By Jackson Baker
AUGUST 11, 1997: PROLOGUE, August 1997:
Well, Dee Gaw!, as the late Dewey Phillips would have said, it's been more than 40 years since Elvis Presley began to work his magic on the world and 20 years to the month since he died. (Nobody needs to be told that the magic -- and the myth -- have been going right along in his corporeal absence.)
For most of those 40 years I've been directly affected by Elvis, who happened to take his leap upon the world stage almost directly from a modest plot of land next door on Lamar Avenue to where my family lived while I was growing up. And at intervals over the last 20 years I've been committing my reactions to paper or to this or that videotaped or audiotaped or folding-chair occasion. In the current July/August issue of Memphis magazine our good friend Tim Sampson, that periodical's doughty editor, was good enough to have reprinted -- in its 6,000-word entirety -- a 1977 article of mine written in the immediate aftermath of the King's passing.
"Elvis: End of an Era": That piece -- as spontaneous and internally dictated as a piece of researched journalism can be -- speaks for itself as a self-sufficient take on the life and death of the man who changed things forevermore for all of us. And, since it is currently available on newsstands and has so far got -- I am pleased to say -- its fair share of attention, I have resisted the temptation to reproduce portions of it here, in this compendium of excerpts from other Elvis pieces or Elvis-related pieces I've done over the years.
I've kept on writing about Elvis -- and will doubtless keep on longer -- in the hope, I suppose, of someday getting it just right. Or in the sense that, if you come by a precious coin that sparkles and shines and energizes like no other, you keep on turning it over in the hand and, later on, in the mind. Literally forever.
My favorite article? Good parents do not have a favorite child. Nor, I suppose, do painters have a favorite painting. It is all of a piece.
At some point, in this or that matter, your consciousness is finally raised and -- you get it. To illustrate from work done by others: The fine 1978 TV movie starring Kurt Russell as Elvis has a scene in which the brooding King, for no apparent reason, hauls off and slugs the character representing longtime bodyguard Sonny West. The point seems to be that, in his developing paranoia, he had imagined his faithful and blameless retainer to have been talking about him.
The scene is replayed in several other venues -- notably in Albert Goldman's warts-and-all 1981 portrait, Elvis, wherein we find the selfsame Sonny in innocent conversation with Presley cousin Gene Smith after Elvis, during a party in one of his California houses, has put a move on a visiting actress: "Elvis, who is always scanning the room, spots Gene and Sonny with their heads together. Instantly, he assumes that they're bad-mouthing him. Jumping up and walking over to the boys, he says, `What the hell are you two whispering about?' Sonny is dumbfounded. Flashing red, Elvis swings from the floor and hits Sonny squarely on the jaw."
Crazy, huh? Except that we finally get the truth in an overlooked oral-history classic from 1995, Elvis Aaron Presley, in which several Presley intimates recall that event among others, and another cousin, Billy Smith, tells the story this way: "Sonny had a date. He brought her up there, and he thought she was making eyes at Elvis and Elvis was making eyes at her. Sonny got real agitated, and they got into a cuss fight, and Sonny started backing Elvis up 'til he backed him into a wall. He got right up in Elvis' face. And he should never have done that because Elvis thought he had no choice but to fight back. Because Elvis was like a caged animal. He was scared and he picked up a Coke bottle first. But thank goodness he hit Sonny with his fist ."
It took two decades, but the Elvis of that episode finally evolved from a delusional and remote tyrant who passeth understanding back into a flesh-and-blood person with perfectly normal reactions.
Perfectly normal: that's the ticket. Do the legions of Elvis fans admire him because they think he isn't just like the rest of us? Or because they know that he is? Maybe both at once.
I once overheard a conversation between Billy Smith and a visiting true believer. "I hope he realizes he's hurting us by being away. If he's not really dead. If, uh, he's coming back someday," said the fan.
"He's not coming back," said Billy, as tenderly as possible.
Which is probably why we keep summoning him up, via acts of the mind. Omne padme um, say the Hindus. I am that. The trick to understanding Elvis and our fascination with him is that he is "that" in spades. He is us.
THE FIRST TIME I ever encountered Elvis Presley, I was coming out of the bathroom into the modest little hallway where we kept a telephone in a little wall nook. And there was, receiver in hand, hair combed to a fine, looking spruced up in a short-sleeved pullover shirt and "dress pants" (which is what we jeans-wearing kids called anything that took a crease). I was looking at his right profile, the same one -- with those long, clean lines somewhere between a collie's and a clipper ship's -- which later became world-famous.
