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January 8: Elvis

January 8, 2011

220px-Elvis_presleyElvis Presley was born on this date in 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi. He had a Jewish great-great-grandmother who fostered a daughter-to-daughter-to daughter-to- Elvis line, so by traditional reckoning (never mind that he was raised in the Assembly of God church), Elvis could be considered Jewish (as long as he didn’t apply for Israeli citizenship). Elvis did engrave a Jewish star on the headstone of his mother Gladys when she died in 1959, and he was photographed wearing a “chai” symbol while performing in 1972. Kibitzing aside, many of Elvis’ hits were written by Jews, including “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and almost two dozen other songs by Leiber and Stoller; fifteen songs by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman (including “Little Sister” and “Viva Las Vegas”); and more than fifty songs by Ben Weisman. Leonard Bernstein described Elvis as “the greatest cultural force in the 20th century,” and Bob Dylan said hearing Elvis’ music for the first time was “like busting out of jail.”

“In between the takes . . . [Elvis] was playing his guitar next to the piano. And we sat down, and started playing the blues with him. And Elvis looked up and said, ‘Who are you?’ I said my name is Ben Weisman. He said, ‘Wait a minute, didn’t you write a song called ‘Got a Lot of Living to Do’?’ He says, ‘Hold it Ben.’ And he got his musicians together, and they recorded the song right on the spot.” —Ben Weisman