Elvis Presleyby Bobbie Ann Ann Mason
"When Bobbie Ann Mason first heard Elvis Presley on the family radio, she recognized him as "one of us . . . a country person who spoke our language."" With a novelist's insight, Mason depicts the amazing life of the first rock-and-roll superstar, whose music shattered barriers and changed the boundaries of American culture. Elvis the charismatic, impassioned singer… See more details below
"When Bobbie Ann Mason first heard Elvis Presley on the family radio, she recognized him as "one of us . . . a country person who spoke our language."" With a novelist's insight, Mason depicts the amazing life of the first rock-and-roll superstar, whose music shattered barriers and changed the boundaries of American culture. Elvis the charismatic, impassioned singer embraced the celebrity brought him by a host of hit records and movies. But Elvis the soft-spoken, working-class Southern youth could not be prepared for the unprecedented magnitude of his success - or for the fiery controversies he would arouse. His riveting story lies close to the heart of the American dream.
- Gale Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.40(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.90(d)
Read an Excerpt
ON AUGUST 16, 1977, when I learned that the King-Elvis Presley-was dead, I was vacationing in Nova Scotia. In the lounge at the inn where I was staying, the news came on TV. Stunned, I could only mumble some clich�s. The bartender recalled the death of the actor Audie Murphy, a war hero of his generation. I felt far from home. Although I hadn't thought much about Elvis lately, I now sensed there was a great hole in the American cultural landscape. Elvis had always been there, hovering in the national psyche, his life punctuating our times-his appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, his first movie, the death of his mother, the Army, his marriage, the 1968 "Comeback Special." It seemed inconceivable that Elvis-just forty-two years old-was gone.
For me, Elvis is personal-as a Southerner and something of a neighbor. I heard Elvis from the very beginning on the Memphis radio stations. Many parents found Elvis's music dangerously evocative, his movements lewd and suggestive-but when my family saw Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show, singing "Ready Teddy," my father cried, "Boy, he's good!" We had been listening to rhythm-and-blues late at night on the radio for years, and we immediately recognized what Elvis was about. We had heard Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup and Little Junior Parker and Big Bill Broonzy and Wynonie Harris and Elmore James. In the daytime we listened to big bands, pop hits, country, the opera, everything we could find on the dial. On Sundays we sang in church along with the congregation, and we heard plenty of gospel music-especially the Blackwood Brothers, who influenced Elvis so much. Elvis listened to the same regional stew, seasoned by the far-ranging reach of the radio, so when he emerged with his own startling, idiosyncratic singing style, we recognized its sources.
Elvis was great, so familiar-and he was ours! I don't remember the controversy he stirred up because everything he did seemed so natural and real, and he was one of us, a country person who spoke our language. It was hard to grasp how revolutionary his music was to the rest of the world. And it was years before we could realize what a true revolution in American culture Elvis had ignited.
But now the King was dead. Two writer friends of mine dropped everything when they heard the news and rushed to Graceland, Elvis's Memphis home, to grieve with the multitudes of fans. One of the writers snitched a rose from a floral wreath and still has it displayed under glass on her wall. The other helped himself to the newspaper that had arrived at Graceland the day after Elvis died-the paper Elvis would have read if he had lived. Elvis, who was taken seriously in a wide variety of circles, inspired such a need for connection. He mattered deeply to many different kinds of people. After his death, the world absorbed the story-the utter loneliness of his life, his grasping for ways to ease his pain and sorrow. It was a sad-in some ways a sordid-story, hard to take. Then the grief gave way to a nervous national joke throughout the eighties. Elvis had been part of American life, and now it seemed people didn't quite know what to do about him. Elvis was ridiculed, reduced to a caricature in a sequined jumpsuit. In 1992, the post office held a contest to vote on the new Elvis stamp; we could choose between the young, pretty Elvis and the older, bejeweled Elvis. Of course we chose the pretty one.
Some people refused to accept the news of his death. Sightings were reported. He became a barometer of the culture, a sort of hillbilly voodoo doll. As in life, Elvis was both revered and reviled. In 1980, a scurrilous biography portrayed him as a redneck with savage appetites and perverted mentality, and of no musical significance to American culture. This character assassination undoubtedly helped promote the national joke. Many may have found it preferable to reduce Elvis to a symbol, because Elvis made them uncomfortable. For some, he represented the dark forces, a crude creature from the lower classes; for others, he represented innocence, and the destruction of innocence is an unbearable sight. Perhaps joking about him-transmogrifying him into a fat, drug-crazed hillbilly with gargantuan appetites-both alleviated the guilt and conveniently removed him as a subject for serious examination. But the nineties produced a steady stream of reconsiderations of Elvis. Peter Guralnick's thorough two-volume biography helped to rescue Elvis's reputation and restore an understanding of his music. Guralnick sympathetically portrayed a life that he called an American tragedy.
A few months after Elvis died, I visited the small two-room house in Tupelo, Mississippi, where he was born. It was now a museum, outfitted as it might have been when the Presleys lived there. It was furnished with flea-market antiques-Jesus figurines and heart-shaped pincushions, a washtub, a washboard, a pie safe, a kerosene lamp, and dishes that had come free in detergent boxes during the Depression. But what mesmerized me was the glitter poster-glitter spilled on felt paper, forming the shape of Jesus, with a Bible verse. I hadn't seen one of those since childhood. I remembered them from church. The poster evoked a powerful memory-this fake relic, this reminder of the innocent, religious rock-and-roll artist who became a superstar like the world had never seen before. In the glitter you could imagine the foreshadowing of the sequined jumpsuit. The glitter poster, once ubiquitous in the South, was a little bit of fancy in a drab world. And it embodied immense hope.
