What if Elvis had never been born?

Rock'n'roll exploded into new life 50 years ago tomorrow, says Max Bell, when some hick recorded 'That's All Right' in Memphis, thereby detonating the Big Bang of post-war popular mass-culture. But...
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Two weeks after his discharge from the US Army in March 1960, Elvis Presley drove in a black limousine to RCA's Nashville Studio. The 24-year-old King of rock'n'roll was rid of his GI blues. He should have been a happy man. Instead, Elvis was wracked with doubts as he related a dream to his inner circle. In the dream his Graceland home was deserted, the grounds overgrown with Spanish moss. No fans waited at the gates. His mentor Colonel Tom Parker was no longer at his side. Worse than being alone was a feeling Elvis had: "Like I don't exist. Like I was never even born."

This was bad news for those who depended upon their million-dollars-a-year cash cow, the first rock star to be mass-marketed. If Elvis could deny his existence, where would this leave them? Presley's downbeat mood intensified during the following weeks of recording as he saw himself become an increasingly peripheral figure in rock'n'roll - a once vibrant performer now contracted to make three musical movies a year, movies so dumb even his producer, Felton Jarvis, reckoned the singer was sick of them. As Jarvis said: "It's hard to cut a hit record, and have to sing it to a chicken." Two live charity shows in 1961 aside, Presley didn't appear in public again until he hit Las Vegas in 1969. Gradually, as the culture he'd inspired frothed over in acid-coloured abandonment, his influence over it waned.

Maybe in 1960 he had the seven-year itch. On 5 July 1954 - 50 years ago tomorrow - Elvis Aron Presley, a shy, sandy, six-foot-tall 19-year-old from East Tupelo, Mississippi, walked into Sam Phillips's Sun Studio in Memphis wearing an aww-shucks grin and clutching a cheap acoustic guitar. His intention was to cut a couple of acetate demonstration records with recent acquaintances, the guitarist Scotty Moore and the stand-up bassist Bill Black.

After toying with covers of Leon Payne's country ballad "I Love You Because", and Bing Crosby's "Harbor Lights", Presley grabbed the microphone and began to mess around with a fast-shuffling version of "That's All Right", a bawdy blues written by Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup - a tune Presley may have heard at first hand while exploring the forbidden fruits of Memphis's Beale Street blues quarter. Phillips listened in fascination as the trio arrived at a place - a tempo, a feel - which "just popped into my mind". It was, said Presley, "just something I'd heard years ago".

Long before Elvis entered his life, Sam Phillips was telling folk that "if I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a million dollars". He was, he said, searching for "that certain something where the soul of man never dies". That July, as the tape reels began to turn, Presley might have been "just kidding around" but Phillips was drawing close to his Holy Grail. The producer wondered if the magic might dissipate. But the following day another ad-hoc romp, through Bill Monroe's bluegrass ballad "Blue Moon Of Kentucky", persuaded Phillips to switch the tapes on again. Adding some echo to the mix for good measure he muttered to himself: "Hell, that is different. Why, that's a pop song now, nearly about."

This very specific combination of R&B "race" music and hillbilly hick would serve as the "Elvis Presley" template, thereafter becoming a virtual shorthand for rock'n'roll as a viable commodity. This was to be no passing fad. But what would have happened if Elvis's courage had failed and he'd never paid Phillips that visit? What if Elvis had never existed at all?

Imagine there's no Elvis. Rock'n'roll historians correctly insist that those hot Sun recordings did not alone summon the birth of the new music - it was already crawling out of the swamps of America's deep south. There had been several rock'n'roll epiphanies before, involving such not-so-famous flames as Ike Turner, Big Joe Turner, Lloyd Price, Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, Hank Ballard and crooner Johnny Ray, the Nabob of Sob. Maybe so, but no one, not Chuck Berry - who broke the Tin Pan Alley mould by writing his own material - nor Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, nor Buddy Holly, not one of them hit with the singular, cross-cultural impact of this hillbilly "King of Western Bop", whose music Frank Sinatra considered "a rancid-smelling aphrodisiac ... the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my displeasure to hear".

