When asked how the Beatles avoided ending up like Elvis Presley, Ringo Starr said something along the lines of “There were four of us, and we kept each other sane.”
There was only one Elvis Presley, and his life was a trip down the rabbit hole of fame. Having recently finished Peter Guralnick’s outstanding two-volume biography of Elvis, Last Train To Memphis: The Rise Of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking Of Elvis Presley, I’m particularly struck by the sheer overwhelming power that fame has to destroy.
There are very few people who reach the levels of fame that Elvis reached. I can think of only the Beatles and Michael Jackson. Theirs was a fame that could only happen in the television era, when images of pop stars were being broadcast into living rooms all over the world. Frank Sinatra made the girls swoon, and his presence was ubiquitous on the radio and in movies, but it pales in comparison to the absolute mania that was created by Presley.
Elvis was not equipped to handle fame. He was poor, smart but not well-educated, and impossibly young when he burst onto the scene with “That’s All Right, Mama,” one of the most seminal of all rock and roll songs. Those early years, under the guidance of Sun Records svengali Sam Phillips, was the real prime time of Elvis’s career. While he did much excellent work at RCA, the truly essential Elvis recordings are the ones he did with Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black on bass. Over 50 years of rock and roll has elapsed since then and time and technology may have served to diminish these somewhat primitive recordings, but back then these tracks must have been explosive. They are still vital and exciting today, crucial to understanding the development of rock and roll music. The moment in “Milkcow Blues Boogie” when Elvis interrupts the slow, plodding pace of the song to rev up the band to hyper speed (“Hold it, fellas…hold it. That don’t move me. Let’s get real, real goin’ for a change”) is as apt a symbol for the birth of rock and roll as has ever existed. It is like hearing the exact moment when, as Muddy Waters once said, “The blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll.”
Fame came very quickly for Elvis. Sympathetic DJs, some of whom didn’t even know whether or not they liked the songs only that they’d never heard anything like them, picked up on Elvis and the young audiences, hungry for something new, came running. Stampeding, in fact.
The best-known Elvis tracks are the early songs he did when Sam Phillips sold Elvis’s contract to RCA. These tracks are the basis for a million Elvis compilations: “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Love Me Tender,” etc. But Elvis was a huge star before he went to RCA. Today it sounds like a big mistake when we hear that Sun sold Elvis to RCA for a mere $40,000. To some, this seems almost on a par with Decca Records dismissing the Beatles by saying that “guitar groups are on the way out.” But the fact is that 40K was a huge amount of money for such a deal. RCA wasn’t buying an unknown, they were buying a star that was on the cusp of being a superstar. And Elvis had outgrown Sun Records, a small, local label. Sam Phillips loved Elvis, but Sun was on the verge of bankruptcy and selling Elvis’s contract allowed Phillips to keep the label afloat…and give the world Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison, among many others.
Of course, the deal was really with Col. Tom Parker, a former carnival huckster and manager of Eddy Arnold. The Colonel knew next to nothing about rock and roll music, and never bothered to learn. But he knew a star when he saw one, and that was Elvis all over. Having been fired by Eddy Arnold, Col. Parker drifted, looking for his next break, and found it with the kid from Memphis. What Parker also understood was marketing. He packaged Elvis and sold him on a mass scale, and Elvis’s career went into the stratosphere. TV, concerts, movies…The Colonel always had another deal in the works that would get Elvis out front. When Elvis was drafted it would not have been that difficult to get an exemption for such a famous star, but The Colonel insisted that Elvis do his time in the Army. To not serve would look bad to his fans who expected Elvis to do the honorable thing.
It was Parker who, thanks to several unreleased recordings for both RCA and the fact that RCA now owned all the many unreleased Sun recordings, kept Elvis in the public eye while the singer was stationed in Germany. By combining recently recorded songs with older, unheard songs, Parker was able to craft long players and singles to be released during the two years Elvis was out of the limelight. By rushing the production on movies before Elvis left, fans could still see Elvis in new films. When Elvis finished his time in the Army, it was Parker who arranged for a huge welcome home party and a television special hosted by Frank Sinatra. To many people, it was as if Elvis had never left.
