Yesterday, driving my daughter to her soccer game, I found myself trying to explain Elvis. This isn’t easy. There is the 1950s fireball, who melded R&B and country and CFM sexuality, and changed everything. There is the long decline into bloated, jump-suited, self-parody. There is the piratical “Colonel” Tom Parker, who both made Elvis a star and robbed him blind. There are the good movies, and all the terrible ones. An extraordinary talent, often squandered.
Personally, I was not there until the dismal end. By the time I was old enough to be aware of Elvis, he was well into his deep-fried-peanut-butter-sandwich period, and then he was dead, and “Elvis” became a pastiche: sideburns and sunglasses and loopy conspiracy theories. I had to rediscover Elvis by putting aside prejudice, just listen, and look for the good and forgive the dross.
A girl called Betty did. She once owned this EP, and cared enough about it to put her name on the label. And she must have played this record a lot. The whole thing is worn, but by far the most worn is the title track. The crackle and pop shows that this is the song Betty really loved.
In the long history of sentimental popular songs, there can be few challengers to “Old Shep” as the most lachrymose and over-the-top of them all. A man sings of his dog, the friend and companion of his youth, who rescued him from drowning, and who finally passed on to (a prickly theological point this) wherever it is that “good doggies go”. And somehow, this slop succeeds. Elvis sings with conviction. You believe him. Clearly Betty did.
This EP came out in 1956, but many years earlier “Old Shep” had provided Elvis with his first public success as a singer. As a boy he entered a junior talent show, and sang this song, and came first. He won five dollars. Colonel Parker was not yet on the scene, which is just as well – Parker would have taken a cut of $4.50.
- Artist: Elvis Presley
- EP Title: Old Shep
- Side 1, Track 1: “Old Shep”
- Format: 7” EP 45 rpm
- Label: RCA 20044
- Manufactured in: Australia
- Year: 1956
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