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Jorge Tobías Colombo
All the superlatives have been exhausted; so many breathless and excited terms have been used about him that the words have almost ceased to have meaning. He was the most famous man in the world. He has sold more than half a billion records. In this freedom-loving country he was called the King. The fame of other people who are well-known enough to be identified by their first names will fade; who will remember exactly who "Monica" was in 25 years? But he will always be known simply as "Elvis."
Elvis Aaron Presley was born on January 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi. He was one of twin sons born to Vernon and Gladys Presley; his brother, Jesse Garon Presley, was stillborn. The Presley family was not a wealthy one; Elvis was born in a two-room shack in a not-particularly good neighbourhood of Memphis. There was electricity service to the house, but only in the form of a single outlet on the ceiling in the middle of each of the two rooms. But although there was never a lot of money, the young Elvis' life was not one of grinding poverty: his mother always made sure he had enough, both of necessities like food and drink, and of little luxuries. There was no deprivation, but on the other hand there was no sybaritic extravagance either. Later the family would make several moves, eventually settling in Memphis, Tennessee.
Elvis' upbringing was in many ways quintessentially American and southern. He went to church and learned to love the Lord; Gladys taught him good manners and deference to his elders, which would serve him well all his life, especially after his celebrity ballooned to such an extent that he had no real need to be polite to anyone. And he began to make a hobby of music, singing in church, and playing guitar and piano. His musical taste was catholic, encompassing not just the country & western and white gospel that a nice young white boy might be expected to like, but also music from across the racial divide: blues, r&b, and black gospel. It was this broadranging interest in music which set the kindling down for the blaze Elvis would shortly ignite.
Elvis had been singing since he was a child, sometimes in public as well as in church. He had won a talent contest at a fair when he was ten, and also took first prize in his high school talent show in his senior year. In 1954, Elvis, who was gaining something of a reputation as a musician, decided to make a record. He entered a little studio in Memphis with guitarist Scotty Moore and standup bassist Bill Black. The little band played a few country & western and blues songs. The performance was adequate, although nothing special. But in a break in recording, Elvis started a version of "That's Alright Mama", an old song by septuagenarian bluesman Arther "Big Boy" Crudup. The original had been a slow and weary piece, and Elvis had played it like that himself on occasion, but this version was totally different. The chords and words were there, but instead of the loping rhythm of the blues, Elvis played it with a stuttering, driving, earthy beat. Black and Moore quickly joined in. The tape was not running; Elvis was just having some fun. But Sam Phillips, who owned the studio, was stunned. He rushed into the rehearsal room, and told the boys to keep playing.
Elvis' ascent into the stratosphere began there and then. Before the record had even been pressed, Phillips took a master to a local radio station. The deejay played the track more than 30 times that night. Elvis' records began selling, first in Memphis, and then, as the wave of popularity spread, across the country. He appeared on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and though his combo still consisted of only himself, Black and Moore (with no drummer, and about half the size of, say, Hank Williams' band) he still managed to make such a ruckus that the Opry managers decided never to invite him back. One made the famous comment that Elvis should go back to driving a truck.
But this setback was temporary at worst. Even if the respectable middle-aged, working- and middle-class patrons at the church of country music didn't understand Elvis, their children did. Along with other pioneers like Gene Vincent, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Elvis was making music in a style that fused what had previously been two solitudes: white c&w and black blues and r&b. Even if the older generation disapproved, to the young people the records sold like hotcakes.
Elvis' career continued to shoot up almost vertically. He sold millions of records. At the instigation of his manager, a former carnival huckster calling himself Colonel Tom Parker, he began to star in movies as well. These creations were almost exclusively mediocre, but Elvis usually managed to exude a twinkling charm, and as a business move by Parker the movies amounted to genius. There were 31 of them over the years. They made a massive amount of money for Elvis, and, it must be said, for Parker too.
Elvis continued his string of hits until the end of 1957, when he was drafted. This could have been a calamity, the end of Elvis's career. An enforced two-year break in jail on trumped-up charged effectively stopped Chuck Berry's momentum in 1960. But Parker was nothing if not a master negotiator. Elvis made no movies and did no recording during the two years he served with the Army in Germany, but Parker kept his only client in the public eye, to such an extent that his fame was as great, if not greater, when he was discharged in March 1960, as it was when he entered the forces.
But this point may have been the high-water mark of his career. He continued to make records all his life, but through the first years of the 1960s, at Parker's behest, Elvis concentrated on making movies. Again, this was an unquestionably strong financial decision: the movies could be churned out at the rate of three or four a year, were reliable hits, and made a more money for Elvis and his manager than music would have. So Elvis continued to amiably assume the role of cowboy, soldier, roustabout or racecar driver, while letting his recording career languish.
By this point, Elvis had begun the slide into irrelevance. The reason he was famous in the first place, his music, had been neglected; no-one could call any of his films masterpieces. Even the best of them are merely serviceable. In five years, American music went from the cotton-candy pop of idol singers like Fabian and Frankie Avalon to the challenging sounds of the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, the International Submarine Band. From Elvis there was nothing.
Personally, too, he was growing undynamic and flat. By the early sixties he literally had more money than he knew what to do with. He closeted himself with a bunch of friends from the early days, the "Memphis Mafia", and enjoyed the role of beneficent ruler and patron. He grew indulgent and fatter, fond of drugs and sweet things. He gorged himself on his favourite snack, deep-fired peanut butter sandwiches.
