The Promise, Springsteen recognized a need to end on a more uplifting note than the second to last track, The Promise song. After the  rock bottom despair of The Promise and ‘something dying down on the highway tonight’, City of Night ends on a more hopeful note with the line, ‘Some people wanna die young and gloriously/ Taxi cab driver, well that ain’t me’ . The recording begins with a sound of whirring distortion, akin to the Beatles’ use of guitar reverb on I Feel Fine, which comes across as purposeful fast forwarding in time to a better place, a wrinkle in time. Sonically, the music is pure Stax studio, based in Memphis, and Springsteen’s nod to the great backing musicians in studio and recording artists that greatly influenced him, ie Otis, Sam and Dave, Eddie Floyd, Arthur Conley. The music might as well have been played by Booker T and the MGs, including the Memphis Horns. This song plays to me as a coda, a light touch acknowledgment of riding in a cab to Graceland and one last love letter to the musicians who inspired him.

I got some money and I’m feeling fine

This is the post concert rush he was still coming down from at 3:00am when they took the cab ride out to the edge of town.

Some people want to die young and gloriously

Taxi cab driver, well that ain’t me

Springsteen is being ironic with Elvis Presley’s death as yes, Elvis was only 42, but it was not a glorious death.

Further Darkness and The Promise Elvis tie-ins: ‘I got my facts learned real good right now’


Poor man wanna be rich/Rich man wanna be king/and a king ain’t satisfied until he rules everything/ I wanna go out tonight/I wanna find out what I got

The first three lines are taken from Presley’s recording of King of The Whole Wide World from the Kid Galahad soundtrack.

Johnny Bye Bye , which appeared as the B side on I’m On Fire single, originally started as Come On(Let’s Go Tonight) and contains the lines

Hey little girl with the red dress on

There’s a party tonight down in Memphis town

I’ll be going down there if you need a ride

The man on the radio says Elvis Presley’s died

Echo of Elvis’ 1967 cover of Tommy Tucker’s Hi Heel Sneakers which includes the line ‘put on your red dress baby, cause we’re going out tonight’

Springsteen used the image of the red dress again on this years Wrecking Ball album on the song, Easy Money, with the line ‘Put on your red dress, looking real good honey’


Springsteen has stated he wrote it specifically for Elvis and wanted to try to get Elvis to record it. The song would have fit neatly among Elvis’ other ‘hot’ songs, Burning Love and Fever, Peggy Lee’s big hit. Springsteen’s Fire echoes the lyrics of Fever with use of Romeo and Juliet, but instead of Lee’s Captain Smith and Pocahontas, Springsteen inserts Samson and Delilah as famous lovers. The lines ‘My nerves all jumping acting like a fool’ and ‘Your kisses they burn but your heart stays cool’, while not directly from Presley’s earlier works All Shook Up and Burning Love’, are very similar in lyrics to Presley’s songs, but don’t directly borrow from them. Springsteen’s guitar solo in the middle of Fire is a very close approximation of how James Burton, Elvis’ regular tour guitarist in the TCB band and, often times, lead studio guitarist, would have played it if Elvis had recorded the song. In fact, the whole E Street Band is playing parts as if they were laying down a demo for Elvis’ band, as I can hear very distinct parts for how all of the TCB band would have played including bass lines of Jerry Scheff, Glen Hardin piano and Ronnie Tutt’s drums.

Wrong Side of the Street

Springsteen’s singing ‘darlin’ in line ‘We’ll bring an end darlin’ very similar to Elvis singing words ‘Oh my love, my darlin’ from Elvis’ version of Roy Hamilton’s classic, Unchained Melody. Elvis’ version was released on Moody Blue which came out in July 1977, weeks prior to death

Spanish Eyes

Has very similar sound and lyrics to Elvis’s cover of the Al Martino hit of the same title. Elvis recorded in 1974 for The Good Times release. Same Latin tinged samba beat, mariachi guitar and horns as other Presley songs such as It’s Now Or Never and Fools Rush In.

