Hail to the kings of rock and Bach

In 1977, Elvis Presley and organist E. Power Biggs died. I was a young teenager at the time and only just becoming aware of either one. My view of both musicians was influenced by my mother.

Mom had taken piano lessons in her youth, and she entered adulthood an accomplished pianist, always working up a Debussy piece as child-rearing allowed. She grew up during the Big Band era, but the musical recordings she acquired were nearly all classical.

A hi-fi stereo was deemed so important that my parents acquired one in the late 1960s. We played Broadway soundtracks and Mom's classical LPs till a family joke became singing the skips into the songs, as in: "Younger than springtime,

-ingtime, -ingtime...."

Contemporary music never resounded in our house until 1970, when my eldest brother made the parentally unauthorized purchase of his first 45 record, "Joy to the World," by Three Dog Night. Rock 'n' roll was there to stay - at least until we kids went to college.

Since Elvis Presley had begun his recording career in 1956 and ceased having big hits before 1970, his influence wasn't felt in our household. I was only vaguely aware of his music - mostly from TV commercials for anthologies in which shots of the King flashed in the background as his hits' titles scrolled past.

E. Power Biggs was better known to me because Mom was a fan. Once she had us all out of diapers, she took up the pipe organ. Many were the half hours we kids spent in church while she struggled with "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor." Mom found the organ terrifically difficult, but she practiced doggedly. E. Power Biggs, a Bach scholar and top-flight recording artist, was her big hero.

When she could wrest the hi-fi from her kids, she would put on "Biggs's Bach Book" and listen to how organ playing was meant to be done.

One August day in 1977, the headlines across the country were about Elvis Presley. Subsequent days' reporting expanded upon his life and death.

I had recently added reading front-page articles to my usual diet of the funnies. I stood, leaning over the kitchen counter, reading the paper one day while Mom did dishes.

"They're still talking about Elvis," I said. "He's been gone a week."

Mom pursed her lips.

"Do you know, E. Power Biggs died earlier this year, and there was nothing about him in the paper?" she said. "I mean, there was a true musician. This Elvis, what could he do - wiggle his hips? When all is said and done, he'll have been a mere flash in the pan. E. Power Biggs will be the one whom the world remembers."

As a typical adolescent, I didn't reply but filed away my mother's strong opinion to see how it would fit with my own experience.

As the years passed, I heard more of Elvis's songs. His harmonizing backup singers sounded hokey to my rock 'n' roll-accustomed ears, and his lyrics seemed embarrassingly cloying. But familiarity bred tolerance, even fondness. My friends and I made memories for which Elvis's music provided the soundtrack.

One friend laughingly recounted how her family was snowed in at a hotel en route to her grandmother's for Christmas. They spent Dec. 25 at the indoor pool with snow piling up outside. Since "Blue Christmas" was the only holiday record the hotel owned, they heard the King warble his Yuletide woes nonstop that day. I still smile to think of her sputtering as she imitated lonely Elvis and his languorous backup singers.

It's no use fighting Elvis. Like rock 'n' roll, he is here to stay. Acres of black velvet have been painted with his image, grown men love to impersonate him, and his music keeps coming over the radio.

Then, too, there is some ambiguity as to whether the King is really gone. The tabloids regularly report "sightings" of him all over the country in small-town laundromats or grocery stores.

I respect my mom and value her views, but if two decades are any indication of what history will remember, it seems she was wrong about the staying power of E. Power Biggs over Elvis.

Doubtless, organ connoisseurs besides Mom still relish their Biggs recordings, turning the bass up to catch the nuances of the master's pedal work. Perhaps they reminisce about the times they heard Biggs perform live on such-and-such cathedral's famous organ. Yes, E. Power Biggs will likely always have an elite following. But when was the last time he was sighted in the frozen-food aisle of a Piggly Wiggly?

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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