But Elvis had left. John Lennon once pithily observed, “Elvis died the day he went into the Army.” There’s a frightening amount of truth in that simple quip.
Far from living the life of the average soldier, Elvis was allowed to live off base with his family and a circle of friends from Memphis, all of whom he transported to Germany with him. He did his soldier duty (quite well, apparently) but in his downtime he was living a more pampered life. During this time he was also given amphetamines. At the time, they were considered wonder drugs that would give you tons of energy, were not addictive, and had no side effects. The Army handed them out, and Elvis liked them. A lot. The pep pills instilled in him a love of pharmaceuticals that would eventually kill him. Elvis seemed to genuinely believe, almost right to his dying day, that these pills were harmless. It was this disconnect with reality that allowed him to be strongly anti-drug while being a drug addict.
Elvis had a love of movies and wanted very much to be a movie star. His role model was James Dean, and Elvis believed that he could fill Dean’s shoes after the actor was killed in a car accident. All he needed was a good part in a good film. His movie career began promisingly. The early films he made before he was drafted, Love Me Tender, Loving You, Jailhouse Rock, and King Creole are considered the best he ever made, not that that’s saying much. They were, at least, serious attempts at creating a screen persona.
After the Army, deeply indebted to Parker for keeping his career afloat while he was out of commission, Elvis turned over more control to the Colonel. He was now Parker’s boy and willing to do anything his manager asked.
For Parker, the rock and roll thing was a sideline. What he really envisioned for Elvis was a successful career in movies. As the Sixties progressed, the only new music Presley recorded were songs for movie soundtracks. What made matters even worse were the deals that Parker had crafted. Both Elvis and Parker were entitled to a large share of the net profits for any movie that starred Elvis. Parker realized that those profits would be higher if the movies were made more cheaply, so he used his considerable clout to make sure that Elvis movies were made with C-level talent on rushed shooting schedules. Many of Elvis’s movies were filmed in two weeks, and then it was on to the next movie. The result of this was an endless series of bottom-dwelling films, rehashing the same plots, cheaply made, and released with no fanfare. Elvis’s name would ensure a good box office for a few weeks, and then the movie would disappear into oblivion. Elvis’s dreams of being a real actor were crushed by Parker’s desire to churn out the cheapest available product, The soundtracks, the closest thing to albums Elvis was releasing, were atrocious. While some of the earlier movies had great songs like “Jailhouse Rock” and “Return To Sender,” by 1964 the movies were weighed down by such God awful songs as “Wheels On My Heels,” “Harem Holiday,” and the immortal “Petunia, The Gardener’s Daughter.” The same man who ten years earlier had electrified a nation’s youth with his unbridled sexuality, good looks, and devastating talent was now hamming it up and singing songs that were light years away from the music he had helped create. The same month the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Elvis’s contribution to music was the soundtrack of Double Trouble, featuring songs like “Old MacDonald” and “Long Legged Girl (With The Short Dress On).” Elvis could not fall back on live performance. Parker had shut the door to concerts, preferring to concentrate on the films. The single most exciting performer of the early rock and roll era performed almost no concerts in the 1960s. Even the unplugged reunion that Elvis had with Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana in his 1968 TV special was undermined at every turn by Parker.
The ’68 special, dubbed his “Comeback Special” did light the fire in Elvis again. Combined with a disheartening experience when Elvis went outside the recording studio and stood, unrecognized, on the sidewalk as hippies passed him by, Elvis finally confronted the Colonel about getting off the movie bandwagon. He completed the films he was contractually obligated to do, while turning his attention back to creating new music and giving live performances. The music he created in the late 60s is excellent. From Elvis in Memphis is one of Presley’s best LPs, though it lacks the stripped down, raw simplicity of his early works. There’s a high gloss production of the songs from this era, which include classics like “Suspicious Minds,” “Wearin’ That Loved On Look,” and “In The Ghetto.” But Elvis’s talent shines through the gloss. For the first time in years, Elvis sounds confident and sounds like he actually likes the songs he’s singing.
