I wanted to know more. How did one human being create so much in such a short life? How did the man anointed the King of Rock 'n' Roll rise to the unprecedented fame, fortune and popularity he enjoyed? What was his family like? How did he develop his unique style of music to produce enough gold records to line both walls of a former handball court? How did he meet Priscilla and what was their marriage like? And finally, what led to his untimely death at the age of 42?
Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, was published in 1995 to much critical acclaim as the first of a two-volume set considered the quintessential Elvis biography. Author Peter Guralnick offers a richly detailed early history of a very nervous, shy boy who fidgeted constantly and was petrified when he performed. Guralnick's website displays an impressive collection of books he's written on the music and artists Elvis loved -- soul, country, rhythm and blues, etc., to suggest an expert whose knowledge runs deep. A thick section of references at the end of both volumes attests to ten years of meticulous research to locate and review video, film, articles, documents and letters, and to interview dozens of people who knew Elvis. In the pages of the first volume, the nervous boy grows into a brilliant, gifted performer with a heart to match. Early signs of an addictive personality appear as well.
As a toddler in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis traveled with his mom several hours by train to visit his father in prison. Dad Vernon was reportedly framed for a blue collar crime because someone had it in for him. When he returned home after a couple of years, life in Tupelo was simple with Gladys and Elvis, but didn't offer much more than menial jobs and some extended family, many living in poverty. The parents were a devoted couple and Elvis was their world, so when he came in fifth in a singing contest at the county fair, they bought him a guitar for his birthday. Two uncles and a pastor taught him to play and Elvis took the guitar to school every day to sing in the cafeteria. He was considered a strange kid, a loner.
When he was 13, the family moved to Memphis, where they lived in short-term rentals until they qualified for government-subsidized housing. It was a godsend. Vernon had ongoing back problems and couldn't work so Gladys became the bread winner, finding small jobs to support the family. During times like these, when his parents could barely make ends meet, Elvis promised his mother he'd buy her a house someday.
The Presleys were considered odd by people who remembered them early on. Very tight-knit, they mostly kept to themselves, except for the occasional visit with family or when a neighbor befriended Gladys, who was well-liked by those who got to know her. Sundays found the three of them at black churches soaking up the gospel music of choirs and the harmonies of quartets. Throughout his life, Elvis would turn to gospel music for peace and solace. He'd play the piano and sing gospel tunes for friends at home, with other artists at the end of a recording session, or with cast and crew at the close of a day of filming.
In high school, Elvis' knowledge of music grew to include all the popular genres and artists in Memphis and beyond, i.e., gospel, country, blues, hillbilly, and western swing. He listened to the radio and played records constantly, memorizing favorites so he could sing and play them by ear for his parents. The obsession with music was always there. Later, in the recording studio, Elvis would seek perfection and know exactly what he wanted. He would demand no less from his musicians.
At school he was still an outsider, wearing clothes influenced by the black church singers and by the suits in shop windows on Beale Street where jazz and blues musicians entertained. Brightly colored bolero jackets with dark pants and a stripe down the side, along with long sideburns and a poufy hairstyle, set him apart from classmates. But his first love, Dixie, could see past the exotic outfits and hairdos. She encouraged him to sing at night in the courtyard of the apartment complex. Painfully shy and emotionally raw, he eventually went outside where neighbors gathered in the evening. After dark, he'd strum and sing with her by his side for support. Before long, he was performing at local gatherings and starting to enjoy the attention that came his way.
After he graduated high school and worked for a local electric company, Elvis decided to record a song for his mother, with whom he shared an unusually close relationship and talked baby talk. Sun Records in Memphis was a place where you could pay for a recording session and walk away with your own vinyl record. The owner, Sam Phillips, was unimpressed with Elvis' guitar and vocal talent. Afterward, Elvis stopped by Sun weekly to ask Sam's partner, Marion Keisker, the nice lady at the front desk, if anyone needed a singer or guitar player. He was so awkward that she felt sorry for him and suggested Sam give him another chance. After a couple of failed auditions, Elvis was invited to come in for a gig with two other musicians. Again, he was so jittery, he couldn't sit still and didn't sing or play with any energy. Sam called it quits and suggested they try again the next day. Before the musicians left, they joked around and jammed with Elvis, who was completely relaxed now and cut loose. Within minutes, Sam took notice from the recording booth. For the first time, he got a sense of the boy's unique style of musical talent. This was exactly why he opened Sun Records -- to discover unheard Southern voices with original style and appeal. After dozens of takes the next few days, Elvis recorded his first hit, "That's Alright, Mama," with"Blue Moon Over Kentucky" on the flip side. It was an instant success on the radio in Memphis and throughout the South. The Sun website describes Sam Phillips' response to Elvis' potential:
Then in 1954 Sam found Elvis Presley, an artist who could perform with the excitement, unpredictability and energy of a blues artist but could reach across regional, musical and racial barriers.
More recordings and car tours were booked in the South and beyond, with artists like Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Hank Snow sharing the stage with Elvis, who shook and jerked when he sang because he was still so anxious, as demonstrated in an early video, 1958 That's All Right Mama.
Tom Parker, a former circus barker turned agent, lost Eddy Arnold as a client and approached Elvis with an offer to represent him. They struck a deal and TV appearances on the Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan shows followed, as did controversies about his stage gyrations, considered too sexually suggestive for family viewing.
The criticism confused Elvis and fueled his insecurities. He'd learned how to tease and flirt with live audiences, gifting scarves to screaming, clinging girls who pushed their way to the stage footlights, but he still worried whether they really liked him or not. The women he met on the road were a balm for the anxieties, especially ones who slept with him, with or without sex. Raised very much a mana's boy, he yearned for the comfort and cuddling they provided. Elvis was a gentleman in a 1950s culture that frowned on premarital sex and was likely to withhold sex if he respected the girl or thought she was too young, telling her she needed to wait until "the time was right." Yet, he had no problem lavishing expensive gifts on man of the women and other people he met along the way.
In the early days, Dixie sat at home with Gladys, Vernon and Grandma, who lived with them, all waiting by the phone for the nightly call from Elvis. Ever earnest, polite, and devoted, he was torn about his future with Dixie, who came to realize Elvis was no longer hers. He belonged to the fans, and to women like the movie star Ann Margaret, who made a film with Elvis and was completely taken by his wholesome charm and talent.
Success continued to skyrocket under "Colonel" Tom Parker (self-appointed title). Thanks to soaring record sales, Graceland was purchased as a home for his parents and Elvis. RCA promoted his records and Hollywood beckoned with movie deals. The handsome country boy from Tennessee disarmed and charmed them all. He was living a golden life and supporting several guys from Memphis who traveled with him.
But Uncle Sam called and the explosive success of the first four years was suddenly put on hold. Elvis was committed to serving his country and reported for basic training in Arkansas. Before he finished, an alarming call came for him. Elvis' mother was diagnosed with hepatitis and hospitalized in Memphis. He rushed home and a couple of days later, as he stood at her bedside, Gladys died from heart failure.
By the end of the first volume, Elvis' career is on hold and he's buried his mother. With immediate departure for active duty assignment in Germany, he had no time to truly grieve for his beloved Mommy. Her death only added to the lingering loss he felt for a twin brother who died at birth. At the age of twenty-three, Elvis' obligations towered over him. The grief wass shoved into a corner and insecurities hovered. He told friends he wasn't at all sure he'd have a career when he returned.