It’s been thirty eight years this August, since Elvis Presley passed away. That may seem like yesterday to the baby boom generation, who were acquainted with the man as well as the artist known as the “King of Rock and Roll.” Subsequent generations, however, are more familiar with the fables and legends surrounding Elvis than they are with Elvis himself.
Elvis is iconic. His music synthesized the pop, country, gospel and blues elements which also served as his inspiration and which significantly transformed music for his and future generations. His story has been dramatized many times. Cirque du Soleil has choreographed a production based on his life and music (“Viva Elvis”). He has appeared as “walk on” characters in books and movies (for example, “Walk the Line”). He is the frequent object of impersonators (a/k/a “tribute artists”) and parody (such as the king in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”). One can’t walk the streets of Memphis or Las Vegas without spotting an Elvis. The intellectual property rights attached to his music, image, brand, etc., are so extensive that I once heard a CLE presenter paraphrase that Elvis has not left the building. All of above perpetuate the myths but do little to reveal the man behind them. In honor of his legacy, I recommend two books, in very different styles.
“Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley” is the first of a two volume biography by Peter Guralnick. It is well-researched and sensitively-written and narrates the journey of a shy, awkward young man with a raw talent. It follows his rise from poverty to national acclaim. Guralnick concludes the first volume of Elvis’ life with several life-altering events: Elvis has been drafted, sent to Germany, is worried that his career won’t survive and has lost his mother, with whom he had been very close. Yes, all life-changers, but somehow there is an element of optimism. (Volume two, “Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley” is just as well-researched and sensitively-written, but the title sums it all up and we know how the story ends.)
If you’re in the mood for something lighter, try “Blue Suede Clues: A Murder Mystery Featuring Elvis Presley” by Daniel Klein. Klein wrote several detective novels which portrayed Elvis as rock star by night and amateur detective by day. The titles of the books were based on the titles of Presley’s hit songs: “Kill Me Tender”, “Viva Las Vengeance” and “Such Vicious Minds.” In “Blue Suede Clues”, Elvis has just completed filming a movie and finds himself coming to the aid of one of his Army buddies. The book features fictional characters and references some of the real individuals who played integral roles in Elvis’s life. Klein knows his Elvis facts and weaves them into the mysteries. He also foreshadows some of the darker elements in the performer’s life.
Add these books to your end-of-the-summer reading list and reflect on the man who continues to inspire so many.