By Vic Varney
On Friday, Elvis Presley will have been dead for as long as he was alive, 42 years. Trying to sum up his afterlife is as challenging as getting drawn into the classic disagreements about his abilities: arguing whether his singing had the dexterity of Sarah Vaughan’s or the creativity of Billie Holiday’s or the power of Aretha Franklin’s or the nuance of Frank Sinatra’s (no, no, no, and no); if he could dance as well as James Brown or Michael Jackson (no and no); or could act (yes — just not on film).
All of which is totally irrelevant. However you add it up, Elvis did the most American thing there ever was: He paved his own way. How he made and — sadly, maddeningly — unmade his own way stands alone. Love him or hate him (or love him and hate him), but give him this: There was nothing remotely like him before, and there’s been nothing quite like him since.
Of course, many will argue there was a great many like him before, that in fact his whole shtick was cultural appropriation and that the story of Elvis Presley is simply the gross racist story of America writ large.
Any fair examination of Elvis and race has to begin with this: In his lifetime, that was pretty much a non-issue, at least as far as African Americans were concerned. It’s true that one racist slur was attributed to Elvis — and emphatically denied by him. In 1957, Jet Magazine, which had an enormous black readership, assigned Louie Robinson to do an article on Elvis, with a particular focus on whatever racial implications were or were not relevant to his story.
It’s an interesting piece, in which Robinson concluded the remark couldn’t be substantiated and seemed “highly unlikely” to those who knew Elvis best. He came away convinced the singer had a deep respect for black people and black music. (He also confirmed that Otis Blackwell, the writer of two signal Elvis hits, “Don’t Be Cruel” and “All Shook Up” got treated right: “I got a good deal. I made money. I’m happy.”)
In the ’50s, the only people who seemed to be much concerned with whatever signals Elvis was sending about race — many of whom were apoplectic — sure as hell weren’t worried about his being too white.
Soon after moving to Memphis at 11, his family got an apartment in a housing project — and were happy to have it. Following an even earlier interest in black music, especially that of the church, Elvis was immediately captivated by the effervescent music scene in Memphis. Between being smitten by the whole Beale Street vibe and just the basic logistics of his life, he had probably had more exchange with black people by the time he walked into Sun Studios in 1955 than most white people anywhere in America — then or now — have in a lifetime.
That, of course, does not indemnify him against the charge of racism. But there’s an enormous volume of material on the matter, and if you’re queasy about taking David Troedson’s exhaustive defenses seriously because he’s white, consider this:
James Brown (who, alone among non-family members, was given a private viewing at Elvis’ wake): “I wasn’t just a fan, I was his brother. … I love him, and I hope to see him in heaven. There’ll never be another like that soul brother.”
Muhammad Ali: “Elvis was my close personal friend. … I don’t admire nobody, but Elvis Presley was the sweetest, most humble, nicest man you’d want to know.”
Ernest Withers: “Elvis was a great man and did more for civil rights than people know. To call him a racist is an insult to us all.”
Countless other African Americans echoed these sentiments, including Fats Domino, Jackie Wilson, Rufus Thomas, Roy Hamilton, Little Richard, Jim Brown, Mahalia Jackson, Barbara McNair, and B.B. King. The two Memphis African-American newspapers of that era, the Memphis World and the Tri-State Defender, referred to him as “a race man,” a term usually reserved for people like Jackie Robinson and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who were willing to stand up for civil rights.
None of which, I accept, is going to close the case on race and Elvis for those who can’t ignore the issue of appropriation. That seems to be a fairer charge, at least if you can somehow ignore the obviously white —sorry, but here the word is actually useful — hillbilly element in his vocal style. (Was that an appropriation?)
Once again, the best rebuttals are offered by African Americans:
Jackie Wilson: “A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man’s music, when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis.”
Chuck Berry: “Describe Elvis Presley? He was the greatest who ever was, or is, or will ever be.”
Eddie Murphy: “That’s my idol, Elvis Presley. … He’s the greatest entertainer that ever lived.”
Little Richard: “He opened the door for black music. … Elvis was an integrator. Elvis was a blessing.”
And from fellow Memphis musicians:
Al Green: “Elvis had an influence on everybody with his musical approach. He broke the ice for all of us.”
Isaac Hayes: “Elvis was due the respect he had … no sour grapes … Elvis was the man.”
