By Alain Rozan

 

Classical singers are highly trained singers because the structure of opera requires an extraordinary range of different singing styles ranging from almost spoken parts to full blown arias.

 

It also requires a vocal range that is mostly absent in pop songs because pop songs are on average three-minute long verse/chorus/bridge/coda works that center on melody only and tell a story in free form ranging from literal storytelling to poetry.

 

There is one exception in pop music. The great Roy Orbison wrote some of his songs like mini-operas breaking all traditional notions of songwriting and he had a powerful high voice but his voice did not have the range necessary for him to sing true opera.

 

So why are opera singers almost always fascinated by the voice of Elvis Presley?

 

 

 

Elvis Presley, without any doubt.”​

 

Kiri Te Kanawa‘s answer to UK show-host Michael Parkinson (who probably expected her to name Luciano Pavarotti, or Maria Callas), when asked whose was the greatest voice she had ever heard (as published in Blabbermouth.net, 3 January 2007)

 

​”His was the one voice I wish to have had.

 

Placido Domingo, in an interview given to “Hola” Magazine (Spanish version), as published in June of 1994.

 

​”​Presley was very classically orientated with his voice, and diction, and very sincere and wanting to get everything perfect

 

Bryn Terfel, bass baritone citing one of the reasons why Elvis is the only soloist whose music he listens in his iPod, as told to NYT’s Classical Music critic Vivien Schweitzer, and published on that paper on November 10, 2007

 

 

 

​”​Elvis Presley has been described variously as a baritone and a tenor. An extraordinary compass-The voice normally covers two octaves and a third though on “What Now My Love”, he goes up a full three octaves at the end of the song. His range extends from the baritone low-G to the tenor high B, with an upward extension to at least a D flat and sometimes a full voice high G or even a high A that an opera baritone might envy.“​.

 

Henry Pleasants, Classical Music Critic in his book “The Great American Popular Singers” (1974).

 

Yes, Elvis had a magnificent voice and towards the end of his life, he enjoyed singing in a somewhat operatic style, displaying his amazing range.

 

But in the end, Elvis was not an opera singer and whether or not he could have been does not matter. What made him so different was not his so-called opera singer range but the utter freedom of his singing.

 

 

 

 

He could absorb all singing styles from the blues to country, jazz, pop, rock, folk and even traditional songs like the mixture of three Southern anthems in his over the top anthem “American Trilogy” in which he uses operatic style to great effect.

 

The one constant in his singing, however, was his mastery of the “blue note” (i).  And this is why crossover attempts always fail. Because opera does not use the “blue note” and almost all pop songs do.

 

Elvis Presley did not learn the “blue note” from the blues but from gospel music and it is no coincidence that the most interesting, if not successful, attempts by an opera singer to crossover to pop songs are the gospel songs recorded by Elvis Presley’s biggest classical fan; Bryn Terfel (pronounced “Tairvail”).

 

Bryn Terfel  has recorded or performed several Elvis Presley gospel songs; “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “How Great Thou Art” to name a few.

 

Below is Bryn Terfel’s rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, followed by Presley’s rendition of the same song in a spontaneous alternate version in which he also plays the piano.

 

One can immediately tell that Bryn Terfel used Presley’s arrangement as a model but as beautiful as his rendition of the song is, it is no match to Presley’s because Presley’s perfect use of the “blue note” gives the song a feeling that is lacking in Bryn Terfel’s version.

 

Conversely, despite his vocal range, Presley could not have sung opera because he was not a trained singer in that field and because his instinctive use of the “blue note” would have killed any attempt to do so.

 

 

 

(i) The “blue note “is a minor interval where a major would be expected. It is used only in blues, jazz and pop songs”

From Woody Guthrie To Walt Whitman

Posted: December 16, 2013 in Uncategorized

Like every great poet, Dylan honed his craft by always going forward, without any concessions to whatever people thought of his work. As such he has constantly defied expectations. Folk singer, activist, going electric, rejecting politics, retiring in the world of Nashville country music, becoming a fundamentalist Christians, engaging on a Never Ending Tour where every night is a surprise with no set list, no “greatest hits concerts” and often songs that no one would ever expect him to play.