Here is an observation almost universally endorsed by those who experienced Elvis Presley and hard to fathom by those who didn't. It is paradoxical in the extreme, but the man who has been called the most photographed person in the world and whose fame was to some degree built on that fact was simultaneously one of those people whom pictures didn't do justice.
Poll the delegation, and you will find agreement on that point: Elvis -- or at least the Elvis who had explored and discovered himself in Sam Phillips' Sun Studio back in the summer of 1954 and had been causing audience hysterics since -- looked far better in person than he did on any version of celluloid. Since, normally, the Elvis of the thousands of published photographs ran from cool to classically handsome, this is a way of saying that, even so, his visage did not contain him. The internal fires that made him what he was had to be witnessed up close to be believed. Elvis Presley was the avatar of [his] age and [its] energy, and he was also the embodiment of its internal contradictions: pious but secular, repressed yet sensuous, conventional but bent on burning all the barns. Elvis' filmed and videotaped performances hint at his -- and the time's -- dimension, but, like the stills of him, they can only hint. You had to be there.
SCATTERED HERE AND THERE around
Memphis are various places, once luminous in the epic saga of
Elvis Presley, which are now husks of memory, more or less --
skins shed by a legend who has himself moved on to his reward.
There is, for example, the old Rainbow
skating/swimming/entertainment complex just east of Pendleton on
Lamar. An extant musician or two remember that when the King of
Rock-and-Roll was still a prince, he and sidekicks Scotty and
Bill worked on their licks down there (as did such other
Ur-rockabillies as Warren Smith, Billy Lee Riley, and Sonny
Burgess with his two -- count 'em, two -- upright basses). Even
in the 1960s, when he had quit shaking it for a while and his
professional persona was embalmed in the celluloid of planet
Hollywood, the privately still-quite-lively Elvis would hire out
Rainbow so that he and assorted down-home playmates -- some
indentured, some devoted, some both -- could have skating parties
and all-night G-rated bashes. These days that sprawling old art
deco stucco structure is a bland scrubbed-out
office-cum-warehouse space in the service of the Pancho's Taco
chain. Signs on the chain-link fence that now surrounds the place
say: No Trespassing. Violators Will Be Prosecuted. No
doubt about it , Elvis has left the building. . . .
THIS IS MEMPHIS, U.S.A., where
attention to the artifacts of landscape has often been -- how to
put it? -- carefree. (Hey, we Americans are the ones who bombed
out Dresden and Monte Cassino during World War Two; when have we
ever hallowed the ground of any culture, even our own?) Putting
that another way, if we venerated our past, hardened it into
marble, we would scarcely have been open to the kind of history
that was made here. In the physics of contemporary history,
Memphis accounts for the unseen wave, not the visible particle. .
"BEFORE ELVIS, THERE WAS
nothing," pronounced John Lennon. Ashes to ashes, dust to
dust, nothing to nothing -- the creative cycle, more or less, the
same for Elvis Presley as for Vishnu the Destroyer. "
IT'S A STRANGE THING. The man
whose advent, in effect, blew away the stale conventions of music
and of culture in general, the Dionysian figure who nearly
upheaved it all and was forefather to the social convulsions that
have occurred since and which, indeed, keep on coming, fancied
himself a preserver. In the last decade of his life, he looked
around and perceived civilization as being under assault from the
likes of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles. He saw them as
dope-crazed revolutionaries who meant to overthrow the world of
settled meaning, and he made a pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. ,
where he expressed those concerns and offered, in an effort
chronicled by a famous Oval Office photo, to join forces with
that archdeacon of anal retention, Richard Nixon himself. It is
ironic, of course, that Memphis' -- and the world's -- most
famous anarchic genius and the rollingest of all stones was
obsessed with the contrary principle of stability and the idea of
[A POLICE] OFFICER, RECALLING his general stupefaction from a lifetime of knowing Elvis, summed up what it was like to be in Elvis' company: "It was the hardest thing, for me to concentrate on what was real and what was not."
That, as Joe Friday would say, is about the size of it. Elvis Presley was about as close to myth as he could be, and about as far from facts. Even his Middle American exemplars of choice knew that. Really, for all the random details which collected about him in his life, most people's recollections of him bear minimal resemblance to anything in the physical realm. Both on and off vinyl, he was an inveterate singer of gospel standards, and the one which some of us would have given anything for him to have recorded was "If I Had My Way," second only to "Motherless Child" in the spiritualist repertoire, the song about Samson chained to the temple, whose refrain completes the title with the ever-intensified inflammatory line, "I'd tear this building down!"
