Elvis: a musical genius or _____ ?

On my satellite radio (and probably yours, too), there is a channel that plays Elvis 24/7-- Elvis songs, Elvis shows, interviews with people who love Elvis, on and on. Over time, I find myself listening to this channel more and more because, frankly, it’s got good content. For somebody like me (who wasn’t alive when he was), it’s kind of astonishing how varied, huge, and consistently decent the Elvis catalog is. Elvis’ live performances, of course, remain some of the most famous in music history.

But that brings me to the question: was Elvis the musical genius that the interviewers on the Elvis channel make him out to be or was he just a guy who was perhaps revolutionary in his field, handsome, and lucky? Of course, there’s the whole excluded middle, too. Frankly, I see points for both arguments, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

He sure as hell wasn’t a hack.

I’m going to say “genius,” not so much in an intellectual sense, but in a more abstract sense of an utterly original and fearless innovator.

He was also a legitimately great pure singer. There was nothing bullshit about his pipes. No autotune back then.


Elvis had great pipes and could wrap them around a slow gospel number or love ballad, or a snarly uptempo rocker. A vocal genius…

He was an above average singer and entertainer. Neither genius nor hack.

And he was lucky to have been born at the time we needed a singer like him.

He was a fine singer, but his face and grace were the more important elements. He could move in a completely natural and completely non-effeminate way. Pretty rare in a white guy.

I see Chuck Berry as a genius, and Elvis as a icon.

I voted ‘Other’. He was lucky, but he wasn’t a hack. He was a very talented singer and entertainer who happened to be in the right place at the right time for lightning to strike. If it hadn’t been him, it would have been somebody else…
…or maybe it would have been nobody…

Hugely charismatic performer in the right place at the right time.

Genius or not, he inspired thousands of kids who would go on to make rock and roll a cultural (and economic) force.

Incredibly talented vocalist and super handsome. Couldn’t write a song to save his life, but knew how to improve a song, at least in the early years.

I think he had great musical instincts, but I can’t stand most of his output during the 60s and 70s. The latter decade in particular just REEKED of schmaltz.

He was an excellent singer with a unique style, great stage presence, and maybe some genius in the field of showmanship. (He knew how to work a crowd.)

A great singer and performer who woud have been successful whenever and wherever he’d emerged, but made it REALLY big because he was the first white guy who could perform black people’s music in a era when segregation created a huge pent-up demand for it.

This was in part because his family was so dirt poor that they could only afford to live in black neighborhoods, and in part because he had a lot of natural talent (the fact that he wasn’t a songwriter doesn’t mean he had no talent - neither were Sinatra or Streisand). He also worked really hard for a long time: the popularly understood history of his life - that he was a happy-go-lucky overnight success - was created to sell him to American audiences who prefer that story to tales of artsy suffering.

The crappy material he put out later was mostly the result of some bad career advice from “Colonel” Tom Parker (I need here a link to that current thread about people who are pure evil).

I voted “Other”, since I’m not qualified to assess musical “genius”. I do think that calling anyone with very evident talent a “hack” is unfair, though. I’d have chosen “talented performer who caught some good breaks” if that had been an option.

A mesmerizing performer.

“Musical genius” implies the creation of music. Chuck Berry fits that description far better than Elvis.

This sums things up nicely to my thinking, too.

Lucky with the looks, energy, performance and business talent to take advantage of that luck

I voted “other.” Definitely not a hack. No way in hell. An argument can be made that he was a certain kind of genius. He did have impeccable rhythm and timing, great stage presence, and an artful, soulful vocal styling. Granted, I grew up with my mom playing Elvis records almost non-stop, but his voice carried so much emotion, he could really sell a song. I would not argue with anyone saying he was a genius for that alone.

Great voice with great looks and charm singing great songs that other people wrote or helped him write. Not a musical genius but not just lucky. He had “it.”

I think he was also gutsy to do “black music” and run with it. Granted some might say he stole/appropriated black music but he wasn’t making boring safe music for white kids yet all the white kids were into it.

He was a good performer with some great original ideas for a bricolage of country blues, country western, and crooner pop…until he went into the Army. Then he was just an elevated version of the kids they hire to work summer stock at theme parks.

Never quite a genius even at his best, something of a hack from 1960 to 1968, a talented but unoriginal performer thereafter.

Other. Elvis was a talented vocalist and a gifted performer who popped up in the right place and right time. Much like the Beatles, Elvis just got a good dose of lucky confluences coupled with talent.

I vote for genius. Who else could sing “a hunka, hunka burning love” and get away with it?

I object, due to the need for Johnnie Johnson in that statement.

I say Elvis had a musical genius, not that he was one. He wasn’t a writer, or a great guitarist. But he had a genius on how to serve a song, and that was his. Something more than mere charisma.

Two things of note:
Man grew up listening to a very young Riley ‘Beale Street Blues Boy’ King play, and it was the Army that killed him. He got addicted to amphetamines there, and in his mind, if they gave it to you in the Army it had to be healthy. The rest followed in a horrible and slow car-crash.