by Sandy Carter
In the last two decades, the image of Elvis Presley has been so thoroughly obfuscated by myth and parody, it is near impossible to recall his life and music without bringing to mind the ridiculous and tragic figure he had become by the time of his death.
With that in mind, Peter Guralnick’s two-volume biography, Last Train To Memphis: The Rise Of Elvis Presley (Little, Brown, 1995) and the recently published Careless Love: The Unmaking Of Elvis Presley (Little, Brown, 1999), is a welcome and authoritative revision of Presley’s legacy. By replacing what he calls the “chorus of informed opinion, uninformed speculation, hagiography, symbolism, and blame” with meticulous research, empathy, and no personal or moral ax to grind, Guralnick gives us back the fragile, insecure, enormously talented human being lost in the myth known as Elvis.
The broad outline of Presley’s rise and fall is known to many. Poor, southern white trash boy gets discovered by record producer (Sam Phillips) looking for a white man with a black sound. The kid becomes an overnight success, “the king of rock and roll,” but in the process trades his inspiration for wealth, fame, and the security of an insular world guarded by fawning friends and his trusted, controlling manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Stuck in a work cycle producing embarrassing movies, banal music, and grandiose Las Vegas styled live concerts, he becomes a bore and a joke. Physically wrecked, 14 different drugs in his system, spiritually empty, Elvis Presley dies in 1977 at the age of 42 while sitting on his toilet, gold pajama bottoms at his ankles.
Guralnick’s two-part biography follows this same arc, but unlike other Presley biographies, and the many “life with Elvis” accounts offered by hangers-on, lovers, relatives, and employees, steers toward clear-eyed description, and as much as possible, the point of view of Elvis. Armed with more than ten years worth of research, hundreds of interviews, and a deep affinity for the music and culture that gave birth to Elvis, Guralnick takes a story that millions assume they know and transforms it into a revelatory and poignant meditation on “celebrity and its consequences.”
Tracing Presley’s family and social background, childhood and adolescence, early musical passions, and meteoric rise to stardom, Last Train To Memphis is clearly the more fun read of Guralnick’s two volumes. Propelled by the young Elvis’s drive to invent a life beyond his humble origins, the first book sustains an exuberant energy even as it sketches a bittersweet portrait of a young man wounded by deep-seated insecurities. Stigmatized by his poverty, shy, lonely, and undistinguished in any way, the young Elvis Presley discovered in music, a form of peace and self-expression absent from his everyday world. Music, all kinds of it (blues, gospel, pop, country,opera), became his all consuming passion, though few of his peers seemed to care or notice.
Still, according to Guralnick, the 18-year-old singer who showed up at Sam Phillips’s Sun Records in Memphis in 1953 had only a vague vision of where his musical interests might lead. Though a raw, unshaped talent with no definite ambitions, Presley had something unlike anyone else. And through experimentation, instinct, and accident, he and Sam Phillips, guitarist Scotty Moore, and bassist Bill Black, found a wondrous “rockabilly” sound in recordings such as “That’s All Right,” “Blue Moon Of Kentucky,” “Baby Let’s Play House,” and “Good Rockin’ Tonight.”
The circumstances of the legendary Sun sessions have been recounted in many other books, but the notion persists that Elvis’s creative breakthrough was nothing more than a rip-off of black music. Guralnick, like Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus, and other music writers, presents evidence of Presley’s broad range of musical influences (Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Mario Lanza, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, Ray Charles, Ivory Joe Hunter, Arthur Crudup) and the out of nowhere surprise that yielded “That’s All Right.” As guitarist Scotty Moore recalled: “All of a sudden, Elvis just started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool, and then Bill picked up the bass, and he started acting the fool, too, and I started playing with them. Sam, I think, had the door to the control booth open—I don’t know, he was either editing tape, or doing something—and he stuck his head out and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And we said, ‘We don’t know.’ ‘Well, back up,’ he said, ‘try to find a place to start, and do it again.’”
Up until the moment of Elvis’s spontaneous cover of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s blues, Sam Phillips, a passionate fan of African American music and producer of records by blues singers like Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, said he had heard nothing in any of the songs Presley had previously performed that indicated any interest in this kind of music. But growing up in the low-income neighborhoods of Tupelo, Mississippi and Memphis, Presley had absorbed the music of poor whites and poor blacks without making distinctions or classifications. When he finally revealed his attraction to black music, Phillips sensed more than the emergence of a bold, new talent. Here was a kindred spirit who might join him in his mission to “knock the shit out of the color line.”
As a child working on his father’s farm, Sam Phillips had developed a deep enthusiasm and respect for African American music and culture. Moreover, he came to believe (and advocated publicly and privately) in the social equality and unique individuality of all human beings. Through music, particularly the traditions of working class whites and blacks, he hoped to affirm his egalitarian vision. While the young Elvis Presley did not consciously express Phillips’s philosophy, through his lack of prejudice and powerful projection of aggressive desire and yearning, the singer seemed to be striving intuitively toward the same dream.
