ELVIS LIVES!

Egerton, John

Elvis Lives! The stuff that myths are made of John Egerton Every day the faithful come, and there is nothing to indicate they will stop coming. Even on the grayest of winter days, they can be...

...A white woman in her late thirties recalls a heady encounter with Elvis the rising star in a small town in Arkansas twenty years ago...
...Maybe I didn't like all the stuff he did, but he was new and innovative, and the leadership of this country opposed him for that...
...There is a tendency for reporters and writers to quote the fans, hoping they might have a clue to the phenomenon," Thomas adds...
...The controllers of Presley's estate Vernon Presley, his father, and "Colonel" Tom Parker, his long-time manager sold exclusive rights to the marketing of Elvis merchandise for a reported $150,000 and 5 per cent of net sales soon after the singer died...
...They were engaged in starkly dissimilar pursuits King's spiritual and visionary and dangerous, Presley's cultural and creative and commercial...
...He was a shy Southern boy who lived an unremarkable early life," Bakke says...
...Vester has an as-told-to biography of the Presley family on the market, and he plugs it unabashedly...
...He loved music, and was interested in all kinds of music, and he just happened to come along in a time of boring, syrupy pop ballads and unconsciously hit upon a new form of musical expression...
...They ruined him, and I never liked him after that...
...There was none of that before he died but there were people selling T-shirts down there on the street the very night he passed away...
...I thought maybe we'd get a few thousand a day for a while and then it would just stop, but they keep on coming...
...But after that, after RCA bought his contract, everything changed...
...His grave site in a poolside garden on the estate of Graceland Mansion, his Memphis home, was visited by a million people in the first year it was opened to the public, and the crowds show no signs of slackening...
...When he first came along, I thought he was one of the old blues shouters...
...Other employes at the mansion are more reluctant to talk to strangers, particularly when they may be quoted...
...It was so artificial...
...His debt to black music was all but forgotten by his fans...
...May says, Elvis became "a personification of the American dream of upward mobility, of making it big...
...in fact, it is difficult to find much at all in his career to indicate what his feelings were on the subject of race, one way or the other...
...In the latter stages of his career, Bakke says, Presley had become "a class hero, a blue-collar idol...
...Some things are simply inexplicable and maybe it's just as well that they are...
...When the music was performed in public, with all its accelerated electronic urgency and Elvis's pelvis-pumping abandon, the effect was sensational...
...It was like saying, 'Don't get too big, buddy, or we'll find a way to pull you down.' But they never could pull old Elvis down, because he was bigger than any of them...
...Keenly disappointed, he nevertheless stood reverently before the memorial in the meditation garden, and then spoke earnestly, "from my heart," of his love and admiration for Elvis...
...Postwar changes were coming to the South, religious and social restrictiveness was lessening, upward mobility was in the minds of the people and here came a poor Southerner with a lot of talent who broke out of the old restrictions in a spectacular way, and became a big success...
...Elvis was no exception...
...Even legendary recluses are not unheard of, as witness Howard Hughes...
...Vernon Presley is in ill health, and does not grant interviews...
...His songs sold an astonishing 500 million records during his lifetime and another eight million in the five days following his death...
...He was already a star before the masses of people of either race were deeply conscious of the issue...
...I wouldn't try to explain it...
...He ended up as primarily a hero of the white working class, but I think it would be stretching things to say their adulation of him had anything to do with race...
...The times of Elvis Presley were also the times of Martin Luther King Jr...
...it is even possible to buy a copy of his driver's license and his last will and testament...
...One woman, asserting that "Memphis never appreciated Elvis," claims him possessively and with emotion as "owr hero...
...American society particularly the entertainment world has had many such figures...
...Eddie Ray, who heads Cream-Hi Records in Memphis, has been in the music business for thirty years...
...Even so, hawkers peddling "bootleg" items can still be found working among the crowds outside the mansion...
...He turned me on...
...He had been in the Army, he had got religion, and that had erased his image as a rebel and a hood...
...He became a packaged commodity...
...One woman maintains that "he made Memphis it was nothing until he came along...
...It's exploiting, ripping off...