Rufus Thomas (who regularly played Elvis records on his WDIA radio show): “Well, a lot of people said Elvis stole our music. … The black man, white man, has got no music of their own. Music belongs to the universe.”
Finally, and perhaps most interestingly from our current vantage point, is rapper Chuck D., who excoriated Elvis (“Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me”) in Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Given a network TV assignment to do a current black perspective on Elvis, he visited Graceland and was moved to say: “Elvis had to come through the streets of Memphis and turn out black crowds before he became famous. … It wasn’t like he cheated to get there. He was a badass white boy. Just like Eminem is doing today.”
“Hound Dog” is often pointed to as an example of how Elvis got rich while Big Mama Thornton, who did it first, didn’t, but what often gets overlooked is the song was written by two Jewish songwriters, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who received full credit — and a lot of money — for it.
Elvis never failed to credit African Americans who wrote some of his early hits. If his original sin was being anointed king of a form he did not invent, it was a mantle he never claimed to deserve. If anything, he went out of his way to defer to those who were the real thing.
“Let’s face it,” he once said. “I can’t sing like Fats Domino can. I know that.”
Elvis shares a distinction with Ray Charles. Both got singles to No. 1 on the R&B (mostly black), Pop (mostly white), and Country (really white) charts simultaneously. Elvis did it four times. He had a lot of black fans, especially in the early days, and then again in the early ’70s. Were they all just wrong?
You decide. I have no doubt Elvis was surrounded by people his entire life who were anything but enlightened about race. But rather than dwell on whatever assumptions follow that, it seems to me much fairer to consider how he transcended those assumptions.
All that aside, I wonder: why, having spent my entire life not all that interested in Elvis, am I suddenly so taken with his story? Certainly, the HBO doc, “Elvis: the Searcher,” played a role, as it led to my reading the Peter Guralnick tomes, the definitive biographies of Elvis, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love.
One thing both the documentary and the Guralnick books make clear is just how great that initial promise was — and how quickly it was broken. Like watching a documentary about, say, the Civil War (you know how it ends), you know how far the King is going to fall, know how bad the movies really were (they really were), know what’s going to happen when the Colonel walks in and Sam Phillips walks out, you still find yourself rooting for something like grace.
Maybe because this, too, is true: Elvis has to be regarded as electrifying as any entertainer ever. Into a blindingly white world where kids were becoming increasingly inured to doggie-in-the-window music poo suddenly came an Everest-in-Tennessee, exuding sex. Boom. They came in droves and they never left. Surely only Umm Kulthum, for the passage of whose funeral cortege four million people lined the streets of Cairo, competes in terms of fan dedication, but Elvis’ appeal extends far beyond that of his own culture.
Many objective observers, musicians who weren’t really in his corner, those who had worked with artists such as Jackie Wilson and Aretha and Sinatra, attested to the fact Elvis’ live performances, at their best, came closest to providing a Genuine Religious Experience. Grown middle class white women in heels walked over people’s tables — over people’s steaks — to get the best position up front to worship the King.
The frenzy the Stones and Beatles elicited was overwhelming, but Elvis was the first to do it on that large a scale. And he got that frenzy out of kids and grownups.
Still: Why do I care about any of this? All the wonder of 1956 quickly devolved into one horrible choice after another. Really Bad Shit happens to Really Good People all the time. Why does this strike me as so heartbreaking?
Put another way: How could a man with few redeeming qualities become president of the United States, then turn out to be even worse than we (who despise him) thought he would be, all the while eliciting a dedication from those who love him that is as deep as it is real? In other words, why is it that We the People give a damn about the facts and unfacts of those richer and more adored — and in some cases far more ridiculous and worse — than we ever will be? Why do we think we might actually know such people? Why would we ever want to?
I can’t answer that. All I know is that I’ve spent much of the last year thinking a lot about Elvis Presley, and feeling for him.
But just so we’re clear: You can’t overlook Elvis’ gross role in his own undoing.
He didn’t have to spend his entire adult [sic] life in a diving bell full of sycophants. However much you might sympathize with his taking speed in the Army to stay awake on watch, and, in Hollywood, extending his addiction to downers in order to sleep, he didn’t have to eschew, over and over again, the considerable help he could have taken advantage of to get off the damn stuff.
He didn’t have to stay on the treadmill of one embarrassing movie after another.
Or abandon a sincere quest for spiritual enlightenment, begun with Larry Geller — dropped, apparently, because the dumbasses around him thought “all that” was just weird.
