On Jan. 28, 1956, Elvis Presley made his first national television appearance on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey's musical variety series, "Stage Show." The public response to Elvis' truly first public performance was like the blast of an H-bomb. Instantly, it was apparent that the spry 21-year-old would conquer other media beyond the phonograph record.
The idea of rock 'n' roll as a mythological force began with Elvis. Elvis' myth worked because he was always making his presense known (and felt) through the images of television and film: His audience, then, would respond as if those images contained the very presence they bespoke. It was a beautiful, complex exchange, and Elvis -- from mid-'50s appearances on "The Milton Berle Show," "The Steve Allen Show," and "The Ed Sullivan Show" through good cinema ("Jailhouse Rock") and bad flicks ("Speedway") up to his 1968 video comeback, "Elvis" -- milked this mythical process for all it was worth.
"This is Elvis" (RCA CPL2-4031), a two-record set released in conjunction with the new film, is an accurate aural assemblage of Elvis' adventures on the media landscape. Unlike last year's eight-record white elephant, it's an attempt, along the lines of the "Legendary Performer" series, to map out the moves of a colossus. The world of bootlegs excepted, several heretofore unreleased documents are included -- especially exciting are the early quivers of "Heartbreak Hotel" on the Dorsey show and "Hound Dog" via Uncle Miltie.
Of course, the gems mingle with the debris (i.e., "(Marie's the Name) His Latest Flame" followed by "Moody Blue") just as the taped tidbits vie with the title tunes of various movies. But Elvis' image as myth -- and myth as image -- transcends the muddle.
You can hear this almost divine aspect of Elvis as he responds to the accusation of sleazy interviewer Hy Gardner, who wants to know if the rumors are true that Elvis once shot his mother. Elvis laughs and humbly answers, "Well, I think that one takes the cake." Again, Gardner seeks the truth, wanting to know if Elvis uses marijuana to work himself into a frenzy. Elvis good naturedly mumbles something, and then -- blam! -- cut to "My Baby Left Me."
Elvis, however, gave rock 'n' roll more than a museum of images; he also bestowed upon the musical form a certain attitude, a style dubbed rockabilly. Largely the territory of men, this crazy genre did have its female practitioners, the most prolific being Wanda Jackson. Although featuring nothing by Jackson, "Wild, Wild Young Women" (Rounder 1031) does provide a strong defense against the notion that rockabilly is a style structured upon sexism. There's the captivating music of Janis Martin (of South Boston, Va.); at 16, she was signed by RCA and promoted as "The Female Elvis," finally scoring with "My Boy Elvis." Or, there's the red-hot work of solid country singers who suddenly decided to make the leap into the fire of sexual hysteria (Jean Chapel's "Oo-Ba La Baby," Rose Maddox's "Wild, Wild Young Men").
Initially, the album may seem overly academic -- its liner notes dry, its concept belaboring a point. After all, most of the cuts do fall somewhere between hillbilly swing and novelty country. But the fact remains: These are women more alive to the thrills and possibilities of their attitudes than a present day female singer like Linda Ronstadt has been to her whole lazy career. You simply have not lived until you've heard Sparkle Moore, a voodoo priestess incognito, put a hex on the male ego on "Skull and Crossbones."
The assertive sexuality represented by these women is at the core of all rockabilly, even its contemporary variations. The problem with neorockabilly, though, is that it has lost the magical puissance of its grand moment in time. Consider the revivalism of Robert Gordon. As a local-boy-makes-good, he probably deserves some credit, but on none of his records has he ever shown the slightest hint of imagination, employing rockabilly merely as a framework for his own nostalgic fantasies. His latest album, "Are You Gonna Be the One" (RCA AFL1-3773), could have been a fairly accomplished work if Gordon hadn't, as usual, weighted it down with revivabilly posturing.
Some neo-rockabilly artists have envisioned a way out of Gordon's nostaligic pothole. Texas eccentric T-Bone Burnett (whose song, "Driving Wheel," Gordon covers on his new LP) has extended the genre, literally carrying it to heaven as he mixes Christian theology with the sins of the rockabilly beat. His solo debut released last year, "Truth Decay" (Takoma Tak-7080), was the finest neo-rockabilly expression in quite awhile.
Other artists like the Cramps (who will be at the 9:30 Club tomorrow night) have chosen to trash the style. The band's current album, "Psychedelic Jungle" (I.R.S. SP70016), hilariously exposes the side effects of being too devoted to primitivism. Still, others authenticate the sound as fans, never trying to compete with the original Sun masters. The best example of this approach is the Zantees, whose "Out for Kicks" (Bomp BLP 4009) is marked by an enthusiasm for a style the band so dearly loves that you, too, begin to mourn its passing, sharing the Zantee's monotheistic belief.
Hence, in many ways, rockabilly is still evolving. But don't hold your breath waiting for another Elvis.