Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, January 8, 1935. His parents were Vernon and Gladys. There was a twin brother, who died at birth. Elvis grew up in a 2-room house, which Vernon built. He was close to his mother, a relationship that defined his personality. The family moved to Memphis when Elvis was 13. He was a misfit at school, wearing flashy clothes and spending time on Beale Street. He had rhythm! He listened to black musicians play the blues. After high school, he took a job driving a truck for an electric company. He wanted to record a song as a gift for his mother and went to Sun Records, a label owned by Sam Phillips. Marion Keisker, who worked for Sam, saw something in Elvis and encouraged her boss to work with him. Sam put Elvis with guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black & drummer D.J. Fontana. The result was "That's Alright Mama." Memphis radio stations played it. Other recordings at 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. Older people called it the devil's music. RCA purchased Elvis' contract for $35,000 and 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 with Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan. When Sullivan insisted that he be shown from the waist up, it added fuel to the fire. Hollywood beckoned, and Elvis made his first movie: Love Me Tender. In 2 years, he laid the foundation for the music that would dominate well 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 movie. The draft was real in the 1950s. Young men were expected to serve their country and did so willingly. Elvis did his basic training at Fort Hood in Texas. His mother died while he was in basic, and he never quite 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' 2 years in the Army were something he and his fans remained proud of. Despite fame, Elvis pulled K.P. and was not given special treatment.
Music had changed by the time Elvis got his discharge. It was calmer. Elvis' first record as a civilian was "Stuck On You." Its sexy lyrics took it to number one. "It's Now Or Never" was released that summer. It was operatic and proved Elvis could sing. Having served in the army, he appealed to older people. He starred with Juliet Prowse in G.I. Blues.
Part 2 of Elvis' career began: the movie years. Viva Las Vegas did well partially because of Ann-Margret. Elvis' manager, Tom Parker, 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. Elvis resembled a cardboard cut-out as The Beatles redefined rock n 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 TV, sitting with friends and performing 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 late 60s with its counter culture, civil rights & Vietnam War. Elvis came off as a prophet with a message in his third and final incarnation. "Suspicious Minds" provided his first number one in years. He gave up movies, played the International Hotel in Vegas & 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 2, things began to slide. Elvis was fooling around, and Priscilla left with her karate instructor. Aloha from Hawaii in 1973 was his last big hurrah. Elvis had a special relationship with Hawaii, and his passion was evident. "American Trilogy" reeked with pathos!
Elvis died 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 watching television in a motel in Springfield, Virginia, near Washington, D.C. Thousands gathered at Graceland in Memphis to pay their last respects. As time went on, a darker image of Elvis emerged. Former bodyguards published an expose. Prescription drugs, weight gain, divorce & 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 paved the way for The Beatles.
The Elvis legend survived in the Broadway musical, All Shook Up, a light-hearted story written around 25 songs. A roustabout rides into town on a motorcycle and teaches people to be hip. Michael and I saw it on Broadway.
ELVIS PRESLEY: THE MAN, THE LIFE, THE LEGEND by Pamela Keogh
I made a study of Elvis Presley's life around the 10th anniversary of his death. I read books, watched movies & bought his albums. I took a knowledge of the Elvis story into Pamela's book.
Pamela speaks of Elvis in mythic terms, and we share her wonder as she documents the lure of Beale Street. Young Elvis was like everyone, and yet different. He wore loud clothes and sideburns. He wanted to be noticed!
Pamela came up with 100 pictures from the Graceland archives. She is conscious of clothes and fashion. She dwells on Elvis' wardrobe. She tells what he wore for this or that show. It is obvious that a woman wrote this book.
Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis discovered Elvis. Phillips was a southern gentleman with a high opinion of himself. He was a little crazy. His death in 2003, went virtually unreported.
The Sun Records label is interesting. It is yellow and round, a likeness of the sun. There are rays with a rooster crowing at dawn.
Phillips put Elvis with Scotty Moore and Bill Black in the summer of 1954. Elvis was singing ballads, obviously the wrong material. Things happened when he stumbled onto an old blues song. It was rhythmic and showcased Elvis' voice in a way that communicated.
Elvis and his combo toured the south. Drummer D.J. Fontana had played in strip clubs and applied stripper licks to what Elvis was doing. Girls ate it up! Pamela calls it the "dawn of the modern era."
She conveys a feeling of destiny about Elvis, the 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 we have not heard in a while.
Elvis is contagious! When I do his songs, his spirit comes into me. I even start talking like him. We are all Elvises!
Elvis played Las Vegas in May, 1956, billed as "The Atomic Powered Singer." Fascination with the atomic bomb was at its peak. The audience was too old, however, and he bombed! Elvis appealed to teens, those with no memory of World War II.
"Hound Dog" 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 up my spine! I asked my dad who Elvis Presley was. He replied, "Some guy in a leather jacket."
Elvis could turn a mediocre song into a classic. Some of the hits were written in the Brill Building in New York. Leiber & Stoller wrote "Hound Dog" and "Love Me." Doc Pomus & Mort Shuman wrote "Little Sister" and "Viva Las Vegas." Elvis said he went through a hundred songs before finding one that suited him.
Elvis was drafted at the peak of his popularity. Pamela writes that he was "strac," a term for a soldier who looks good in his uniform. I was called "strac" by the guys in my platoon as a joke. My fatigues were wrinkled, my boots unpolished.
Comparing Elvis' stint in the army to my own, I saw more differences than similarities.
Elvis was drafted in 1958, during peace time. He did his basic training in Texas at Fort Hood. His Advanced Instructional Training was in armor.
I was drafted in October, 1969, during the Vietnam War and did my basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. My AIT was radio school.
Elvis got orders for Germany and was assigned to the 3rd Armored Division in Bad Nauheim. He was a jeep driver. I went to in Germany, and became a clerk in an Atomic Demolitions Munitions platoon. Elvis went to Germany on a ship. I flew.
Elvis made sergeant. I peaked at spec 4. Elvis saw Bill Haley in Frankfurt and Stuttgart. I passed through these towns on my way to Bamberg. Elvis went to Paris and hung out with showgirls.
Elvis and his wife Priscilla met in Germany. Pamela calls them "opposite-sex versions of each other." She calls Elvis and Ann-Margret soul mates.
Pamela adds dialog to her scenarios. It may be real or made-up. She dramatizes the meeting between Elvis and The Beatles, although no one recorded their 30 jam session and no pictures were taken. I sense Pamela's fantasies. She is aware of Elvis' southern charm.
In 1969, Elvis again recorded in Memphis, sessions that produced "Suspicious Minds." America had changed, and Las Vegas was ready. Elvis became a fixture at the International Hotel in an era of jumpsuits and high collars. Pamela cannot resist describing what the band wore, even women in the audience. They looked like stewardesses. Elvis went back on the road for the remainder of his life. His concerts ended with "Can't Help Falling In Love," and he never did encores.
42 is young unless you are an athlete or a rock star. Elvis Presley was not meant for middle-age. He died overweight and hooked on prescription drugs. His girl friend was 20. The lesson 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 Tom Parker, he might have become a serious actor.
I knew Elvis was hospitalized. Things had gone sour! Linda Thompson left, and Ginger Alden took her place. Elvis' ex-bodyguards published a tell-all book. I arrived at Graceland on June, 18, 1977. The Indianapolis concert on June 26, was the last.