There is nothing I can write about Elvis that has not been written before. Discovered at Sun Studios in Memphis. Drafted into the army. A return home to a stalled career. B Grade Hollywood movies. Drugs. Excess. Weight gain. He dies all alone in his bathroom, in the middle of the night. Only 42 years old.
He never wrote his own music, but Elvis had the best voice in the history of rock and roll. He could sing anything, and he could sing it beautifully. Or with an edge. Or with a growl. Or with a nod and a wink.
There were great songs throughout Elvis’ career, but for the best of what he did I always return to “Trying to Get To You,” which he originally recorded in 1955 at Sun Studios during his very first sessions.
“Trying to Get to You” was originally released in 1954 by a group called The Eagles (no, not those Eagles.) The original version comes replete with horns and harmonies, and sounds prim and proper when compared to what Elvis would do with the song.
Elvis and Sun producer Sam Phillips turn this somewhat standard country western song into an Odyssey tale. We are walking with the guitar, loping along. Elvis starts the song with the plaintive statement.
“I’ve been travellin’ over mountains,
even through the valleys too.
I’ve been travelling night and day,
I’ve been running all the way,
Baby trying to get to you.”
At the chorus, Elvis breaks loose and sings about how happy he was to hear from the object of his affection, and be set free to travel. He walks over mountains, he runs through valleys…just trying to get back to you. He cannot be contained.
Elvis gave this song a wonderful performance in the Sun studios in 1955, but for the very best version of this song, I must go to Elvis’ famous 1968 comeback special, broadcast live on NBC. 13 years after he first recorded this song , Elvis once again surrounds himself with his original band of Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black on drums. They are sitting in a circle, playing the songs that made Elvis famous.
This 1968 performance is remarkable, because in a little over three minutes we see all the things that made Elvis great.
Elvis could sing. Elvis’ voice is deep and sensual. He goes from quiet to loud. He goes from narration to full throated singing. He goes from deep bass notes to high pitched squeaks. He goes from ballad to rock and roll. Every note is sincere, nothing is wasted.
As the guitar lopes along, his voice is draped in layers of lust and yearning. At the chorus, his search becomes earnest, almost frantic. He sings with the passion of a man on the edge, like his very life depends on finding the woman he loves.
Elvis could play the guitar. For Elvis, the guitar often seemed like a prop and nothing more. Though he will never be considered a virtuoso at the level of Chuck Berry, Jimmy Page, or Stevie Ray Vaughan, he is in full control of his instrument in this clip. He is playing lead, and barely even looks at the neck of his guitar as he puts everything else he has into the vocals. He always knows where he is, and he always knows where he is going.
Elvis could perform. He is connecting with the band. He is connecting with members of the audience. He can barely be contained. He wants to stand. He wants to swivel his hips. He wants to smash his guitar (but he never would). He seems barely in control, yet he is always in control. This is the pure essence of a masterful rock and roll performance.
After the 1968 special, there was hope that this would signal a return for Elvis to his roots. To the type of rock and roll that first made him famous, but sadly, no return would happen. He would go on to make more movies, and perform more bloated, schlocky concerts throughout the country.
Elvis is famous not because of the tragic trajectory of his career. He is famous because he was a brilliant artist and a brilliant performer, and that is never more evident than in this performance of “Trying to Get to You.”
“Trying to Get to You”
Written by McCoy, Singleton
Performed by Elvis Presley
Released August, 1956