It’s forty-two years this month since Elvis Presley died at the age of forty-two. Tom McParland looks back at ‘The King’s’ career and his mostly troubled life.
There has never been an emerging tragedy on TV that hasn’t been interrupted by: ‘Could you pass the salt please?’ ‘Mammy there’s somebody at the door.’ ‘Or, that’s the wee one waking, I’ll go see to her’.
But on August 16th 1977 someone tragically died young whose voice, when we were young enough to care, had charmed billions. Somebody with whom we already felt on first name terms: Elvis. Presley has been dead for the same number of years he lived – 42.
In 1934 his parents – underage Vernon (17) and Gladys (22) – had eloped and married in an impulsive fever. They lived in a two-room, oil-lit $180 shack in Tupelo, Mississippi. On January 8th 1935 Gladys bore twins. The first, Jesse Garon was stillborn. The second, blonde Elvis survived. He was given his misspelled middle name Aron as a rhyming tribute to his brother.
Presley’s parents were literally dirt poor. Vernon a this-and-that farm labourer, Gladys a cotton picker dragging slumbering infant Elvis around the fields after her on a gunny sack for $1.50 per 100 lbs. cotton.
It wouldn’t matter whether the adult Elvis was a Graceland resident, draft soldier in Germany or star at Paramount, MGM or Fox Studios. Psychologically he remained in uncertain, squirrel-for-dinner, Tupelo Mississippi.
Tupelo was his making and unmaking. Aged 12 he gave his first public performance, singing an unaccompanied Old Shep at the Tupelo County Fair winning $5 plus free rides on the amusements.
Father Vernon served nine months of a three year sentence for cheque fraud. Shame and financial destitution forced the family to do a midnight runner to Memphis when Elvis was 13. There the Presleys weren’t folks, but Tupelo white trash. Just the confidence booster the talented adolescent needed.
At school he sat, an outsider at the back of his high school class even flunking music. Six years and bottles of hair dye later a brunette Elvis paid Memphis Public Recording Studios (later Sun) $4 to record the halting, musically forgettable My Happiness and Old Shep for Gladys’ birthday in 1953.
It was so sensational that nobody noticed. So in 1954 he again paid to record I’ll Never Stand In Your Way but still nobody noticed. When Marion Keiske, Sun’s receptionist, asked Elvis who he sounded like he replied “I don’t sound like nobody.” She made a note: “good ballad singer.”
Shortly afterwards he failed an audition for Songfellows gospel group when he was told he couldn’t sing. Now a truck driver, he auditioned for Eddie Bond’s band. Bond advised that he stick to trucks for bucks because he’d never make it as a vocalist.
These repetitive rejections are indicative of future failure and success. A prudent gambler would bet a million to one on failure.
Two white men with the surname Phillips entered Presley’s life. The first, Sun’s Sam Phillips had a hunch Elvis had something. He invited Presley, Bill Black (bass) and Scotty Moore (lead guitar) to his Sun studio one evening Monday July 5th 1954, to see if he could pull something commercial out of Presley.
The trio first tried Irish writer Jimmy Kennedy’s Harbour Lights, then ran through other shop-worn ballads but nothing seemed to work. By 9.30pm, whilst taking a break, Elvis started jumping about, with an energetic upbeat That’s Alright! with the other two joining in. Sam Phillips asked what they were up to. “Just goofing around,” said Scotty Moore. Phillips replied, “Well, get back on-mike and we’ll record this goofing around.”
That’s when rock’n’roll was born, erring pop historians attest. But it wasn’t. Rock was there before Presley – in the cotton picking fields of Mississippi where Elvis ingested the rhythms of black music all around him and in the fiery Tupelo church services he attended as a child.