Think of Elvis Presley and you could conjure any number of hyperboles: King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, the best-selling solo artist of all time, the granddaddy of cool. The Philly Pops agree. With the world premiere of “Elvis!: The King’s Songbook,” conductor Michael Krajewski is tapping Dave Bennett and Allison Blackwell to help him execute a tribute to the iconic legend with soul.
Bennett’s a clarinet master, killer crooner and Elvis superfan based in Michigan. He and Krajewski struck up inspiration in Houston, Texas, over breakfast. In under three hours they’d sketched out a set list.
“The approach we’re taking is a little different,” Bennett said, speaking emphatically about Presley’s magical recipe of creole, jazz, rockabilly and R&B. “One of the selections is ‘How Great Thou Art’ and we’ll give it a New Orleans, jazz and gospel feel. I’ll do a rock ‘n’ roll medley and I play piano and sing and give it a Jerry Lee Lewis style.”
America was introduced to Elvis by way of Memphis, Tennessee — the former home of Sun Records, where the holy trilogy of Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison recorded and gave Presley a run for his money. Orbison, in fact, was Elvis’ revered and respected contemporary according to Bennett.
The Big O didn’t hit No. 1 until 1961, though, while “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Hound Dog” and “Love Me Tender” topped the charts five years prior. What’s Bennett’s favorite Elvis era?
“My favorite era of his is 1954 to 1956 when he was 19 to 21 — he was purely going by instinct and he was revolutionizing music,” the clarinetist says, who himself picked up the woodwind by 10. But when he was in sixth grade he discovered a disc called “Elvis ‘56,” “I instantly fell in love with it and I had to teach myself to play guitar and sing. It was such infectious music.”
Many Elvis scholars and superfans would argue otherwise and cite his 1968 comeback TV special after making a slew of movies. He sat casually in the round, drenched in black leather, looking fit, oozing charm and catapulting himself back into the pop music zeitgeist. In it “they have a jam session and Elvis is playing electric guitar and they do an old R&B tune called ‘Baby, Tell Me What You Want Me To Do.’ It’s very rock ‘n’ roll and I thought ‘Wow, this guy’s a total rebel.’”
Though he worships the dawn of Elvis, Bennett does not disagree with the comeback as an awe-inspiring moment in time. “That passion and energy and just his voice. He had everything going for him — the looks, the talent — I don’t think anyone was cooler.”
Remember that adorable toddler that stole America’s viral heart belting out “American Trilogy” from her carseat? Seems like a perfect Elvis cut for the Pops and they’ll do that one, “Always on My Mind,” “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On,” “Love Me Tender,” “See See Rider” and a handful of blistering medleys. The encore’s a secret and it’s gonna be tough to keep for a month and a half.