The Visual Genius of Elvis and Bowie

January 8 looms large in the history of rock. On this day in 1935, Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi. Twelve years later, David Bowie entered the world in London. Elvis would not live to see his 43rd birthday. David Bowie almost made it to 70. These two giants of rock and roll share more than birthdays and influential musical careers. They also appreciated the power of visual storytelling long before the age of Instagram.

Before he became the king of rock and roll, Elvis wanted to be in the movies. And when he became a rock star, he got his wish. Sadly, most of his films became a blot on his career thanks to the money-grubbing instincts of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and Elvis’s overly deferential attitude. But his appreciation of the power of movies made a positive impact on his career in a crucial way: as a teenager, seeing movie stars on the giant screen shaped his choice of clothing – flashy before he was even a singer – and informed his attention to crucial details such as the way he combed his hair and applied eye shadow to create a sultrier appearance. His riveting stage performances had as much to do with the way he dressed and gyrated his legs as the way he sang. Elvis was every bit an intimidating sex symbol as latter-day stars such as Prince were, which can be difficult for readers in 2018 to appreciate. But in the 1950s, Elvis changed everything.

By the time David Bowie’s career exploded in the 1970s, rock and roll stars such as Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page were wearing make-up and fancy stage suits that even had their own names, such as Jimmy Page’s Poppy suit. And few rock stars were as visually savvy as David Bowie. He constantly experimented with different stage personas ranging from Ziggy Stardust, with spiky red hair and glam-rock jump suits, to the Thin White Duke, who resembled a debauched yet sophisticated jazz singer smoking a cigarette in a tasteful suit with his hair slicked back.

Bowie’s look — combining androgyny, camp, and glitter — helped launch the entire glam rock movement (and you could argue that there would be no glam rock without Bowie).

But Elvis was always creating his own template, such as the sexually potent black leather suit he wore during his 1968 comeback special.

And when he entered the Las Vegas showman phase of his career, he created the foundation for Bowie, Jagger, Jimmy Page, Stevie Tyler, and a host of other stage-strutting stars his “Elvis suit,” a white jump suit with cape and sequins.

In fact, Elvis directly influenced Bowie’s look in two crucial ways:

  • David Bowie’s stage uniforms were inspired by the Elvis suit. Bowie — a huge Elvis fan — instructed his clothing designer Freddi Burretti to draw inspiration from Elvis. But David Bowie was no copycat. Both visually and musically, he synthesized looks and sounds into his own.
  • Bowie drew inspiration from Elvis’s famous TCB lightning bolt to create the look for the album cover of Aladdin Sane. In Elvis’s world, TCB represented “taking care of business,” and the initials adorned his clothing, jewelry, and personal jet. David Bowie once again avoided being a copycat, instead creating his own look while paying homage to one of his musical heroes.

Up to his death, David Bowie was a masterful visual storyteller. The videos for his last songs were stunning, and the seemingly simple cover for his final album, Black Star, contained interesting visual surprises, such as revealing a galaxy of stars when held to sunlight.

And Elvis wore his fancy jump suits even to the end, and continued to make his stage entrances and exits smack of high drama, even though he eventually became too overweight to pull off the look he aspired to create. Elvis and David Bowie were artists and performers. Their ability to create a sensory experience with sound and visuals was crucial to their legacies.

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