We’re Elvis fans around here. The second post in the history of this blog was about the King, and to observe the anniversary of his passing, I was going to list of my five favorite Elvis songs, or five Elvis songs I have dug, or something like that. Then I thought that Elvis is such an enormous cultural phenomenon that to confine him merely to music wouldn’t be enough. So here’s my Top 5 top Elvis things—one man’s guide to achieving Elvitude.
Top Song: No contest. It’s “Suspicious Minds,” his last Number One single, which reached the summit on November 1, 1969. It’s far removed in style and spirit from his early recordings at Sun and stuff like “Heartbreak Hotel” that in some ways, it’s hard to believe it’s the same guy. The Elvis who recorded “Suspicious Minds” is an experienced professional who knows how to do his job, but what a pro and what a job. If you looped the last 1:45 or so (the repetition of “caught in a trap/I can’t walk out” with the horns) for half-an-hour, I’d listen to it.
Top Movie: I haven’t seen a lot of Elvis movies. The one I’ve seen the most is “Girl Happy,” from 1965. Elvis plays a singer in a Chicago club who gets a gig in Fort Lauderdale and is asked to keep an eye on the club owner’s nubile young daughter on spring break. The daughter is played by Shelley Fabares, who was big with the kids at the moment. (She would go on to make two other movies with Elvis; he called her his favorite co-star.) I was probably 12 or 13 when I saw the movie on TV, and like Elvis’s character, I fell in love with Shelley. As a result, whenever the movie was on after that, I’d watch. I saw it again a few years back—and I’ll be damned if I still didn’t love Shelley Fabares just a little. But I also saw that the movie is godawful, allegedly a comedy but with jokes that aren’t funny, and plot twists you can see coming a mile away. (Elvis apparently knew it during filming, when he’s said to have started complaining about the vapid films he was asked to make.) However, if it turns up on TCM or something this weekend, I’m liable to watch it again.
Top Book: If you want to know where Elvis came from, how he grew, and why he unraveled, you cannot do better than Peter Guralnick’s two-volume biography, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. This is superb scholarship turned into fabulous storytelling—if the first book is better than the second, it’s because the second is unrelentingly depressing by the time it gets around to narrating the events of Elvis’s last few years. People are always saying that one book or another is a must read, but these two really are.
Close Encounter: Unless you count standing by his grave at Graceland, the closest I ever got to Elvis was when he played the Dane County Coliseum here in Madison a couple of months before his death. I wasn’t there, I was 50 miles away in my hometown, but it was big news here, front page of the local paper, featuring an interview with a lucky fan who got a scarf from him. And it was noteworthy also because Elvis tried to stop a fight at a gas station while his limo driver was taking him back out to the airport after the show.
Tribute: The Elvis tributes began with the flowers and stuffed animals I wrote about yesterday, and continue to this day in various forms. The first recorded tribute to make a splash was “The King Is Gone” by Elvis-styled country singer Ronnie McDowell. It charted about three weeks after Presley’s death and reached Number 13 in Billboard in October. It also launched McDowell’s career, which peaked with a string of Top-10 hits on the country chart in the mid 80s.
That ain’t the one I’m posting, though. John Lennon is said to have told Elvis, “Before you, man, there was nothing.” And as I wrote in the Elvis piece I linked to yesterday, “if he had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent him.” There is much that began with Elvis Presley, and the dude abides. Look around—at pop music, at the world of celebrity, at American culture itself—30 years after his death, Elvis is everywhere.