Today’s Essay

God and Elvis

Elvis was a real person with the same problems and insecurities as everyone else. He had conflicts and heartbreak and the loss of faith that most of us encounter at some time in our lives. I think we forget that sometimes. We see him mostly as a parody of himself, a ridiculous fat man in a white leather pantsuit adorned with rhinestones and sweating profusely. While he could be that and in some respects was forced to be that by his fans and his manager, Elvis was just a guy.

            Elvis grew up country in the mid-south, his formative years spent in Memphis on the western edge of Tennessee. An only child (his twin brother was stillborn,) Elvis lived a fairly typical mid-south life, staying close to his parents and clinging their Pentecostal religious beliefs. Like other kids, he went to school, went fishing, sang in church and just hung out. He had hoped for a bicycle for his tenth birthday, but received instead, a guitar. Knowing that it was impolite to complain, he accepted the gift gracefully, taking lessons from his uncles.

            By then, Elvis had already been performing, singing at county fairs and church socials, entering a few talent contests. Once he learned to play his guitar, he took it to school every day, playing things he had learned from the radio for himself and a few friends during lunch. As times and fashion changed, so did Elvis, slicking down his hair and growing his sideburns long. He rebelled just like most teenagers and listened to the forbidden music of the blues, down on Beale Street in Memphis.

            In the 50s, anyone could make a record. Voice-O-Graph recording booths had been around since the 20s and you could record your voice onto an acetate disc and send it through the mail for someone to play back on a Grammaphone. Once radio took over, recording studios popped up everywhere and in Memphis, one of those was Sun records. Elvis paid the $3.98 recording fee to record two songs for his mother’s birthday. Owner Sam Phillips took notice. Still, Elvis couldn’t find a gig as a singer or guitar player. He faced rejection like every other musician. There were better singers, better guitar players and more skilled musicians everywhere in Memphis. Eventually, Elvis gave up trying to make a living as a musician and went back to driving a truck.

            And then, after some time and even more thought, Sam Phillips came to the conclusion that if he paired Elvis with some seasoned session players, he might just be able to sell what was traditionally Black music to white folks if he put a white face on it. With Phillip’s money and management behind him, Elvis made it onto the Grand Ole’ Opry where he was once again, rejected. Even after he had his first hit, there was more rejection ahead of him. He failed an audition for Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. His Las Vegas shows flopped, failing to entertain the suit and tie crowds there. A Catholic Church diocese urged J Edgar Hoover to get involved after Elvis autographed one girl’s thigh and the others stomach, labeling him a danger to the moral attitudes of Americans.

            When Colonel Tom Parker came on board as a “special adviser,” Elvis immediately became the colonel’s workhorse, touring constantly, often made to perform two and three shows a night. He was plied with alcohol and sex, all things a twenty-something man is susceptible to. He did as he was told and, lo and behold, became a phenomenon, but it could have easily been someone else. Carl Perkins comes to mind. An 18-year-old Hoyt Axton wrote “Heartbreak Hotel” for him. He too, could have been Elvis.

The mainstream music world was still making fun of rock and roll and Elvis while at the same time exploiting both. Elvis would find himself singing “Hound Dog” to a Bassett Hound on Steve Allen’s show. Allen thought Elvis was “talentless and absurd.” Elvis was criticized for his style, his voice, his gangly, country gait and southern accent. Ed Sullivan denounced him as “unfit for family viewing” because of his supposed sexual gyrations until his appearance on Steve Allen’s show boosted it past Sullivan’s, in the ratings, at which point, Sullivan offered the Colonel fifty grand for three appearances. Suddenly, rock and roll and Elvis were a hit. Morality be damned.

Parker held a tight leash on Elvis and Elvis moved from the recording studio to television to film to the concert stage without rest. Elvis hoped that the Army would let him go back to a normal schedule, but even that was managed on a daily basis with Elvis hitting the recording studio while on his first leave after basic training. He donated his Army pay to charity, bought gifts for his fellow inductees, a habit he would pursue throughout his life. Even the death of his mother at age 46 was interrupted by the constant need to sign autographs. They called James Brown the hardest working man in show business, but he couldn’t hold a candle to Elvis.