Spirit of place? Elvis is the spirit of this place, and there are times when bricks and mortar and the rest of it just get in the way."
FOR THE LAST SEVERAL years of his life, Elvis Aron Presley -- the middle name being his father's misspelling of "Aaron" on a birth form -- lived on a stretch of Highway 51 South named for himself. Elvis Presley Boulevard [The street] -- a continuation of Bellevue Boulevard in-town -- connects the tangled arteries of central Memphis with the wide world beyond: not a bad metaphor for what the man himself did.
Graceland," as the world knows, was the name of his residence -- a singularly apt name. Grace was, after all, both what Elvis sought and what the hordes of admiring pilgrims who gathered outside the gate and stone walls of Graceland somehow came away with. One person's sanctuary is another's Mecca.
Elvis would often sit up in bed, gesture toward the closed-circuit TV mounted on his ceiling, which showed a panorama of the crowds outside, and profess bafflement at being the object of their veneration. That same innate modesty compelled him, when greeting strangers in the full fledge of his glory, to say, "Hi, I'm Elvis Presley." As if they didn't know, these awed and sputtering types who were unfailingly put at east by Elvis' unaffected approach.
Before his move to the mansion, those milling throngs had contained the likes of Carol (Inky) Eisemann, then a senior at Memphis' Central High School, and now the wife of a prominent Memphis orthopedist.
"I chased after Elvis," is how she remembers it, and she was persistent enough to corner him several times.
"How does it feel to be Elvis Presley?" she once asked him. Everyone wondered; in a true sense, that was the question.
"Hell," he responded,
"how does it feel to be who you are?"
"THE FASTEST RISING STAR in show business today," Milton Berle had said, introducing Elvis on his TV show in June 1956 -- the last, as it turned out, that Uncle Miltie, "Mr. Television" during the medium's early years, would do as host. In retrospect, it was something like a changing of the guard, and Elvis -- only six months out of obscurity -- did his best in a few minutes' time to make the world over.
Elvis roared, doing a stylized strut across the stage and
punctuating each word with a slow, seismic thrust of the hips, in
the process hurling the defy of a generation at the guardians of
the status quo. It was a moment that, as much as any other,
defined the advent of Elvis Presley in 1956.
"IF I COULD FIND a white boy who could sing like a Negro, I'd make a million dollars," is the polite version of what Sam Phillips is alleged to have said so often. In the long run, Phillips, in the role of the good Dr. Frankenstein, would make his million dollars -- and more. But, having sold Elvis' contract to RCA Victor for $40,000 at the end of 1955, Phillips would henceforth have to watch as his prize creation wandered out into the gaping world without him, his choices and pathways charted by others forever more.
Although "Heartbreak Hotel" (the first RCA recording Elvis made after leaving Phillips' tutelage) would signal Elvis' arrival as a national phenomenon, the song was ignored locally in favor of its flip side, the ballad "I was The One." Not until "Heartbreak Hotel" was officially certified gold -- some weeks after its release -- was this melancholy, Nashvillized blues even listed on the Memphis charts.
In plain fact, though Elvis' hometown fans otherwise exulted in his new fame, they greeted his first national hit with relative indifference. It had to do with the spirit of place: Elvis' Sun recordings were pure Memphis music; most of the RCA cuts -- recorded for the most part in Nashville or Hollywood -- sounded foreign to the hometown ear.
To understand this reaction, consider that Memphis' major disc jockey was, at the time, an inspired redneck named Dewey Phillips (no relation to Sam) who had been holding forth on station WHBQ since 1949, playing unadulterated rhythm and blues in the 9 p.m.-to-midnight slot nightly. Like his namesake Sam, with whom he had once been in partnership, Dewey Phillips perfectly expressed the soul of a city which was half river-town, half Bible Belt, and equal parts black and white, a crossroads city whose major gifts to the world, besides its music, have been the modern supermarket, the drive-in movie and the drive-in restaurant, as well as the corporate giants Federal Express and Holiday Inn -- the kind of enterprises, in short, that have less to do with the homestead than they do with the open road.
Sam Phillips' brand of rock-and-roll -- often called "rockabilly" -- is notable for its integration of opposites: on the one hand are abandon, libido, the quality of the wild; on the other, discipline, restraint, control.
