Throughout my childhood in a small town outside Chicago, I idolized just three larger-than-life figures: Abraham Lincoln, Elvis Presley and Leadbelly, aka “Huddie Ledbetter”. Everything and everyone else in popular culture washed over me. I worshipped each god in this trinity, so to speak, in equal strength and measure.
Elvis was the problematic idol—he had a widespread cult among both boys and girls and especially young women. Only men disliked him: they knew trouble when they saw it. Elvis initiated what became known later as “the sexual revolution”. Therefore, although he was like the proverbial older brother you never had, he also seemed a bit weird and androgynous—off putting to us boys approaching puberty.
Our dads worked in distant factories or in offices in “the city”. Their influences on our social life and perceptions of culture, if any, were weak. Thus, Elvis kept on dancing and singing in our minds uninterrupted, and we were constantly surrounded by fellow cultists. Girls and women went especially nuts for him. Even older ladies. “Oh, he’s such a nice boy!” They knew fertility when they saw it.
The black community nearby (where Katherine Dunham had spent her childhood) embraced Elvis. They particularly sympathized with a southerner, same as they did my mother, who hired Imogen, a part-time housekeeper and babysitter from the neighborhood. Oddly, though, my mother didn’t care for him. She disliked movies (the darkness bothered her) and seldom listened to the radio, and then only to country and western stations. She preferred the records of folk music from her childhood: The Carter Family, Woody Guthrie and the new interpretations by The Weavers and The Limelighters.
Such was Elvis’ genius that, literally, all of humanity was affected from the first moment he stepped on stage to the present day. I remembered this when I saw the little logo Amazon.com used to observe Michael Jackson’s death. It was his figure in a familiar pose: back arched, knees bent and feet up on the toes of his shoes—a version of one of many poses Elvis first popularized. Elvis was popular music’s Beethoven and teenage dance’s Nijinsky, bringing the forces of nature to a sterile, lifeless post WWII world. Who did it before? Who’s done it since?
Many dismiss his movies, but they’re wrong. The 31 musical films he headlined presented the true Elvis, and our cult’s complete program. I saw only a few, but they were enough. The Glen Theater in downtown Glen Ellyn showed them on Saturday afternoons, where we’d flock after chores. Everyone left the movie as if intoxicated and transformed in the bright afternoon light. In the following weeks we’d dress differently, depending on the movie’s theme. Lighter, darker, tougher, gentler, smoother. We also applied large gobs of hair cream to shape what hair we had into side sweeps and the little conch in front. I practiced my left eyebrow lift-up for hours. This was not exactly a mystery cult.
Elvis was a great actor—very resourceful with throw away stories and scripts. He played troubled teens well; an aimless, happy-go-lucky drifter adequately; but he was best as a challenged young man, be it from business worries or as an ex-soldier returning to his dad’s company. Overall these B-flicks were formulaic and, by today’s standards, dreadful. But as vehicles for the Elvis gospel, they were magnificent. We’d sit and wait for the songs and dances, most of which were breathtaking. He was always amusing, with the personality of a genie from a bottle. There was the air of a cunning trickster about him, perhaps the influence of his Cherokee grandmother. Recently I saw both “Blue Hawaii” and “King Creole” and they were so fresh and exciting that they could’ve been made yesterday.
A masterful guitarist, he also competently played bass, piano and drums. (He was even a certified Black Belt in karate.) His music composing consisted of only a few songs, but he arranged all the others. He molded and shaped each song, rather than learned and read it. (In this he was similar to Sinatra, who hated him.) Performing music was his greatest passion, even more than his family or many other diverse pursuits. It is revealing that he won only three Grammys—all for his gospel records.
His mom’s early illness and death in 1958, most of which Elvis missed while stationed two years with the US Army in Germany, almost killed him. (Quick—name a pop star in the last 30 years who served in the military overseas.) Always shy, he gradually felt more so and, over the remaining two decades of his life, withdrew from the enormous potential of his career. It is almost incomprehensible, but Elvis could have been much more popular than he was. Yet, with this psychic limitation, he became the greatest selling solo performer in the history of music.
A manipulative manager, who was afraid of sending him overseas due to his own legal and immigration problems, convinced him to stay in the U.S. “These are your real fans”, etc. Of course, it was baloney and the results were tragic. Had Elvis toured the world the way the Beatles did the U.S., he’d have prevented the “British Invasion” and spared us the many adenoidal mop tops. In turn, the UK, Europe and Asia might have broken their postwar cultural molds much earlier than the 1980s-1990s.
Alas, the selfish manager, “Colonel Tom Parker”, disabled The King, and thus enabled the Fab Four to leave their home turf in safety and invade our popular music industry. It was war! The Beatles look like girls—a big problem for 11-12-13 year old boys. But they were only the first of an assault force of at least a dozen bands of shaggy, thin, and—for the most part—talented and well-trained musicians. The problem was—except for the Animals—they sang through their noses. But like all invasion forces, the one in 1963 was well planned and provisioned. The boy ensembles were like musical death squads. Strangely, too, they all looked alike, as if taking a page from British military dress.
These foreign invaders deliberately used American musical styles—rock, country and blues—and reshaped them into a sort of “super glue” of pop music that American youth found irresistible—especially very young girls, 11-12-13 year olds in particular. It was a disaster for Elvis and for us, his loyal soldier-fans. Hence, doubts that we had formed over our years of Elvis worship, crystallized in the face of the British onslaught. We “had to have” the Beatles. The girls mobbed them, and we mobbed the girls. So, in effect, we “fragged” our sergeant!
Elvis made a big target. He was not a group, but a lone individual, often performing solo with his guitar for a girl or her mother. Other times he sat surrounded by men beating drums, bongos or tin cans; still other times he fronted an old-fashioned swing band under a simple spot light. Never was he a member of a group. That was the Old World, now re-imported from Britain. Too bad for him and too bad, ultimately, in my opinion, for us. He could have conquered the world with his Caesar-like genius.
However, the Fab Four launched their D-Day invasion of AM radio in the early winter of 1963. They were a polished product that was well-marketed. No one had heard their sustained and textured electric guitar sound, artfully constructed songs full of compact syncopations and, especially, Ringo’s fantastic drumming. As the old saying goes, “It was over before it started”. I’m not sure Elvis even noticed.
No matter to me. I always preferred the dancing, singing, facial expressions, clowning and awesome charisma of The King. Elvis had it all and gave it all and we were grateful. Although, in a way, he abandoned us, it wasn’t his fault. His manager was monumentally greedy and stupid. The American public was left with either the aging “Rat Pack”, surf or bubble gum as our signature American musical styles. No wonder the nation turned to drugs.
As I say, Elvis was the problematic idol.