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Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, January 8, 1935. His parents were Vernon and Gladys Presley. There was a twin brother, who died at birth. Elvis grew up in the two-room house which Vernon built. He was close to his mother, a relationship which defined his personality. His family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, when Elvis was 13. He was a misfit in school. He wore flashy clothes and hung out on Beale Street. He had rhythm. He listened to black musicians play the blues. After high school, Elvis took a job driving a truck for an electric company. He wanted to record a song as a gift to his mother and went to Sun Records. Sun was owned by Sam Phillips. Marion Keisker, who worked for Phillips, saw something in Elvis and encouraged Phillips to work with him. He put Elvis with guitar player Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black and drummer D.J. Fontana. The result was "That's Alright Mama." Memphis radio stations picked it up. Other recordings for Sun followed as Elvis caught on across the south. Girls loved him. They screamed and swooned. Parents detested his gyrations and called him vulgar. This new music was rock n' roll. The older generation called it everything from "nigger music" to the "devil's music." RCA purchased Elvis' contract for $35,000. They got a bargain. Elvis had his first number one in January, 1956, with "Heartbreak Hotel." "Hound Dog," "Don't Be Cruel" & "All Shook Up" followed. Elvis appeared on television: the Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan shows. When Sullivan insisted he be shown only from the waist up, it added fuel to the fire. Hollywood beckoned, and Elvis made his first movie: Love Me Tender. In two years, he laid the foundation for the music which would dominate into the 21st century.
Elvis was drafted into the U.S. Army in March, 1958. He got a deferment to finish King Creole, considered by critics to be his best film. The draft was real in the 1950s. Young men were expected to serve their country and relished the opportunity. Elvis did basic training at Fort Hood in Texas. His mother died while he was in basic. He never really recovered from her death. Elvis was in armor and worked with tanks. He got orders for Germany, where he met 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu. She became his wife and the mother of his daughter. Elvis' two years in the Army were something he and his fans were proud of. Despite fame, he pulled K.P. and was not given special treatment.
Music had changed by the time Elvis was discharged in March, 1960. It was calmer. Elvis' first record as a civilian was Stuck On You. Its sexual edge took it to number one. It's Now Or Never was released that summer. It was operatic and proved that Elvis could sing. Having served in the Army and mellowed, he appealed to older people. He starred with Juliet Prowse in G.I. Blues.
Part two of Elvis' career began: the movie years. Viva Las Vegas did well partially because of Ann-Margret. Elvis' manager, Tom Parker, controlled things and saw "his boy" as a money-maker. As long as the movies made money, they ground them out. Each was worse than the one before it. Elvis looked like a cardboard cut-out as The Beatles redefined rock & roll. Elvis and Priscilla married in 1967. Their daughter, Lisa Marie, was born 9 months later.
The renaissance came at the end of 1968. Elvis did a Comeback Special for television. He sat in the round with friends and performed his early hits. At the show's end, he appeared in a white suit and sang "If I Can Dream." It was his first relevant song in a while. It fit the tough period of the late 1960s with its Counter Culture, Civil Rights & Vietnam War. Elvis came off as a preacher with a message in this third and final incarnation. "Suspicious Minds" provided his first number one in seven years. He gave up movies, played the International Hotel in Vegas and went back on the road. He donned jump suits and bell bottoms. Legendary guitarist James Burton joined his band. After "Burning Love" peaked at number two, things began to slide. Divorce was an issue. Elvis was fooling around, and Priscilla left with her karate instructor. Aloha from Hawaii in 1973 was the last big hurrah. Elvis had a special relationship with Hawaii, and his passion was evident. "American Trilogy" reeked with pathos.
Elvis died suddenly on August 16, 1977, at 42. It was hard to believe. For baby boomers, there had always been Elvis Presley. Everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news. I was sitting on a bed in a hotel in Springfield, Virgina, near Washington, D.C., watching television. Thousands gathered at Graceland Mansion in Memphis to show grief and pay their last respects. As time went on, a darker image of Elvis emerged. His former bodyguards published an exposé. Prescription drugs, weight gain, divorce and sad songs had taken their toll. Elvis was miserable in his last days. He had everything a 21-year-old wanted, nothing a 42-year-old needed. Nevertheless, he changed music. He was the one who paved the way for The Beatles.
The Elvis legacy survives in the Broadway musical, All Shook Up, a light-hearted story written around 25 Elvis tunes. A roustabout rides into town on a motorcycle and teaches people how to be hip.
ELVIS PRESLEY: THE MAN, THE LIFE, THE LEGEND by PAMELA CLARKE KEOGH
I made a study of Elvis Presley around the 10th anniversary of his death. I read books, watched movies and bought his albums. I took a knowledge of the Elvis story into this book. It is good to read about Elvis. It is almost supernatural, the way he comes to life in biographies.
Pamela Clarke Keogh speaks of Elvis in mythological terms. We share her wonder as she documents the lure of Beale Street. Young Elvis was like everyone, and yet different. He wanted to be noticed! He wore flashy clothes and sideburns.
Keogh came up with 100 pictures from the Graceland archives. She is conscious of clothes and fashion. It is obvious that a woman wrote this book.
Her book reads like a romance novel. She is sentimental, and Elvis becomes a fictional character. Keogh dwells on his wardrobe. She tells us what he wore for this or that show.
