Why Elvis?

Forget the messiah with the guitar—the King was just a sweet mama’s boy whose vague dreams of stardom took him places he'd never dreamed of.

October 2, 1994
LAST TRAIN TO MEMPHIS, part one of Peter Guralnick’s projected two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, starts off slow and easy—not with Elvis himself, but with Sam and Dewey Phillips, the two men who years later would send him down the road to stardom. This is on purpose. Guralnick aims to give us not the Elvis we already know—the larger-than-life Elvis of myth and merchandising—but “the real Elvis Presley” as he emerged from the fertile soil of the Mississippi Delta.
That puts much of the focus on people such as Sam Phillips, the Memphis recording entre­preneur whose Sun label is­sued Elvis’ first record­ings, and Dewey Phillips (no rela­tion), the Mem­phis deejay who first put them on the air. It also involves setting the record straight on any number of ques­tions, like who Sam Phillips really was and what he had in mind when he brought the 19-year-old Presley into his little store­front record­ing studio. For in­stance: Did Phillips really say, as the late Albert Goldman maintained in his 1981 bio­graphy, Elvis, that he was looking for “a white boy who could sing like a nigger”? As capital of a vast cotton-growing region where black labor yielded white wealth, Memphis was a rich stew of folk cultures kept distinct by strict racial taboo. When Dewey Phillips, a white boy spinning colored platters nightly on WHBQ, began to pick up a white audience, that taboo started to wane. Sam Phillips’ recording of Elvis was the logical next step. Was Phillips acting out of casual, un­thinking contempt for black music, or out of passion and respect? It’s a critical question, because in the mythology of rock ’n’ roll, the racism of Phillips’ ambition as reported by Goldman stands out as something like original sin.

LAST TRAIN TO MEMPHIS The Rise of Elvis Presley, by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown & Co.: $24.95; 560 pp.)

Guralnick paints Phillips as a man whose devotion to rhythm & blues made him a serious non­conformist in the Memphis of the early 1950s—hardly the kind of man who’d say what Goldman claimed he did. He also says Goldman got the quote wrong, but he saves that information for a source note that fails even to acknowledge the controversy.
What we have here is a biography that is at once magisterial and quirky. A Massachusetts writer who in such earlier books as Sweet Soul Music and Searching for Robert Johnson has explored with affection and intelligence the Southern music that gave rise to rock ‘n’ roll, Guralnick has produced the definitive chronicle of Elvis’ early years—of his rise from obscurity and his launch to unparalleled stardom. But in his zeal to scrape away the glittery encrustation of myth, to “rescue” Elvis from the mass adulation he inspired, he is relentlessly singleminded. He refuses to delve into messy questions of motivation and psyche. He declines to acknowledge exactly what it is he’s rescuing Elvis from.
Despite the torrent of books on Elvis, from sizzling exposes by dis­gruntled ex-attendants to the tart con­fessional of ex-wife Pris­cilla, only one other writer has attempted a full-scale bio­graphy in the 17 years since his death. That was Albert Gold­man, who ridiculed Elvis and his world so merci­lessly that Greil Mar­cus—a critic with whom Gural­nick has much affinity—accused him of attempting “cul­tural genocide.” It’s probably beside the point to suggest that Gold­man might have been acting partly out of self-loathing, that he might have identi­fied with Elvis in some way he was or was not prepared to admit. Yet despite its carpet­bagger mentality, its eager­ness to dismiss Elvis and all around him as woe­fully ignorant hill­billies, his Elvis is a fried peanut-butter-and-banana sand­wich of a book, as irresistibly over the top as a per­formance by the King.

