piero scaruffi, THE BEATLES and ELVIS PRESLEY
The Beatles and Elvis Presley
There's a movie titled Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? It stars Dustin Hoffman as a singer-songwriter whose reputation was smeared with false rumors by the mysterious Harry Kellerman.
Things like that also happen in real life. Sometimes it's through malice and sometimes it's through ignorance.
Now, there's a music critic by the name of Piero Scaruffi. He doesn't like the Beatles. He doesn't like Elvis Presley. Some cynics might say Scaruffi is like a character we've all seen in countless Westerns. You know... the young punk with a gun who wants to make a name for himself by gunning down the famous old gunslinger. I, myself, don't believe this. I think Scaruffi is sincere in his musical tastes and he's entitled to them. I just think he has a case of Harry Kellermanitis.
About The Beatles...
Scaruffi writes, "Contemporary musicians never spoke highly of the Beatles and for a good reason. They could not figure out why the Beatles' songs should be regarded more highly than their own."
Brian Wilson was the creative force behind the Beach Boys. The Beach Boys were America's top pop group in 1964 when the Beatles arrived.
"I was sitting around a table with friends, smoking a joint, when we heard Rubber Soul for the very first time, and I'm smoking and I'm getting high, and the album blew my mind because it was a whole album with all good stuff! It flipped me out so much I said, 'I'm gonna try that, where a whole album becomes a gas.'" -- Brian Wilson
The book "Heroes and Villains: The True Story of The Beach Boys" (in quotations) reveals this about Brian...
"Despite Brian's tremendous musical accomplishments, the shadow of the Beatles had fallen across him, obscuring any pleasure he may have felt. To make it worse, Brian loved the Beatles' music and was in awe of their musical progression."
The follow-up to Pet Sounds was to be an album titled Smile. Brian Wilson abandoned the project. A contributing factor was "the release of two new Beatles singles, Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever, so wondrous and different-sounding that Brian was crushed." At a recording session for Smile approximately three weeks before Capital Records would announce it was scrapped, Paul McCartney stopped by and "spoke enthusiastically about a new Beatles album to be released the following month - Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. When Brian finally heard the album, he was shattered."
Roger McGuinn was the founder of the Byrds, a group that pioneered folk rock, psychedelic rock and country rock.
"Beatles inspired the Byrds. They were the driving force that got me to incorporate folk and rock." --Roger McGuinn
John Phillips was the founder of The Mamas and the Papas. Along with the Beach Boys and the Lovin' Spoonful, they were one of the three most successful American groups of the 1960s during the British Invasion.
"They (the Beatles) showed that intelligent people could work in rock and make their intelligence show." -- John Phillips
The list of Beatles contemporaries appreciating their music and recording cover versions of their songs, shortly after the originals were released, is a diverse group of artists.
Here are just fifty of those contemporaries and fifty of the Beatles songs they sang. The year of the cover version is given.
