Can you believe it? The incomparable singer who moved older baby boomers to… um… move themselves (and pretty wildly), today would be in his 80s. There was something about his style that passed from generation to generation, and became a model for other musicians to emulate. New Hampshire’s Kathy Bailey remembers her first impression … and her lasting impression. They aren’t necessarily the same.
From the beginning he was the stuff of legend. A simple country boy who said “Ma’am” and “Sir,” who loved his Mama and enjoyed singing gospel songs. Whose outsize tastes and outsize life masked a little boy lost. A boy no longer sure about who he was when he left the building, but who always remembered to say “thank you.”
I’ll admit it, Elvis Presley took a while to grow on me. In my own youth, I had little use for The King. I was a child when he exploded on the national scene, and by the time I reached my teens my friends and I fell headlong into the British Invasion, a lighter, crisper sound, a Mod mode for the Sixties. Elvis and his clones seemed heavy, greasy, old-fashioned. We laughed at them as we set our watches to Liverpool time.
He made the worst of his movies during that period. I must have watched them – I saw everything that came through my town – but nobody took an Elvis movie seriously, then or now.
In memory though, Elvis grows larger than life, and it’s easy to understand the mystique, the obsession. Bits and pieces contribute to the legend. Colonel Parker, Priscilla, the draft. His fleet of Cadillacs and the ones he gave away. Las Vegas, the Jordanaires, the mistresses. White jumpsuits and peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches.
Then there’s the twin brother, Jesse, who died at birth. What if the babies had been Switched At Birth, and the one we thought was Elvis all these years turned out to be Jesse? The National Enquirer could go for years on that one.
I had a few vinyl 45s of the Elvis songs I could tolerate. Sometimes a Saturday party ran late, and if I was lucky, no parent waited up for me. I would creep to my room, begin dismantling myself for the night. Sometimes I was elated, floating on the high of new love. More often I was disgruntled or heartbroken. Alone in my room, with my pain or joy, I put my Elvis records on the turntable. That voice, rich as black velvet, answered something stirring in me. “Love Me Tender.” “If I Had Someone Like You.” “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” Deep and primitive, it expressed what I couldn’t.
Elvis wanted to be a serious actor. He lobbied for the role of the white convict in “The Defiant Ones,” alongside Sidney Poitier. The Colonel thought it would hurt his image in the South. We got “Viva Las Vegas” instead. We’ll never know if he could act, but we know he could sing.
In the end, that is all he left of substance. Forget the cars, the white jumpsuits, even Priscilla and Lisa Marie. Go out to a party and have your heart broken. Retreat to your room, at 1 a.m., and put “Love Me Tender” on the stereo. Okay, so today it’s the iPod. Let that smoky voice wrap itself around your pain. He had talent, and that is enough.