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This review is from: Elvis Presley - A Study in Music (Hardcover)
Published in 1979, Robert Matthew-Walker's book was, as far as I know, the first serious critical appraisal of the entire recorded output of Elvis Presley. As such, it is an important and valuable book, one that approaches its subject with sympathy and insight. Nearly 600 songs are put under the microsope, to illuminating effect.
It helps that the author is not an Elvis 'fan' as such, but rather a classically-trained musician with an interest in rock music. This knowledge allows him to point out things the layman simply wouldn't know. For example, who would've known that "the pull of conflicting harmonies gives 'Hound Dog' its aggressive qualities", or that Elvis sings 'A Mess of Blues' with "his tongue further back in his mouth" or that he produces a "dazzling top B flat" at the end of 'Surrender.'
These, and many other descriptions, all help to build up a picture of Presley as a singer of extraordinary versatility and interpretative skill. Pop, rock, ballads, country, soul, gospel and blues - these were all genres Elvis excelled in.
Matthew-Walker is particularly fond of the Blues and pays special attention to Elvis's 2 great Blues performances, 'Reconsider Baby' and 'Merry Christmas Baby', from 1960 and 1971 respectively. Of the former, he concludes "This track is a refutation of those who do not recognise what a phenomenal artist Elvis Presley was." And here he is on the latter - "almost any singer can SING, but only a handful can PERFORM, the Blues. It is clear that Presley was one of this handful. It is a tragedy he never recorded a Blues album."
Humour is evident in some of the passages too. Elvis's beautiful, haunting rendition of Bob Dylan's 'Tomorrow Is A Long Time' was buried away as a 'bonus track' on the 'Spinout' film soundtrack. It was, says Matthew-Walker, "like discovering a Mozart quartet beneath a pile of Austrian drinking songs."
He isn't afraid to be harsh when he needs to be either. The entire 11 song soundtrack of 'Roustabout' is dismissed in 15 merciless lines of prose.
If the book has a weakness, it's a tendency, at times, to place too much emphasis on the technical sound quality of the recordings. This was hardly Elvis's fault and doesn't need to be pointed out as often as it is.
The conclusion to 'A Study In Music' is superb - a compelling, persuasive argument for Elvis's genius, and his ability to transcend barriers of age, sex, class and race and move people by his music. Whenever I hear an Elvis song, I often find myself dipping back into this wonderful book to remind myself of what Robert Matthew-Walker thought of it.