In the afternoon of August 16, 1977, legendary recording artist Elvis Aaron Presley (1935-1977) was found unconscious at his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee and later pronounced dead at a local hospital. Forty-five years have passed since his death, but his fans remain lol keeping the singer’s memory alive, and rightfully so. Presley changed history and gave credence to the genre known as Rock n’ Roll. His death at the age of forty-two is tragic and was featured in an episode of the Reelz television show ‘Autopsy‘ (S3.E2). Coverage of his death is extensive but the story of his origins in Tupelo, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee are stories to be known if we are to understand how Presley rose from obscurity to become the music legend. Author Peter Guralnick is an admitted Elvis fan and in this phenomenal look at Elvis’ rise to fame, he captures the essence of the Presley family story equally as significant as the triumphs that came later through the only son of Vernon (1916-1979) and Gladys Presley (1912-1958).
This book is the first part of a two-volume biography of the late singer and ends well before his final days in 1977. Here, the author focuses on Elvis’ early life and what he writes speaks volumes about the American dream, the South and how much society has changed since Elvis caught his big break. The story begins in Tupelo, Mississippi, a place I was unfamiliar with prior to reading this book. Presley and his parents reside there briefly in the book before making the move to Memphis for better pastures. In Tupelo, there are trials and tribulations including the story of Elvis’ twin brother Jesse who died in infancy. Further, the family’s financial situation touches on the difficulties faced by Americans in the wake of the Great Depression. Families were left with tough decisions heavily based on the best opportunity for financial success and security. Recalling the words of Vernon, the author explains that:
“There were times we had nothing to eat but corn bread and water,” recalled Vernon not long before he died, “but we always had compassion for people. Poor we were, I’ll never deny that. But trash we weren’t…. We never had any prejudice. We never put anybody down. Neither did Elvis.”
For the Presleys, Memphis was the next destination and this city proved to be more than they could have ever bargained for. And as we see in the book, by the time he reaches nineteen, Elvis has already caught the eye of people in the music business with an eye for talent. But what I also noticed in the book is that as he gains notoriety, he is still a “kid” in many ways. And this human side of the singer is what makes this such a good biography. We can witness a young Elvis as an aspiring singer but more importantly, as a young man coming of age at time when music was slowly changing. But even he had to navigate complex social structures, in particular Jim Crow which separated Blacks and Whites. Presley remarks more than once in the book that the Black singers are where he drew his inspiration. But the laws were firmly in place, and it should come as no surprise that Memphis later became a hotbed of activity. However, Elvis is frank about his love of music and its origins. This remark by him in the book is telling for its honesty:
“The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doin’ now, man, for more years than I know. They played it like that in the shanties and in their juke joints, and nobody paid it no mind ’til I goosed it up. I got it from them. Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now, and I said if I ever got to the place where I could feel all old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.”
As the story progresses, Elvis grows before our eyes. But his mother Gladys is his guardian angel, and their bond is heartwarming. It is a well-known fact that Presley loved his parents deeply and always yearned to return home to see the family. Their son was becoming popular, and that meant talent agents, musicians and women coming around the family. Multiple figures enter the story as Elvis becomes an item and have their effect on his life to varying degrees. The entrance of Thomas Andrew “Colonel” Parker (1909-1997) changes the story significantly and it is not long before Elvis is on his way to stardom. The money started rolling in but not without its problems, which are covered in the book. It’s a familiar story of underpaid workers, jealousy and the seductions that come with a traveling show. There are romances and friendships, and it is telling that everyone had nothing but kind words for the Elvis they knew who remains true to his character throughout the book and displays a humbleness that stems from his family’s experiences. The scenes described regarding his performances are surreal but fact. And it is imperative to remember that Presley was also pushing the limits of censorship due to his dance movements on stage which caught the eye of local police departments on more than one occasion. He learns to move fast but despite his fame, there was one person he could not avoid, Uncle Sam.
Towards the end of the book, Elvis gives in and reports to the U.S. Army for duty. He fits in well and this part of the book is filled with interesting tidbits of information about his time in the military. But the book’s darkest moment comes when Gladys passes away while he is enlisted. The hurt and shock of his mother’s death is felt through the author’s words, and I began to feel as if Elvis was never the same after this event. He returns to the military, but he heads back heartbroken and in fragments. And with that the story concludes. I am eagerly anticipating the next part of the biography which unfortunately will include Elvis’ own demise. But before the story is over, I will continue to enjoy learning about the king of Rock n’ Roll and his shorty but extraordinary life. Highly recommended.