Why Elvis? By Paul Simpson

By: Paul Simpson
Source: Elvis Australia
August 16, 2007

Sometimes, the simplest questions are the hardest to answer. Laura Viddy, interviewing me for a forthcoming ABC TV special on the King, asked one two word question which floored me: 'Why Elvis?'

I'd grown up listening to his music, bought my first Elvis album when I was nine ('That's The Way It Is', my best ever birthday present) and written a book and sundry articles about him but the question still threw me.

It's a question much of the media will, on the 30th anniversary of his death, answer by decrying his significance, peddling the usual sub-Goldman clich�s about fried banana sandwiches, pill popping and obesity. Goldman's biography may have been overblown, inaccurate, tendentious pseudo-racist crap, but it was original. It's just a pity his understanding of popular music was so dire that him writing about Elvis or Lennon was like someone who didn't understand E=MC2 writing a biography of Albert Einstein. But Goldman's clich�s - rather than Peter Guralnick's measured judgements - still define Elvis for too many journalists who can't be bothered to do their own research or even listen to a song.

If Presley was as talentless and as dumb as Goldman suggests, surely he should have vanished into obscurity by now. Yet of the seminal icons to emerge in the 1950s - James Dean, Marilyn and Elvis - it is Presley who continues to move people in a way that many of the artists revered by the cognoscenti - dear old Bob Dylan for example - no longer can. The fact that much of the media will wear a collective sneer as they contemplate Elvis is testament to his greatness. Which is what makes Laura Viddy's question still so relevant.

So, why Elvis? After 24 hours, I came up with ten reasons.

You may have many more. Feel free to -  if you do.

1 The name.

Once heard, 'Elvis Presley', with its own rhyming music, is never forgotten. In the 1950s, it sounded like something from a sci-fi movie or a stage name dreamt up by a canny impresario, but it was real. And the first name was unique in popular culture. There was - and still is - only one Elvis (sorry Elvis Costello).

2 The voice.

Often imitated, yet utterly distinctive.

Perfect for radio, where artists were made and broken in the 1950s and 1960s, technically superb, with a range of at least three octaves and a versatility - he won Grammys for his gospel performances, broke hearts with his ballads and changed the world with his rock and roll - that Sinatra simply couldn't match.

3 The look. He was the most beautiful male star of his era.

His good looks overwhelmed even other famous people (like George Harrison and Jerry Reed). And he was the first male singing star to intuitively understand why the look was so important. He was his own art director, using make-up, shocking combinations of clothes, a curled lip and a variety of hairstyles to make his mark. Unlike many of his successors, he had a succession of iconic looks: from the first pink and black outfits, via the GI uniform, to the black leather suit and the early simple, yet regal, jumpsuits. He was also an early, unlikely feminist icon - a liberator who allowed women to express their sexuality in a rigid decade.

4 Timing.

He wasn't just a singer. In the mid-1950s, he was part of the zeitgeist. His music and image pointed the way towards the social integration made possible by court decisions to end segregation. He was a hurricane's worth of fresh air after a decade of ration and recovery, a symbol for teenagers, who had as much disposable income in 1955 as their families had had in the 1940s, to adopt as their own, and an artist so shockingly original they could scare their elders and betters with him. He arrived at a time when most of the world was still grateful to America for World War II and eager to worship the latest American idol.

And Tin Pan Alley was in such a dire state, compared to the 1930s and 1940s, that his passionate urgency blew away rivals like Perry Como and Pat Boone.

5 The myth.

The most famous person in the world at 21; dead and disgraced at 42. It's the pattern of a Greek myth and one of the oldest, most enduring, stories known to mankind.

6 The marketing.

Colonel Parker handled him brilliantly initially, achieving unprecedented exposure, picking the right record label and restricting media access to make Elvis the ultimate unreachable star.

7 The mystery.

The known unknowns about Elvis - Did he talk his dead twin? Did he really love Priscilla? Why did he stay with Parker? Why did he make all those movies? - are as great as the known knowns. What many of today's celebrities fail to understand is that enduring stardom rests on combining an illusion of intimacy with an air of mystery. Elvis, the greatest communicator of emotion in popular song, seemed like a friend through his music but, outside the songs and the movies, we never got that close to him. Yet he affected fans intensely. Mick Farren said he felt secretly relieved when Elvis joined the Army, because following the King placed so many demands on him. I know what he meant. There are times in my life when I've felt I had to have an enforced sabbatical from Elvis - after my Rough Guide to Elvis was published - but it never lasts.

8 He only bored us in the movies. (And not in all of them.)

But he never felt obliged to tell us what he thought about politics, other performers, or religion and nor did he lecture us about how we should live our lives. In that he was, like Cary Grant (an admirer of Elvis'), a blank canvas onto which we could all project our fantasies of who he was and what he was like.

9 He was ridiculed.

Parker often made it easy for critics to sneer - with all those dire movie deals - but the abuse only solidified his fanbase. Once you've endured the embarrassment of seeing your idol sing Old Macdonald on the back of a truck, complete with barnyard noises, you know your devotion cannot be tested again.

10 Because he had a unique aura that can't be reduced to mere charisma.

Maybe it was the loss of his twin, but many judges - from his dentist to director Sidney Lumet - felt there was something other worldly about him. He could, Priscilla said, retreat into an intense loneliness the like of which she'd never seen. Maybe that need spoke to millions. Even to a professional biographer like Elaine Dundy, his life and death was a haunting tale, as painful as a family tragedy. His power to haunt is such that friends like Lamar Fike still dream about him 30 years after his death.

So if you pick up the paper, watch a TV bulletin, or surf the web and see those fried banana sandwich stories, just play a song - Lawdy Miss Clawdy always does it for me - or watch the 1968 TV special and remind yourself just how great he was. Even as fans, sometimes, we can forget that. His music still surprises. For example, I listened to An Evening Prayer on the iPod on holiday, halfway up the Matterhorn, and it was powerful, fresh and revelatory, so stirring it almost made me believe in God.

So let's make the 30th anniversary the day we rediscover the power of the King.

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