Book Review : Elvis Presley: The Man, The Life, The Legend

By: David Neale
Source: Elvis In Print
October 8, 2004

Elvis Presley: The Man, The Life, The Legend
Elvis Presley: The Man, The Life, The Legend
Few will deny that class differences still exist, even in our so-called democratic societies of equal opportunity. Elvis has been particularly subjected to class snobbery in the USA, at least as far as I can judge from my position in Europe. His southern routes seem not to have endeared him to northerners and his style of music did not promote admiration from his fellow white southerners. The man had enemies on all sides. Several of the books about Elvis have continued these prejudices: such attitudes were typified by Albert Goldman's ridiculous northern diatribe, 'Elvis', a book which, sadly, still seems to be a main source of reference for journalists and other writers. Similarly, the more recent 'Elvis Culture: Fans, Faith & Image', by Erika Doss, obliquely denigrated Elvis himself by ridiculing his US fan base and linking him via those fans to ideas of white supremacy.

With this background, Pamela Keogh's book, 'Elvis Presley: The Man, The Life, The Legend', comes as a refreshing surprise. The author seems to be a northerner herself -- she lives in New York and was educated in a northern college -- yet she has written a sympathetic biography of Elvis. I have to admit to being somewhat worried by the association of the book with 'Elvis Presley Enterprises'. Heck, there's even the EPE laser stamp of approval on the cover! That's likely to put off quite a few fans, I should think, especially non-USA ones, but fortunately, that seems to be the limit of EPE's involvement, unless they in some way stymied the author's writing (certainly the final couple of years of Elvis' life tend to get short shrift).

The introduction, in the book, called 'Prelude', says more about Elvis than many, many other so-called biographies and is a beautiful quote- and fact-filled eulogy to the man from a respected American writer -- something both unusual and encouraging. Guralnick's two-volume biography remains the definitive version, of course, but it is definitive largely for the Elvis fan. Keogh's earlier books about Jackie Onasis and Audrey Hepburn, both of whom receive numerous mentions throughout the book, might just encourage non-fans and down-right detractors to take another look, perhaps even to change their generally negative attitude towards Elvis. Could this book be the final phase in the road to acceptance of Elvis as a major catalyst of cultural change, a road begun several years ago by more academic studies, such as Bertrand's excellent 'Race, Rock, And Elvis'?

Keogh manages to present a very personal, close view of Elvis, using contemporary elements to make clear to the reader just how different, how sensational he was: she looks at the contents of a TV magazine, she describes the supporting acts on the first Dorsey show, she brings in Grace Kelley and her new royal husband. In this way the reader understands better the impact that Elvis had in the staid and conservative 1950s and just how much of an impact he must surely have had on society.

Subtlety was the mark of a lesser man, not EP. He wanted his home to be youthful! Fun! Impressive as hell!

Elvis is in no way belittled in this book. Instead, he is placed in absolute context and is shown also to be a wiser, more thoughtful person than in almost any other biography. His attitude to recording, the way in which he purchased and decorated Graceland, his appetite for books (rather than the more usually emphasised appetite for food), his general acumen -- all are brought to the reader's attention very well.

No matter what was put in front of him ... Elvis always could sing the hell out of anything.

The author gives a fairly detailed report of the recording of 'Hound Dog', largely based on Alfred Wertheimer's own recollections. However, she alters his words to indicate that Elvis selected track 31 as the master, rather than 28, as Wertheimer, perhaps erroneously, recalled. And Keogh's descriptions of Elvis in concert are excellent, offering excitement during the performances and tension and hard work during the rehearsals.

Even Elvis' film career is given a sympathetic review by placing it in its correct context as a promotional vehicle, rather than an artistic adventure. (And whether we agree with the course that Elvis' film career took, it certainly was an excellent promotional vehicle.) Still, she also does not balk at pointing out that the films were generally inane and that Elvis was far happier, more himself, more alive, when he was once again rehearsing for his early Las Vegas shows, following his successful TV special.

He was inventive, not an invention.

How often can that be said of stars? The inventiveness of Elvis is stressed time and again by Keogh and it is perhaps another aspect that is ignored by most commentators. Elvis demonstrated this quality throughout his life and Keogh picks up on it very well, providing numerous convincing examples, starting with his early sartorial extravagance. Even Elvis' perhaps untapped intelligence is nicely presented to the reader -- many will be surprised at the sort and quantity of books that Elvis read.

The book states that 'Harum Scarum' was filmed in March 1963, an unfortunate and obvious error that is an unusual lapse in what seems to be an otherwise excellently researched work.

The book is very well illustrated with full-page black and white photographs, with just a few in colour. These are often associated with the text, but this is unfortunately not always the case, so their presence and significance is sometimes confusing, for they are also not captioned. The advertising blurb for the book and the notes on the cover flaps would have us believe that there are more than one hundred photos (true), 'many of them rarely seen before' -- that's marketing hyperbole, for most Elvis fans will be familiar with almost all of the photographs used.

'Elvis Presley: The Man, The Life, The Legend' is a very well produced, book, an excellent biography, written in an easy style (sadly with a few quite unnecessary uses of bad language), that should please Elvis fans. More importantly, it might help make Elvis acceptable to a wider audience. We can but hope.

Buy Elvis Presley: The Man, The Life, The Legend

Elvis Presley: The Man, The Life, The Legend
Author: Pamela Clarke Keogh
Publisher: Atria Books
ISBN: 0-7434-5603-3 (Hardback, 264 pp.)

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