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Woster: 79 and still The King

By Terry Woster / Forum News Service

You know, if Elvis were alive today — and I know I’m showing a lack of appreciation for those who swear he is not only alive but also working as a lumberjack in northern Wisconsin — he’d be 79.

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The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll was born Jan. 8, 1935. I saw his birthday marked on the calendar next to the computer Nancy uses most, and I had to ask myself: If the guy were still around, would he be touring? Would he have a theater in Branson? A club near Memphis? Would he be playing casinos and county fairs? Would he be booked with Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard in an Oldies package tour?

Terry Woster Jerry Lee and Little Richard would open for Elvis, of course. The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll opens for no one. Besides, the other two guys would really warm up an audience. They were a couple of the craziest showmen in the music business back in the day, howling, honky-tonk piano playing wildcats who made nearly every other entertainer of the time, including Elvis Presley, look like a choir boy. Old Jerry Lee did that piano bench-kicking thing that drove the crowds wild (well, not the members of the crowd who were hit by the flying piano bench), and Little Richard was a rock ‘n’ roll maniac.

For many years when I reminisced about the early days of rock and remembered Little Richard’s antics onstage, I used the term outlandish. He wore some eye shadow and maybe lipstick. Was I ever an innocent. A good share of the pop music performers these days would look at Little Richard’s outfits and makeup and laugh. For sure, he wouldn’t stand out at the Grammy awards.

At the time, though, he was way out there. He was also black. Many of his songs didn’t really take off until Pat Boone with his white skin and carefully combed hair did covers of them and made them “safe” for teenagers to hear and enjoy.

I’ve always liked Pat Boone, and he did some great ballads. But he didn’t do justice to the songs of Little Richard. No one did, except Richard Wayne Penniman, who also will turn 79 this year. Jerry Lee hit 80 a year or two ago.

No one can cover the songs of Elvis Presley, either, not in a way that makes a child of the 1950s like me forget Elvis himself. Gosh, the guy could sing. My mom didn’t swoon over too many voices, and she swooned when Elvis sang. That says a lot, because she grew up listening to Irish tenors and big-band vocalists, and the big bands used to have some incredible vocalists.

Elvis wouldn’t have been much good as a big-band vocalist, stepping up for a number or two and then sitting back down quietly without so much as a hippy-hippy-shake. No way. Elvis was born to be out in front of the band. He was a consummate showman, a performer who played his audience as skillfully as he played that Gibson Super 400 electric guitar during the stage-in-the-round segment from the 1968 television comeback special.

He wasn’t an incredible musician, although he could hammer away some on a piano and make passable music on a guitar. What he had was confidence.

Scotty Moore was his lead player for years, and Scotty favored that Gibson Super 400. He was using it during the comeback special, in fact, when Elvis borrowed it. Now, most of us, if we were the singer and not the lead guitar player, would be ill at ease playing the lead player’s guitar. Elvis pulled it off as if he invented lead guitar and Scotty Moore was just some roadie hauling amps and lights and stuff, maybe tuning the superstar’s guitar.

If you are of a certain age, video clips of Elvis captivate you. If I channel-surf and find an “Aloha from Hawaii” replay, I drop into a chair and watch to the end. Can’t help it.

It’s just as well, I suppose, that the guy isn’t around to celebrate his 79th. I don’t think “Elvis: You’re-Only-as-Old-as-Your-Medicare-Card Tour” would be as captivating.

Woster writes for the Daily Republic of Mitchell, S.D., which is a part of Forum News Service.