RADIO : The original own brand triumphs

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The Independent Culture
JOURNALISM is pretty ephemeral. This paper may be pulped, or burned, or it just might line a birdcage; these days it is unlikely even to wrap chips. But now and again journalists' remarks live on to haunt them. Does Steve Race, the elderly, equable music-show host, regret his furious fulminations which appeared in Melody Maker in the mid-Fifties? We faced, he said a "monstrous threat" and must "oppose it to the end". It might have been nuclear warfare he was resisting, but no, it was Elvis.

The King would have been 60 last Sunday, and Radio 1 devoted to him the first of its series Mavericks. Samuel A Maverick was a civil engineer who owned unbranded cattle in Texas in the 1850s. His name attached itself to his unclassified beasts, and it's

a good one for Elvis. He was the original Own Brand, a white man with a black voice and unique style. Sam Phillips of Sun Records heard him in 1954. "I detected something in his voice and . . . demeanour . . . that I thought was innate," he said with theproud emphasis of hindsight. That demeanour gave Geneva Holcombe her moment of fame too. She watched him gyrate in a small town in Mississippi, very early on. She thought he would lose his trousers. So did he? "He said, `If these pants come off, you're payin' double', and we booed him. We booed Elvis Presley." She's clearly been telling that story for 40 years.

It was a familiar, sad parable Mark Radcliffe narrated, of an innocent, polite boy who was taken up by businessmen and milked for all he was worth - which was a great deal. John Len- non's famous remark - that Presley died when he went into the army - had a certain truth, but he was back from military service when he made "Are You Lonesome Tonight?", recorded in a darkened studio at 3am, and it was as good as anything he ever did. But the most memorable moment in a strong, touching documentary, came near the beginning when, very young, shy, and completely unknown, he nerved himself to walk into Sun Records asking to make a $3 record for his mother's birthday.

Radio 2 put his achievements into context. Charley Taylor had the great idea of asking listeners to contribute to a birthday programme in which they remembered the impact made by a particular song. He and Celia Toynbee produced a gem. All over the country they went, discovering what Elvis meant to ordinary people. The result was Elvis on my Mind, a subtle kind of request show that made others look tawdry.

There was a boy who took his cousin's record into primary school, on one of those silly days when a teacher decides to give his class a treat and let them play their favourite tunes. A long string of teddy bears' picnics and Billy Beans had dulled his wits, but they sharpened up when "Jailhouse Rock" blasted out, to the everlasting glory of the perpetrator. There was the girl who sat through "Loving You" six times with her boyfriend, who wasn't allowed to speak. Donkey's years later, he was still furiously jealous, and she resented the fact that he had defaced her album cover, drawing an arrow through her hero's head.

Then there was the soft- spoken Welsh woman, whose unconscious lyricism rang out like the bells at her wedding - "one of the seven wonders of Wales, those bells" - and whose memories of her husband were illuminated by her having achieved the playing of "How Great Thou Art" during another radio request show, on the last birthday of his life. The oddest was a woman who had once bought and treasured a pair of yellow suede shoes that actually fitted her. "I had large feet," she said, adding mysteriously, "all my generation had". Elvis got the colour wrong, but every thing else was just perfect.

Roy Hattersley had a pair of crepe-soled shoes in the Fifties, which is a challenge to the imagination. It was one of the secrets of his youth that he shared with us on Monday in Who Goes Home (R4), random jottings from a Labour-party upbringing. Inters p ersed with snippets of tremulous, indecipherable hymns and a miner recalling "tramming in Number One Pit Bottom", it was a rigorous way to start the week, particularly when he said that Sock Shop was affiliated to a Communist Front organisation. It took

a few moments to realise that he really said Soc Soc, the university Socialist Society. His parents were strict: the only parties he remembered celebrated the introduction of the NHS and the independence of India. His generation was the first to enjoy rock'n'roll, but he seems not to have noticed.