Throughout his career, there is one constant though. The evolution of his writing towards lyricism. From fact based folk songs to metaphor based folk song to electric modernist/beat poet/stream of consciousness rock to traditional country music and finally to the place where the greatest poets all settle; lyrical poetry.

Yet, in the mind of the mainstream public, he is still stuck in the folk activist category and even critics are stuck in his 1965/1966 trilogy that they constantly hail to be his greatest work.

Yet, if one compares the two lyrics below, it is obvious that his latest work by far outweighs those revered trilogy songs. The first one is not even poetry but just (somewhat) clever wordplay. The second one on the other hand is a masterpiece of lyricism…

“Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle
Don’t wear sandals
Try to avoid the scandals
Don’t wanna be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don’t work
’Cause the vandals took the handles”

(Subterranean Homesick Blues -1965)

“Pride will vanish
And glory will rot
But virtue lives
And cannot be forgot
The bells
Of evening have rung
There’s blasphemy
On every tongue
Let them say that I walked
In fair nature’s light
And that I was loyal
To truth and to right
Serve God and be cheerful
Look upward well beyond
Beyond the darkness of masses
The surprises of dawn”

(Cross The Green Mountain – 2008)

 

Robert Johnson Publicity Shot

 

The Blue Boys (Scotty Moore, Elvis Presley & Bill Black)

 

 

“The place where the soul of man never dies” is how Sam Phillips, owner of the famous Sun Records label described the Blues. What did he mean? Timeless? Haunting? Original? Whatever he meant, we each have our list of recordings that, we believe, fall into that category. I have named two below and I invite you to do the same (preferably including a link to the recording on Amazon.com). TO POST YOUR ENTRY, SIMPLY SCROLL DOWN TO THE BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE AND CLICK ON “COMMENT”. Your entry can be two individual songs, two original albums or two compilation albums or box sets.  My ultimate goal being to turn this blog into a website with reviews, essays and live online music streaming (I have already posted in the Pages section -top right- essays, rare pictures, road trip pictures, stories and CD recommendations). 

When you post your entry, try to explain why you think the recordings you name belong to “The place where the soul of man never dies”. You do not have to be as wordy as me!

MY TWO PICKS:

  1. ROBERT JOHNSON: THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS

http://www.amazon.com/Complete-Recordings-Robert-Johnson/dp/B000002757

Robert Johnson remains a mystery to this day. The legend wants us to believe that as a young bluesman of limited talent, he went down to the crossroads at midnight in the Mississippi Delta and sold his soul to the devil to become the greatest bluesman that ever lived. Musicologists believe instead that, sick of being made fun of by his peers (including the great Son House), he disappeared for 6 months, took guitar lessons, practiced his guitar like a mad man and composed a wealth of songs that remain the blues standards to this day (“Sweet Home Chicago” “Dust My Broom”). Many of these songs cultivated the myth of a Faustian bargain with the devil (“Crossroads Blues”, “Me and the Devil”, “Hellhounds on my Trail”). Whether you believe the legend or the musicologists, what remains is a staggering collection of songs that define the blues and have been recorded by countless bluesmen and rock and roll singers. Listen to “(They’re) Red Hot” and you are listening not to blues but to rock and roll twenty years before Elvis.

Besides his songwriting genius, there are two other reasons why Johnson belongs to “The Place Where the Soul of Man Never Dies”:

First and foremost his incredible guitar technique. Blues musicians before him used their thumb to play a bass line and their other fingers to play a rhythm or picking or licks. Johnson upped the ante by playing the bass line with his thumb, rhythm with his middle fingers and solos with his pinky, melting all three into one big overall full sound. In other words, he was a one man band. No one has ever been able to replicate his guitar sound. The only one who comes close, in my opinion is the great John Hammond Jr. Eric Clapton has said he is both haunted and driven by the possibility of achieving that sound but has never been able to.