How did the world look before Elvis? The pre-Presley landscapes of America and Britain shared a certain suburban sobriety. But whereas America had neon, the British take was black and white and steam-train grey. Post-war rationing only ceased in June 1954. Religious conservatism was everywhere - pop records as anodyne as "Crying in the Chapel" were banned by the BBC on spiritual grounds. The cities were bombsites and the sticks went on forever. Nascent teenage angst was summed up in John Paxton's 1953 screenplay for The Wild One, when waitress Mary Murphy turned to Marlon Brando's sullen, leather-clad biker and asked him "What are you rebelling against, Johnny?" His reply - "What have you got?" - was the question Elvis Presley answered.

Although it's impossible to answer the "what if Elvis had never been born?" question comprehensively - where would you start? Where do you stop? - it's certainly true to assert that, without the swivel-hipped white boy who started a riot in Jacksonville by telling his audience "Girls, I'll see y'all backstage", rock'n'roll would have struggled for a focal point. Perhaps, without him, it would have simply choogled along amiably and diffusely, on its various social and racial rails, until some other force entirely arrived at a later date to set off the Big Bang of post-war mass culture. It's important to note at this point that John Lennon was obsessed with the kid of whom James Brown said, "he taught white America to get down".

Once Lennon heard Presley's 1956 US number one hit "Heartbreak Hotel" crackling through the ether on Radio Luxembourg, he was only ever going to book in. Similarly, Lennon's sidekick Paul McCartney modelled his quiff on this southern star and pegged his pants Elvis-style, just-so. In Dartford a boy called Keith Richards was also tuned in. He would take Scotty Moore's solo on "I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone" as his model electric guitar style.

Context is everything in pop. Presley's landing coincided with a teen-led commercial revolution. There was already a new demand for the new-fangled 45rpm single, whose sales were outstripping the 78rpm disc by 1958. There were pop charts to pore over, juke boxes to gather around and, for Londoners, Soho clubs such as the 2i's and Studio 51. For obvious reasons Britain didn't get rock'n'roll like America did. Ripping up the seats in your local Gaumont during a Bill Haley film was no compensation for the fact that Elvis never played outside the States. By the time his recordings were officially available in the UK, beatnik-endorsed Trad jazz and DIY skiffle were ubiquitous, accompanied by rafts of wholesome male singers called Bobby, and pliant females who wanted to be "Bobby's Girl".

Nevertheless, even in a complete Elvis void the savage young Beatles would still have been immersed in the rock'n'roll of Little Richard and Jerry Lee. All we can say is that perhaps they'd have taken longer to lose their Lonnie Donegan skiffle sound and, more importantly, switch the electricity on. Bob Dylan, too, was nuts about Little Richard. However, it was Elvis's rockabilly that took him apart. Dylan compared "the country cat's" arrival to a jailbreak.

What else would have been different? Well, you can argue that an Elvis-less world would still have given rise to the camp narcissism of Mick Jagger and Robert Plant. They couldn't possibly have seen Elvis in his groin-grinding pomp, and instead must have stolen their strut from snippets of the TAMI Show or, in the Stones' case, from the black soul acts they'd encountered in the States, in particular James Brown.

Further down the chain of influence, elements of the hip-hop generation made a point of wishing Elvis had never been born. They saw him as a cultural larcenist and a racist. Public Enemy's Chuck D once sang "Elvis was a hero to millions, but he never meant shit to me", accusing the Tupelo Flash of gross bigotry. However Presley's alleged comment that "All Negroes can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my music" was strenuously denied when a black reporter from Jet magazine arrived on the set of Jailhouse Rock. "I never said that - and people who know me know I wouldn't say it," Elvis insisted. "People are people to me, regardless of race, colour or creed."

Whatever the truth of the matter, Presley remains the model of the racial ambiguity which has lent vital texture to pop since 1954. He was a hero to Jimi Hendrix, who had his own roots in Dixie. Hendrix dreamed about rock stars both black and white. In 1957 the teenage Jimmy had made drawings of "The King" in his school exercise book and memorised his songs. Later on, he was rather taken with BB King's description of him as "the black Elvis".

And yes, even that hard-nosed Soul Brother Number One, James Brown, loved Elvis - he was one of the few individuals permitted to view privately Elvis's corpse. Soul star Jackie Wilson was another fan. "They said he stole the man's music," Wilson mused. "But every black solo entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis." Elvis paid Wilson's medical bills when the singer suffered a stroke. Presumably a racist wouldn't have done that.

