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A Legendary Performer

Nick Tosches, the distinguished writer and biographer of Dean Martin and Jerry Lee Lewis, once remarked, "I think Elvis Presley will never be solved." For those who've stared at the sideburned sphinx for nearly half a century, folding, unfolding and refolding him like the steel in a magical sword, Elvis becomes a less explainable and ever-sharper riddle.

D.J. Fontana, Presley's longtime drummer, puts it almost as succinctly: "I don't know if they'll ever figure it out. I wondered about it for years and years; a good-lookin' kid, lotsa talent -- more than most people -- his looks got him cranked up pretty good, and he could sing."

The problem with Elvis is that, like the pick that falls inside the guitar, it sometimes happens that no matter how you shake it, twirl it, tilt it this way and that, you may receive all manner of dust balls and other interesting debris, but sometimes the damn thing will simply not drop out.

Here are the simple facts: Presley was born poor, the only survivor of a pair of twins, child of an adoring and doting mother and a passive-aggressive hard-nosed dad who was in and out of the picture and jail. Elvis was the little boy who goofed around to the music on the radio, his mama clapping while he grinned and danced and played the fool.

But times was hard, as they say, back in Tupelo, Mississippi. Elvis was just smart enough to be a natural cultural sponge and just isolated enough to lock everything he loved inside himself for later, when he was by himself, whether it was blues, R&B, pop, gospel, bop, swing and jumped-up country music, the pimpin' threads and greaser fashion of the Memphis layabouts, or Fawcett comics' Captain Marvel Jr. with his spangly dash and blue-black hair, lovingly detailed in the illustrations of artist Mac Raboy. Elvis watched, and he learned.

Meantime, returning veterans shoveled and heaped more mutant culture into the backwaters in those postwar years than at any time since the pre-Civil War decades. Little Elvis must have been vibrating like a tuning fork.

We know that producer Sam Phillips over at Sun Records was both canny and weird and anything but intimidated by racial barriers, and that something in him responded to the geeky kid with the encyclopedic musical sensibility. Phillips waited, listening, through all the clean and squeaky stuff the kid had brought with him -- the sincere ballads, the swinging pop that would later become Pat Boone's territory -- until something sneaked out of Elvis that had the authentic funk he had been trained to sniff. Elvis was funnin', but once Sam heard that noise, he did what any bloodhound gets paid to do -- he howled and barked and chased his quarry until Elvis was nothing but pure instinct and all that slopbucket sincerity was forgotten. Presley spent the rest of his career half-pretending, half-believing that he was just kidding the whole time.

Okay -- it's a long story, often retold, and we're no closer to the answer, so we'll turn over all the cards at this point. Elvis creates a name for himself, a reputation and a fan following touring the South and cutting records with a band that somehow knows exactly what works. Scotty Moore throws some juice into his Chet Atkins-style guitar and Bill Black does a hillbilly buffoon act with his bass. Elvis dyes his hair black, signs contracts with Col. Parker and RCA, and takes his road show on TV -- Tommy Dorsey, Steve Allen, Ed Sullivan.

From there, he makes movies and dreams of filling the void that James Dean left behind him, hangs out in Hollywood a bit, cuts a lot of pop music, and in a couple of years manages to change the world forever. Like Orson Welles, Elvis flashes so brightly at such a young age, and with such unobstructed grace, that no matter how good he is later, everything is epilogue. Somehow, Elvis knows this, and when his mother dies, while he's in the Army, something climbs inside of Presley that stays with him until he dies.

At this point, it's too late for Elvis to be mentored. So he surrounds himself with a succession of bad influences. The Memphis Mafia, in a way, were also bloodhounds. As D.J. Fontana recalls, "They'd ask, 'What are you doing here? What time are you leaving?' They was afraid that Elvis would give you something and they wouldn't get some. They were takers -- they'd take everything they could and if anybody came around, anybody Elvis respected, they'd try their best to get rid of him."

Elvis is isolated -- we know this is a major piece of the puzzle -- and like Welles in The Lady From Shanghai, he is so surrounded by distorted mirror images that neither he nor his fans and audiences could see the real thing for the funhouse reflection. Like Dorian Gray, in the end, Elvis manifested the totality of his shortcomings -- as Dylan put it in "Desolation Row," his sin is his lifelessness. By 1977, Elvis was not busy bein' born, but he was very busy dyin'.

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Henry Cabot Beck