American icon still shakes up
students of music and culture
by Rebecca Arrington
Presley is a lens through which we can look at large musical
and cultural forces, says music professor and composer
Stephan Prock, who teaches a course on the late, great entertainer,
dead 25 years come Aug. 16.
By Lee Graves
years after his death, Elvis Presley still projects a riveting
presence on the stage of American culture. Whether in tabloid
headlines, sequined impersonators or recycled hits, the King commands
an image-laden culture, hes the quintessential American
image, says Stephan Prock, a lecturer and composer at U.Va.
teaches a course on the King called All Shook Up: Elvis
in American Culture. It examines the life, times, music
and legacy of Presley and how they provide insights into the national
25th anniversary of Presleys death on Aug. 16 gives Procks
course special meaning and appeal this year. I have a lot
of kids signed up, the most ever for a summer course.
drawing power of Presley also is being felt on the music charts
this summer. According to Billboard magazine, A Little Less
Conversation, a refurbished Elvis song, became the No. 1
single in the United States on its sales charts in early July.
The same tune had been No. 1 in England for weeks.
suspects some students enrolled in his course thinking it would
be no more demanding than a pop quiz. But All Shook Up
takes an in-depth look at the conflicts that existed in the 1950s
and how Presley embodied and exposed them. The country was yearning
for a sense of stability in the wake of World War II, but the
racial and sexual tensions that simmered in society bubbled to
the surface in Presleys performances and recordings.
is a lens through which we can look at large musical and cultural
forces, Prock said.
Presley merged black and white influences by blending gospel and
blues with the country sounds of the Carter family and others.
The success of his early songs, beginning with his 1954 cover
version of Arthur Big Boy Crudups Thats
All Right, Mama, challenged the racial divide by bringing
black music to white kids.
white parents found their kids acting black, it was
very disturbing, Prock said. Presley was proving that
what were perceived to be rigid racial boundaries were societal
tensions flared in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, just
as Presleys hip-gyrating sexuality challenged the mores
of the 50s and presaged the free love to follow.
sees Presley as the embodiment of many contradictions white
and black, wild child and mamas boy, poor rural Southerner
and Hollywood multimillionaire.
Thats part of the appeal of Elvis. So much of what
Elvis is, is so malleable. Elvis can mean so many different things
to people, Prock said. No matter what you think about
Elvis, everyone has an opinion.
addition to broad issues, Procks course looks at detailed
moments in the Presley saga. Such as the 30-plus takes required
to record Hound Dog (Presley, a perfectionist, kept
pushing when others wanted to stop at No. 26). Such as Sam Phillips,
the genius of Sun Studio, picking up on some noodling Presley
did in the studio to hear the hook for a song.
then there are the movies. Prock is including Jailhouse
Rock and Viva Las Vegas from among Presleys
33 movies to study in this summers session.
divides the course into three periods with a coda
the 50s, the 60s up to Presleys historic
comeback performance in 1968, the years leading to his death in
1977, then the aftermath and his importance as an iconic figure
started the course five years ago as an outgrowth of his own fascination
with Presley. Born in Cleveland, Prock grew up in Mobile, Ala.,
listening to the radio, singing in Baptist churches and absorbing
some of the same roots that influenced Presley.
Prock, however, those led to a more classical path. In addition
to lecturing in U.Va.s music department, he directs the
Universitys New Music Ensemble and composes soundtracks
and classical scores.
he treats the subject of Presley seriously, Prock keeps the classes
lively with his animated lectures. That, too, has a tie to the
a side of Elvis thats not so serious, an element of crazy
fun. And thats a part of the American character as well.