...I was envious of him not jealous, just envious...
...It may be, as some observers of the Presley phenomenon seem to believe, that his immense popularity was not connected in any way, not even subconsciously, to the welling up of white resistance to black protests against star, but they were replaced by a much larger mass of people who came to see him as a reformed rebel...
...Some of the fans, no less than the employes, are put off by the commercialism outside the gates, but most of them end up in the souvenir shops...
...It was a physical thing with me," she recalls...
...The earliest Presley recordings were made with Sam C. Phillips, a producer of black rhythm and blues music, on his Sun Records label in Memphis, beginning in July 1954...
...The novelist and historian, Shelby Foote, a Memphis resident, thinks it is "giving people too much credit to say they foresaw Elvis as a racial protest symbol in the 1950s...
...A partial answer comes from William Thomas of The Memphis Commercial Appeal, who has written extensively on Presley and his remarkable career...
...The words on Elvis's memorial were written by his father...
...Factors has the only authorized stuff now but some of it is the cheapest junk of all...
...The people who made Presley a superstar weren't interested in protest music, Ray says or, for that matter, in black music...
...Cults are hardly a novelty in the United States, the most recent and stunning being Jim Jones and his People's Temple...
...Then, Ray says, Elvis was "taken over, commercialized, and he became a different kind of performer...
...He did a masterful job of keeping Elvis from being overexposed...
...The wider the circle one draws in search of insights into the Presley magic, the more eclectic the comments become...
...Using lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits, Geissler has had some success in forcing other entrepreneurs out of the Presley memento market...
...Now it is as if death has brought him a measure of immortality...
...Sitting on a shady hilltop at the end of a curving driveway, it dominates a fourteen-acre estate on U.S...
...His rise from simple circumstances to international fame and wealth allows ordinary people to keep hoping that they too can succeed in this society...
...Vester Presley, Vernon's elder brother, has been in charge of the entrance gate at the mansion since soon after his nephew bought the estate more than twenty years ago...
...Still, each person who comes along to dominate the public consciousness is given extraordinary visibility or stature by a unique combination of personal characteristics and external circumstances...
...He speaks with disdain of a practice known as "covering" studied emulation of popular black musicians and their music by whites and goes on to say that Presley wasn't guilty of it: "He had unusual appeal to blacks when he first started, because he was one of the few white artists who had a genuine feel for black music and an ability to express it musically and emotionally...
...Some of his fans bring flowers to leave beside the simple, flat memorial of granite and bronze that covers his grave...
...There is no simple explanation for his meteoric rise or the perpetual motion of his memory...
...Young people by the thousands white and black, male and female went wild for the sight and sound, their elders were often outraged by it, and from that combination of reactions the phenomenon was born...
...He had hoped against hope for an opportunity to get into Graceland to see the Presley trophy room, but it was not to be...
...It was his rebelliousness, his sexuality, his movement, more than the voice or the music...
...Think of someone like Rudolph Valentino...
...Everybody who loved Elvis hates the commercialization of his name," says one of them, assured of anonymity...
...Whose hero...
...A good place to begin is at Grace-land, a rambling gray stone house with white columns and green shutters...
...The way he could turn women on, the way he could make money and give it away, the way he stayed humble and never forgot where he came from...
...he is still there, from 7 a.m...
...The most fanatical of his followers appear to take literally the bumper-sticker message they proclaim "Elvis Lives" but even among the more rational, the Presley cult is a phenomenon with evergreen qualities...
...He was a poor white boy who made it big, and that's the main reason why he was and still is a folk hero...
...Myths have a way of becoming bigger than reality," he says...
...Highway 51 (Elvis Presley Boulevard), ten miles south of downtown Memphis...
...he has, friends say, already made as much public comment as he cares to make about his famous son...
...Like I told you, Elvis was a great man...
...By the beginning of 1956, Phillips had sold Presley's contract to RCA Victor, Tom Parker had taken command of the singer's career, and both Elvis and his rock and roll music had become symbols of...
...On the benign side, such examples as Farrah Fawcett-Majors, Sylvester "Rocky" Stallone, and the Star Wars characters (all, incidentally, clients of Harry Geissler) suggest that superstars can be made as well as born...
