100 Greatest Singers
January 8th, 1935 (died August 16th, 1977)
Key Tracks "Mystery Train," "Hound Dog," "Suspicious Minds"
Influenced Bono, Bruce Springsteen
There is a difference between people who sing and those who take that voice to another, otherworldly place, who create a euphoria within themselves. It's transfiguration. I know about that. And having met Elvis, I know he was a transformer.
The first Elvis song I heard was "Hound Dog." I wasn't equipped with any of the knowledge I have now, about the Big Mama Thornton version or where all that swing was coming from. I just heard this voice, and it was absolutely, totally in its own place. The voice was confident, insinuating and taking no prisoners. He had those great whoops and diving moments, those sustains that swoop down to the note like a bird of prey. I took all that in. You can hear that all over Led Zeppelin.
When I met Elvis with Zeppelin, after one of his concerts in the early Seventies, I sized him up. He wasn't quite as tall as me. But he had a singer's build. He had a good chest — that resonator. And he was driven. "Anyway You Want Me" is one of the most moving vocal performances I've ever heard. There is no touching "Jailhouse Rock" and the stuff recorded at the King Creole sessions. I can study the Sun sessions as a middle-aged guy looking back at a bloke's career and go, "Wow, what a great way to start." But I liked the modernity of the RCA stuff. "I Need Your Love Tonight" and "A Big Hunk o' Love" were so powerful — those sessions sounded like the greatest place to be on the planet.
At that meeting, Jimmy Page joked with Elvis that we never soundchecked — but if we did, all I wanted to do was sing Elvis songs. Elvis thought that was funny and asked me, "Which songs do you sing?" I told him I liked the ones with all the moods, like that great country song "Love Me" — "Treat me like a fool/Treat me mean and cruel/But love me." So when we were leaving, after a most illuminating and funny 90 minutes with the guy, I was walking down the corridor. He swung 'round the door frame, looking quite pleased with himself, and started singing that song: "Treat me like a fool. . . ." I turned around and did Elvis right back at him. We stood there, singing to each other.
By then, because of the forces around him, it was difficult for him to stretch out with more contemporary songwriters. When he died, he was 42. I'm 18 years older than that now. But he didn't have many fresh liaisons to draw on — his old pals weren't going to bring him the new gospel. I know he wanted to express more. But what he did was he made it possible for me, as a singer, to become otherworldly.