It was Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis who discovered Elvis. Phillips was a southern gentleman with a high opinion of himself. He was a bit crazy. His death in 2003 went virtually unreported. I learned of it from a small piece in a magazine I thumbed through at a Veterans Hospital.
The Sun Records label is interesting. It is round and yellow, a likeness of the sun. There are rays and a rooster crowing at dawn.
Phillips put Elvis with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black in the summer of 1954. Elvis was trying ballads, obviously the wrong material. Things happened when they stumbled onto an old blues song. It was fast and rhythmic and presented Elvis' voice in such a way that it came across.
Elvis and his combo began touring the south. Drummer D.J. Fontana had played in strip joints and applied stripper licks to what Elvis was doing. Girls ate it up! Keogh calls it the "dawn of the modern era."
She conveys a feeling of destiny about Elvis, this shy Memphis kid who became the biggest star of all-time.
There are no surprises in her book. Reading it is like listening to a favorite song that we have not heard for a while.
Elvis is contagious! I do his songs karaoke, and his spirit comes into me. I start talking like him and cannot stop. We are all Elvises now!
Elvis played Las Vegas in May, 1956, promoted as "The Atomic Powered Singer." Our fascination with the atomic bomb was at its peak. And Elvis bombed! The audience at the New Frontier was too old.
Elvis appealed to teenagers, those with no memory of World War II. He carved the generation gap.
"Hound Dog" was recorded in New York. It changed everything! There were 31 takes, and Elvis crouched on the floor listening to number 31. "That's the one," he said.
I recall hearing "Hound Dog" on the radio on the truck with my dad. Chills ran down my spine. I asked my dad who Elvis Presley was. He said, "Some guy in a leather jacket."
Elvis could turn a mediocre song into a classic. He was awesome! No matter what you say about him, it is never enough. Someone will come along and say more.
Some of his biggest hits were written in the Brill Building in New York. Leiber & Stoller wrote "Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock" and "Love Me." Doc Pomus & Mort Shuman wrote "Little Sister," "His Latest Flame" and "Viva Las Vegas." Elvis remarked that he went through a hundred songs before finding one that suited him.
Elvis was drafted into the Army at the peak of his popularity. Keogh writes that he was "strac," an army term for a man who looks good in his uniform. I was called "strac" by the guys in my platoon in Germany. It was a joke! My fatigues were wrinkled, and my boots were unpolished. Elvis and his future wife Priscilla met in Germany. Keogh calls them "opposite-sex versions of each other." Priscilla was Elvis' doll, and he dressed her.
I tried to compare Elvis' stint in the Army to my own. I ended up seeing more differences than similarities.
Elvis was drafted in March, 1958, during peace time and took both his basic training and AIT Advanced Instructional Training at Fort Hood, Texas. His AIT was in tanks.
I was drafted in October, 1969, during the Vietnam War. I took both my basic training and AIT at Fort Knox, Kentucky. My AIT was radio school. Morse Code drove me crazy!
Elvis received orders for Germany. He was assigned to the 3rd Armored Division in Bad Nauheim. They made him a jeep driver.
I received orders for Germany also. They made me a clerk in an Atomic Demolitions Munitions platoon in Bamberg.
Elvis went to Germany on a ship. I flew.
Elvis made Specialist 4, then Sergeant. I made it to Spec 4. Elvis saw Bill Haley play in Frankfurt and Stuttgart. I passed through these cities on the way to Bamberg.
Elvis hung out with showgirls in Paris while I became more and more paranoid, ending up in the hospital in Nuremberg. But even Elvis admitted to having good times and bad times in the Army.
Viva Las Vegas is the last movie we can justify. Keogh calls Elvis and Ann-Margret soul mates.
Keogh adds dialogue to her scenarios. It may be real or made-up. She dramatizes the meeting between Elvis and The Beatles. No one recorded their 30 minute jam, and no pictures were taken. No excuse!
I sense Keogh's fantasies. She is aware of the King's sexuality and southern charm. He was a magnet for women.
In 1969, Elvis again recorded in Memphis. Those sessions produced "Suspicious Minds." Both Elvis and America had changed, and Las Vegas was ready for him. He became a fixture at the International Hotel in his era of jumpsuits and high collars. Keogh calls him a lone gladiator! She cannot resist describing what the band wore, even women in the audience. They looked like stewardesses, flight attendants as they are now called. Elvis went back on the road, city to city, for the remainder of his life. His concerts ended with "Can't Help Falling In Love." He never did encores.
42 is young unless you are an athlete or a rock star. Elvis Presley was never meant for middle-age. He died at 42, overweight and hooked on prescription drugs. His girl friend was 20. There is a lesson here. It is that each stage of life demands a transition, an adjustment to a new level of maturity. It is the only way to survive. Suddenly, we are senior citizens, and our roles are deeper. Some believe that if Elvis had fired his manager, he might have become the serious actor he wanted to be.
I became aware of Elvis' health problems in 1976. I saw on TV that he was hospitalized. Things got rough! Linda Thompson split, and young Ginger Alden took her place. Elvis' bodyguards published a tell-all book after being fired. Shows were canceled. I arrived at Graceland on June, 18, 1977. The Indianapolis concert of June 26, was his last. I was sitting on the edge of the bed in a Springfield, Virginia, hotel when it came on TV that Elvis had died.