The Eighth of January: Elvis, R. Kelly and a Union of Souls

Comedy Features

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.

On a cold and gray Chicago morning / A poor little baby child is born in the ghetto / And his mama cries.

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.

Cause if there’s one thing that she don’t need it’s another hungry mouth to feed / in the ghetto

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.

A hungry little boy with a runny nose plays in the street as the cold wind blows / In the ghetto.

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:

With the subinfluence of your decantate ruler (???), your flair for music, the arts, and dealing with money can often bring you success and fulfillment. Your enthusiasm for projects you love can be most impressive. This can help you overcome a sensitive nervousness or discontent that could attract you to destructive pastimes such as drugs and drinks and promiscuity.

Pros: refinement, hope, serious, responsible.
Cons: misuse of power, overly reserved, critical, abrupt, hidden enemies.

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.

My mama, she done told me, papa done told me too
“Son, that gal you’re foolin’ with
She ain’t no good for you”

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.

But, that’s all right, that’s all right.
That’s all right now, mama, anyway you do

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.

so show me some ID before I get knee deep into you
I don’t see nothing wrong with a little nothing wrong
with a little bump and grind.

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.

I’m standing here looking in the mirror
Saying “damn” to myself
I should have known the day would come
That she would find somebody else
And all the things I took her through
Shit, I shouldn’t have lasted this long
Now I’m at this telephone booth calling Tyrone

Cause when a woman’s fed up
There ain’t nothing you can do about it.

She was raised in Illinois
Right outside of Chicago
Some of the best cooking you had, yes it was
And I miss her
Hey woman if you’re listening
Said I miss you baby

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.

How did I ever let you slip away
Never knowing I’d be singing this song some day
And now I’m sinking, sinking to rise no more
Ever since you closed the door

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.

Wise men say only fools rush in
But I can’t help falling in love with you.

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.

It’s 2 am, I’m just getting in, about to check my message,
No one has called but my homies and some bill collectors.
I two-way her, she don’t hit me back, something is funny.

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.”

A little less conversation, a little more action please
All this aggravation ain’t satisfactioning me
A little more bite and a little less bark
A little less fight and a little more spark
Close your mouth and open up your heart and baby satisfy me
Satisfy me baby

14. “Ignition” (remix, 2003).

In the remix to “Ignition,” R. Kelly has left the building.

Girl we off in this jeep
Fogging windows up
Blasting the radio
In the back of my truck
Bouncing up and down
Stroke it round and round
To the remix
We just thuggin it out

15. “Blue Suede Shoes” (1956).
You can do anything but stay off of my “Blue Suede Shoes”
16. “Step in the Name of Love.” (2003).

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),

Come on back to me, little girl
So we can play some house.

18. Fifty years later R Kelly finishes with “Sex in the Kitchen” (2005).

Girl, you’re in the kitchen, cooking me a meal
Something makes me wanna come in there and get a feel.
Walk around in your t-shirt with nothing else on
Strutting pass, switchin’ that ass while I’m on the phone.
Cutting up tomatoes, fruits and vegetables and potatoes
Girl, you look so sexy while you’re doing the damn thing.

I want sex in the kitchen over by the stove.
I want put you on the counter by the buttered rolls
Hands on the table, on your tippy toes
We’ll be makin’ love like the restaurant was closed.

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).

Some of you all never been down South too much…
I’ gonna tell you a little story, so you’ll understand where I’m talking about
Down there we have a plant that grows out in the woods and the fields,
and it looks something like a turnip green.
Everybody calls it Polk salad. Now that’s Polk salad.
Used to know a girl that lived down there and
she’d go out in the evenings to pick a mess of it…
Carry it home and cook it for supper, ‘cause that’s about all they had to eat,
But they did all right.

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.

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