You can hear it in Scotty Moore' tight, precise but driving guitary lines; in Bill Black's galloping but perfectly timed bass; and, most of all, in Elvis' vocals, a witches' brew of gospel swoops, falsetto shrieks, growls, howls, and scat -- all coexisting with fully articulated lyrics, all of it on key, all of it structured.
The effect of the mix, in a song like
"That's All right (Mama)," is to suggest that things
are under control, that everything is, in fact, All Right. The
persona of the song has been Done Wrong by a lady, and, in
bluesman Arthur Crudup's original, the predominant feeling is
maudlin and dejected. Elvis' up-tempo version is instead an
anthem to human cockiness, to the healing, transcendent powers of
the life-force. Something like this is what the music of Memphis
and the music of Elvis Presley are all about.
THE FACT IS THAT, after his return in 1960 from military service in Germany, Elvis was truly removed from his public, cloistered in his private life and publicly seen only as a misleadingly bland shadow on the screen, however distant, though, he was still adored, and there would be another Coming.
Clad in a black open-chested karate gi, looking fit, sleek, and -- more than one reporter at the event would suggest -- "godlike," Elvis stepped on stage before an SRO audience at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. After the obligatory opening run-through of some well-remembered hits and the tumultuous applause, he looked around bashfully and parodied out loud what he imaged his onlookers to be thinking:
"Is that him? I thought he was bigger
YET HE WAS ONLY human, and soon, despite the crowds and despite their adulation, he was alone. After some admitted dalliance on both their parts, he and [wife] Priscilla had split. Despite efforts by Elvis' partisans -- mainly in private -- to blame Priscilla, and by her champions -- mainly in public -- to charge it off on him, it was really one of those Seventies things. For the Presleys, as for millions of others, it just hadn't worked out.
And none of the stoical lyrics he knew from his vast repertoire of popular music could inoculate him against the anguish that never thereafter left him. Nor could the prescription medicines with which he dosed himself for various hurts of the heart and body.
He grew bloated and bleary, but if his fans noticed, they paid it no heed. His new opera-star proportions were appropriate somehow to his four-octave range, and he could still strike notes that both thrilled and broke the heart. A Pagliaccio, a sad clown for all the people, he became ever more heroic even as he sank closer to the fate that claims all human striving.
One early morning while on tour, he woke abruptly from a troubled sleep and sat up terrified in the sweat-soaked, oversized bed of his hotel suite. He went down the hall and knocked on the door of his cousin Billy Smith, who often traveled with him.
"I've seen Him, Billy. I've seen Him," he said when the door was opened, and he spent the rest of the morning snuggled up protectively under the covers with Billy and his wife Jo.
Toward the end, having surrendered his California residences, he spent all his spare time at home in Graceland. The fans who came from everywhere to Memphis were a family, and they represented most of the tribes of the earth.
On August 16, 1977, on the eve of what was to have been yet one more tour, it all ended. His remains would eventually be interred on the grounds of Graceland itself for all to come and visit. And this time, on the gravestone, his middle name was spelled right.
"Aaron," it said, by Vernon Presley's explicit order. Aaron, the name of the musician of old who had spoken for Moses on the way to the Promised Land.
"Aaron," explained Vernon, who would himself die within two years, joining wife and son in perpetuity at Graceland. That was the name. That had been the idea all along.
NEVER MIND THE CONTROVERSY over the shroud of Turin, and forget all those spurious fragments of the True Cross that have been peddled to the credulous in Christendom from the Dark Ages on. For a much longer time than the years of his ministry occupied, Jesus was a carpenter. What I want to know is, where are the remains of the chairs and tables, the cupboards and chests and shelves, the common mortal contrivances that He wrought in this earthly domain?
Were they, as He was, perfect? Or were they, as such things normally are, carved with all the ad hoc imperfections of the ordinary? By interesting coincidence, Platonic philosophy begins with the notion of an ideal chair, in imitation of which human beings keep hazarding this or that inferior version, the sum total of which efforts are -- reality.
Where are the soup spoons, the wine gourds, the used-up sandals, the soaps and bandages and bathroom bowls of the Savior's mortal life?
The absence of such evidence may, as
much as any other reason, explain Elvis.
