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Barb Jungr - Love Me Tender - The Scotsman

01 June 2005
The Scotsman
Barb Jungr

LISTEN TO A LOT OF ELVIS PRESLEY'S music, and there comes a point when it starts to wash over you. You get inside it, start to really hear what he's doing, and you realise his singing has this extraordinary, effortless quality to it. Sometimes it's like listening to a stream of honey. It's a very smooth ride, the voice of Elvis Presley.

I don't think you focus on the words when he's singing. I think he's doing what bel canto singers do - you don't listen to the words, you listen to the voice. Presley doesn't give you character, he just gives you the beauty of his voice. When I say "just", that makes it sound as if he's denying you something else - he only gives you the beauty of his voice, but actually that's quite enough.

I don't remember exactly how old I was when I first heard an Elvis Presley song. It would have been before I was seven, though, because when I was seven my family moved to Stockport and I'm pretty sure I first heard Elvis on the radio in the back of my dad's car when we still lived in Rochdale. We lived in a street that looked much like Coronation Street used to - one of those little cobbled streets, two up two down. My dad used to take us out for a drive in his Morris Minor on Sunday afternoons, and I had this little radio that used to sit on my knee. We'd go out into the Pennines en route to Blackpool or Southport, but my Dad didn't like maps very much so we'd often get lost. I've associated Elvis with the Pennines ever since.

I may have started listening to Elvis at a very young age, but I never fancied him. You know that thing of people thinking Elvis was gorgeous? Well, that wasn't for me. My way into him has always been the voice. As I was growing up he was always on my radar, but I wouldn't say I was passionate about him from the year dot. I always thought he was great, I was always an admirer of his music, but I would never have described myself as a fan. It's a difficult word, "fan", because we tend to associate it with people who are frankly bonkers. I wasn't a fan. I was an admirer.

However, about two years ago this admiration became an obsession when I started doing research for my new record, Love Me Tender - a collection of Elvis-sung songs rearranged by Adrian York and Jonathan Cooper. My old friend Howard Thompson, the A&R legend, had nagged me endlessly to make this record, and then he made these cassettes for me to listen to - hours and hours of Elvis. He has an amazing record collection at his apartment in New York and I spent days there, wading through tribute collections and boxed sets and so-forth.

When you bathe yourself in a person's work - and biographers find this as well - you feel as if you connect with something in them. It's not like you know them, but you feel as if you make a connection, and through that connection you start to have insights that probably say as much about you as they say about the person. But you do feel that you have insights. Whether they're accurate or not maybe doesn't matter, but I feel that Elvis was tougher than people think. Sadder too. I feel very sad for that whole locked-in, over-eating, over-spending insane fantasy gone wrong. I feel very sad for that man. Who wouldn't?

But in a way that is what's so fascinating about Elvis Presley. First he is the American Dream, and then he is the American Dream going wrong, and that's what's so tragic. And in a sense it's that great tragedy that really makes the icon. Because who is it that the impersonators dress up as? They don't dress up as Elvis when he was young and beautiful and in control and alive and smiling and sneering and winking at the camera. They dress up as Elvis in his Las Vegas period, when it all got bulbous and the picture started to slide. It's the tragedy of Elvis's life that's so fascinating - I find it gripping.

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