Unfortunately, so much of the music he did afterwards was hurt by the increasing layers of production (tons of backup singers, string sections, you name it) and by a decreasing level of interest on the part of the singer. His early Vegas shows after the Comeback Special are considered some of the best shows he had ever done, some of the best that Vegas had ever seen (a town known for its shows). It wasn’t long, though, before the near constant intake of pills met the rigors of performing regularly. These tours were the first Elvis had done since he started taking pills, and the combination was more than he could tolerate.
From the time he went into the Army, Elvis had been coddled. The friends and relatives that he surrounded himself with, that he put on the payroll with no job description other than “hang out with Elvis” got the fame bug. They became drug addicts and drunks, none of them faithful to wives or girlfriends, all of them the patrons of the Elvis Presley Welfare State. They told Elvis whatever he wanted to hear, and made sure that they were there at Christmas time when Elvis handed out expensive gifts. This “Memphis Mafia” was formed with the idea that his old friends were the only ones he could trust. But they were seduced by the fame as well and became the worst sort of fawning sycophants. Their refusal to confront Elvis when they recognized the path he was on was practically criminal.
The women in Elvis’s life were no better. Most of them were much younger than he, confused by Elvis’s sexuality, which seemed to have been arrested when he was a teenager. They enjoyed being with Elvis, even if they didn’t understand him. Most of them turned a blind eye to his ever-increasing drug intake or, when the truth could not be avoided any longer, left him. They would lie in bed with Elvis, watching tapes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and listening while Elvis read from the Physicians’ Desk Reference. Although it dragged on for several more years in name, Elvis’s marriage to Priscilla ended the day Lisa Marie Presley was born. Such was the disconnect in Elvis’s psychology that he felt he could no longer make love to Priscilla because now she was a mother. She, of course, eventually sought the affections of someone who understood that mothers are also women.
In the early years Elvis was very much a Mama’s boy, protected and shielded by his mother who died just as Elvis was going into the Army. Through the 1960s and 1970s he was shielded from reality by Col. Parker who used Presley for his own gain (granted, Elvis made a bit of money in the bargain…quite a bit). He was blocked from reality by the Memphis Mafia who never did or said anything that might knock the gravy train off track. The women in his life, with the seeming exception of Priscilla, wanted only to be with ELVIS, the man whose name was in lights. And worst of all the drugs deadened him to any perception that he might have about himself or about what the real world had to offer. Through the last 15 years of his life Elvis succumbed more and more to the fame virus. He became isolated, withdrawn, lonely, paranoid. His once svelte figure ballooned. He forgot the words to his songs in concert, and gave lengthy rambling monologues that insulted his band members and alienated his confused audience. He would sit in the upstairs of Graceland watching his friends on closed circuit television, wondering about their loyalty. He had surrounded himself with friends and physicians who bowed before the altar of fame and got any drug the King of Rock and Roll wanted. He had everything he ever wanted and that’s not good for anyone. Fame of the type Elvis had creates its own world, and it cuts you off from the rest of humanity. You can trust nobody, your friends are using you, everybody has his or her hand out. The Beatles survived because there were four of them and any time one of them would drift into the fame world the others would bring him back. Michael Jackson did not survive, and his story in many ways is a parallel to Elvis’s story.
Elvis began as a young upstart. The first volume of Guralnick’s biography paints a portrait of a kid who seems like a genuinely nice guy, with good manners, polite, shy, deferential to his parents, respectful of women, brimming with talent and energy. He was the All-American kid, circa 1955. The second volume will break the heart of anyone who ever thrilled to the music of Elvis Presley. In the end, the All-American kid ended up on a bathroom floor with his pajamas around his ankles, having fallen off the toilet, with his face mashed into a pool of vomit.
The price of fame.