ELVIS PRESLEY seemed to have sprung on the world without a history. His emergence in the mid-fifties was so sudden, his music so fresh, his personality so evocative that he could not be labeled. People went crazy. There has never been a mania quite like it. Teenagers went wild with excitement; their parents went wild with anxiety over Elvis's overt sexuality. Girls ripped his car apart; they stripped his clothes off; they were ready to rock and roll. Elvis's celebrity was an amazing American phenomenon, and the entire nation was gripped by it. Popular TV variety-show host Ed Sullivan at first found Elvis so shocking he declared he "wouldn't touch him with a ten-foot pole." Outside the South, the public found him frighteningly uncouth-a redneck from a backward, bigoted region. His music clearly had an affinity with rhythm-and-blues, from black culture. People heard raw jungle rhythms in his music-voodoo doings.
On the other hand, Elvis swept up marginal groups of people with a promise of freedom, release, redemption; he embodied a yin and yang of yearnings; he took people close to the edge and brought them back again; with his stupendous singing talent, he blended all the strains of popular American music into one rebellious voice; like Walt Whitman, he was large-he contained multitudes; he created a style of being that was so distinctive it could be made into an icon; he violated taboos against personal expression and physicality; he opened the airwaves to risk and trembling. Rock-and-roll had been brewing for years, but its defining moment was Elvis.
Even though he was controversial, his popularity was huge from the beginning, and over the years he became entrenched in American culture. He had eighteen number-one hits in a row; his album of million-selling gold records itself sold a million records; fifty-four million people watched his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, an 82.6 percent share of the nation's viewing audience. In 1956, the year he became known nationally, he became a millionaire, with ten songs on Billboard's Top 100, more than any other artist in the past. His ascendance from regional star to national star to Hollywood all occurred in an eyeblink. He was a boy wonder, both endearing and threatening, with a talent that defied category. Elvis set in motion a style of music that would dominate the world for the rest of the century. It was the beginning of youth culture-kids got their own record players and radios. It was the breakdown of sexual inhibition, and the end of racial segregation.
Elvis's success-and the rock-and-roll revolution-punctured the balloon of 1950s serenity and conformity. America was sunk in its Eisenhower torpor. With its worry about the Soviets and H-bombs, the nation at large seemed desperate for sweet contentment. But race issues were on the boil. The Supreme Court had ruled against segregation in Brown v. Board of Education only a few weeks before Elvis made his first record in 1954. The time was right for a magical figure to burst forth like a natural symbol of integration. Black musicians praised Elvis for helping their own music to reach a commercial audience. Little Richard, the inimitable purveyor of "Tutti Frutti," said, "I thank God for Elvis Presley. I thank the Lord for sending Elvis to open the door so I could walk down the road, you understand?"
Later, Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, in Soul on Ice, credited Elvis with sparking the social revolution of the sixties. Presley "dared to do in the light of day what America had long been doing in the sneak thief anonymity of night-consorted on a human level with the blacks."
Popular music began to challenge conventional tastes, and music with a beat-such as Jerry Lee Lewis's "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and Buddy Holly's "That'll Be the Day"-began to dominate the charts. Because of his suggestive movements onstage, Elvis was called "Elvis the Pelvis," a name that embarrassed him. He was excoriated for lewdness and lasciviousness. One headline called him the "self-winding singer." His hip-swiveling was denounced far and wide, but he professed innocence. He didn't mean anything dirty by it, he said. It was just natural to him to let loose and express what he felt. With his coy lip curl and his playful habit of interrupting his songs to mug or joke, he reminded us not to take him too seriously. Elvis always had a sense of humor about his persona, acknowledging the absurdity of his fame.
Still, the weight of it affected his performance: his behavior was self-conscious, self-deprecating. Every person who achieves any degree of fame experiences some disorientation, but for Elvis it was unique. In the history of the world, few individuals have had such great success and fame so suddenly, with such far-reaching consequence and with so little preparation for dealing with it. This is a startling thought. How did he bear the burden?
In wondering whether anyone else has ever experienced this sort of sudden global recognition, I can think only of the astronauts walking on the moon. Over two billion people saw the first moon landing. Nearly as many-one and a half billion-saw Elvis in the first satellite-beamed TV show, Aloha from Hawaii, in 1973.
Elvis's fame happened to him-not entirely unbidden, but in proportions he had not imagined or sought. He was a dreamer, aspiring to stardom. He wanted to be big. He had seen all the movies, heard the songs, knew where the rewards came from-Hollywood and New York, not Memphis or Tupelo. But his desires outweighed his confidence. And his fame socked him in the face. It was as though Elvis himself had made one giant leap and then the whole earth jumped on him for stepping so fancy-jiggling and hunching and gyrating his leg like a brace drill.
The test of the popular hero in our age is his struggle against fame. The personal story of Elvis is his private tussle with his public image as the King of Rock-and-Roll. His tragedy arises from the earnestness of his endeavor to be the superhero he believed he was supposed to be.
from Elvis Presley: A Penguin Lives Biography by Bobbie Ann Mason, Copyright © January 2003, Viking Press, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >