Forty years ago, on August 16, Elvis Presley, “the King,” died of what was officially called a heart attack in a bathroom of his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee. He was king of rock and roll still but also addicted to opioids.
Legend has it that a show business agent upon hearing the news about the 42-year-old music legend said his death “was a great career move.”
In Elvis’s biography on Wikipedia, the “years active” category, cites the years from 1953 to 1977. That, if not a fake fact, is a misleading one. Elvis Aaron Presley is very much alive, not only in his record sales, of which new compilations of his catalogue appear and are sold regularly by the millions, but on You Tube, where he is omnipresent, in the persons of Elvis impersonators, who are omnipresent across America. At Graceland, which has become a quasi-museum, quasi-theme park of the life of Elvis Aaron Presley, people are lining up every day, but especially this day, to visit his grave for a charge.
Many reporters and historians of the American pop and cultural scene have focused on the story of Presley as a rise-and-rise-and-Hollywood-and-fall story. Others see it as a cautionary tale about fame and what is now a national obsession, the life of celebrity.
It’s a lot more than that. Browsing the pictures and images, you see transformation in glorious and sometime tragic passage.
Elvis may have worn the trappings of a permanent Las Vegas resident—a trend now being aped by numerous pop legends—but he was first and foremost a working class boy from a struggling working class family in Tupelo, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Sound familiar?
His story seems still to be moving forward. August 16 isn’t just a commemoration of his bizarre and diminishing death, but a celebration of his life and the impact he had not just on American music but on American culture and life.
Elvis seems in his life curiously contemporary. Where he lived his youth — and in many ways remained — is Trump territory. The back roads and streets of the South are today, yesterday and tomorrow still wrapped in the American agony of race and its own history. They are also, if not exactly the same landscape, the place where Elvis sang from the back of a truck, recorded his first songs and became soaked and steeped in the music that came from black blues, back woods gospel, and the beginnings of rock and roll.
From Elvis came Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, music that stirred not only teenaged souls but all of our souls permanently. No less a cultural icon than composer Leonard Bernstein called him an important cultural influence in America.
It’s fair to say when Elvis arrived for real, when his career and influence really took off, he brought everything that influenced with him like a big bag of candy. He heard real blues on Beale Street in Memphis. He heard aching gospel music in the churches he attended.
And he had his natural self with a voice that had enough range to break your heart, make you sweat, make you want to reach out and touch and hold tight someone, make you want to dance (or swivel your hips, in his case). His early stuff was called rockabilly, but in truth it was rock and roll. With it and him, America changed. Your Hit Parade disappeared, Elvis went on the last truly great variety show, hosted by Ed Sullivan. Until the Beatles came along, he was its biggest legend.
The story—beyond life and into death—is familiar: that pouty look that made young girls faint, the squeals, Sam Phillips and Sun Records, who recognized that a white singer singing black music would be a breakout.
The 1956 Civil War-era film, “Love Me Tender,” was one such moment with Elvis. If you lived in middle America, you can recall sitting in an audience watching the movie with Debra Paget and Richard Egan and hear such a searing female squeal that as a teenaged boy it made your hair stand on end, followed by sniffles when the boy-hero died at the end.
Then followed Elvis’s draft call, a U.S. Army stay in Germany and “G.I. Blues.” Afterwards, his beloved mother died, and it was a blow that he may never have recovered from.
Elvis pursued a lucrative and quite successful movie career: “Viva Las Vegas,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “King Creole,” the latter two gritty and quite good movies on the theme of rags-to-riches stories in black and white. He wanted to be a movie star and had a crush on Paget. They say Hollywood changed him. In truth, it merely drove him onto the concert stage — most of his performances memorable, for better or worse.
He took to wearing gaudy glam suits, as he incarnated into an even bigger-than-life figure. He became someone that cut across generations into a world of fandom that seemed often in a trance.
The voice could carry him and keep him afloat, even as he struggled with lyrics and notes. He took on musical travels that ranged from “My Way”—Sinatra’s trope—to “Old Blue,” to the canon of gospel, to “In The Ghetto” and “Blue Christmas” along with “American Trilogy.”
That epic “American Trilogy”—which matches “Dixie” with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” as well as “All My Trials” and was often played as a background for Fourth of July celebrations—surely resonates today, where the country faces a heated and divisive debate over the fate of Confederate iconography, statues and symbols.
In this way, and in so many other ways, Elvis stays with us.
He is alive in the black-and-white photographs of the late Al Wertheimer, who brought an exhibition of work from the 1950s to the National Portrait Gallery several years ago, chronicling the singer on the verge, on a train, in the family backyard, among the teeming, high-pitched crowds of New York, young, cocky and dazed, an American boy from Tupelo.