Elvis is still everywhere
King of rock 'n' roll reigns supreme 25 years after death
(CNN) -- Before there was Madonna, before there was Eminem, before there was Flea or Cher or Bono or Sade or Moby or Sisqo, there was Elvis.
OK, so Elvis had a last name -- Presley. But to the world, he was simply "Elvis." Elvis in 20-foot-high letters on his 1968 comeback TV special. Elvis on many of his album covers. Elvis on an official U.S. postage stamp.
There have been Elvises since -- musician Elvis Costello, New York Times film reviewer Elvis Mitchell -- and probably Elvises before, but there is only one Elvis.
He was, and remains, the King.
August 10 kicks off the nine days of Elvis Week, the yearly commemoration and media circus surrounding the anniversary of Presley's death on August 16, 1977. This year marks 25 years since that fateful day, and yet Elvis may have never been bigger.
Crowds will fill Memphis, Tennessee, the city he called home. Throngs will tour Graceland, the mansion he lived in. Everywhere will be Elvis. And, if some conspiracy theorists that question the details of Presley's death are to be believed, the man himself may show up.
Some might think it excessive. All this for a pop star?
Well, when it comes to Elvis, you're not just talking pop stars.
"Elvis made it the singer, not the song," says Glenn Gass, a professor of music at Indiana University. Rock 'n' roll, he adds, could have gone the way of swing music, but Elvis gave it vitality. "He's the reason rock 'n' roll is still alive."
Or, as John Lennon once said, "Before Elvis, there was nothing."
The man who would become king of rock 'n' roll was born January 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi. He was one of a pair of twins; the other child, named Jesse Garon, was stillborn.
Young Elvis grew up surrounded by all kinds of music -- gospel, country and blues. When he was a teenager, the family moved up U.S. 78 to Memphis, where Presley soaked up the rich musical tradition of the Mississippi River city.
By the early 1950s, there was a new kind of music in the air -- an energetic combination of country and R&B nicknamed "rock 'n' roll." Sometimes there was too much energy -- in Cleveland, Ohio, a concert hosted by disc jockey Alan Freed led to a riot -- but there was no doubting the pent-up demand for something besides Perry Como and Patti Page.
Presley took it all in. By 1954, he was recording demo discs at Sam Phillips' Sun Records label in Memphis. Phillips, recognizing a special spark in Presley, teamed him with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black.
Within several months, the trio had blazed through several country and R&B covers, from "That's All Right," "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and "Mystery Train," and Elvis Presley had become a regional sensation.
By the end of 1955, with the singer having attracted a manager in Colonel Tom Parker -- and with Phillips believing another of his discoveries, Carl Perkins, was going to be just as big -- Presley's contract was sold to RCA Records for $35,000.
The next year, he exploded.
'You can see how radical Elvis was'
Suddenly, Elvis truly was everywhere. He appeared on national television, including "The Ed Sullivan Show," the tastemaker for millions. (Sullivan called him "a decent, fine boy.") He toured, his hip-shaking, suggestive moves putting audiences in a swoon. He embarked on a movie career. And his records set records.
Those early RCA discs -- including "Heartbreak Hotel," "Love Me Tender," "Teddy Bear" and the incredible "Hound Dog" -- reinforce something suggested by the Sun recordings: a musician at home in any type of music, from tender ballads to hard-driving rock. Yet, with his slicked-back hair and upper-lip sneer, he seemed like a rebellious teenage delinquent.
"He could do rock, country, gospel -- it made him appeal to a wider spectrum than any other performer," says Mike Weis, a history professor at Illinois Wesleyan University who teaches a course on rock 'n' roll.
"But if you play one of the white [artists'] covers of the time, you can see how radical Elvis was. That's when you understand the impact."
The early fury was fairly short-lived. In 1958, Presley was inducted into the Army. After 1960, when he came out, he was just as popular -- at one point in the early '60s he was one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood -- but his records had largely lost their edge.
The new Elvis topped the charts with overblown, rewritten Italian pop songs, such as "It's Now or Never" and "Surrender." Parker, a one-time carnival barker, was determined to keep Presley as popular as possible -- and that meant keeping him away from the cutting edge.
Elvis' movies also became drab affairs, with only the singer's charisma holding the thin plots together. They were repetitive: Elvis as a race-car driver. Elvis goes to someplace scenic, such as Hawaii or Las Vegas. Elvis gets mixed up with too many girls. Yet the soundtracks were million sellers, and the movies invariably turned a profit.
Still, with the arrival of the British Invasion in 1964, Elvis suddenly looked passe. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and all their offspring were where it was at. Elvis was treated with respect -- Dylan loved his treatment of "Tomorrow Is a Long Time" -- but he was yesterday's vinyl.
Comeback and letdown
It was time for a comeback.
Presley had laid the groundwork himself with covers of some Jerry Reed tunes, including "Guitar Man" and "U.S. Male," clickety-clacking rockabilly songs that sounded more contemporary than anything the singer had done in a while.
He raised the stakes with his brilliant NBC TV special, which aired at Christmas 1968.
The first segment, in particular, placed Elvis in the kind of territory he had made his own: Dressed in skintight black leather, a guitar loosely draped around his neck, he pounded out almost-jokey, sexually charged versions of "Blue Christmas" and "One Night" that emanated a casual charisma and fire. The special re-established Elvis' bona fides; now he just needed to bring it all back home to the charts.
"If I Can Dream" and "In the Ghetto," from the winter of 1969, showed Presley could be socially aware, but it was "Suspicious Minds" that put him back on top. Released in the late summer of 1969, the song -- with crack Nashville players underscoring Elvis' yearning, almost-desperate vocal -- became the King's last U.S. No. 1.
From that peak, however, it was mostly downhill. There were three more Top 10 hits and constant sellout concerts, but Elvis began retreating.
He gained weight; he started abusing drugs, many prescribed to him by the infamous "Dr. Nick." Though he could put on a spectacular live show, he became a figure of parody, with his aviator glasses, rhinestone-encrusted white and aqua suits and karate-chop moves.
In the summer of 1977, he performed his last concert, in Indianapolis. A couple months later, he was found dead in his bathroom at Graceland. He was 42 years old.
The immortal craftsman
And yet he lives on.
Part of that, of course, is due to the shrewd marketing of Elvis the Legend. Elvis Presley Enterprises has increased the King's royalties manyfold. Graceland is open for regular tours, right there on Elvis Presley Boulevard.
Then there are the memories of Elvis the munificent, the man who gave Cadillacs to complete strangers, who really said "ma'am" and "sir," who gave his all at concerts and was genuinely touched by the adoration of his fans.
But what finally remains is the music. For all the substandard material he recorded over the years, Elvis was rarely less than sincere, often completely inside his songs. He was a resolute perfectionist; "Hound Dog," that monument to rock 'n' roll intensity that sounds like it was recorded in one breathless plunge, took 31 takes.
Elvis Week may be a carnival, a gathering of Everything Elvis, whether that Elvis is a bottle of shampoo or some long-sideburned overweight impersonator. But, in the end, the music -- the sheer I-can-do-anything chutzpah of a man unchained by genre, who could make up his own style on the spot -- wins out.
Rock critic Nik Cohn saw that long before the King passed away.
"Each night, his performance achieves that same first impact, of new possibilities presenting themselves, a whole new style made possible," Cohn wrote in 1969. "From the moment he comes out of the wings, all the pop that has followed him is made to seem as nothing, to be blown away like chaff."
Elvis, Elvis Presley and Graceland are registered trademarks with the USPTO.
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