And one of the most persuasive libels, spread even by some biographers, is that he spent the entire 1970s in headlong flight from reality, medicated, deluded, indulged, a man in a constant, and ultimately fatal, state of denial.
There is some truth in this but it is not the whole truth. And the best evidence for this is the finest music he recorded in the 1970s, a decade in which, at the time, he was reviled as out of touch, his albums greeted with increasing critical derision. As far as most critics were concerned there was no seeing past the 'fact' that Elvis had deserted rock for cabaret. Like all facts, this is open to dispute: from 1970 until 1977, he probably recorded an album's worth of fine rock tracks - notably 'Whole Lotta Shakin Goin On', 'Promised Land', 'Way Down', 'T-R-O-U-B-L-E', 'Burning Love' and (live) 'Polk Salad Annie'.
But Elvis was, as his own personal life began to fall apart and middle-age beckoned, drawn to ballads, many as corny and sentimental as his rendering of 'Old Shep' in the 1950s. This predilection may have suited the Colonel, arguably the unlikeliest impresario to have been implicated in the birth of rock and roll, but for Elvis this was no commercial strategy or 'sell out'. He'd always loved ballads - witness his early liking for numbers as I Was The One. In the 1960s, they had acted as a kind of lifeline when he was asked to record all that dross for Hollywood - think of 'In My Way', 'It Hurts Me', 'Can't Help Falling In Love' - and in the 1970s these songs of pain and loss engaged Elvis almost as much as gospel music.
Because of the difficulties he faced finding the right material in the 1970s, the worst of these ballads were very dire indeed. But some were as good as anything he recorded: 'I'm Leavin', 'Loving Arms', 'Unchained Melody', 'There's A Honky Tonk Angel', 'I Just Can't Help Believin', 'Always On My Mind', 'I've Lost You', 'How The Web Was Woven', 'Funny How Time Slips Away', 'I Really Don't Want To Know', 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' being cases in point.
In 1971, in the most famous speech of his life, he had told an audience 'Every dream I ever dreamed has come true a hundred times'. This wasn't quite true because, self-destructive and contradictory though his behaviour was, he did dream of having his own family. And at the same time as he was giving that speech, that dream had begun to fall apart.
The echoes of that emotionally shattering event can be heard in his music. The coldness anticipated in the well-drawn lyrics of I've Lost You ('I've lost you on the journey though your body's still as kind'), the bleak future envisaged in I'm Leavin' ('Who will I find to lie beside me? To ease this emptiness inside me?'), the apology so famously expressed in 'Always On My Mind', the self-recrimination of 'Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues' (although he omitted the line about finding pills to ease the pain - either because it was too close for comfort or he forgot it), and the desperate sincere pleading of 'For Ol' Times Sake' - These are songs sung by a man facing, even if only in the studio, the damage he has wreaked on his own life.
Some of the ballads he recorded in the 1970s are below-par tear jerkers (like the bombastic I'll Never Fall In Love Again) but many were relevant to Elvis' emotional life. 'Love Coming Down', recorded in the 1976 Graceland sessions and horribly overdubbed on the original From Elvis Presley Boulevard album, is not a great ballad but the lines sting. The singer/narrator's observation 'I remember, how her eyes used to light up over promises that I made' is the bitterest self-reproach, a detail so acute even the most emotionally insensitive and intellectually stunted singer in El's situation couldn't have missed the relevance.
Elvis' recording career in the 1970s is often portrayed as aimless, lacking in innovation and erratic. And there were times when all three adjectives apply but there were times when Elvis pored, almost obsessively, over songs that seemed to reflect his life, as in a distorted mirror. There was an element of self-indulgence in some of this ('Pieces Of My Life' is big hunk of compelling self-pity) and Elvis admitted as much, once wiping a tear away and calling himself 'an emotional son of a bitch' after an especially gruelling ballad.
At times his sessions were famously unproductive, yet at other times he sang of his own heartaches, in the manner of a classic country singer like Hank Williams. Sometimes, the fit between singer and song was so tight, it could make more out of a song than the material merited. On 'Bringing It Back', a minor wistful ballad for which I have an irrational affection, he sings in the chorus of remembering how much he loved just touching his love. So far, so conventional and then suddenly he groans 'Babe I've not forgot' and it's as if he's talking to Priscilla, Linda, Ann Margret, or Anita Wood - or maybe all of them. But the song suddenly becomes intense and intimate and all the more powerful for it.
He may not have faced up to reality often enough outside the studio - though who among us can really say what is in another person's heart? - but when he did so in song, he often went beyond sloppy sentiment. On 'It's Easy For You', the bitter Lloyd Weber/Rice ballad, he alternates between chiding Priscilla ('You only have to call me') and admitting his own responsibility ('I had a wife, and I had children, I threw them all away') before finally admitting the near impossibility of reconciliation.
Listen to 'I'm Leavin' again: it's depressing but not mawkish. The singer imagining his empty bed, future and life, eschews vocal histrionics and tricks of the trade and sounds simply desolate. The result is sad, subtle (no Vegas style bellow as on 'Hurt') and chilling. 'I'm Leavin' may last only three minutes and 53 seconds but it, and a dozen or more performances like it, are proof that Elvis - even if he couldn't or wouldn't change what was wrong with his life - didn't always run away from it.
- More articles by Paul Simpson