But all was not lost yet. In 1968 he planned a return to music, the Comeback Special. His performance, decked out in sexy leathers and flailing around just like the old days, was a revelation. Elvis proved that he still had the goods. The girls screamed and the men applauded. The Comeback Special was the beginning of a small revival of Elvis' recorded fortunes. He even had a number one hit in 1969 with Suspicious Minds, still a great song that has been covered by Fine Young Cannibals and Dwight Yoakam among others.
But this upturn was only temporary. In 1969 Elvis began to play shows in Las Vegas; eventually he would be able to earn $200,000 for a single night's work. He took to touring and playing Vegas more and more, and recording less and less. What he did record no longer had any pretension to be on the cutting edge. Slowly, he evolved into what came to be seen as a nostalgia act. Of course, to the fans who paid to see him, Elvis was not just nostalgia; he was the most exciting artist in the world then, just as he had always been. But to most commentators and most people, Elvis was past it.
As the money piled up, Elvis increasingly removed himself from reality. The Memphis Mafia, originally his boyhood cronies, began to resemble a twisted pack of sycophants, eager to outdo each other in toadying and lickspittling. They got Elvis girls, they got him drugs, they kept the frightening wide world away from him. He put on weight and became increasingly dependent on drugs, mostly pills. He took pills to wake him up, pills to calm him down, pills to give him energy and pills to make him sleep. He had been a keen user of amphetamines since his army days, but his pharmaceutical intake now was astonishing. Most of the drugs were procured for him by his personal physician, Dr. George Nichopolous.
On August 16, 1977, Elvis was trouble sleeping after he tried to go to bed at 9 a.m. He took some pills and went into the bathroom; it was there that he was found five hours later, dead.
But although the events of his life give some idea of the kind of man he was, what was his character really like? A good clue to the man he became lies in the way he became a star. Elvis was a celebrity, a rich man, a rock-n-roll star, at the age of 19. From a fairly ordinary childhood, he was suddenly swept into a cocoon of fame, with enough money to buy whatever he wanted. Despite his good looks, he had never been a great success with the ladies in high school, but suddenly every girl in America wanted to be with him. He returned the favour: suddenly finding himself desired, it seems as though he wanted to be with every girl in America!
The people who had been his friends in Memphis suddenly found themselves paid for their services. Elvis' largesse meant that none of the Memphis Mafia ever wanted for anything, and Elvis frequently lavished gifts as well as cash on them. But this also meant that their friendship was guaranteed by the money he gave them. Even Elvis' family came to depend on him; indeed, he had them declared legal dependents so they could move with him to Germany when his army service began. This meant that, although Elvis' "friends" may have been fine companions, they were not especially good critics. Elvis never heard anything he didn't want to hear; his money made sure of it.
In short, Elvis was a kind of Peter-Pan figure: he never grew up. By the time he was 20 years old he had everything he wanted and more. His appetites were like those of a spoiled child. He took everything he wanted and wanted everything he didn't have.
There were positive aspects to his childlike character. The politeness and good manners that his mother Gladys had instilled in him were still present in him throughout his life. He called people "Sir" and "Ma'am" even after he could have bought them, their children, and all their possessions out of his pocket-change. In part this was a conscious effort to disarm those who disapproved of him-how could anyone not like such a nice, polite boy?-but in part it was genuine. His religious faith, too, retained a childlike strength until he died.
But he could also be petulant, unpleasant, and whingeing. He was an extremely jealous man, particularly of his many girlfriends. He could date and sleep with as many women as he wanted, but none of his girls were permitted to so much as look at another man. Perhaps due to the drugs, he was prone to violent mood swings. And within his fief at Graceland, he would not tolerate any opposition or contradiction; he was the absolute master.
But despite his flaws as a human being, Elvis remains astonishingly popular even today. Part of his fame and his importance rests on his skill as a performer. Despite the claims that he was a mediocre singer and poor guitar player, he remains an electrifying musician. It was the raw excitement and power of his early records that turned on millions of teenagers around the world. But his gifts as a rock'n'roll singer are only the reason for his popularity. His importance relates to a different aspect of his career; the fact that he, more than anyone else, can be said to have created rock'n'roll. For being the prime mover of the most important American art form of the last half of the 20th century, he surely deserves recognition.
There are other claims to being the originator of rock'n'roll; Chuck Berry's is probably the strongest. But although Berry's guitar paved the way for the sound of rock'n'roll, his records are often slick and anodyne. His lyrics have a sly way with a double entendre, but as a black man in 1950s America, singing to white youths, he could not afford to be too suggestive. It was left to Elvis to break open the barriers, to fuse the musics of black and white America, and give the mixture a healthy shot of shake, rattle and roll.
Elvis' music is important for the musical content: he was the first white to incorporate the spirits, as well as the notes, of blues, r&b, and country together. The sexuality he brought to his performances may well have laid the grounds for the liberated decades that followed. Everyone knows about the banning of his suggestively swivelling hips from the Ed Sullivan show; perhaps there was a deeper impact than is generally recognized.
Elvis Aaron Presley is important because of the role he played in inventing rock'n'roll, which in turn played a pivotal role in liberating America from the conformity and divisions that prevailed in the 1950s. The musical integration that began in 1955 was a precursor to the real integration and coming-together of the races of the 1960s. The sexual liberation that was shown in the big beats, suggestive lyrics, and swivelling pelvis of Elvis foreshadowed the sexual liberation that all of America would undergo in the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond. Rock'n'roll is important music. Elvis Presley is important rock'n'roll began when he speeded up an old Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup number, and fused in an instant the musics of America's two solitudes. To suggest that Elvis is singlehandedly responsible for integration and the sexual revolution is ridiculous. But the abandonment that rock'n'roll induced in its devotees was certainly responsible to some extent; for that, Elvis Presley shares some of the responsibility.