ELVIS SUBSISTED ON FRIES and burgers and Pepsis and ice cream on a stick and suchlike. Cuisine would have wasted him like Kryptonite. He was independent of the usual accouterments of culture, as the term "culture" was then understood. (When he died in 1977, Memphis Press-Scimitar arts reviewer Edwin Howard would lament, of all things, that he had endowed no universities.) In time he would graft some big-band incidentals, operatic skills, and other refinements onto his blues and gospel and country roots, but in the beginning all he needed was three strum chords and the "people's key" of E. And yet --
And yet he had, even then, a four-octave
range and a kaleidoscopic sense of popular music. He was the
20th-century equivalent of Shakespeare, that self-taught plebeian
who, as the classically trained rival dramatist Ben Jonson would
note, had "little Latin and less Greek" and, most
damningly, "lack'd art."
TAKE "MY BABY LEFT Me," by Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, the black Mississippi sharecropper whose "That's All Right" had literally been Elvis' first recording.
Crudup kept his blues in a bucket; Elvis (or the ensemble, or overseer Sam Phillips) put the lid on, and cooked.
Bar by bar, the song comes together. First comes D.J. Fontana's rapped-out drum riff, then a top-to-bottom run from Bill black's stand-up bass, then the controlled gallop of Scotty Moore's lead guitar, then last of all Elvis singing in that imperious velvet growl of his, "Yes, my baby left me! Never said a word"
It is the most underestimated song in the canon. There is lightning in that bucket, and it could drive a train. Any train.
It -- and songs like it -- literally took us into a new age. Endow a university! Elvis was a university. Whoever those mystics are who teach that the universe began with sound could use him as their full curriculum.
HE DARTS BRISKLY ABOUT the famous
house and grounds, giving his visitor an impromptu version of the
same tour which millions of people from literally everywhere have
taken since the day, ten years ago now, that this home, once so
closely guarded, was first opened up for public inspection. He is
in his middle forties, but still boyish enough to seem a
facsimile of the fresh, scrubbed, and beaming young tour guides,
male and female, who usher the groups of tourists through, twenty
at a time, 300 an hour, seven days a week in the warm months.
"Can I help you?"one of them asks, not recognizing him
for a second as he and his visitor come upon her unexpectedly and
then turning up her bright-eyed smile a notch as she goes.
"You're so sweet to check on us," he answers. "Do
you mind if we just slip on through?"
IN THE TEN YEARS since coming on
the scene he has seen the value of the late entertainer's estate
increase fifteenfold, from somewhat less than $5 million to a
present estimated value of $75 million. During the decade that
Jack Soden has been tending the image and likeness of the King of
rock-and-Roll, Elvis sightings -- from comic impersonators in
sitcoms to prime-time rebroadcasts of the Great Performances to
mysterious cameos in the Burger Kings of Middle America -- have
become something of a social norm. . .
[A] RECENT ISSUE OF Historic Preservation magazine could describe [Graceland's] interior as a "kind and tranquil ambience." The writer went on: "It may be chic to say that we could move right into Mount Vernon and live there. The truth is we have all lived in parts of Graceland, and a trip there becomes an exercise in self-recognition and self-forgiveness."
Yes, we see ourselves (and Peter Max) in
the cartoon geometrics and glaring yellow-and-black of Elvis'
party room downstairs, and in the pleated ceiling and wall of the
pool room ("as the billiard room is called," quaintly
notes Historic Preservation). We recognize -- and forgive
ourselves -- in the shag carpeting and oversized pine furniture
of Elvis' add-on den, and even in the bullet-pocked walls of the
backyard target practice shed. But the ultimate self-recognition
at Graceland comes when we enter the various trophy rooms that
show us the gold and platinum records, the plain and fancy
git-tars, the movie posters, the show costumes, and the rest of
the paraphernalia which signify the epochal changes wrought in
ourselves and in the life of our civilization by the man who
lived and played and worked and died at Graceland. And there's no
need to forgive that; there is only to embrace it, as millions
have since 1982, and millions will in years to come.
SODEN CONCEDES THAT IT is "unusual" for a divorced person to have such a complete say-so over the reputation of a former spouse as does Priscilla. "I can imagine a lot of guys, being told their ex-wives would have so much to say about their images, saying, `Please, God, no, anything but that!' And I suppose there is a potential conflict of interest in her role. All I can say is, there has never been an actual conflict of interest on her part."
