Well, it’s Elvis Presley’s birthday today, and The King would have been 75. Turns out he didn’t live all that long, a measly 42 years. So much for Long Live The King. We’ll just have to settle for Long Live the King’s music, which is still shaking hips. Speaking of hips, his once shook the world, and The Ed Sullivan Show wouldn’t film them, putting Elvis on camera only from the waist up while he was performing in order to preserve the virtue of American girlhood.
Didn’t work, since America girls went nuts for this impossibly handsome and polite son of Tennessee and threw themselves at him for his whole life. One suspects that this would still be the case if Elvis were still alive, even at age 75. He was, after all, Elvis Friggin‘ Presley! This is the guy who got rock & roll off the ground not only as a big business, but more importantly as an art form, one that touches lives in a very special and immediate way.
His reputation was built mainly on a few dozen spare, raw and compelling rock & roll songs he recorded in the 1950s, starting with Lieber & Stoller’s “Hound Dog” that he learned from Big Mama Thornton. He wasn’t the very first rock & roller, but he was the first rock & roll superstar, the man who got the ball rolling and opened the doors for the rest. Without Elvis, there would have been no Beatles, no Temptations, no Rolling Stones, no Hendrix and no Bob Marley. He was that big and that influential, and his songs still stand up all these years later, as immediate and exciting and fun, still as dangerous and compelling as ever.
That he became a caricature of himself as he got older was also a ground-breaking act in American entertainment. Could William Shatner be thriving with his cartoon-character shtick of Captain Kirk without Elvis’ example? Getting weird, reclusive or bizarre has become an accepted part of the aging process for artists thanks to Elvis Presley. Who’s a goofier blowhard than that guy who sings for the Eagles, whatshisname, Don Henley? Could Marlon Brando have continued to get plum acting roles towards the end of his life even though he was nutty as a fruit cake without Elvis leading the way in Public Weird? How about Gary Busey? Now there’s a walking talking train wreck of a human being and nobody bats an eye, and he still gets work.
When Elvis went a little loopy, it was front page news. That’s the price to be paid by innovators. He named his home in Memphis like some English Duke, calling it Graceland, and filled it with pin ball machines and his posse of good old boys. He got fat, then thin, then fat, then thin, then fat again, and started dressing in Peacock Suits and scarves and doing and saying some pretty bizarre things. He took drugs prescribed to him by quack doctors by the handful, but railed against drug use in America. He was probably the most out-of-shape black belt in karate ever. He was every vice and virtue in America rolled into one. No one could invent an Elvis, or train one. He just was.
He was also one of the most chronicled and publicized human beings ever, a person who could never blend in with any crowd anywhere, ever. Millions followed his every move, public and private. Many were disappointed at every step he took closer to safe, establishment entertainment, but remained loyal fans anyway for what he was, who he was. The King! Grown women and heads of state were speechless in his presence. He was Elvis Friggin’ Presley, for God’s sake! It could not have been easy to be him. It is often said; “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” Add to that; reluctant to give it up either.
Every so often would come out with another Number One Hit Song, another instant classic right on the money, a “Suspicious Minds” or a “Burning Love,” so you knew he was still serious about making great music and reminding us that yes, Virginia, there is an Elvis. His live appearances in Las Vegas and on world tours were sellout events. If his shows were overblown and Hollywood kitschy, he still delivered his classics with passion and authority, his hips still shaking, his voice still smooth, confident and sexy, and women still throwing themselves at him. His death was a shocking sensation making headlines all over the world. Only 42 years old.
One of the handful of icons needing only the one name, like Marilyn, Frank or Ali, Elvis was ahead of the curve there too. Who would go to a rock & roll show featuring Gordon Sumner or Paul Hewson? They’d line up to see Sting and Bono, though. And like Frank, The Chairman of the Board, he had a cool nickname, The King. Could Springsteen be The Boss without The King? Ask The Boss who showed him the ropes back when he was The Assistant.
No one knows what Elvis would have become, what songs he would have recorded, what direction would his career have taken. Would there be a creative resurgence in his sixties like Sinatra? How many more out-of-the-blue Number One hit singles would he have sung? The only thing you can be sure of is that his life and his work would still be damned interesting. Elvis wasn’t one for half-way measures, a man who lived big, thought big and did big. American big. Rock & roll big. Forever big. There was only one Elvis. Once a King, always a King, and Elvis wore the crown until the day he left us too young.