...I doubt if you'll get much in the way of satisfactory explanations of his popularity from the so-called 'thoughtful' people, the experts, because most of them weren't fans of his, and they don't feel his force in any personal way...
...We are not unaccustomed to hero worship of persons living (Muhammad Ali) or dead (John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr...
...However different their missions and their motives were, the two men thought of themselves as ultimately speaking from and to the same general audiences the non-affluent American masses, white and black...
...But it was Phillips who recognized his talent and helped him give it expression...
...Within a year, Elvis had recorded fifteen songs, and Phillips had released ten of them on five singles, each coupling a country and western selection with a rhythm and blues number...
...Copies of the Memphis newspapers reporting his death sell for $2 apiece...
...Eisenhower had him drafted on purpose, just like Ted Williams, because he was popular, and he wouldn't conform...
...a turbulent time in American life...
...The people who packaged him knew what they were doing' segregation...
...But for Presley, there were some especially favorable circumstances...
...The coincidence of Presley's rise to stardom and black America's rise to protest suggests in the minds of some the possibility that Elvis became famous because he was a symbol of the white majority's resistance to black demands for equality...
...They were his people, the working class, and he had never ceased to identify with them...
...They knew where the money was, where the numbers were, and they took him that way he couldn't have been as big a star as he was if he had kept doing what he started out doing...
...In their eyes, he had become a religious, patriotic, law-abiding superstar who gave away Cadillacs to strangers and who somehow retained a magnetic sex appeal...
...dollar bills featuring his picture in place of George Washington's can be had for $3.95...
...Certainly you'll find among them more of a feeling for Elvis than you'll find anywhere else...
...Their king is dead, but death has not diminished the scope or the potency of his influence...
...He points out that few blacks or white-collar whites are seen in the crowds that throng to Graceland...
...Even on the grayest of winter days, they can be counted in the hundreds...
...Still, it is fascinating to contemplate what might have resulted if Presley and King had made any public show of appreciation for each other...
...Werner T. May, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Memphis, is among those who discount racial animosity as a partial explanation for Presley's superstardom, but he agrees that "the packaged Presley" was principally a hero of the white working class...
...on the contrary, it seems to have assured the continuing growth of his already legendary image...
...When he was alive, Elvis Presley had a following so large and so devoted that not even middle-age flabbiness and fading skill as a performer could tarnish his image...
...He became a movie star, and all his movies were rags-to-riches romances...
...Finally, what a typical devoted fan of Presley's gives as explanations for his lofty reputation "He was one of us, he acted out our deepest wishes, he remained a decent person" can be heard virtually word for word in continuing eulogies to the memory of Martin Luther King...
...written their names and messages of grief on the 100-yard-long stone wall in front of the mansion...
...Factors, Inc., a Delaware-based celebrity merchandising outfit headed by Harry "The Bear" Geissler, has subsequently created a multi-million-dollar business out of the thirty-five or forty "official" Presley souvenirs it has authorized for sale...
...Thinking of it that way, the Presley phenomenon doesn't surprise me...
...After a public appearance there, he got in her convertible and drove her around the block, gave her his autograph and a kiss...
...A black musician asserts with some bitterness that Presley "stole our music and made a killing off of it...
...The people who packaged him knew what they were doing," he adds...
...Elvis Presley's sudden and unexpected death at the age of forty-two in August 1977 ended a twenty-three-year career of storybook proportions...
...He owed everything to them, of course, to the blacks...
...He became a cult figure, the way others had before him," Dr...
...Some surreptitiously take away twigs and leaves, chips of tree bark, even blades of grass for keepsakes...
...As a Southerner, he was closer to that music he was not just covering, he was making it with black music, when it couldn't get into white homes any other way...
...The critics were brutal to him, but the teenagers loved him, he drew the TV audiences, he became a symbol of rebellious self-assertion in an age of conformity...
...in the long, sultry afternoons of midsummer, their number swells beyond 10,000...
...May says...
