On January 8th, 1969, Elvis Presley celebrated his 34rd birthday at his Graceland mansion. As blue candles formed a heart shape atop a red velvet cake, Elvis counted his blessings. He had now outlived his fellow capricorn Jesus of Nazareth, and in the previous month had seen his own career resurrected in the ‘68 Comeback Special. It was his first birthday as a father. His daughter Lisa Marie was born exactly nine months after his marriage to the virgin Priscilla. But it had been six years since his last #1 hit, and on television the King was sweating bullocks in his black leather suit.
Well past noon on MLK’s birthday, January 15th, Elvis rose from his nine-foot bed and headed down to the kitchen. His usual breakfast was awaiting him: a pound of bacon, a dozen eggs, and a can of buttermilk biscuits. But The King had no appetite. He pushed the plate away and took a long sip of strawberry soda. He must make a decision about the song, “In the Ghetto” by Mac Davis. Some in his circle did not want him to record it. Too political, especially the subtitle, “the vicious cycle.” The afternoon news paid tribute to Martin Luther King, who was murdered nine months earlier in Memphis, Tennessee. The King is Dead. Long Live the King.
Elvis rose from the table and practiced a karate move. Now was not the time to shoot out a television set. Across the table the bacon was now cold and slimy. Why did he eat so much? From whence came the hunger? Though blessed with blue eyes and blond hair (that he later dyed black), he too had been that boy, the boy in the ghetto. When his father served eight months in prison for forgery, his family lost their home. The cycle was vicious, eternal. The few would make it; the many would not.
Elvis studied his diamond-encrusted gold pinky ring. When he ran his fingers through his slick, pomaded locks, his hands smelled noticeably of frankincense. “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy” (Matthew 2:10). The King then knew that he must record “In the Ghetto” and make pilgrimage to the birth city of Robert Sylvester Kelly—born two years earlier, in Chicago, on the same day as Elvis Aaron Presley.
“I haven’t studied Elvis,” R Kelly says, “but I’ve followed enough interviews and documentaries of him to know. And I see parallels.”
In the case of Elvis and R. Kelly, astrology is destiny. The authors of The Power of Birthdays, Stars, and Numbers, Saffi Crawford and Geraldine Sullivan have a message for all souls born on January 8:
The Eighth of January playlist features the King and the Pied Piper, angels and demons in disguise: R. Kelly in his mask, the King in his sideburns and sunglasses. We will begin with the songs that made them.
1.“That’s All Right” (1954)
When DJ Dewey Phillips debuted Elvis’s first single, the phone rang so much that Phillips played the record on repeat for the show’s remainder. Later that night, in an on-air interview, Phillips asked where Elvis went to high school. “Humes,” Elvis said. Humes, of course, was segregated white. The fans now knew his race. His pelvis remained unknown.
In the song, both parents express disapproval of their son’s romantic attachments. There is, of course, no parental guidance in the music of R. Kelly. In 1946, the song was first recorded by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, who received a $60,000 royalty check, ten years later.
Both Elvis and R. Kelly had doting mothers who died prematurely. On special occasions, R. Kelly’s mother would take him to McDonald’s for breakfast. They had enough money for one danish and coffee. “She wore this cheap red lipstick, and when she tasted her coffee, she left a red mark on the cup. She always asked me if I wanted a sip, and I always did. And because I loved my mother so much, I always turned to where she had left that red mark. I liked to drink from the same spot where she drank.”
2. “Bump n’ Grind (Old School Mix)” (1994)
R. Kelly’s first number one hit begins with a foot massage before progressing to a checking of ID.
The softer remix establishes R.Kelly’s pattern of harmonizing with himself. Imagine R. Kelly alone in his study with keyboard and drum machine. In R. Kelly’s words, “it’s Baby Making Music.”
Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number was the title of Aaliyah’s first album, produced by R. Kelly. She was 15 when they married in a secret ceremony. Several months later, the marriage was quickly annulled. Age is more than a number in the state of Illinois. You must be sixteen to marry and have parental consent.
3. Your letters are marked “Return to Sender” (1962),
4. “When a Woman’s Fed Up” (1997). In such circumstances, there’s only one recourse: Call Tyrone.
5. The King is a hunka-hunka “Burning Love” (1972),
6. But R. Kelly will “Strip for You” (2000). Tonight I’m gonna pull a switch-eroo. Do you mind if I strip for you?
In R. Kelly’s own words, “I had to flip it. So on ‘Strip for You,’ instead of a girl stripping for me, I pulled a swith-eroo. I say, ‘I’mma strip for you.’”
7. “In the Ghe-tto” (1969).