Al Green - Get Back (1969)
Andy Williams - Michelle (1966)
Aretha Franklin - Let It Be (1970)
Barbara Streisand - Good Night (1969)
Beach Boys - Tell Me Why (1965)
Billy Preston - I Got a Feeling (1970)
Brenda Lee - She Loves You (1965)
Brian Auger & the Trinity - A Day in the Life (1968)
Chubby Checker - Back in the U.S.S.R. (1969)
Deep Purple - Help (1968)
Del Shannon - From Me To You (1963)
Dion - Blackbird (1970)
Ella Fitzgerald - A Hard Day's Night (1965)
Fats Domino - Lady Madonna (1968)
5th Dimension - All You Need Is Love (1971)
Four Tops - Got To Get You Into My Life (1969)
Gary Lewis & The Playboys - Run For Your Life (1966)
George Benson - Oh! Darling (1970)
Gladys Night & The Pips - The Long and Winding Road (1971)
Grass Roots - You've Got To Hide Your Love Away (1966)
Harry Nilsson - She's Leaving Home (1967)
Hollies - If I Needed Someone (1965)
Ike and Tina Turner - Come Together (1970)
Impressions - The Fool On the Hill 1969)
Jackie Wilson - Eleanor Rigby (1969)
Jan & Dean - I Should Have Known Better (1965)
Joe Cocker - With a Little Help From My Friends (1969)
John Denver - Golden Slumbers (1970)
Johnny Rivers - Can't Buy Me Love ((1964)
Jose Feliciano - Norwegian Wood (1970)
Judy Collins - In My Life (1966)
Junior Parker - Taxman (1970)
Liza Minnelli - For No One (1968)
The Mamas and the Papas - I Call Your Name (1966)
Marianne Faithfull - I'm a Loser (1965)
Matt Monro - All My Loving (1965)
Otis Redding - Day Tripper (1966)
Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles - Yesterday (1966)
Petula Clark - I Want To Hold Your Hand (1965)
Procol Harum - Eight Days a Week (1975)
Ray Charles - Something (1971)
Richie Havens - Here Comes the Sun (1971)
Rolling Stones - I Wanna Be Your Man (1963)
Stevie Wonder - We Can Work It Out (1970)
Supremes - You Can't Do That (1964)
Tony Bennett - Here, There and Everywhere (1969)
Vanilla Fudge - Ticket To Ride (1967)
Ventures - I Feel Fine (1965)
Wilson Pickett - Hey Jude (1969)
Yes - Every Little Thing (1969)
Scaruffi writes, "The Beatles played pop ditties. Rock musicians of the time played everything but pop ditties, because rock was conceived as an alternative to ditties. FM radio was created to play rock music, not pop ditties. Evidently, to the kids (mostly girls) who listened to the Beatles, rock music had nothing to say that they were willing to listen to."
Scaruffi implies that the people who created FM rock radio wouldn't play the Beatles. Let's look into that, but first some background on its creation...
"Tom Donahue has been called the father of progressive radio. As a deejay and executive at San Francisco radio stations KMPX and KSAN in the late Sixties and early Seventies, Donahue pioneered free-form radio on the largely ignored FM band and revolutionized radio broadcasting in America.
"Donahue clearly saw the need for stations that would play non-commercial music by album-oriented bands like the Doors, Blue Cheer and the rising lights on the San Francisco scene. He convinced he owners of KMPX to begin playing album-oriented rock without playlists 24 hour a day, and thus did the underground rock radio revolution begin. In 1968, he moved from KMPX to KSAN.
"Donahue and his wife Raechel - herself a popular and influential disc jockey - founded four of the first free-form stations on the West Coast: KMPX and KSAN in San Francisco and KMET and KPPC in Los Angeles. The progressive format that the Donahues pioneered spread across the country." -- From the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and Museum
FM rock radio pioneers speak out...
Question: (after familiarizing her with the Scaruffi quote) What do you think of that?
Raechel Donahue: Well, that is, may I say, BULLSHIT!! We didn't play I Want To Hold Your Hand, but when A Day in the Life came out, I can remember sitting in the car listening to one of our deejays playing all 12 seconds of that final note. And later we got numerous FCC complaints for playing Why Don't We Do It in the Road? Need I mention While My Guitar Gently Weeps or Happiness is a Warm Gun? We just played DIFFERENT Beatles stuff than the Top 40 stations. Glad to know that it's not only politicians who rewrite history.
Question: Were the Beatles held in as high a regard as other musicians and groups the station was playing?
Raechel Donahue: The Beatles were as important as the Stones in terms of what the British musical community added to our mix.
Question: So, it's safe to say you never considered dropping them?
Raechel Donahue: We would have no more dropped them than we would have stopped playing Janis and The Dead, or the blues.
Bonnie Simmons - at KSAN from 1970 to 1978, she was program music director and deejay.
Question: (after familiarizing her with the Scaruffi quote) Any comments?