Yet Elvis's bad dream in 1960 had foundation in reality. His two-year spell in the army emasculated him as a teen idol. By the time the Beatles visited the King at his Bel Air palace in August, 1965, the singer was a victim of forces that made him, in several senses, untouchable. Sitting with the Fab Four in his romper room, a long awkward silence was only concluded when Elvis turned to his rivals and said: "If you guys are damn just gonna sit there and stare at me, I'm gonna go to bed." The ice was broken, but so was the mystique shattered. Following a listless jam session, Lennon told Elvis that "you should go back to making your old rock and roll records". Visibly annoyed Presley blamed his movie schedule. "My records have to be soundtracks. I might go back to making one of those old records soon, though." "Good! We'll buy that one then!" retorted John. Lennon later considered this summit of the gods to be "like meeting Engelbert Humperdinck", although he was sufficiently inspired to write "Nowhere Man" as a souvenir of the occasion. Then, a mere six years later, he recorded "God", in which he asserted "I don't believe in Jesus...I don't believe in Elvis". This was by no means sacrilege. In fact, taken in context, it represented a new orthodoxy. Long before Beatlemania took over the world, Elvis Presley was an anachronism.

Furthermore, not everyone demurred at the spectacle of a plasticised Elvis. Andy Warhol depicted him throughout the Fifties and Sixties as, variously, a golden boot, a red Elvis, a Campbell's Elvis, and a gun-toting Silver Elvis. He considered him the finest American rebel since James Dean and adored his movies for their "vacant, vacuous Hollywood" style. "They really don't have much to say; that's why they're so good," he simpered. In 1963, he "screen-tested" Dylan for a portrait and paid the snippy folk singer with a Silver Elvis, which Bob swapped for a sofa, having first used it as a dartboard.

The absence of Elvis as any kind of creative force was eventually rectified when he recorded some kicking country tunes with Jerry Reed in 1967, filmed his famous Singer/NBC TV special in 1968, and then returned to old Memphis roots at Chips Moman's American Studios in 1969. By providing invaluable source material for progressive country freaks Elvis would become some sort of a focal point again - but now for a twisted, self-consciously grainy Americana. Dylan and The Band were instrumental in re-illuminating Presley as an icon when they invested the concept of the glorious hillbilly while recording the backwoods-in-Bearsville Basement Tapes. The Band's volatile mentor Ronnie Hawkins turned them all on to the Sun Sessions, while drummer Levon Helm had little difficulty in persuading Dylan to jump on the mystery train to cover "I Forgot to Remember To Forget", "Milk Cow Boogie" and, inevitably, "That's All Right".

Presley's death on 16 August 1977 should have been his apotheosis. Except that the new punks in town weren't doffing any caps. The day after his demise, Johnny Rotten sneered that "Elvis represented everything we're trying to react against. He was a fat, rich, sick reclusive rock star who was dead before he died. His gut was so big it cast a shadow over rock'n'roll." Even John Lennon, his most high profile English acolyte, observed that "Elvis died when he went into the army". Ungrateful beasts.

But pop's flippant history machine has served Presley rather better. Today you could argue that he is the missing link between Bing and Bling. He is more Eminem than REM, a roustabout role model for anyone impressed with garishly knowing kitsch, not to mention the quasi-spiritual figure worshipped hieratically by Elvis imitators the world over. And Elvis certainly had intimations of his own mortality, long before his body was discovered in the Graceland bathroom beside Frank Adams's book, A Scientific Search For The Face Of Jesus and a pool of vomit that contained traces of eight different drugs, including morphine.

In 1967 he received a publicity puff from Cadillac, adapted from the pencil of the cracker-barrel philosopher Theodore F MacManus. Convinced that it summed up his own contribution, Elvis hung the text in his office, and required the Memphis Mafia to memorise it.

"In every field of human endeavour," MacManus wrote, "he that is first must perpetually live in the white light of publicity. Emulation and envy are ever at work. In art, literature, music, industry, the rewards and the punishment are always the same. The reward is widespread recognition; the punishment, fierce denial and detraction. When a man's work becomes a standard for the whole world, it also becomes a target for the shafts of the envious few. That which is good or great makes itself known, no matter how loud the clamour of denial. That which deserves to live, lives."

Let's put it another way, Theo: the King is dead - long live the King. Is that all right, mama? *

'Elvis at Sun' is reissued tomorrow