Guralnick, however, while underscoring the heavy blues influence on many of Elvis’s early recordings, clearly shows that the song repertoire, musical styles, licks and rhythms, stance and sentiments that converged in Presley’s music did not derive from exclusively black roots. Whether he was covering a bluegrass tune of Bill Monroe, a country weeper of Leon Payne, a blues of Big Mama Thornton, or a rocker of Little Richard, Elvis’s singing and musical backing expressed a broad cross-pollination of influences and genres. The resulting interpretations, inevitably, sounded only like Elvis.
Perhaps the best proof for this case can be found on last year’s The King’s Record Collection, Vols. 1 and 2 (Hip-O), a 2-CD package offering the original versions of tunes that Elvis later covered. Though Chuck Berry and Little Richard may stake a legitimate claim to the King Of Rock and Roll title, The King’s Record Collectiondemonstrates not only Presley’s varied and good taste, but the distance he went to make a song his own.
In regard to his “theft” of the blues, here’s how Presley explained the origins of his take on blues in a 1956 interview: “The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doing it now, man, for more years than I know. They played it like that in their shanties, and their juke joints, and nobody paid it no mind ’till I goosed it up. I got it from them. Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now, and I said if I ever got to the place where I could feel like old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.”
Indeed he did become a music man like nobody ever saw. But it wasn’t just how he sang (“hillbilly in R&B time” one Louisiana DJ called it) or what he sang (almost the full spectrum of American music). It was also his good looks, the way he stood, the way he moved, the sneer of his lips, the greased back hair, the turned-up collar, pink pants and black coat. All of these qualities combined to make Elvis Presley a phenomenon above and beyond all the other white rock and rollers who followed in his wake (Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran).
As for black rockers (Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino), given the racial barriers of the time and the growing buying power of white teenagers, no African American, no matter how great their talent, could possibly contend for the crown of King of Rock and Roll. Though black music in the 1950s was beginning to make its radio crossover around the country, most whites heard it first and preferred it most translated through white performers. Surprisingly, Gural- nick, the author of several other books illuminating the racially tangled histories of Southern rooted musical forms, has little to say about how race attitudes handicapped the popularity of black rock and roll.
Still, as Guralnick shows, for the white folks around to register the shock and excitement of seeing Elvis on his way up, “the hillbilly cat” did seem like something from another world. When his first records were released by Sam Phillips, Presley’s mutation of country and R&B traditions had neither artistic credibility nor proven commercial potential. As a Southern white working class youth, his image fit no pop idol mold.
But with his restless body language and impassioned singing, Presley struck a nerve. In expressing his desperate need to break free of the drab and stifling life he had been born into, he connected to an entire generation. Within a few short years, he exploded from “a promising hillbilly act” recording for a small independent record company catering to a regional market to phenomenal pop success generating 14 consecutive million selling hit singles for the major label RCA.
In retrospect, it is easy to see the historical forces at work in Presley’s success. The post-war economic boom, an expanding youth market, more black music on white radio, cross-race musical exchanges (particularly in the South), the rise of young movie star rebels (Marlon Brando and James Dean), and a square, conformist mainstream culture, set the stage for rock and roll’s inevitable arrival. Nevertheless, when Elvis Presley stepped before audiences in the 1950s, he was something strange, unexpected, and undeniably charismatic.
Guralnick supplies ample testimony of Elvis’s mesmerizing impact on musicians and fans witnessing his early performances. What he fails to convey is the depth of the negative reaction Presley inspired. To the majority of the adult world, Elvis provided fodder for jokes and derision. He was both talentless and disgusting. At best, a harmless passing fad. At worst, a bad influence. But to some, particularly in the South, his music and persona expressed something more dangerous—a subversive degradation of white culture. Modest, soft-spoken, and ever polite off-stage, Elvis on-stage embodied the breakdown of racial taboos. The joy and release delivered in his performances came organically bundled with threat and provocation.
In his essay on Presley in Lost Highway (Godine, 1979), Gural- nick quotes Elvis recalling his earliest musical influences in the Pentecostal First Assembly Of God: “Since I was two years old, all I knew was gospel music, that was music to me. We borrowed the style of our psalm singing from the early Negroes. We used to go to these religious singings all the time. The preachers cut up all over the place, jumping on the piano, moving every which way. The audience liked them. I guess I learned from them. I loved the music. It became such a part of my life it was as natural as dancing, a way to escape from the problems and my way of release.”