Colonel Tom always wanted a bit of scandal around Elvis. Contrary to myth, Elvis did not marry a fourteen-year-old Pricilla, but rather met her at that age and waited almost eight years to marry her. When Sargent Presley left the Army, he went back to performing with a new, chemically enhanced energy. (Elvis began to take amphetamines in the Army but back then, Benzadrine or “bennies” were not illegal.)  For the next seventeen years, he would work and work and work. His marriage would fall apart, people would continue to exploit and control and make fun of him.

I was never much of a fan. I knew his songs and I had seen some of his movies, but I was born too late to appreciate him. I had heard all of the stories. He would buy cars for perfect strangers which seemed a little desperate or binge on fried chicken or on peanut butter and banana sandwiches, something that as a food addict, hit just a little too close to home for me. I heard about the drug use, his carrying a gun everywhere and his extravagant lifestyle. He was always surrounded by sycophants and Elvis allowed any number of people to exploit him, from the Colonel all the way down to the people who chauffeured him around. All of this behavior was off-putting for me. It never occurred to me that he was like the rest of us, blessed with certain gifts, succumbing to all of the common weaknesses and just wanting to be “normal.”

As he accepted the mantle of “The King” later in life, he was able to finally gain control of his career. After losing a step because of his film career, Elvis came back, this time choosing songs he wanted to sing including “In the Ghetto” and “Don’t Cry Daddy” (penned by Mac Davis). He went back to his church roots, hiring gospel groups to sing backup, and expressing his politically conservative views. 

Elvis let his personality eke through from time to time. He rarely rehearsed. In early performances of “My Way,” he reads the lyrics, partly because he’s too lazy to learn the song, but also because he was so enthralled by its message that he just had to put it immediately into his show. There are some real gems in Elvis’ performances. During one live show, he breaks up as he is singing “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” Elvis liked to change the lyrics on some of his songs, throwing in goofy or naughty lyrics. On this particular night, he sang “Do the chairs in your parlor seem empty and bare? Do you gaze at your mirror and still miss your hair?” to a man in the front row who promptly pulled off his toupee throwing Elvis into a fit for the entire song. It is one of the most genuine moments of his life.

His father did try to keep Elvis on track, but he was simply outnumbered. Between the millions of fawning fans, Colonel Tom and all the hangers on, Elvis was drawn further and further into being Elvis and not Vernon Presley’s boy. When everybody tells you that you more special than everyone else, you tend to believe it. Sometimes it is because you want people to like you. Mostly, people want to be close to you because you are famous or because they want something from you. (Usually the case when it came to Elvis.) Elvis wandered away from reality at times, but he could never escape himself. He never got over his mother’s death or his divorce from Pricilla. He returned to his Gospel roots time and time again looking for himself? A simpler Elvis? The more he earned, the more he seemed to give away, looking for a sincere, true friend.

Somewhere during all of this madness, Elvis walked away from his roots. With all of the fawning and adulation, he forgot spoiled the gifts given to him by God, maybe believing what people told him, that he was indeed, a king. In the end, he would not outlive his father. He worked himself to death. He slurred his way through abbreviated concerts when he wasn’t locked in his hotel room reading books on spiritualism, everything from an investigation on the Shroud of Turin to Kahlil Gilbran’s “The Prophet.”

Elvis spent his latter days looking for God everywhere but where God always was; inside Elvis. I like to think that somewhere in there, God reached out to him, called him home, reminded him of the Christian faith he was raised in. That somewhere in that deep abyss of drugs and alcohol and endless parties, that Elvis once again found God. I like to think that while he may have lost himself, Elvis never lost his faith.

Elvis is still one of the most successful artists in the history of popular music. His stuff is still used in film, on TV and in commercials. His music is covered, re-mixed and re-released regularly. He makes more money now than he ever did during his lifetime. There are only a few other artists who have had the same legacy. All in all, though, Elvis just wanted to be elvis, small “e”. Just making enough money to give his family some nice things and leave a little something for the rest of us to enjoy.