Bonnie Simmons: The "critic" is just plain wrong. All FM radio stations I know of played the Beatles incessantly. Tom Donahue at KSAN was of course a huge Beatles fan as were all the jocks at KMPX and KSAN.
WXRT in Chicago has had an all Beatles show done by their morning person for something like 25 years. I think the same of WNEW in NY, WMMR in Philly, etc..
I myself still play the Beatles frequently. I can't imagine not doing so.
Question: Any special Beatles memory?
Bonnie Simmons: The Beatles gave us a print of one of their films to play as a benefit at the Straight Theatre on Haight Street when KMPX went on strike in 1968 and what the striking staffers took in on that was much appreciated, as well as the fun of being able to show a Beatles film way before the days of VHS.
Larry Miller - at the birth of FM rock radio, before the rock format was heard all 24 hours a day at KMPX, there were only two rock shows at KMPX... Tom Donahue on the air from 8 p.m. to midnight and Larry Miller midnight to 6 a.m..
Question: What did you think of the Beatles? Did you consider them only Top 40 or did they fit in nicely with the musicians from San Francisco and elsewhere that found a home at KMPX?
Larry Miller: I think the hip underground discovered the Beatles about the time we got stoned and went to see Help. By the time Rubber Soul and Revolver came out, they were ours.
We were already playing them a lot even before Sgt. Pepper came out. KMPX PD Tom Donahue was well-connected, and we got tapes of Sgt. Pepper way in advance of its official release, and before the Top 40 stations. I used to just roll the tape and track a whole side late at night.
We didn't play the early teeny-bopper stuff so much, but we loved the later (relatively speaking!) stuff.
Question: Any special Beatles memory?
Larry Miller: Katie Johnson, one of the KMPX 'chick' engineers did a tape edit of Norwegian Wood where she transposed the verses and mixed them all up. It took her hours and hours, splicing and editing tape with a razor blade, and the result was perfect. Woodwegian Nor...
About Elvis Presley...
Scaruffi calls Elvis " the ultimate white robber of black hits." Since Elvis never held a gun to the head of any black songwriter, I assume the act of singing the songs constitutes theft in Scaruffi's mind. That's a tough position to take. It opens the door for a lot of criticism toward both white and black singers.
The Orioles' Crying in the Chapel (1953), the first black hit to top the white pop charts, was a cover of a white-composed song.
Chuck Berry's first, and biggest, hit Maybellene was a reworking of the white country classic Ida Red.
Fats Domino's biggest hit Blueberry Hill was white-composed and first recorded in 1941 by 'The Singing Cowboy' Gene Autry for the movie The Singing Hill.
Ray Charles' most popular hit Georgia On My Mind was white-composed and was first recorded in 1930. One of his most critically acclaimed albums (#104/Rolling Stone magazine 500 Greatest Albums of All Time) is Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music, a collection of mostly white-composed hits that include two Hank Williams songs and three songs that were top ten hits for Ray; Eddy Arnold's You Don't Know Me, Frankie Brown's Born To Lose and Don Gibson's I Can't Stop Loving You which won Ray a Grammy Award for Best R&B Male Vocal Performance.
This is just the tip of an iceberg of a list of blacks performing white-composed music that goes on and on and includes Little Richard and other rockers, Nat King Cole and other pop singers, Doo-wop artists, opera singers, classical musicians, etc..
Should any music critic be calling any of them black robbers of white hits?
How bizarre would it be if any discussion of jazz was prefaced with a statement that the black man's contribution to this music would not be possible if not for the theft of white-invented instrumets... the guitar, the saxophone, the trumpet, the piano, etc.?
How bizarre would it be if any discussion of professional sports was prefaced with a criticism of black athletes for stealing the white-created games of baseball, basketball, football, golf, tennis, etc.?
Instead of buying into all this 'he stole this' and 'they stole that' nonsense, consider what these guys had to say...