...The true believers the whites and blacks who loved his early originality disappeared when he became a packaged Dafford Brewster, a fifty-three-year-old steelworker from northeast Alabama, had driven 360 miles to see the grave of Elvis Presley...
...After his death, Dr...
...But around Memphis, where his career began and ended, it is at least possible to pick up a few interesting clues...
...A suburban business executive who has never been to Graceland and "never went crazy over Elvis" says he was "a genius at communicating on several levels, through the senses of sight, sound and touch...
...His fusion of white country music with black rhythm and blues gave birth to rock and roll and propelled him from low-income obscurity to international fame and fortune...
...Just as Presley was called, at the beginning of his fame, a "racially integrated singer," King was seen as a racially integrated social activist...
...Television helped enormously, and so did the movies...
...His mother, Gladys Presley, is buried next to him...
...The magnitude of his celebrity was such that he lived virtually as a prisoner of fame, isolated behind the walls of Graceland with members of his family and a retinue of attendants...
...Vernon Presley lives there now with his mother and his sister, and a staff of fourteen provides them with service and security...
...Elvis's grave is in a meditation garden at the right end of the house...
...If that is so, Presley himself never made much of it...
...She was ecstatic...
...His career can be looked at as a revealing picture of the times...
...to 6 p.m., six days a week...
...And not even Geissler and Parker, for all their hustling genius, have found a way to prevent (or get a piece of) the rash of "insider" books about Presley, or the bizarre emergence of Elvis clones performers who imitate the rock and roll superstar even to the point of undergoing plastic surgery to gain a physical likeness of him...
...The house is off limits to visitors, but there is no charge for admission to the garden, and those who come, according to Vester Presley, are almost always orderly and respectful...
...Considering how closely both men were identified with Memphis in life as well as in death it seems logical to reflect upon some interesting similarities and differences in their parallel careers...
...The "average" fan, he says, is a working-class white woman in her mid-thirties someone who identified with Elvis and idolized him as a teenager in the late 1950s...
...Thomas shrugs and smiles...
...Parker's main contribution was the pacing," he says...
...Even now, Presley's pulsating rockabilly delivery and the originality of the arrangements radiates from those old recordings...
...Thousands have John Egerton, a free-lance writer based in Nashville, is the author of "The Americanization of Dixie" and "Visions of Utopia...
...He is an affable, unpretentious man with a hook nose and a pointed chin...
...His early records were top sellers among blacks as well as whites...
...Directly across Elvis Presley Boulevard from the mansion, seven shops maintain a brisk business in the widest imaginable assortment of souvenirs and trinkets bearing Elvis's name or likeness: posters, calendars, ashtrays, T-shirts, records, books, stamps, slides, magazines, music boxes, statuettes, medallions, maps, lapel buttons, stickpins, bumper stickers, rings, pocket knives, lockets, patches, paperweights, playing cards, watches, lighters, mugs, pillows, license plates, street-name signs, shopping bags, wastebaskets, coasters, swizzle sticks, dinner plates, scarves, pens, pennants...
...If the two men ever met and talked, the public record obscures that fact...
...they praise him for the "God-given talent that he shared with the world" and for "his generosity and his kind feelings for his fellow man...
...What else can I say...
...John Bakke, a forty-year-old Iowan who has taught theater and communication arts at Memphis State University for the past decade, remembers being unimpressed by Elvis in the beginning, only to become a keen student of his career in recent years...
...He lost his black following then, and never regained it...
...At the bottom of the plaque are the letters "TCB" and a lightning bolt, symbolizing the entertainer's favorite expression: "taking care of business...
...Bakke thinks too much credit has been given to Tom Parker and not enough to Sam Phillips and Elvis himself for the development of the singer's career...
...Another claims he was "a creation of Tom Parker's imagination, pure and simple...
...He was a great man," Brewster said...
...Sometimes the crowd gets to the point where we can't handle it," he says...
...In later years, when so much music was addressed to social issues and causes, other whites besides Elvis were far closer to having a black following than he...
...Rufus Thomas, one of the great black musicians here, says Elvis was the only white who could sing black music right...

Vol. 43 • March 1979 • No. 3


 
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