Elvis: From hound dog to tame cat

Issue 

Elvis Presley, born 75 years ago on January 8, 1935, grew to be more than a human being: he was the "king of rock and roll" and, magnified by a multi-million dollar publicity apparatus, reflected something of the US cultural psyche.

Born into a poor family in small town East Tupelo, Mississippi, while Jim Crow racism ruled the US South, Presley was the son of a bootlegger father and an alcoholic mother. He grew up steeped in fundamentalist religion and the sounds of country, gospel and blues music.

He found fame by combining these sounds and projecting for a white audience what had been regarded as dangerous: Black music. He made his fortune by complying with a corporate entertainment sausage-making machine that stamped him with its own image and reduced him to an empty shell.

It is a measure of just how sexually repressed 1950s US was that his tendency to emulate Black honky-tonk performers shaking their legs in time to the music was regarded as near to depravity.

It was Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records in Memphis, who spotted Presley. Phillips recognised the time was right for a white singer to take Black music out of the orbit of "race record" radio stations.

From 1955, Presley came under the wing of "Colonel" Tom Parker, essentially a charming con man, who took him from Sun to RCA.

Using movies and the new medium of television, Presley rocketed to world-wide success and an army of rockabilly or rock and roll singers followed in his wake.
Among them were many Black singers able to achieve mainstream success for the first time.

Before Presley, popular singers strived to be clean-cut. Elvis introduced sultriness and a working-class ethic into mass culture.

All that we recognise as rock culture today largely began with him, despite the self-parody he became.

The sudden arrival of the teenager market being fed with Black culture and sexual repression caused moral panic among US authorities. The FBI reported on Presley and a series of other performers suddenly found themselves in jail for minor offences — essentially seeking to outlaw rock and roll.

In this turmoil, Presley accidentally found the perfect method for his own "cross-over" to respectability: in 1958 he got drafted into the Army and meekly served two years overseas.

Ironically, it was while in the army that a sergeant introduced him to amphetamines to get him through manoeuvres — to Presley's ultimate ruin.

The 1960 US music scene that the post-army Presley returned to had been purged of dangerous thrusting pelvises and a solid back beat. An array of white crooners were ripping off Black singers and watering down their sounds into aural wallpaper.

RCA and Colonel Parker saw to it that Presley slotted into the new sound, dropping rock and roll and turning him into a balladeer.

After a couple of charity performances (one to patriotically raise money for a Pearl Harbour memorial), Presley remained off-stage for most of the '60s. Only intermittently, when he managed to shake off his company handlers, did the rockin' Elvis record.
He was largely missing in action while the Beatles stormed the US and revived rock and roll. Bob Dylan completed the fusion of rock rebellion with social protest, melded into acid counter-culture.

Presley placed himself on the wrong side of the "culture wars". In his drug-addled state, he aligned himself with Richard Nixon, the arch enemy of social progress.

Starting in 1969, Presley returned to live shows with million-dollar stints at Las Vegas — the very citadel of anti-rock and roll culture. He continued touring erratically until his miserable, bloated, drug-addicted death in 1977.

It was after his death that Presley's true stature in US culture revealed itself. The culture that has bred innumerable born-again religious cults suddenly generated an "Elvis is alive" myth.

The poor boy who rose to the pinnacle of celebrity, but found himself crucified on the cross of consumerism, finally came to rival Jesus.

Only US culture could produce such a person and in the restless energy, ugliness and mindlessness of Elvis Presley the US has its perfect mirror.