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Music Memories: Happy Birthday, Elvis Costello!

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
English pop/rock singer and songwriter, Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello was born on August 25, 1954. Costello is a singer and songwriter known for the sophistication and complexity of his lyrics; he once joked that he was “rock and roll’s Scrabble champion.” His 40-year career in rock has been punctuated by unexpected collaborations and detours into other genres.

Costello formed his first band when he was 16, and was playing with a popular London pub band in his early 20s. His first professional recording was as a backing vocalist for his father in a 1974 television commercial, and he signed with the British label Stiff Records in 1976. He released his first album, My Aim Is True, in 1977, and the single “Watching the Detectives” made the top 20 of the British charts.

Many Americans heard Costello for the first time in December 1977, when he appeared on Saturday Night Live as a last-minute replacement for the Sex Pistols. Costello stopped his performance after a few seconds to play a different song, ”Radio Radio,” which his record label and NBC had specifically asked him not to play. Costello was banned from Saturday Night Live for more than a decade. He was eventually invited back, though, and took part in the show’s 25th anniversary special in 1999 by “interrupting” a performance by the Beastie Boys, who then served as his backing band for another performance of “Radio Radio.”

The album that included “Radio Radio,” This Year’s Model, was voted the best album of 1978 in the annual Village Voice critics’ poll, and the follow-up, Armed Forces, made it into the top ten on Billboard’s album chart. In the early 1980s, he began to explore other genres of music. Get Happy!! was strongly influenced by soul and R&B, and Almost Blue was a collection of classic country songs that, in its UK release, came with a warning label for Costello's rock audience: “This album contains country & western music and may cause offence to narrow minded listeners.”

3 Elvis Costello album covers

By this point, Costello’s singles were occasionally being played on American rock radio; pop radio has been mostly uninterested in his music. He had his only two pop hits in the 1980s; “Everyday I Write the Book” broke into the top 40 in 1983, and “Veronica” (co-written with Paul McCartney) made it to the top 20 in 1989.

In the 1990s, Costello began venturing into the world of classical music. He paired with The Brodsky Quartet for The Juliet Letters, a set of songs for voice and string quartet, each taking the form of a letter to Shakespeare’s Juliet. He appeared in the New York production of Welcome to the Voice, a pop opera written by his longtime keyboardist, Steve Nieve (it was recorded in 2007). And in 2004, an Italian dance company commissioned Costello to write an orchestral ballet score; Il Sogno was another Shakespeare-inspired work, this one based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The 1996 movie Grace of My Heart started a new partnership for Costello. The movie is about 1960s pop singers, and rather than use existing songs from that era, director Allison Anders paired 60s songwriters with 90s musicians to create new songs in various 60s styles. Costello was paired with Burt Bacharach, and they enjoyed writing “God Give Me Strength” so much that they kept working together. Two years later, they released the collaborative album Painted from Memory.

Bacharach is only one of the partners Costello has chosen to work with in the second half of his career. He produced For the Stars, an album of pop songs for the classical soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. He co-wrote several songs with his wife, jazz singer Diana Krall, for her album The Girl in the Other Room. Costello is among the cast in the studio recording of Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a Southern gothic musical with songs by John Mellencamp and a story by Stephen King. He’s recorded albums in partnership with New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint (The River in Reverse) and The Roots (Wise Up Ghost). His most recent album, Look Now, includes three new Costello-Bacharach songs and one co-written with Carole King.

Much more of Costello’s music is available for streaming at Hoopla. His memoir is called Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink (e-book | e-audio | print | audio).