NO ONE CONNECTED WITH the Elvis Presley phenomenon has undergone such drastic ups and downs on the reputational flow chart as "Colonel" Tom Parker, who -- as all students of the Elvis legend know -- is in reality neither a Colonel nor a Tom nor a Parker. An illegal immigrant who earned his living at first on the carney circuit, "Parker" recreated himself as a boondock Barnum out of the West Virginia outback. . . .Opinion differs sharply as to whether Parker was a proper manager for Elvis. some historians credit him with the development of a plain-earth prodigy into a diamond bigger than any Ritz. Others are just as sure that he obscured Elvis' true lustre, hiding that light under the bushel basket of his own greed.
ALTHOUGH NONE OF US really thought it seemly that the old Svengali who guided Elvis' career -- not always to his benefit -- should have outlived his charge by a full score of years, we were nonetheless saddened at the announcement of "Colonel" Tom Parker's death last week, from a stroke and its complications.
Actually, stick the quotes around the rest of that name, too. This was no Tom and no Parker. Indeed, the hinterland-sounding name he toted around for most of his 87 years was just the first con worked on the public by the carney who was born in the Netherlands as Andreas Cornelius van Kuijk. Having sneaked into the United States illegally, van Kuijk/Parker was determined never to leave, and that resolve undoubtedly cost Elvis his chance for lucrative foreign tours.
To call Parker a con man is merely to give him his due; one of his famous early tricks was to sell people tickets to see chickens "dance" atop a sawdust-covered hot plate. That he was to have the opportunity of hustling some genuine talent (besides Elvis, there were the likes of Eddie Arnold and Hank Snow) was something of a celestial practical joke. Stress, though, on the word "practical." As those famous lines from Jesus Christ Superstar remind us, "Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication." But what if it had? And what if Parker could have time-traveled back and helped to guide the religious revolution that was then
beginning? We can only wonder.
But we saw what he did with Elvis, managing him into a fame consistent with his monumental talent and doing so faster, probably, than anyone else could have. That in the process he demeaned, constricted, and -- as a Shelby County court would decide -- cheated his prodigy was also true.
But if Sam Phillips saw in the young Presley a pop/gospel/blues singer of genius, it was Parker who rebirthed him as the bringer of an age. As the history of American presidents also shows, corruption and large vision often go hand in hand. To be totally fair to Tom Parker, he had more of the latter than the former. And, though he is unlikely to be admired, he will surely be remembered. Even missed.
ONE NIGHT MY BROTHER Don and I headed out to Graceland for a visit. Years later, I dropped some acid with my school chum and sometime running mate Stanley Booth. [T]he story of that visit as an ambiguously unsourced third-person account, would turn up virtually intact in Booth's 1968 Esquire article, "Hound Dog: To the Manor Born". . .an evocative rendering of Elvis Presley in mid-career.
[T]he experience involved my brother's nervous stint at Elvis' piano and a night (or early morning) spent watching Elvis, wearing Brando jacket and motorcycle cap, fly a model airplane to the feigned delight of a crowd of courtiers and hangers-on. [M]ainly it was a case of our hanging out and watching a visibly bored and cloistered eminence as he tried to keep himself distracted. No longer doing live shows, he was out of ideas and unsure of his creative direction.
Indeed, the world might have returned to normalcy and other dreadful fates had not various inspirations (including, notably, the example of Elvis) subsequently fired up guys with names like Lennon and McCartney and Jagger and Richards and Dylan and -- you know the story.
Whereupon, in his turn and after his fashion, Elvis was reinspired himself and returned to live performances and -- well, you know that story, too. Along with its tragic denouement.
[AN] IMAGE KEEPS COMING back to
me -- one related by my mother, of my own father, a man of
publicly conventional attitudes, sitting up late after us kids
had been put to bed in the late '40s and early '50s, listening to
Dewey Phillips, a mad speed-freak disc jockey whom we hadn't even
heard of yet -- as Phillips spun over the air-waves what was then
called race music, and later rhythm and blues, and still later,
IT IS WELL KNOWN, surely, that
Phillips, back in 1954, became the first deejay to air a record
by the young Elvis Presley, but this fact is much misunderstood.
It is only from our own retrospective vantage point that it
validates Dewey Phillips. At the time it validated Elvis,
providing him with an indispensable imprimatur and his first
claim on a widespread audience.
MY OLD MAN HAD once upon a time worn blackface and sung and danced in minstrel shows. Letting it hang. What Dewey Phillips made possible, at least around Memphis, was for that impulse -- which really wasn't about race at all, but something else entirely -- to surface in the mainstream.
Elvis Presley brought it all the way out, and there it remains today -- a far more important outcome than all the hoopla and public ceremonials which now attend his name. Not bad for a boy next door. Not bad at all.
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