The second reason is Johnson’s fragile high pitched voice. Most blues singers have a gruff raspy and worn out voice. Johnson’s voice was incredibly fragile, much like Sinatra’s or the young Presley’s. Listen to his classic ballad “Love in vain” made famous by the Rolling Stones and you will truly feel why his love was in vain…

     2. ELVIS PRESLEY: SUNRISE

http://www.amazon.com/Sunrise-Elvis-Presley/dp/B00000HZTA/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1267111717&sr=1-1

Contrary to Johnson, Elvis Presley and his recordings at Sun Records are an open book. I won’t rehash the story but focus instead on why these recordings are so unique, eerie, timeless and in the end so comparable to Johnson’s.

The official story is that Presley “invented” rock and roll by instinctively playing Blues and Rhythm and Blues in a fast Country style. The problem with this story is that Country music had used the Blues form long before Presley. Hank Williams masterpiece “Move it on over” (shamelessly plagiarized by the writers of Bill Haley’s “Rock around the clock”) is a Blues played in a fast Country style and as such it is pure Rock and roll.

Unlike Johnson, Presley was a primitive and purely instinctive musician. What made him a great musician was his insane sense of rhythm displayed in his guitar playing on these sessions as well as later on all of his 50’s recordings for RCA. Johnny Cash went as far as saying that he thought Elvis was the first great rock and roll rhythm guitarist, a statement that would make many musicians laugh.

Yet, ask those same musicians who plays drums on “Mystery Train” and they will, no doubt answer DJ Fontana. The problem is there are no drums on “Mystery Train”…

 “The Blue Boys” as they were known were thus the first Rock and roll band with the rhythm set by the furious acoustic guitar playing of Elvis, seconded by the great slap stand up bass of Bill Black and punctuated by the marvelous electric guitar licks of the great Scotty Moore producing music that was more than the sum of its parts. Whereas Hank Williams’ “Move it on over” is Blues played in a gentle Country style, “The Blue Boys” were not just Country, not just Blues but produced a perfect fusion of the genres that jumps at you as new and dangerous. Listen to the original version of “Baby let’s play house” by Arthur Gunther and then listen to Presley’s version on these Sun sessions. He takes a funny swinging tune and turns it into a rabble rousing dangerous punk song that will make you take your young daughter up to her room…

The voice, timing and phrasing of Presley capture the Blues in a way that no other white singer has been able to achieve and that often surpasses the originals, especially on “That’s all right Mama”, “Mystery Train”, “Baby Let’s Play House” and the great mystery song of these sessions “Milkcow Blues Boogie” which is based on an early version of the song by Kokomo Arnold “Milkcow Blues”.  Presley possessed a 78 RPM record of the Kokomo Arnold version but the song was also adapted by a country singer, Johnny Lee Willis whose version is much closer to Presley’s (although Presley starts out the song as a slow blues, like Kokomo Arnold before speeding it up like Johnny Lee Willis). Some songs on these recordings were obviously suggested by Sam Phillips who had recorded “Mystery Train” with Little Junior Parker but others like “That’s All right Mama” and “Milkcow Blues Boogie” came from Elvis himself. How a white 18 year-old truck driver could have known these songs remains a mystery.

Even more mysterious is Presley’s version of the ballad “Blue Moon” a standard of the time. The only instruments on his recording are Scotty Moore’s guitar and Presley’s acoustic guitar, playing discreetly in the background below his high pitched voice, delicate, fragile and wooing in the same eerie way as Robert Johnson did.  Was Presley familiar with Robert Johnson? It is doubtful but not impossible. Listen to “Blue Moon” and then to Johnson’s “Love in vain”. The similarities are striking. What is certain is that they both belong to “The Place Where the Soul of Man Never Dies”…

 

Now blog me!

 

Mike Rimbaud
mikerimbaud.com
mikerimbaud@gmail.com
74.66.17.200
“My Babe” by Little Walter and “Be-Bop-A-Lula” by Gene Vincent. Little Walter burns his harmonica and picks us all up as only the blues can do. With Be Bop, Gene Vincent creates an alien atmosphere with that up front acoustic guitar strumming, and his intense vocal, “Let’s rock again now!..” These songs belong to The Place Where the Soul of Man Never Dies. -Mike mikerimbaud@gmail.com
Mike Rimbaud

http://www.mikerimbaud.com

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