Comprehending a true genius: Elvis Presley, 25 years dead

On Books

January 26, 2003|By Michael Pakenham

Like him or not, Elvis Presley was an entertainer of such immense popularity as to defy comparison in his era. Beyond that, during his lifetime he was one of the most influential humans on earth -- not just in terms of music and art, but also in his impact on social customs, sexual attitudes, class divisions, style, the nature of irony and the self-image of hundreds of millions of people.

The Beatles idolized him. Rock 'n' roll emanated from him. Richard Nixon opened his Oval Office trinkets drawer to him. More people have impersonated him than anyone save Santa Claus, whose historical authenticity is, at best, questionable.

Today, 25 years after his death at 42, Presley lives on in hearts, minds and imaginations -- an immortal. Were NASA to find him, alive and well on Alpha Centauri, millions of people around this globe would immediately say, "I knew it all the time."

Hundreds of millions of words have been written about him, many of them trivial or mawkishly adulatory, harangues or exploitations of incidents or intimacies. There are also substantial biographies of Presley, with Peter Guralnick's magisterial two-volume work at the top of the list.

For readers less fanatical, now comes Elvis Presley: A Penguin Life, by Bobbie Ann Mason (173 pages, $19.95). It is one of the best of that extraordinary series of concise, reflective biographies that Viking has been publishing under the Lipper imprint.

Mason's work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's. Her Shiloh and Other Stories and Feather Crowns won national awards. Her novel In Country became a movie. Her memoir, Clear Springs, was a Pulitzer finalist. She lives in rural Kentucky and knows more than a herd of possums about the hardscrabble South.

The Presleys were hardscrabble, from East Tupelo, Miss. --but far from simple. Gladys, his mother, had been gorgeous but aged young. Vernon, his father, was shiftless, driving a milk route when his son was born in 1935. Elvis had a stillborn twin brother, a trauma that the family, otherwise childless, went on talking and thinking about. Vernon went to prison for eight months for doctoring a check when his son was 3.

Presley's was a childhood full of desperation, threats and fear. He had severe acne. He was a declarative nonconformist as a kid, wearing outlandish clothes and long hair before it was popular. He failed music courses in high school, where he was a shy, secretive and often ridiculed social outcast.

From the beginning, he was hugely responsive to music, especially in the Holiness Assembly of God, the Pentecostal church the family attended. When he was 13, the family moved to Memphis. There he was exposed to African-American music, both religious and secular. He became very close to blacks he met and whose music he admired and learned, deeply influencing his life work

On July 5, 1954, when he was 19 years old, in the Sun Records studio in Memphis, he sang "That's All Right (Mama)." Quickly, a local disc jockey played that first record.The listeners went wild with telephone calls. He ended up playing it 14 times that first night.

Three months later, Presley was invited to perform on the Grand Ole Opry, the radio show that's the Valhalla of country music -- but he didn't belong there. He was country, but he was not a country singer.

He was Elvis.

Soon, he had 18 No.1 hit records in a row, and the album of his gold records -- ones that had sold a million copies or more -- itself sold more than a million copies. He was a millionaire by 1956. Ultimately, he was the most successful artist in RCA recording history.

Mason begins her book with a declaration that her story really is about "the utter loneliness of his life, his grasping for ways to ease his pain and sorrow. It was a sad -- in some ways a sordid -- story, hard to take." But finally, with his death, she writes, "He became a barometer of the culture, a sort of hillbilly voodoo doll."

He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1957, was sent to Germany and returned to the U.S. in 1960. Very soon after his earliest recording successes, he had been represented by Thomas A. Parker, who affected a spurious title of colonel. Mason refers to him as Presley's "owner," not his manager. After the Army stint, Parker tightened his grasp, treating the singer as a property. (Put this in your trivia trove: Parker, a Dutch exile without any official citizenship, was actually named Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk.)

After the Army there was Hollywood, which Presley detested -- he called it "Hollyweird." Parker pushed him to do more and more movies, often detested.

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