"There's no such thing as black man's music and white man's music, as far as I'm concerned. It's all music daddy. Now that's putting it in black and white. It's all music. It's all about love." -- Louis Armstrong (after recording an album featuring country songs and a country back-up band.)
"The black man, white man, has got no music of their own. Music belongs to the universe." -- Rufus Thomas, the legendary Stax singer.
"Rock 'n' Roll is not black or white, but American music." -- Bill Haley, early rocker who Scaruffi credits with putting together the first rock 'n' roll band.
Consider also that Elvis didn't copy anyone.
"Presley's version didn't have much of a resemblance to the gritty original. The young singer had put a hillbilly-styled vocal on top of the tune and strummed on his acoustic guitar with an abandon that moved to its own jolting rhythm." -- From an Associated Press article discussing That's All Right.
"When the producer of The Louisiana Hayride first heard Presley's tape, he pointedly asked the talent manager who'd brought it if the singer was white or black. 'Oh, he's white all right,' the manager replied, 'He's just got a different sound, that's all.' That different sound came to be called 'Rockabilly,' a true mutt of music -- a blend of everything from bluegrass to western swing to pop crooning... hillbilly in R&B time." -- From the Rockabilly Hall of Fame
"Elvis Presley helped form the beginnings of The Sun Sound by infusing Country music with R&B." -- From Sun Record Company's "Sun History"
"The minute I heard the guy sing... he had a unique voice. Now there's very few things I'm gonna say are unique, that there's nothing else like them." Sam Phillips, Sun Records founder.
"He was a unique artist - an original in an area of imitators." -- Mick Jagger
"Ain't nobody like Elvis. Never was." -- Johnny Cash
"Elvis, he was unique." -- B.B.King
To satisfy anybody's curiosity, let's take a look at the racial pedigree of Elvis' Sun music and #1 RCA hits. A 1976 release, The Sun Sessions is a compilation album of 1954 and 1955 music. It has 16 songs on it... 10 of them were composed by white songwriters and 6 by black songwriters. Of his 18 #1 hits from Billboard's Hot 100 Chart, 15 of them were composed by white songwriters... the first being 1956's Heartbreak Hotel... and 3 were by black songwriters. Of the additional 13 songs on Elvis 30 #1 Hits, 11 were composed by white songwriters and 2 by black songwriters.
Hee is an excerpt from an August 2003 interview with black songwriter Winfield Scott. Scott co-wrote Return To Sender.
Question: How did you end up writing for Elvis?
Scott: (black) Songwriter Otis Blackwell was a good friend of mine and convinced me to... Otis had written several songs for Elvis including classics like Don't Be Cruel and All Shook Up, and he learned just how much more rewarding it was to write for a star like Elvis.
Scaruffi calls Elvis a "white idol." I assume the implication is that Elvis didn't mean much to blacks. Is that really the case? Let's go back to a 1956 concert. The performers included Ray Charles, B. B. King, Rufus Thomas and Elvis.
Rufus Thomas, who I quoted earlier, was also a disc jockey at WDIA, a black-controlled radio station. These stations had black disc jockeys and played music for a black audience. Billboard's Rhythm and Blues Chart reflected the popularity and record sales of music played on them. Before his death, Thomas reminisced about those days. He said that he played Elvis' tunes on the radio until the program manager told him to stop because black people didn't want to hear them. Then Elvis showed up at a WDIA fund-raising event for black-handicapped children. "When Elvis wiggled that leg, the crowd went nuts. He walked right off the stage and people were storming that stage. The next day I started back to playing Elvis again. Goes to show you that no person can tell you what another group might like."
The Pittsburgh Courier described the reaction that night as, "A thousand black, brown and beige teen-age girls in the audience blended their alto and soprano voices in one wild crescendo of sound that rent the rafters and took off like scalded cats in the direction of Elvis Presley."
Was this a fluke?
