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 Terese Genecco sings Elvis Presley at The Arts Project of Cherry Grove


On the evening of June 16, 2012, singer Terese Genecco played the Community House in Cherry Grove. It was a bare set with a little rolled-out gold bling on the edge of the bridge across the back of the stage. A fabric palm tree sat at stage left. A white bejeweled jacket was hanging from a hanger center stage, where Ms. Gennecco made her appearance by walking out on the bridge, donning the jacket and descending the stairs, assuming an Elvis pose, back to the audience, arms framing her in the silhouette.  She was soon joined onstage by just guitarist Sean Harkeness, wearing a plain old striped shirt.


She explained that a producer had directed her to take a whole album of a singer and deconstruct it to create her cabaret act. She chose Elvis Presley’s first album in 1956. He had graduated from high school just 3 years before. So here was Terese Genecco, with the lovely voice of a young woman, assuming the man stance of Presley. She said it was not her favorite album…in fact, she didn’t know Elvis. Too young. But it was Elvis’s first album, and the first million selling record, and the first rock and roll album ever to make it to the top of the charts, where it stayed at number one for an unprecedented 10 weeks, way back in 1956.


She started the night with Blue Suede Shoes, the Carl Perkins hit. No, she was not wearing blue suede shoes!


But she did her research and found this album was recorded in 2 widely disparate sessions. The first was at Sun Records, in Memphis in 1955 and 1956. This is when Elvis was “discovered” when he went in to record a song for his mother. Sun owner Sam Phillips liked Elvis’s sound…it was what he was looking for! A white man who sounded black…. Of course, really, it was what would become rockabilly, then rock and roll. Elvis at this time was a poor boy, living with his parents in a small apartment in Memphis. And driving a truck for a living. The rest of the tracks were recoded at RCA in New York City….what a gap in culture!


Terese kept telling the history, as she knew it, in between performances of his early recordings. First was a mashup…perhaps a song for Mama? I’m Counting On You with a Ray Charles cover, I Got a Woman. That’s Alright Mama. That song would come much later.


One Sided Love Affair followed by I Love You Because. Another song for mama?  Elvis really loved his mama, and his life was never the same after she was gone. Ms. Genecco told us about Elvis’ failure to grow up and have a ”mature relationship”. She pointed out all the things we witnessed in this glorious star. She traced his roots in Rockabilly. This is where Sean Harkness got a guitar solo and the audience loved it!


Hearttbreak Hotel was the first million dollar record for Elvis on the RCA label in January 1956. . (Technically, it was not on this first album, but is on the reissued album as a bonus track.) This led to TV appearances on Milton Berle, then Vegas, where a reviewer described poor young Elvis as “corn liquor at a champagne party”. And no doubt he felt how out of place he was. Then he covered a Freddy Bell and the Bellboys tune. Terese had all her facts on cue cards and read them to the audience. She got the groove going with a really rockin’ song…first recorded by Little Richard…Tutti Frutti. Sadly, Ms. Genecco lacked the smoldering sex appeal…to both men and women…that made Elvis so fascinating. But really, has there ever been another Elvis?


Next came Trying To Get To You and I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You). I started to wonder why she had chosen this album? It is a very young talented man, kind of alone in the big city, being hounded by fans and impresarios. How could this bright star not burn out too soon, too fast? Fame would eat him alive. It was so obvious here, in 1956, when his heart and his magical voice were innocently laid bare?


Finally, Ms. Genneco explained she had taken an Elvis standard, I’ll never let you go (Lil’ Darlin’…translated it into Italian and delivered as an Aria. Interesting! Now you are talking about enduring music…is it the words or the music that you love? Here, with both turned around, you decide!


Then she did a Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart number, commissioned in 1934 for a movie that was cut, then dragged out again, and again cast out of a movie, and finally recorded by Elvis in August 1954 and included on this album. It was Blue Moon. Gorgeous song…brilliant delivery. She explained they had reinterpreted it as a tone poem…and Sean went his merry way on the guitar. Quite a contrast with the sad story of betrayal found in Heartbreak Hotel!


The final song on Elvis Presley, the 1956 album, is Money Honey and Ms. Genecco delivered it with verve. Then she asked if the audience would like an encore…a first for me to have the performer ask! She lit into Viva Las Vegas…one of the happier songs Elvis did in his later years. Not at all a part of the 1956 Elvis – the shy young man was now in his glory in Sin City!


I have to say it was a little hard for this reporter…who is the Cherry Grove Elvis…to hear someone else tell the story of Elvis. I have absorbed his story for so many years, and I know every point I differ with Ms. Genecco. But Elvis always raised controversy.  I do not see him as the sad character portrayed here but another innocent young talent taken in and glorified then chewed up and spit up by the star makers. I admire his talent and cherish his memory. Graceland is an amazing place…there is so much good about this generous man that the public never saw. We choose to remember his struggle with the drugs that were supplied to him and the loneliness of a man who had no one to trust…not even his own father.  A sad ending for a supremely talented man. Listen to the gospel songs…the raw talent is incredible.


I ran into guitarist Sean up at the beach the next morning. He told me “I have fallen in love with this place!” Yes, he amazed us with his guitar and we amazed him with the beauty and tranquility of Cherry Grove in the early morning. It was a magical night…in a magical place!


If you missed Terese Genecco and Sean Harkness in Cherry Grove, catch them at the Iridium Jazz Club at 1650 Broadway, New York City, phone (212) 582-2121.