K. Young asks:
Who would you say is the most influential artist of all time? And who do you think is the most influential artist of this era?
The music industry has a long historical trajectory reaching back to when men pounded on logs in caves and other guys took chickens at the door. Prior to Edison's phonograph, saloon and vaudeville performers were the backbone of the music industry. Box office receipts and alcohol sales funded the process. The gold at the end of the rainbow was to discover and perform a "hit" song. The breeding ground for songwriters was a New York neighborhood called Tin Pan Alley.
All glory is fleeting and the hits come and go. The "best" is always a judgement call and it is directly related to the quality of the competiiton at any given time. In the late eighteen hundreds, if the great Lilly Langtree sang a hit song on stage, she could sell a lot of records in the form of sheet music. The phonograph changed the focal point from paper records to songs recorded on metal, then acetate tubes. Since the advent of the recording arts, technology has shifted the mechanics from fragile tubes to discs, tape and digital as the delivery system for popular music.
For more than a hundred years each succeeding generation has discovered, embraced, worshiped and adored one musical hero after another. The extant selection process is fueled by music, but it is also directly attached to sociatal evolution and cultural phenomena. Elvis emerged at a time in history when his sexuality was exquisite to teenage girls, and shockingly scary to their parents.
Elvis engaged a country caught up in a post war rewarding of itself that was laughingly called living the "American Dream," a responsibility almost everyone took quite seriously. After the Korean war the beat generation carved an alternative to the cookie cutter lifestyle in the dream. Rebellion was already in the air, in 1955, when James Dean turned it into a right of passage in "Rebel Without A Cause." Three movies later the rebel lay dead in a smoking Porsche Spyder.
Into that vacant spotlight stepped The Hillbilly Cat. Elvis, armed with beauty, charisma and Rock & Roll music, was rocketing to the top of the Rackabilly movement sweeping across the South. Despite his warm and easy way, he was instantly perceived as the quinessential bad boy by fans and media alike. To a genreration of rebels without a leader he became the universal sex symbol.
The girls loved Elvis so much that the boys were afraid to object and loved him too. The string of hit records and movies that followed, in the latter 50s and early 60s, firmly established him as the greatest entertainer of all time. He brought the most hits to the most stages, in front of the most people, for a longer period of time than any other superstar attraction. He inspired generations of musicians who emulated his style, copied his moves and evolved his legacy as The King of Rock & Roll.
There were many other players in the race, including Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis. The marriage of gospel music and the blues owes its glory to the originators, Little Richard, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry, but it was Elvis who caught the wave. As the perennial highest earning deceased person, Presley exemplifies his manager Colonol Tom Parker's old axiom: "The object of personal managment is to build duration into the act."
Elvis' memory is a living testimony to the impact he had on his ever loyal fans. Their devotion is expressed in almost religious fashion on all the appropriate occasions. The Beatles, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Michael Jackson, Tupac Shakur and others have achieved extraordinary success and they share status in the pantheon of stars. I have not seen the next contender.
In this age of TV and movie induced "celebrity" fame and fortune are no guages of talent. However, in general the biggest stars have the most skills, and recqusite ingredients, in the right balance at the right time. Even then luck has a lot to do with it. Every great artist influences those who follow him. If it has a beat and you can dance to it, it was influenced by Elvis Presley.