Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Be Really Good At Something

I was only listening to an Elvis radio station when the King himself came on singing a version of Fats Domino’s big hit, Blueberry Hill. It was a pretty good cover which I and many other Elvis fans may have enjoyed, but it also spells out a major point of controversy associated with Elvis. More about this later…

Blueberry Hill was written in 1940 by Vincent Rose, Al Lewis and Larry Stock to be played in a western, originally being sung by Gene Autry. Glenn Miller had also had a hit with it and there had been a host of other covers in following years. Fats Domino released the song in 1956 and it rose to number two in the US and number six in the UK – his biggest hit.

For those with a poor memory, Fats Domino was the big-boned rock ‘n’ roll pianist who put out his first song in 1949, “The Fat Man”. Over time, the loveable Domino put out twenty-three big records, each selling over a million. His hard work not forgotten, he was inducted into the Rock n Roll hall of fame in 1986 (its first year and also the year Elvis was inducted).

So where am I going with this? Well, Domino, considering he didn’t even write “Blueberry Hill”, is an example, as Presley was, of a musician in the 50’s who would sing other people’s songs as if they were their own. They would then have hits with the songs and be associated with the tune for ever after. Another good example is Presley’s 1956 cover of Carl Perkin’s 1955 song ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. At the time, people were interested in hearing the gritty, new rock n roll versions of these songs or, in Perkins case, another artist’s interpretation of a song.

But what has happened with time is these songs tend to get associated with one person. It still gets many a Carl-Perkins fan when ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ is credited as an Elvis song because of Elvis’s enduring popularity, leading people to give Elvis credit even though the original was by Perkins a year earlier. In Domino’s case, Presley also covered his hit a year later. At the time, this meant a different version and, clearly, Domino’s version kept selling long after Elvis’s version came out; it wouldn’t be remembered so well today if it hadn’t.

But to the controversy: isn’t one artist covering another person’s song stealing the credit that person deserves? And, if the artist covering another person’s song is stealing, and Elvis did a lot of covers in his time because he didn’t take part in the writing process of many songs, then does that make Elvis a leech, stealing the popularity deserved to his fellow his musicians? Interesting point, huh?

Well, not really. Elvis claimed to be a singer. And that’s what he did, sing. And he was very good at it. But that’s a musician’s job, not a writer’s job. Writing songs is a completely different talent with different required skill sets. The best songwriters aren’t always great singers nor vice versa. Elvis couldn’t craft a good song so he made up with it by singing his all on other’s songs. And, if you’re into classical music, you’ll know this isn’t that weird; Mozart hasn’t played any of his hits in years, or Beethoven, but no one complains when Daniel Barenboin does his excellent covers of those great composers’s work. He’s perhaps not a legendary composer himself, but he is a great musician who does them justice all these years after the grave took them.

But, isn’t it different in pop music? Nope. Rihanna didn’t write her smash hit Umbrella, but The-Dream, Kuk Harrell, Christopher Stewart and Jay-Z (for his rap introduction).

Furthermore, there are copyright laws. Even if a songwriter loses publicity because another artist did a more successful version of their song, providing they had it copyrighted and have the rights to it, they can still get royalties on that song. Chuck Berry, the legendary Rock n Roll guitarist, does this when people cover his songs.

It’s not like talented song writers can’t be singers, like Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, or either one of the Lennon- McCartney duo, but there’s nothing wrong with being one or the other, like Elvis was. You’ve just got to be extra good at the one skill instead of decently extra good at two.

Elvis’s Lessons:
Ø You don’t have to be a little good at a lot of things; there will always be other talented people to take care of those areas if you can’t (like song-writing in Elvis’s case). But what is important is that you’re good at one thing, so good that you can make the original sound like it was a cover (for Elvis that was singing). That’s what Elvis did through his whole career and he still has more hits than most fellow singers then and now.

P.S. If you're interested in hearing Elvis's version of "Blueberry Hill", check this out:

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