What you haven't heard from Scaruffi is that Elvis Presley was very popular on black radio and holds the number 2 position of the Top 17 R&B Artists of the 1950s. From 1949-1959 only one artist, Fats Domino, had more #1 hits on the R&B chart. Fats had 9 and Elvis had 6. Only two artists had more Top 10 hits, Fats had 34, Ruth Brown had 20 and Elvis had 19. (Of note is that Fats made his first Top 10 appearance in 1952 and Ruth Brown made hers in 1949 and they were active through 1959. Elvis, on the other hand, had his Top 10 hits 1956-1959 and during that period he tied with Fats for the most #1 hits... 6).
For comparison sake... Chuck Berry, #12 position, had 3 #1 hits and 13 top 10 hits, and Little Richard, #17 position, had 3 #1 hits and 14 top 10 hits. The only other white artist who made this R&B Top 17 list was Johnny Otis performing with (black) Little Esther in the #15 position.
Scaruffi writes that Sam Phillips "proceeded to market him (Elvis) as the juvenile delinquent that he was not."
It's true Elvis wasn't a juvenile delinquent. The rest is not true.
"One thing I always enjoyed about Sam (Phillips) is he would let the artists and the musicians do their thing. He didn't guide you in any direction." -- Scotty Moore, lead guitarist for Elvis.
"There never was anything false about him (Elvis)." -- Johnny Burnette, early rocker of such hits as Dreaming and You're Sixteen.
Scaruffi doesn't put Elvis on his list of influential artists.
Here are just some of the people who would disagree.
"Describe Elvis Presley? He was the greatest who ever was, is, or will ever be." -- Chuck Berry
"Elvis was God-given, there's no other explanation. A Messiah comes around every few thousand years, and Elvis was it this time." -- Little Richard
"Elvis had an influence on everybody with his musical approach. He broke the ice for all of us." -- Al Green
"Elvis was a giant and influenced everybody in the business." -- Isacc Hayes
"Almost every black solo entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis." -- Jackie Wilson
"His phraseology, his way of looking at a song was as unique as Sinatra's. I was a tremendous fan." -- B. B. King
"I wasn't just a fan, I was his brother... There'll never be another like that soul brother." -- James Brown
"When I first heard Elvis' voice, I just knew that I wasn't going to work for anybody, and nobody was going to be my boss. He is the deity supreme of rock and roll religion as it exists in today's form. Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail. I thank God for Elvis Presley." -- Bob Dylan
"Elvis is the best ever, the most original. He started the ball rolling for us all. He deserves the recognition." -- Jim Morrison
"No-one, but no-one, is his equal, or ever will be. He was, and is supreme." -- Mick Jagger
"Nothing really affected me until I heard Elvis. If there hadn't been an Elvis, there wouldn't have been the Beatles." -- John Lennon
"I don't think there is a musician today that hasn't been affected by Elvis' music. His definitive years, 1954-57, can only be described as rock's cornerstone." -- Brian Setzer
"Ask anyone. If it hadn't been for Elvis, I don't know where popular music would be. He was the one that started it all off, and he was definitely the start of it for me." -- Elton John
"That Elvis, man, he is all there is. There ain't no more. Everything starts and ends with him. He wrote the book." -- Bruce Springsteen
There's a drawing of Elvis Presley and his guitar in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and Museum that was drawn by a black 15-year-old in November 1957. He did it to commemorate a concert he attended two months earlier and to accompany a list he made at the concert of every song Elvis sang that night. That song list is in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and Museum too.
Elvis was the kid's idol: He used to imagine himself a rock and roller while practicing to Elvis's records, using a broom as a guitar. As an adult, he continued to revere Elvis: He credited a 1968 viewing of Elvis's movie King Creole with giving him the extra strength and inspiration he needed to further his own career.
His name is familiar to most fans of rock music... Jimi Hendrix.
"My favorite artists have always been Elvis and the Beatles and they still are!" -- Johnny Ramone