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Guralnick, calm and meticulous, is more akin to Sam Phillips, the musicologist he once described as a “lifelong hero.” His Elvis is neither dumb yokel nor rock ‘n’ roll mes­siah, just a pimply, poor white mama’s boy from the Mid-South, untutored and inarticulate, whose vague yearn­ing to be a star lands him in worlds he never dreamed of. Though he seems nearly as much a function of time and place as of talent and personality, his rise was clearly no accident. Guralnick presents him as the vessel, Sam and Dewey Phillips as the catalysts, and rock ‘n’ roll as a historical inevitability that sweeps all before it like a Mississippi flood.
“Why him?” other Memphis boys kept asking in the summer of 1954, when Sun issued his first single, “That’s All Right Mama” backed with “Blue Moon of Kentucky”—country blues with a hillbilly twang slapped back to back against a bluesy rendition of an old Bill Monroe bluegrass hit. It was a strange interlude in the Elvis story, a brief stop-time between total obscurity and mass adulation, and Guralnick lets it unfold in slow-motion, the days ticking off one by one while fame looms ahead like an oncoming freight train. There were a hundred other kids in Memphis with talent and ambition, any one of them more accomplished than this greasy-haired truck driver who wore weird clothes and sometimes worried about whether or not he’d make a competent electrician. Why him? To Marion Keisker, Sam Phillips’s assistant, “he was like a mirror in a way: whatever you were looking for, you were going to find in him. . . . He had all the intricacy of the very simple.”
This ability to mirror the dreams and yearnings of others is the hallmark of every great star, from Judy Garland to Marilyn Monroe to James Dean. Within two years, Elvis would be one of them. Variety would declare him a millionaire on the basis of back-to-back hit singles and nationwide television appearances and coast-to-coast concert dates and multiple motion-picture deals. His mother Gladys wished he would just quit right now, marry some nice girl and settle down in Memphis; but of course he couldn’t, he was hooked, not just by sudden wealth and fame but by the only-child’s need for friendship and acceptance, which in his present circumstances took the form of an entourage. And, of course, he had the Colonel.
Col. Tom Parker—ex-carny, Southern-fried sharpie, hustler extraordinaire—was the central figure of Elvis’s adult life, the instrument of his success and destruction. By shouldering aside his previous manager and signing him with RCA Records, Nashville music publisher Hill & Range, and the William Morris Agency (which in turn made his television, motion picture and merchandising deals), the Colonel lifted Elvis above his regional horizons and made him a national sensation. At the same time Parker deliberately limited his contact with other creative artists, such as songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (authors of “Hound Dog”), whose attempts to befriend Elvis and lead him off the merry-go-round were thwarted repeatedly.
When Leiber went to the Colonel’s cronies with a proposal from producer Charlie Feldman to have Elvis star in A Walk on the Wild Side with Elia Kazan directing, the response was unequivocal: If Leiber continued to interfere, they’d make sure he never worked with Elvis again. So the Colonel circum­scribed Elvis’ existence, kept him isolated and infantilized, and ensured that his career would be run as the Colonel saw fit, which is to say, for maximum short-term advantage.
“Colonel Parker is more or less like a daddy when I’m away from my own folks,” Guralnick has Elvis telling a New York newspaper columnist in 1957, when he was living in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and making Jailhouse Rock at the MGM lot in Culver City. That a 22-year-old singing sensation would feel a need for a daddy goes a long way toward explaining what went wrong. Even so, Elvis’ willingness to let himself be exploited is a mystery that Guralnick does little to clear up. It suggests a passivity that went beyond mere country-boy innocence to become a core personality trait.
Again and again, Elvis let himself be led into situations that mocked his talents and diminished his possibilities. His notorious July, 1956, appearance on The Steve Allen Show, when he agreeably donned white tie and tails in order to croon “(You Ain’t Nothin’ But a) Hound Dog” to a basset hound, was just a warm-up. A few months later he arrived in Hollywood with visions of becoming the next James Dean—a not-unrealistic expectation, given his head-start as a rebel figure and a natural talent that was recognized by everyone from Walter Matthau to director Michael Curtiz. Instead he found himself breaking into song in the middle of formula musicals that parodied everything he stood for.
Guralnick makes it clear that by 1957 Elvis was in way over his head. Yet the discrepancy between the ambition that propelled him toward stardom and the passivity that undercut him once he got there was only one of the contradictions in his makeup. He was—to quote Sam Phillips correctly—the white boy with “the negro sound and the negro feel.” He was also the Christian believer whose music was derided as the devil’s work, the drug-hating performer who would become hopelessly addicted to pills, the mama’s boy who personified teen rebellion. His intense mother-fixation was as central to his personality as his innate passivity, and probably had a lot to do with it. But you won’t find much explanation of that here, either.
Guralnick repeatedly resists the temptation—or ignores the opportunity, depending on how you look at it—to speculate on motivation. His job is simply to document. It’s a puritanical technique, a strait-laced, hair-in-a-bun approach, as if insight were a transgression that might lead pell-mell down the path to the wildest form of psychobiography. Occasionally he slips into reverie, allowing himself to imagine the details of Elvis’ daily existence in magical passages that carry the mystery and seductiveness of a sepia photograph. “Does she give the man a quick kiss?” he writes, describing Gladys as she greets her husband and their little boy at the end of a day no one bothered to record. “Perhaps. The picture is blurred. But she hugs the boy as if he might have been gone for years.” Deeper than this he will not venture.
What we’re left with is a cautionary tale, an elegiac lament for dreams come true. Less than two years after winning the jackpot in the sweepstakes of fame, Elvis is as dissatisfied with his prize as he is paralyzed from fear of losing it. Last Train to Memphis stops abruptly in September, 1958, when, still numb with grief after his mother’s unexpected death, Elvis boards a U.S. Army troop ship for Germany. It’s a good place to pause, not just because Gladys’ demise is often regarded as a blow from which he never recovered, but because this unwelcome hiatus in his career might have given him a chance to grow up, to break free from the Colonel’s grip and seize control of his destiny.
He didn’t, of course. But to think about Elvis is always to feel the lure of what might have been—if he hadn’t fallen under the Colonel’s sway, if he hadn’t thrown his talent away on hack work, if he hadn’t been so nice. The virtue of Guralnick’s approach is that it forces us to forget what might have been and see what was. Only then can we trace the intricate contradictions beneath the surface simplicity that turned Elvis into the mirror we cannot put down today. ■

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