Be True: The Promise of Springsteen

In 1980, Springsteen told rock critic Robert Hilburn, “You can’t live on what you did yesterday, or what’s going to happen tomorrow. If you fall into that trap, you don’t belong on stage. That’s what rock and roll is: a promise, an oath. It’s about being as true as you can at any particular moment.” While Elvis began phoning it in on stage periodically in voice, mind and effort, and sometimes openly disdained his audience, Springsteen has been giving it all he can on stage, night after night. He pushes himself and the band, through three to four hours of non-stop performance which includes song after song rolling into each other with little to no break in between, jumping from pianos and amplifier stacks, and sliding across the stage from one side to the other. All the while, he sings, plays guitar and piano, leads the band, fires up the crowd and preaches to the congregation.

One of Elvis Presley’s biggest fans, Bruce Springsteen, has become one of the leading rock artists of his time, because he learned from all of his heroes throughout his life and career. Springsteen once said, “I believe that the life of a rock and roll band will last as long as you look down into the audience and can see yourself and your audience looks up at you and can see themselves, and as long as those reflections are human, realistic ones.” In 1965, Elvis met the Beatles  at his Bel Air home and the five of them spent  a few uncomfortable hours making small talk and playing a little music. Elvis was too racked with self-doubt and low self-esteem around the four Liverpool Lads who had stormed America, and the Beatles were in awe being in the same room with one of their idols. Springsteen has long played in concert with many of his inspirations such as Sam Moore, Darlene Love and Chuck Berry, and now, he is returning the favor to those who grew up idolizing him such as Brian Fallon of Gaslight Anthem, The Dropkick Murphy’s and Eddie Vedder to name a few. He allows those younger musicians an opportunity to make a human connection, to “make that dream real.”

That is the key difference between the two: Elvis’ artistry ended at a certain point in time, but Springsteen has continued to grow as an artist and as a performer. At the end of Elvis’ career, he could no longer look into the faces of his audience and see an accurate reflection because he could no longer see himself. Every night that he is on stage, Springsteen looks into the faces of his crowd and makes connections with the eyes and minds of his fans, brings fans onto stage to dance and sing, gets help on vocals from younger fans on Waiting on a Sunny Day, and in the penultimate connection, literally puts his body and faith in the hands of his people by crowd-surfing from the back of the pit area back to the stage.  Springsteen puts his faith in his fans, and as they pass him forward, hand over hand, they repay that faith and belief in the promise of rock and roll a thousand times over.

Long ago, Springsteen said of trying to meet Presley at his home, “Later on, I used to wonder what I would have said to him if I had knocked on the door and if Elvis had come to the door. Because it really wasn’t Elvis I was going to see, but it was like he came along and whispered some dream in everybody’s ear and somehow we all dreamed it.” Just recently, Springsteen told David Remnick of the New Yorker of his performances,”It’s theater you know. I’m a theatrical performer. I’m whispering in your ear and you’re dreaming my dreams, and then I’m getting a feel for yours. I’ve been doing that for 40 years.” The student has learned well from his best teacher.

(Coda) Elvis Presley: ‘A man with a vision, in search of a vision’

“It was like he whispered a dream in our ears, and then we dreamed it,” the Elvis acolyte Bruce Springsteen once said. What was in that dream was the best part of us, the best of the American dream- which by the last 20th century had become a big part of the world’s dream too. You could declare that dream an impossible fantasy or you could accept it as a challenge, but either way, you knew going that route would cost you as much as you had in you. Reality got in its way for Elvis, just like for you and me. Still, he dreamed that dream, and more than that, he shared it with everyone else. Like a child, the dream went places its creator could not have imagined, fostered alliances Elvis might not have liked, took on a look he could not recognize as his own. Elvis’s greatest gift to the world may have been allowing us to see so much of him in ourselves.” Dave Marsh, Elvis

Elvis is Everywhere, Mojo Nixon

When I look out into your eyes out there,
When I look out into your faces,
You know what I see?
I see a little bit of Elvis
In each and every one of you out there.

