Spare Us the Elvis-Michael Comparisons

michael_elvisThe cultural contributions and significance of Michael Jackson pales in comparison to that of Elvis Presley. While he made great music and sold more records, Jackson ’s place in musical history cannot be in the same pantheon of 20th Century musicians who altered everything that came after them. In addition to Elvis, that would include Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and The Beatles. This short list does not include Frank Sinatra, Little Richard, James Brown, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash or MJ, all of whom made memorable and significant contributions to our musical and popular culture landscape.

Elvis arose in a musical/cultural vacuum and brought the world a new art form – Rock ‘n’ Roll. Contrary to popular myth, Elvis did not invent it. Rather, he codified it, packaged it and personally made it a world-wide phenomenon. Michael Jackson, meanwhile, rode a bandwagon that was already moving very fast. He contributed in a significant way, but invented nothing new.

Rock ‘n’ Roll had its genesis long before Elvis. If any one man can be given credit for “inventing” Rock ‘n’ Roll, that would be Sam Phillips, who discovered, produced and marketed Elvis in the cultural vacuum that America was in the 1950’s. Mr. Phillips produced what many regard as the first real Rock ‘n’ Roll record in 1951, “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston. And Mr. Phillips was the true genius who had the vision to meld disparate elements of rockabilly, blues, R & B, jazz, country and gospel into what we know as Rock ‘n’ Roll. Mr. Phillips greatest accomplishment was to get Elvis’s records played on the radio, at a time when Rock ‘n’ Roll was perceived as a real threat to the restrictive standards and prejudices of the 1950’s. MJ and the Jackson 5 did not face such barriers, and benefited from the Civil Rights Movement, to which Elvis made huge contributions.

However, this great musical art form was a product of evolution that began with Louis Armstrong, and passed through Fletcher Henderson and Chick Webb. The great alto sax player, Louis Jordan would have to be considered the true “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” He played in Webb’s band that recorded arguably the first “Rock ‘n’ Roll” song in 1937, “Rock It For Me,” written by Kay and Sue Warner and sung by Ella Fitzgerald. That song is the first instance of American music that uses the lyric “rock ‘n’ roll,” AND embodies the musical structure and rhythm that actually became so. The 1934 song, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” by the Boswell Sisters has a coincidental title, but no musical relation. Mr. Jordan also defined the “Jump Blues” sound of the 1940’s that gave us Rhythm & Blues.

Elvis codified the dynamic of Rock ‘n’ Roll, but did not invent it. He also presented the full spectrum from soft ballad rock (“Can’t Help Falling In Love . . .”) to hard-rockin’, blues-based songs like “Hard Headed Woman.” Nor did Elvis invent the rock ‘n’ roll guitar solo. That would be James Burton, who was Ricky Nelson’s guitar player. His work was influenced by Charlie Christian, Tiny Grimes and T-Bone Walker. The unbroken circle is represented by the fact that Burton was Elvis’ musical director for his tours beginning in 1968.

Michael Jackson was a great musician and performer, as well as a huge cultural phenomenon from the early 1970’s through the early 21st Century. But unlike Elvis, Michael did not represent a turning point in the musical and cultural history of America and the world. Michael no more “invented” the Moonwalk, than Elvis “invented” Rock ‘n’ Roll. Countless soul, R & B, and jump-blues performers did the Moonwalk before Michael, namely James Brown. Before him, credit would have to go to the Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold. Michael Jackson never danced up and down walls, as they did.

Pop-historians cannot resist making more out of obvious comparisons than actually exist. So Lisa Marie was married to Michael for a brief marriage of convenience? Big deal. Other comparisons don’t hold up. Elvis got nervous when a girl he didn’t know well took off her panties; Michael insisted it was “normal” to sleep with young boys. Neither were saints. Both men had loyal entourages composed of people who didn’t have the courage to tell them when enough was too much. Both men were ultimately consumed by their own excesses.

Those who insist that Michael’s loss equates to that of Elvis should listen to old music, see old films and read some history. A lot of great things occurred before MTV was ever born. Both men were great artists who made wonderful work that gave us much entertainment and pleasure. Both were icons of their days, who died tragically before their times. But both men also get more credit than they are due for things that their predecessors and peers accomplished.

Both owe debts to Mr. Phillips, Mr. Brown, Mr. Jordan, Mr. Webb, Mr. Henderson and Mr. Armstrong. And of course, John Lee Hooker. He traced the family tree (“Blues Had A Baby and They Named It Rock ‘n’ Roll”) Jazz was the father; Blues was the mother.

Different men; different decades; no comparison

H. Scott Prosterman

Scott Prostermanis a music, film and dance historian in Berkeley. He worked as a disc jockey in Pittsburgh and Memphis, where he grew up and where it all began. He was born in the 50s, grew up in the 60s, thrived in the 70s, barely survived the 80s, and re-grouped in the 90s.

Published by the LA Progressive on July 4, 2009
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About H. Scott Prosterman

H. Scott Prosterman is a writer, humoristm and editor living in Berkeley, California. He was born in the '50s, came of age in the '60s, thrived in the '70's, barely survived the '80's and regrouped in the '90's." He holds a B.A. w/Honors from Rhodes College; an M.A. from The University of Michigan.