On the radio and in the less respectable parts of town where the Presley family lived with the support of welfare and public housing, there was the blues. “I dug the real low-down Mississippi singers,” Elvis explained, even though, like many blacks, his parents considered it “sinful music.” Yet in these raucous sounds of struggle and celebration, the young Presley discovered excitement and freedom absent from the country, gospel, and pop tunes that made up the conventional soundtrack of the white community.
However, for all his love and natural absorption of black music, Elvis spoke the truth when he explained to Sam Phillips that he didn’t sound “like nobody.” Black music was only one of his interests. Ultimately, his ambition was to sing all kinds of music. As much as he loved the low-down blues, Presley still maintained an enthusiasm for pop crooners like Dean Martin and Perry Como. Though a true outsider in his Sun Records days, from the beginning he aimed for nothing less than mainstream success.
In the earliest moments of his rise to national popularity, and within months of signing on with Colonel Tom Parker and RCA, Elvis was moving toward a smoother, slicker sound utilizing the latest studio technology, back-up singers, and expanded instrumentation. For a few more years, one great rock record would follow another (“Hound Dog,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”), but by the time he was drafted into the Army in 1958, Elvis’s most inspired and innovative music (with a few exceptions) was already behind him.
Documenting the second half of Presley’s life, beginning with his two-year stretch in the army and concluding with his death in Memphis in 1977, Careless Love plots what Guralnick calls an “inexorable decline.” Although the final volume of the biography opens with the 25-year-old Presley charged to follow the blueprints of Colonel Tom Parker to rekindle and magnify his stardom, gradually the story turns somber, sad, and pathetic as Elvis succumbs to the many pitfalls of his fame.
Piling up all the excruciating details of the singer’s relentless downslide—the insulated boys club life in his Graceland mansion, dumb and dumber Hollywood movies, increasing dependence on speed and downers, blind faith in Colonel Parker, juvenile sexuality and a deep need for mothering, all the pitiful efforts to buy friends, lovers, and respect, and above all else, the betrayal of his music to the formulaic demands of the mass market—Guralnick portrays a man utterly ill-equipped to deal with the traps of sudden and unprecedented fame.
After all this thorough and sordid reportage, however, the last half of Presley’s life still remains out of focus. In choosing to dwell on all the intimate facts of Elvis’s walled-in world, Guralnick’s second volume, unlike the first, offers virtually no social perspective. With little indication of the magnitude of the social and political upheavals happening outside his legendary mansion, readers have no clear sense of how and why Elvis had become so completely unhip by the 1960s. His hair, his clothes, his music, the gaudy materialism—all of it expressed just how out of sync he was with the changing times.
Guralnick, a passionate fan of Elvis’s early music, is certainly aware of this, and in shorter pieces has written of his disappointment and disconnection with Presley during the 1960s and 1970s. But in Careless Love, he ignores social context and offers only vague hints of Elvis’s views on the Vietnam war, civil rights, and other issues of the day. As a result, the picture of Presley in the 1960s is both puzzling and incomplete.
We learn, for instance, of Elvis’s brooding anguish over the assassinations of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, his serious appreciation of socially progressive films like Dr. Strangelove and To Kill A Mockingbird, and an affection for Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind.” But in 1970, in an entirely nutty meeting with Richard Nixon, we have the King begging for an honorary appointment as a federal drug agent and advising the president on the threat of anti-Americanism fostered by hippie elements, SDS, the Black Panthers, and the Beatles. How all this fits together in Elvis’s mind, Guralnick leaves readers to speculate.
What is certain is that for all the swaggering confidence Elvis exuded in public, he remained terribly lonely and insecure. To cover his fears, he needed and demanded total approval. To achieve it, he very quickly traded creative risk-taking and “real life” for the easy ego-propping comforts sustained by his wealth and bought and paid for friends.
As Guralnick painfully recounts, this bargain never delivered much peace of mind. Elvis was deeply embarrassed by his string of schlocky movies (Girls! Girls! Girls!, Clambake, Roustabout, to mention only a few), and the increasing banality of his music. He complained often of the burden of living up to his image, people using him, the Colonel’s control over his life and career. Here and there, like in his televised 1968 “comeback concert,” he showed signs of thrilling power and naked emotions suggesting a possible redemption. But in the end, as Guralnick puts it, “he was not about to throw away the identity he had so assiduously created, he enjoyed being Elvis Presley.”
Aside from this and a few other critical judgments about Presley’s life and music, however, Guralnick shows little interest in interpreting Elvis’s “unmaking,” and ultimately this is his work’s biggest failing. Choosing to restrict himself mainly to “describing a life,” Guralnick logs endless, repetitious accounts of movie set pranks, bedroom escapades, and Elvis’s fervent interest in karate and eastern religion that tell us only that our subject is bored and frustrated. Without suggesting any final answers, a little more intelligent guesswork about Elvis’s hidden injuries of class, his enigmatic bond with Colonel Parker, or the impact of his mother’s death would surely offer more to chew on.