Elvis is everywhere, man!
He’s in everything.
He’s in everybody…
He’s in the young, the old,
the fat, the skinny,
the white, the black
the brown and the blue
people got Elvis in ’em too

Elvis Presley Sings The Promise

In an alternate space-time continuum, back in March of 1976, Elvis wasn’t in Tahoe and was sitting in his room reading and met his young, ‘crazy fan’ downstairs in the kitchen and shared some coffee and cheeseburgers while they talked music. One thing led to another and pretty soon, Elvis was back in the studio and singing some new songs written by a young upstart rock and roll singer named Bruce Springsteen. The following are the songs from The Promise Album that seem perfect for Elvis’ mood, song selections, arrangements, production styles and vocal phrasing and style at the time:

The Book of Love

  1. The Brokenhearted(Heartbreak Hotel Part II)
  2. Fire
  3. Breakaway
  4. Someday(We’ll Be Together)
  5. One Way Street
  6. Gotta Get That Feeling
  7. Save My Love
  8. Rendevous
  9. Spanish Eyes
  10. Candy’s Boy- “..there are pictures of her heroes(Elvis?) on the wall….”
  11. Outside Looking In
  12. The Little Things(My Baby Does)
  13. The Promise(Upon hearing Elvis sing this song, this writer’s head just exploded)

Quotes and notes

“There is something magical in watching a man who had lost himself find his way home.” Jon Landau after watching NBC’s Elvis (The 68’ Comeback Special)

Springsteen on Presley, “That Elvis man, he is all there is. There ain’t no more. Everything starts and ends with him. He wrote the book. He is everything to do and not to do in the business.” Mike Greenblatt, The Return of the Native Son, 1978.

Springsteen on Presley, “I could not imagine that guy dying. He was so incredibly important to me, to go on and do what I want to do. When I heard the news it was like somebody took a piece out of me.

He was not primitive, like people think. He was an artist and he was into being an artist. Of course he was also into rockin’ his ass, but that was part of it. Onstage, he encompassed everything- he was laughing at the world, and he was laughing at himself but at the same time, he was dead serious.

To me, he was as big as the whole country itself, as big as the whole dream. He just embodied the essence of it and he was in mortal combat with the thing. It was horrible and, at the same time, it was fantastic. Nothing will ever take the place of that guy.” Rolling Stone, 1977

Interview with Bruce circa 1988, heard on George Klein’s radio show.

Interviewer: You usually end your concerts with the line, let freedom ring. Do you think a big, strong musical message can make that happen?

Springsteen: I think so. I think Elvis did. You can look around and say there’s still a lot of trouble in the world, and there’s still so much injustice. But I think Elvis did and I think it helped a lot of people. I know it helped me. It made me a different person.”

“The world awaits the next Elvis. We’re hoping to find a flesh and blood superhero. A regular guy who changes the world and, in the process, shows us all how to change with him.”  Dave Marsh

In the introduction to the Darkness box set, Springsteen writes, “Post ‘Born To Run’ I was still held in thrall by the towering pop records that had shaped my youth and early music education. Echoes of Elvis, Dylan, Roy Orbison, the full-voiced rockabilly ballad singers of the Fifties and Sixties along with my favorite soul artists and Phil Spector, thread throughout. As I page through my 37-year-old “Darkness” notebook, I see a young man filled with ambition, a local culture/B movie fueled florid imagination, and thrilled to be a rock’n’roll songwriter. The nights of listening to Lieber and Stoller. Goffin and King, Barry and Greenwich, Mann and Weil, the geniuses of early rock’n’roll songwriting had seeped into my bones. Their craft inspired me to a respect and love for my profession that’s been the cornerstone of the writing I’ve done for the E Street Band and my entire work life.”


Lead quote from Presley fan Myrtle Smith, Rolling Stone 9/22/77. She explained to the journalist why she and 30 of her friends had jumped in their car upon hearing the news and drove to Graceland

Man with a vision- In The Promise documentary, Jon Landau stated that, “Bruce is a man with a vision, but at the same time, he is in search of a vision. And that is what each album is.”

Elvis doesn’t die- “I’ve never been through anything like that before. Myrna(Smith of Sweet Inspirations) broke down and cried as hard as I’ve ever seen a woman cry. We were all so shocked.” quote from John Wilkinson, Elvis’ TCB Band rhythm guitarist on hearing the news of Elvis dying while the band was travelling to Portland, Maine for the first show of a new Presley tour.

Two things happened during Darkness- Taken from Darkness special 11/2010 on Sirius/XM E Street Radio when a fan asked what Elvis’ death impact had on the songs during recording “….that’s very interesting question because I think people forgot that Elvis died. The two things that happened were the punk explosion and Elvis died. It had a big impact on me at the time. No one has asked me that question in all the interviews I have done. I don’t think it affected the album in any way. The song ‘Come on, Let’s Go Tonight’ is a song about going to Memphis for Elvis’ funeral. So, I did begin to write something about it. And that song turned into Factory.

