The thing that bothers me most about the hoopla surrounding any Elvis-related anniversary is the fact that so many people seem unable to see past the buffoonish caricature Elvis Presley has become in the minds of so many. Fried peanut butter and banana sammitches, Vegas glitz, shooting out TV sets, drugs, “he loved his mama a little TOO much, dontcha think?” he was fat, he couldn’t sing, he didn’t write his own songs, the jumpsuits, the karate moves, on and on and on. It’s as if Elvis just suddenly appeared one day on the American pop-culture scene fully formed as some freakish clown, a mutton-chopped Southern dumbass who couldn’t find his ever-expanding butt with both hands and a compass, staggering around making a fool of himself in godawful movie after godawful movie. The fact that there was an actual person in there someplace is almost always completely lost.
So allow me to attempt to rectify that a little, if I may.
Check out the bottom-right picture below, the one with Elvis and Scotty Moore onstage. That photo was taken on July 4, 1956, at the Memphis Chick’s baseball team’s home field. The show took place right after Elvis had returned from doing the Steve Allen TV show, the one where Allen utterly humiliated Elvis by forcing him to wear a tux and sing “Hound Dog” to, well, a hound dog. Ed Sullivan had just publicly announced that he wouldn’t have Elvis on his show for love nor money, while he was already secretly in contact with Colonel Parker about booking Elvis. Elvis was just beginning to really break nationwide – the days when people would be able to drive right up to the Presley house on Audubon Drive and just stand around chatting with Gladys or Vernon or occasionally even Elvis himself were coming to an end. He was quickly being transformed from just an odd sort of local duck who loved music more than anything in the world into Elvis Freaking Presley. The world was changing, and for Elvis, Scotty, and Bill it was changing mighty damned quick.
But look at Elvis in the pic, as he looks back at Bill or DJ or whoever he’s looking at, with that kind of puzzled half-smile on his face. Then look at the crowd. Then try to imagine just what that whole scenario must have felt like to a shy kid who had never been anything but a social outcast, a freak-by-design, somebody who nobody ever thought would amount to anything at all. In the picture Elvis is 21 years old. It’s hard to even imagine what could be going through his mind. The sheer excitement, energy, and also stark terror of that moment must have been nearly overwhelming. And it was just the beginning, a mere light breeze when compared to the hurricane that was coming. One of the attendees of that show, sixteen-year-old Jack Baker, who had lived next door to Elvis only nine months before, had this to say: “There was this keening sound, this shrill, wailing, keening response, and I remember thinking, ‘That’s an amazing sound.’ And then I realized I was making it too.”
But there was plenty going through Elvis’ mind, that’s for sure. The people who like to paint Elvis up as some kind of hapless boob buffeted about by a fate he was far too stupid to understand simply don’t know the whole story. A lot of people like to disparage Elvis for being someone whose principal achievement was being in the right place at the right time, and they like to point to the fact that he didn’t write his own songs as evidence of his lack of real talent. But here again, they’re dead wrong.
When it came to the music, there is ample evidence that Elvis knew just what he was doing, and the music was the one thing he always refused to compromise on. This never really changed throughout his career – musically, Elvis was never anything but completely in charge, and if his vision faltered in the later years, well, it just points up how incredible his work was early on. Even as a kid of 19 or 20, working in the studio with seasoned pros from New York, LA, and Nashville, Elvis ran the show, no ifs, ands, or buts. When he recorded “Hound Dog” the day after the Allen show, he insisted on doing take after take, and the song evolved throughout from the bluesy grind of Big Mama Thornton’s version into the rollicking, savage romp we all know now. A tired and somewhat exasperated Steve Sholes (producer on the session) said after the twenty-sixth take that he thought they had it, but Elvis once again insisted that they keep rolling tape. They stopped after thirty-one. The one that ended up being released was number twenty-eight. And to fault Elvis for not writing his own stuff is to ignore the fact that back then, most artists didn’t write their own stuff. It was just a given that a songwriter wrote, and a singer sang, with very little intermingling of the two roles.
But maybe the best picture of Elvis as an actual human being, someone’s friend, someone else’s son or neighbor or cousin or nephew, just might be provided once again by the BP’s old manager, Mike Evans. And the story takes place only a year or so after Elvis’ death.
Mike was still working at the Charlotte Observer and was in Memphis on business. Mike is just the sort of guy who will do the most outrageous things on a moment’s impulse, and will usually manage to pull off whatever stunt it is that comes to mind too. What came to mind on this particular day was the idea that he’d just ride up to Graceland and say hello to whoever happened to answer the door. Maybe he could get inside, maybe he’d meet Vernon; who knows? So he drove his ‘Vette right up to the place and walked around to the back. Nobody was around; one of the things about Graceland that struck me the first time I went there was that the place sits in a regular neighborhood – you can look over the fence in the backyard and see people out hanging clothes on the line in the adjoining yard. It just seems so, well, ordinary, so mundane. One can only imagine what kind of craziness those neighbors witnessed over that fence in years gone by.
Anyway, Mike marches himself right up and knocks on the door. One of the housekeepers actually answers the thing: “Yes, may I help you?” “I’m Mike Evans, from Charlotte North Carolina, here to see Mr. Presley.” “One moment please.” She closes the door and walks off, then comes back a few minutes later with “Mr. Presley’s having breakfast – can you come back in about half an hour?” “Sure.” So Mike toddles off to a nearby Waffle House and has coffee, then heads back. Another knock on the door, followed by “Come right on in, Mr. Evans.” He goes into a small room, and there Vernon sits, with a half-eaten breakfast on a TV tray pushed off to the side. It just so happens that an Elvis movie is on TV. I can’t remember which one, but I think maybe it was either “Loving You” or “King Creole;” one of the good ones, anyway. They chat a bit about this and that, and then the conversation flags a bit as both men turn their attention to the movie. Vernon then said, “This was always my favorite one” and Mike agrees, and the next thing you know Vernon has burst into tears, the grief over the loss of his son still as fresh as a bleeding wound. Mike is touched and a bit overwhelmed by the overall situation and ends up hugging Vernon, both men crying on each other over a loss that each felt in very different ways. Mike ended up spending a little over an hour with Mr. Presley that day. He later met and became friendly with Scotty Moore, DJ Fontana, the Jordanaires, and plenty of others, but he’s never forgotten the time he spent with Vernon Presley, crying over the loss of a man he never really knew beyond the way any of the rest of us can know him, through the music.
And in the end, it really ought to be the music that counts. Not the bullshit, the buffoonery, the petulant rage or the Cadillacs or the diamond rings or the banana sammitches. Seems like everybody has something to say about Elvis Presley these days; love him or hate him, acknowledge his gifts and his contribution to American popular music or consider him a low-order con artist, there really is only one voice in the whole cacophony of opinion about Elvis that really counts, as Peter Guralnick says at the end of his incredible Elvis bio. And that voice is the one that leaps off the old Sun .45’s, full of vitality and eagerness and fresh, wild exuberance, the one that started a musical revolution the likes of which the world has never seen before, and never will again.