Tuesday, October 13, 2009

That's All Right (Mama)

In any summation of the musicians who influenced the Beatles, no matter how half-assed, it would be criminal to leave out Elvis Presley. So we're not going to. Our final Beatles cover of the year happens to be a cover of Elvis's first-ever single. He recorded this in the studios of Sun Records way back in 1954. And it's a beaut.

Rock and roll, of course, owes a debt to country, and Elvis's version of "That's All Right (Mama)" (which is not the original, by the way, though it's surely the version that influenced the Beatles) takes this blues number in a wicked country-fried direction. Note the absence of drums, for instance, to say nothing of that one-five-one bass line on the verses that always sounds old-timey country/folksy to me. You hear that opening strummed one-chord guitar stuff and you could expect a lot vocal styles to follow it-- perhaps an old drawling guy singing about the Lord, for instance-- but you hear the smooth, earnest-yet-suave stylings of a youthful Elvis telling us how all right everything is, and you start to understand why people got so excited about him. Besides, what a kickass little song it is. Who couldn't get into this kind of thing? I think they called Elvis's early work "hillbilly bop" or something like that-- either because "rock and roll" (along with the more specific "rockabilly") was a term not yet in common usage or because that other term seemed too, you know, black, or something. I'm no scholar here. But I think I'm a giant fan of hillbilly bop.

This first single wasn't a particularly big hit for Elvis beyond the Memphis area, I don't think, and indeed it's the later "Heartbreak Hotel" that the Beatles, when they're asked, remember as being really seminal in terms of getting them excited about rock and roll. But once "Heartbreak Hotel" and Elvis mania had made it to Liverpool, you can bet the boys found a way to get their hands on all the Elvis songs they could. Though they all cite Elvis as a particular hero, there aren't many covers of Elvis songs that are legally available, so it's nice that Live at the BBC allows us to hear Paul doing his best impression of an Elvis vocal.

(By the way, there are a few extra Live at the BBC tracks thrown onto the video as bonuses, so enjoy!)

Of course the Beatles take the thing as full-out rock and roll as it's going to go. It's 1963 when they're recording this, nine years since Elvis put his recording out into the world, and by now rock and roll is here to stay. So although we get that little bum-bum-bum BUM bassline opening, the thing that I really hear first is Ringo's drumming-- nothing fancy there, just as steady on the backbeat as we could possibly want. It makes it much more danceable, and it makes me immediately love the song much more than I already did. I also adore the way that George plays basically the same guitar solo totally differently. The solos here have a pleasantly ragged edge to it that's very George, and very Beatles. As if they'd taken the almost-too-perfect guitar riff from Elvis's version and affectionately mussed up its hair or something.

And then there's Paul on the lead vocal, which I love. I think I've talked before about how I always, always hear an element of performance in Paul's vocals. This doesn't mean he sings in a way that I find to be artificial or tepid or gimmicky-- at his best, he doesn't at all. It just means that even when he's at his most soulful and moving, he seems aware that someone's listening. Does that make sense? See, whereas on some of John's vocals (here and here, just off the top of my head), I feel like I just accidentally stumbled into a private conversation he was trying to have with someone, or into a dark corner of John's brain that he didn't mean for me to find. Even when he's rocking out, his voice sounds like he's trying to communicate something very dark and weird to us that he doesn't know how to say. Sometimes he's even actively making fun of us, his audience. Paul has lots he wants to share with us too, but he's also just hoping that we all have a really great time. So when I say that Paul's doing a pretty good Elvis impression on "That's All Right (Mama)," I do think that was at least a little bit of his intent. And who can blame him? Elvis taught these kids how to sing, and you could do a lot worse than learn from him. (In my opinion, Elvis, to me, is more in the McCartney mold, but always a little more earnest than Paul, who often sings with a wink. Elvis's best vocals sound so earnest that he seems incapable of sarcasm at all. I say this as a decided non-expert in all things Elvis, though-- it's just my impression.) Point is, Paul's singing here is freaking terrific for me. Thank you, Paul, I am having a really great time. And Paul, may I say in particular that the little off-mic whoops that you can't help but let out are exactly the kind of endearing detail that make me love you? May I? Thank you.

Anyway, songs like "That's All Right (Mama)" were the songs that made the Beatles love rock and roll, so without them, where would they (and we) be? I also love this kind of song-- the simplicity, the laid-back groove of the guitars, the way that the whole song sounds like the musical equivalent of a randy grin directed your way across the bar. Old school proto-rock and roll is absolutely where it's at-- a genre that does a lot with very few, and very simple, musical materials. Paul still loves it too, of course. Just because Paul's TOTALLY still got it, I'm including this video of Paul hanging out fairly recently with Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana, who played as Elvis's band on "That's All Right (Mama)" back in the day. The clip's from a 2001 documentary about Sun Records called Good Rockin' Tonight, which I've never actually seen, but I freaking love this video.

Hope you liked a few days of covers. I mean, I know, right?-- everyone who came before the Beatles, including Elvis, is basically just John the Baptist. But goddamn if they don't get to me anyway. And the Beatles playing Elvis always gets me bopping in my office chair like nothing else.

"That's All Right (Mama)," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 1 track 15 of Live at the BBC, November 30, 1994.


  1. OK, you had me at That's All Right, Mama. Because this is my absolute favorite Elvis song (with Don't be Cruel a close second and after that I start to lose interest in him). So given how much I love the Elvis version, I was prepared for Paul's version to suffer by comparison, but he kicks ass on this, if you don't mind my saying. And thanks for the 2001 clip. I had never seen it before. Yes, he's still got it.

    I agree with you about Paul's voice, and that sense you get that he wants you to be having a good time. But I also get the feeling, when I hear him sing, that HE is having a great time, too. Like he can't imagine doing anything better than this. I'll stop gushing now.

  2. Nice final Covers post, Meg. And Anon, great comments. Re Elvis, he certainly did some great songs early on. I seem to recall reading somewhere that when the Beatles got to meet Elvis at Graceland, they asked him why he quit doing rock and roll. To that i can only say, yea, why did he? Those 60s songs of his could be quite bad.

  3. Oh, I'm glad you guys are into this one! I adore it. And it's a fantastic performance by Paul. So much so that, like I say, I prefer it. (It's probably the drums, too, though.)

    And Frank, that exchange did go down in some way between the Beatles and Elvis, but I've never been sure what he said. The whole visit sounds like it was freaking miserable anyway. Poor Elvis. For a good little while, though, he rocked...

  4. I recently read somewhere -- the Anthology book, I think -- that that visit wasn't as miserable as the account we've all heard portrayed it.

  5. Perhaps not miserable-- that was my word-- and after all, they got a chance to play with him, which sounds like it was awesome, despite Elvis's mixed feelings about the Beatles themselves. But I remember Ringo in particular being shocked at what a broken man Elvis had become. The Beatles all noted that they were lucky to have each other to get through the messiness of fame. Elvis didn't have anyone, and that seems to be what they all thought killed him.