8. “Gotham City” (remix) for the Ghe-tto (1997). In this masterpiece, R. Kelly has no money, no friends, no clothes, no food, no shoes. He is so down and out, he just barely has a used Cadillac.
The song was produced for Batman and Robin, and in the video R. Kelly gets to push a ride that looks more like a used Cadillac than a Batmobile.
9. “If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time” is a poignant tale of romantic regret.
The video features R. Kelly writing beautiful calligraphy. Some of the most powerful scenes of his autobiography Soulacoaster recount his struggles with dyslexia:
“I’ve been very honest about my inability to read words like normal people. I simply don’t see words, I see music.”
The video is a glorious marriage of pride and synesthesia. In the beginning R. Kelly’s lover dumps a drawer filled with photos off a bridge, which at the video’s end appear as a mosaic of R. Kelly’s face.
10. “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” (1961).
The song’s melody comes from an 18th century French classic “Plaisir d’amour,” which Elvis plays on a music box along with accompanying vocals in the film Blue Hawaii.
11. “Love Me Tender” (1956)
12. Because there is only “One Me” (2000).
“Love Me Tender” is the title song to Elvis’s film debut. It is a religious song, in tone and content. To find yourself you must lose yourself, and here Elvis shines the light on his beloved. “One Me,” on the other hand, is a love song about R Kelly. If you open the dictionary and look under “love,” he swears you’re going to find his face. (I guess the greatest genius of our time uses a picture dictionary).
But when you sing along, you are R. Kelly. I’m a winner, I’m a winner, I’m a winner, I’m a winner in bed (yes I am.) Go to dinner, Go to dinner, Go to dinner. I eat my dinner in bed (yes I do).
13. “Suspicious Minds” (1969) was Elvis’s last #1 hit, recorded a few days after “In the Ghetto.” A dead link on Wikipedia contains this gem of a fact: “Session producer Felton Jarvis made the unusual decision to add a premature fade-out to the song starting at 3:36, mirroring the way Presley used to perform it in his live Las Vegas stage act. This fade-out lasts for about 15 seconds before fading back in, conveying a message of relationship in the song.”
14. “Contagious” is the second of many R. Kelly duets with Ronald Isley, all of which involve R. Kelly sleeping with Mr. Biggs’ girl.
In the video for the first duet, “Down Low, Nobody Has to Know,” Mr. Biggs leaves R. Kelly for dead in the desert before the lovers are reunited in the hospital—R. Kelly in a wheelchair and Lila on a respirator. When R. Kelly confesses his love, she flatlines.
13. “A Little Less Conversation” (JXL remix) (2002)
Also written by Mac Davis, the remix to “A Little Less Conversation” was a #1 hit in the UK. During the filming of Live a Little, Love a Little, in which the song originally appears, Elvis witnessed MLK’s funeral. “We watched the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. together over lunch in his trailer,”says co-star Celeste Yarnall. “He cried. He really cared deeply.”
14. “Ignition” (remix, 2003).
In the remix to “Ignition,” R. Kelly has left the building.
You’ve got to understand, stepping is not just a dance, it’s a culture, it’s what we eat, drink, and breathe.
17. What Elvis started with “Baby Let’s Play House” (1955),
18. Fifty years later R Kelly finishes with “Sex in the Kitchen” (2005).
The uploader of this live version warns you not to let R. Kelly in your kitchen.
19. In the kitchen, you may find “Polk Salad Annie” (1970),
20. dancing with the “Happy People” (2004).
R. Kelly, of course, finds comfort food at McDonald’s. It reminds him of his mother and simpler times. When the lighting was wrong during his tour with Jay Z, R. Kelly left the arena in St. Louis and drove straight to McDonald’s. “But this time, I didn’t go to eat. Instead I asked the guy working the drive-thru window if I could borrow his cap and uniform, and for the next three hours, I served Big Macs, fries, and Cokes to customers.”
Anything to keep the people happy.
This playlist could go on for days. We could include Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone,” a song produced by R. Kelly whose video includes Lisa Marie Presley. Or Elvis’s version of “Unchained Melody,” the last song he performed. What would an R. Kelly playlist be without Trapped in the Closet?
In 1977, when Elvis passed, there were 170 Elvis impersonators. Today, there are over 85,000. If this rate of growth continues, in 2040, a third of the world’s population will be Elvis impersonators.
The Eighth of January. The King and the Pied Piper. Their seriousness we find amusing, and yet they too can laugh at themselves. As Kelly says, “If a joke is funny, I don’t care if it’s about me or if it’s about Gumby, I’m gonna laugh at it, because I’m a joker, too. We all got our day to be roasted.”
Spenser Simrill, Jr. teaches English and film at the University of Georgia.