Elvis Presley’s boyhood home, Tupelo, Ms

A Beautiful Dreamer


Elvis Presley age 3 with Gladys and Vernon Presley

Beautiful Dreamer

By Ryan Hilligoss, February 2012

“Believe in the beauty of your dreams.” Eleanor Roosevelt

As a way of introducing myself with my first blog posting, here is a list of just a few of my heroes: Chuck Berry, Robert Kennedy, Louis Armstrong, Abraham Lincoln, Miles Davis, Kurt Vonnegut, Elijah Lovejoy, Jane Addams, Larry “Studs” Terkel, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Presley. Yes….that Elvis Presley. The man who sadly, now is seen by many as a punch line to a joke about an overweight, doped out gun toting recluse who died in an undignified manner. A man whose death set an unfortunate precedent for many other celebrities, including Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston.  But to me, Elvis was a beautiful dreamer and a musical and cultural trailblazer with a moral to teach all of us.

Just read what renowned rock critic Dave Marsh wrote in his profound work simply titled, Elvis, “Somewhere, out of all of this, Elvis began to seem like a man who had reached some conclusions. And so he was made into a god and a king. He was neither- he was something more American and, I think, something more heroic. Elvis Presley was an explorer of vast new landscapes of dream and illusion. He was a man who refused to be told that the best of his dreams would not come true, who refused to be defined by anyone else’s conceptions.

“That is the goal of democracy, the journey on which every prospective American hero sets out. That Elvis made so much of the journey on his own is reason enough to remember him with the honor and love we reserve for the bravest among us. Such men made the only maps we can trust.”

I take the name of my blog from an address. 706 Union Ave.An address not nearly as well known as 1600 Pennsylvania Ave,10 Downing Street, or 11-21 Wall Street, but ultimately 706 Union Avenue is significantly more powerful than all others in terms of social and cultural meanings. 706 union Ave, Memphis, Tennessee, USA is the home of the original Memphis Recording Service that ultimately became Sun Records, proving ground of musicians from all over the country and whose blend of gospel, country, blues, bluegrass, and rhythm and blues became rock and roll, one of America’s greatest art forms and one of our most important exports, behind only democracy and jazz.

Sun exterior

Sun Studios was founded by the visionary Sam Phillips, a man who wanted to broaden cultural and social integration by combining the music of both black and white into a new form of music that would reach everyone. Phillips was a southerner who chose Memphis to setup his business as it was a focal point of national migration, travel and commerce. Virtually all of the artists who he discovered came from the deep south and brought their varied music roots with them and formed a rich and diverse musical landscape.

Over a brief span of roughly 10 years, Phillips recorded a wide range of musicians starting with a very young Riley “BB” King, Jackie Breston, blues legend Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Rufus Thomas, Jerry Lee Lewis, Junior Parker, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison.  Jackie Breston’s Rocket 88, an ode to a hot Oldsmobile automobile, is viewed by many as the first rock and roll record with  simple boogie riff with underlying piano and sax instruments. Described in Good Rockin’ Tonight as “…raucous, unbridled energy that certainly foreshadowed much that was to follow, although arguably it owed a greater debt to what had come before.”

Phillips said that he was trying to open up an area of freedom within the artist himself. Upon hearing Howlin’ Wolf for the first time in the studio, Phillips stated, “When I heard him, I said, this is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.”

Sun exterior long

Elvis Presley’s recordings for Sun Records included Mystery Train, That’s All Right Mama, Good Rockin’ Tonight, Baby Let’s Play House. These are some of the most important musical recordings in American music that helped start the new form of rock and roll but also played an integral part in social and cultural changes including, most importantly, the civil rights movement. Phillips has been quoted endlessly as stating he wanted to find a white singer who could sound black in order to reach white audiences with what was then termed “race music.” In Elvis he found the perfect candidate. Many listeners and radio stations were fooled into thinking Elvis was actually black and many stations refused to play his records because of that reason. Elvis recorded with Sun Records until 1956 when Phillips sold his contract to RCA records and Elvis became “The King.” (Ironic since before recording with Sun, Elvis was driving a truck for Crown Electric.)