Or buy everyone he wanted to impress a fancy car.
Or be a totally possessive, impossibly needy son of a bitch to one woman after another, never speaking to a number of them again after the silliest slight, any deviation from seeing things His way.
Or own three jets.
Or abandon his essential humility and politeness and become a messianic bully.
Or fall in love with every police department he ever met, shoot out chandeliers, embrace Richard Nixon, or regard J. Edgar Hoover as the Greatest American Ever;
Or stick with the Colonel.
He didn’t have to spend almost his entire professional life in denial of everything.
Or did he? Once he had become a waddling drug store, could he have turned things around?
Here’s the greatest mystery because it’s at the core of what he was all about, in the best way: No one on Earth was ever more in love with singing, had a deeper understanding of what songs are, than Elvis. Whatever happened to that?
Maybe it’s not so complicated. Maybe this: Elvis, despite his intelligence and immense talent, was also vain as hell, had a huge love hole that needed to be filled (and refilled, without end, especially after the death of his mother), and didn’t have enough sense of social security to resist the allure of becoming a Big Movie Star.
And it’s touching that, while never being embraced by the Swells, he really was loved in Hollywood. So many who assumed he was an overrated, out-of-his-depth, hick teenage heartthrob came to see his charisma was real, that he really was beautiful and sincere and charming and remarkably polite and disarmingly humble and, dammit, really likeable. Against all odds, most in Hollywood who got to know him actually wanted him to succeed.
Saddest of all: His early movies made a ton of money. In short, that rabbit hole, however disastrous, is pretty easy to explain.
So, write off that decade as Rock Dreams Deferred to Hollywood Glamour and a Whole Lotta Easy Money. By the time he comes out the other end, disillusioned, hooked on a pharmacopeia of god-knows-what, having been totally passed over by the greatest revolution in popular musical history, he’s musically lost and a fucking square.
Then, against all odds, in 1968 he makes a pretty great effort to reestablish himself as a musical force. But alas, by then, he was too far gone on drugs and vanity and Really Bad Choices.
Who among us knows what it’s like to be responsible for the lives of dozens of others? Who can even imagine what it would be like to be loved — truly, genuinely adored — by millions all over the world, and in turn truly, deeply love them back, as he really did?
If you’re to come down kindly on everything that went so totally wrong, that’s the side to come down on: More than any other public figure ever, in any field, Elvis Presley had an unbreakable bond with those who really did love him, and, however poorly he might have returned that love, he never stopped trying. You gotta love him for that.
But that’s still not it; that’s not why I’m writing this. It’s the voice, isn’t it?
Sure, it was put to some pretty awful missions. He had always thought of himself as essentially a balladeer and sometimes that came out great — touching, full of an overwhelming tenderness, charisma, and style.
But as his career progressed that element went from dramatic to operatic to histrionic to bathetic kitsch. When first recorded, “How Great Thou Art” comes off as a sincere, if somewhat over the top, profession of belief. As performed near the end, it’s a hysterical plea for mercy by a man whose sanity is questionable. (And the crowd, by the way, ate it up. Maybe that’s the problem with megalomaniacs: If they can walk out on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and still be loved, why expect them to change?)
But then there’s also “Hurt,” that burst of Total Elvis Wow from only a year before his death, that just takes the top of your head off. No, it doesn’t have the intellectual dimension that will always separate the way we regard him from those who write their own material, Elvis Costello and Joni Mitchell and the Beatles and Dylan and Marvin Gaye and Norah Jones and Tupac.
And who gives a shit? “Hurt,” like all his best songs, has what everyone responds to, that distinct mix of instant identification (one note, and you know it’s Elvis), vulnerability (you know you want to save him), and volcanic power, often, as here, brought to a climax whose over-the-top-ness is not just forgivable, it’s what you came for.
It has, more precisely, this, expressed by Marion Keisker, Sam Phillips’ assistant at Sun Records: “He was like a mirror. Whatever you were looking for, you were going to find in him. It was not in him to lie. … He had all the intricacy of the very simple.”
Yes. That’s what all real soul searchers, sung or unsung, try (and often fail) to sing: the powerful intricacy of the very simple.
Vic Varney lives and works in Athens, Georgia. His band, the Method Actors, helped build the Athens music scene that came to global notoriety in the late 1970s and early ’80s.