By Gianna Volpe
If Elvis Presley lives, he’ll be in Sag Harbor this Saturday for a celebration of his 80th birthday that will surely blow any fan of Rock and Roll – “King” or not – right out of the water.
Two of the East End’s most beloved musical acts will take the stage at Bay Street Theater to pay tribute to a 20th century cultural giant who musician Gene Casey – who tops the bill alongside his Lone Sharks – claims to “think about everyday” in the leading song to his 2012 rockabilly record, “Untrained.”
“It’s not that I’m obsessed – or maybe just a little,” Mr. Casey sings in “I think about Elvis Everyday,” a song he said was borne from “one of those very absurd, funny things you find yourself saying in conversation” but one that is “very true” for the well-known local musician who keeps his Christmas lights lit through January 8 out of reverence for “The King.”
“Elvis is such a cultural icon because of what he did,” said the baritone vocalist. “He wasn’t conscious of it, but there’s something very pure about his original music because of a natural melding of influences that still resonates to today when people are mixing genres and being influenced by world music. Elvis was doing all of that quite naturally back in the ’50s without any kind of grand design. That’s just what he was.”
For Mr. Casey, this weekend’s show is not about paying tribute to a “King of Rock and Roll,” a misnomer the guitarist said is part of “the ridiculousness and absurdity about Elvis that people latch onto,” distorting the soulful superstar’s grandeur into a caricature of gyrations, glitter and misguided claims that the handsome young Hound Dog himself invented Rock and Roll.
“Elvis never claimed to be the ‘King of Rock and Roll’,” Mr. Casey explained. “He wasn’t trying to be that. He was trying to be an all-around entertainer; that was his ideal. He wasn’t hung up on Rock and Roll. He wanted to be a movie star; he wanted to sing all types of songs. What I actually think, my own personal take on what he actually brought to Pop music, was the notion that a white singer could be sensitive and sensual because before Elvis all the white entertainers just stood there staring straight into the camera holding the microphone. It was forbidden to move your body and the irony was that Elvis really got all that stuff – all those outrageous moves, all those gyrations and the expressiveness in his voice – he got that from Gospel music, which in the South was very, very fiery and very emotional. That’s really what Elvis loved; that’s who his models were as far as Rock and Roll. He wasn’t so much a Blues man, but he listened to Black Gospel very heavily and I think that’s what was really new about him. He was a white singer who was singing with this churchy feel.”
Unlike some of his contemporaries, who misappropriated works by black musicians – Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys was initially credited as the sole composer of his group’s first hit single “Surfin’ USA,” though the tune is actually Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” with different lyrics – Mr. Casey said Mr. Presley always gave credit where it was due.
“A lot of artists don’t have control over what name is put on a record label, but Elvis never had a problem with giving credit to anyone whether the artist was black or white,” Gene Casey said of this weekend’s rock idol of honor. “For a guy born in the Deep South in the ’30s he was pretty progressive. He had a great respect for black musicians. He was never derogatory…he was a sensitive, respectful person and his upbringing was very much about that. His mom really made him a well-mannered young man.”
For Jay Janoski, whose band The Vendettas will also perform at Bay Street’s Saturday night tribute show, it isn’t just Elvis’s “great voice and matchless stage presence” that made an impression on Mr. Janoski as a developing musician.
“His guitar player, Scotty Moore was hugely influential on every guitar player that I and many people my age listened to growing up, whether they are aware of it or not” said Mr. Janoski. “Clapton, Beck and Page – and later Mark Knopfler and countless others – were all fans and students of Scotty Moore’s guitar playing.”
Similar to Gene Casey’s appreciation of Elvis Presley is Mr. Janoski’s appreciation of Scotty Moore as musicians who both eclectically melded established genres while also bringing something entirely new to the table.
“Jazz, country and blues were all elements of his style,” Mr. Janoski said of Mr. Moore. “A record like ‘Hound Dog’ is a really early example of overdriven power chords, well before The Kinks. He also played with a lot of finesse. If the Punk DIY ethos stated, “Anyone can do this,” Maybe Elvis and Scotty Moore said, “You gotta work to get this good.”
Though Elvis himself may not actually be in the building this Saturday – conspiracy theorists will need to wait until 2027 for the unsealing of Mr. Presley’s autopsy report, which was ordered by and sealed by Elvis’s father for 50 years after his son’s death – both Gene Casey & The Lone Sharks and Jay Janoski & The Vendettas will absolutely be at Bay Street Theater this Saturday, Jan. 10, to perform at “Elvis 80: A Tribute to the King,” which begins at 8 p.m. Tickets can be purchased for $25 by calling the box office at 725-9500 or visiting www.baystreet.org