But with his swaying hips and curling lips and his performances on national television, including Dorsey Brothers, Steve Allen, Milton Berle and more famously the Ed Sullivan Show, Elvis reached millions of fans and became the most popular American folk hero of the 20th century. For what you may not know is that Elvis Presley came from one of the most humble backgrounds. He was born to poor southern parents, Gladys and Vernon, in a shotgun shack inTupelo,Mississippi during the heights of the Great Depression. His father struggled so hard to provide for his small family that he tried to forge a check to buy groceries and was sentenced to three years in a state penitentiary, during which time Gladys took in laundry and tailoring to make ends meet.

It was there in East Tupelo, that Elvis grew up on the poor side of town amongst both black and white. And it was there that he was exposed to the music that would inform him for the rest of his life and career and helped ingrain all the various components that made up his music later in life. He heard blacks play their blues on their front porches. He heard and sang the gospel songs he grew to love while attending church every week with his parents. He listened to the Grand Ol’ Opry and it’s eclectic mix of country, gospel and bluegrass on the radio every weekend. On his eleventh birthday, he asked his mom for a rifle, but Gladys was afraid of the rifle and she bought him a guitar instead. The rest is history as Elvis climbed from the depths of poverty and reached the heights of worldwide fame and the continued devotion and adoration of fans  who travel the world over to Memphis to pay their respects, 35 years after his death.

Elvis Presley age 12

Elvis Presley age 12, Tupelo, Ms

In 1970, as an introduction to the great song, Walk A Mile in My Shoes, Elvis quoted part of an old Hank Williams song:

You never stood in that man’s shoes, or saw things through his eyes

Or stood and watched with helpless hands, as the heart inside you dies

So help your brother along the way, no matter where he starts

For the same god that made that made you, made him too

These men with broken hearts.

At the top of this post is a picture taken of Elvis with his parents. In the picture, Elvis is maybe three years old and he stands on a table with Gladys and Vernon on either side. He is wearing a pair of worn, soiled overalls and a fedora hat pulled down at a jaunty angle. In his face, you can see traces of the pouty lips and the darkened, bee stung eyes that would eventually make him the second most globally recognized face, second only to Mickey Mouse. It is a picture that symbolizes how far he came in life. It also symbolized how far many other came during that same time. As his story is very similar to that of my own families as both sets of my grandparents came from very similar backgrounds around the same time. What you can see in those faces is a burning desire to live a better life and to provide better dreams for their kids. Even though my grandparents and parents never achieved world wide fame, they all fought the good fight and came to embody the meaning of the American Dream.

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…”

“He(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.”


Elvis Presley with young fan, playing the drums, 1956

To tie this all together, in 1978, after enduring a struggle for his own artistic freedom with his first manager, Bruce Springsteen wrote a song called the Promised Land for the album, Darkness On The Edge of Town. Whether directly or indirectly, 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 and possibly influenced by Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech in 1963, was about a poor southern boy dreaming of a better life in California and struggling to make his way across the country in search of that journey. In the later stage of his career, Elvis recorded Berry’s Promised Land and turned it into one of his last great rock recordings.

After the failure of the Bay of Pigs operation in 1961, President Kennedy stated, “Success has a 100 fathers while failure is an orphan.” Rock and roll was and remains a great success on inummerable levels, not a failure by any definition. And Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, in my mind, 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 Memphis studio called Sun Records which, ironically enough, was situated at 706 Union Ave. We could use a little more unity in our communities, in our states, in our country and across the world today.

The sooner we can all recognize the need for understanding our common problems, discussing them in an intelligent and fair manner and attempting to find some common ground, the sooner we can start living up to the ideals our nation stands for. The ideals that caused so many to risk it all, to make that journey across the water so they could start their hopeful wandering. Oh, I believe in the Promised Land.

I will leave you for now with a sign off that can be traced to Woody Guthrie, but one I first heard from another of my literary, cultural heroes, Studs Terkel who signed off from his radio show everyday with, “Take it easy, but take it.”

Sun museum interior

Sun Studio museum, Memphis, Tn. Notice the leather guitar cover Elvis used in the 50s to keep his belt from scratching the wood when he danced on stage