If he were alive, Elvis Presley would be turning 83 this week (January 8, 1935 – August 16, 1977. Forty years after his death, Elvis continues to be one of the best known figures in the history of popular music. It has been estimated that he has sold more albums since his death than during his lifetime. What is it about this “Boy from Tupelo” (to use the title of a recently released Elvis compilation album) that continues to dazzle fans around the world?
Elvis the Mississippian
Fellow Mississippian and music icon Jimmy Buffet once said of Elvis that he was the only performer who could shake his hips on stage and still be loved by “rednecks, cops, and hippies” alike. If any famous native Mississippian could appeal to a wide cross section of society, transcending barriers of race, age, etc., Elvis was the man. Years ago when Mississippi voters were hashing out whether to revise the state flag, I jokingly told some friends that a flag that would truly unite all Mississippians would be one with a picture of Elvis in the corner.
Elvis never forgot where he came from. According to www.elvispresleybirthplace.com, Elvis came back to Tupelo in 1956 and 1957 to perform at the Fairgrounds: “Elvis donated the proceeds from the 1957 concert to the City of Tupelo to start a park in the East Tupelo area.” Elvis continues to “give back” to Mississippi, as tourists continue to pour in Tupelo. As recently as 2013, it was reported that Elvis’s estate had earned $55 million for the year.
When Elvis died, Mississippians took the news personally. The story goes that Ronnie Musgrove, who would go on to serve as Mississippi governor from 1999 to 2003, was so disturbed at the news of Elvis passing that he allowed his honeymoon to be interrupted so he could drive to Memphis and mourn with fellow fans.
When the Grammy Museum recently opened in Cleveland, the reported reason for choosing the Mississippi Delta as the location was because there have been more Grammy winning artists from Mississippi than from any other state. Elvis, the most famous Mississippi Grammy winner, racked up three Grammies over the course of his career—all for his gospel recordings.
Mississippi’s official motto is “Birthplace of America’s Music." That, of course, refers partly to the Blues music popularized in the Delta and partly to Meridian’s Jimmy Rodgers, the “Father of Country Music”. More than anything else, though, this motto is a testament to Elvis Presley, the King of Rock ‘n Roll.
Elvis the music
For those unfamiliar with the basic outline of Elvis’s life, perhaps the best place to start would be to watch the 1979 film, Elvis, starring Kurt Russell and Pat Hingle. Elvis didn’t “invent” rock ‘n roll, per se, but he perfected it and was the first to make it a nationwide sensation. The “King of Rock ‘n Roll” may not have even been the most talented of the early rock ‘n rollers (certainly Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis were better musicians), but he occupies a place no one else occupies. His sound was so original that practically every subsequent rock singer was, in some measure, derivative of him.
Elvis’s originality in blending the best country, blues, and gospel sounds of the ‘50s, combined with his mesmerizing on-stage persona, made him a star for the ages. Buddy Holly was an aspiring country or “hillbilly” singer until he got a chance to open up for Elvis at a Lubbock concert. Photos of the pre-1960s Beatles show them wearing leather jackets with slicked back hair, obviously trying to mimic Elvis’s fashion.
Beginning with Heartbreak Hotel in 1956, Elvis began racking up number ones, eventually accumulating 33. At the same time, he starred in 33 feature films, the most critically acclaimed being Jailhouse Rock (1957). Though the media liked to hype up the friction between old school singers and rock ‘n rollers, Elvis himself never considered “Easy Listening” performers the enemy. At his famed Aloha from Hawaii concert in 1973—which was viewed by a record television audience of one billion—Elvis performed Frank Sinatra’s classic, “My Way." Elvis expressed admiration for crooner Dean Martin, even mimicking his vocal style at times.
Elvis did immeasurable good for the landscape of American music (check out his his acclaimed ‘68 Comeback Special for a succinct look at Elvis at his absolute best). He did it all while maintaining a down to earth, clean cut image. Defying the stereotypical “rock” persona, Elvis was a lifelong teetotaler. He didn’t smoke, and he never took drugs other than prescription ones.
Elvis the man
Elvis's was a classic “rag to riches” story, as can be easily seen by touring his birthplace in Tupelo and comparing it to Graceland in Memphis where he died. Growing up in depression era Mississippi and ending his life as one of the most successful recording artists in history naturally leads to the question—did fame change Elvis? He had friends and enemies, so it depends on to whom the question is addressed. Certainly something even those who loved him most can concede is that fame isolated him.
Elvis was generous to the point of being irresponsible with his money. He bought his friends cars without regard to how much they cost. Fame didn’t appear to “go to his head," but in some ways it did go to his heart, and it broke it. At the height of his fame, Elvis said he never could tell his true friends were. Were the people he thought were his friends really his friends, or did they merely want to be close to Elvis the celebrity? Was he loved for who he was as a person, or rather because he was such a marketable commodity? One can understand why someone in Elvis’s shoes would be plagued by such insecurities.
When Elvis wanted to go with friends to Liberty Land, Memphis’s famed amusement park near his home, he had to rent the entire facility so that he and his friends could have it all to themselves. He couldn’t just take an ordinary vacation with his family and expect to maintain any level of privacy.
The pressure of always being “on," never being out of the spotlight, is enough to send anyone into an ocean of stress. I don’t give much credence to the “Elvis is actually still alive” theories, but if anyone ever had a motive to fake his own death so he could retire from the spotlight, Elvis seems to have been such a man.