[13 January 2009]
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
It was the King’s 74th birthday Jan. 8, and he lives on not only in music, but on paper.
The latest King-ly tome, Adam Victor’s 598-page “The Elvis Encyclopedia” ($65, Overlook Press), isn’t as thick as DK Publishing’s 608-page photo book “Elvis: A Celebration” (2002). And it isn’t as chronologically obsessive as “Elvis: Day by Day” (1999). But it is an engaging, often insightful and frequently maddening work.
First, the maddening: “The Elvis Encyclopedia,” released in October, offers no index. Even regular encyclopedias have indexes so, say, you could look up every time “Chicago” or even “Mitt Romney” shows up in the volume. (Romney is mentioned at least once: The politician used Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation” during his 2008 presidential bid.)
The omission of an index will be frustrating for those wishing to cross-reference and find names in multiple entries. For example, the entry for “girlfriends” forces the reader to scan through three pages of small type before finding the paramour of interest.
Now, the engaging. After many entries, quotes from Presley’s associates and fans are printed. For example, after Sun Records’ founder Sam Phillips sold Presley’s contract to RCA, he thought his former star’s first single with the label, “Heartbreak Hotel,” was a “morbid mess.”
That bit is included in the body text, but directly after the entry, Victor includes a quote from famed British radio DJ John Peel about the song: “It might sound pretty safe now, but in the context of what was happing in the 1950s, hearing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ was as shocking as if someone was dancing naked in your living room.”
Unfortunately, Victor does not tell his readers who Peel was and doesn’t include an entry for him and many of the speakers, so context is lost.
Though this isn’t a photo book, Victor includes 420 images. They include most of the King’s iconic photographs, including his famous portrait with President Richard Nixon in 1970 and various publicity shots. Slightly out-of-focus shots of Presley with family and friends create a blurred sense of intimacy.
Also, check out his photo ID when he drove a truck for an electrical contractor (Page 100).
Because this isn’t a narrative account of Presley’s life, it’s difficult to get a cohesive sense of his career, talents and magnetism. It’s not designed to do that. But the individual entries are captivating, colorful and gleefully geeky.
Victor, whose previous work includes “The Marilyn Encyclopedia,” notes in his “Elvis” volume under the “Marilyn Monroe” entry that although the two sex symbols never met, Monroe sings “Specialization” in the movie “Let’s Make Love,” with lyrics about Presley. (Victor’s book does not, however, point out that the Presley lyrics are sung by her co-star Frankie Vaughan in the duet.)
Even without an index, “The Elvis Encyclopedia” is a jewel in the King’s crown for aficionados, academics and casual fans.
OTHER NOTABLE ELVIS BOOKS
“Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley,” by Peter Guralnick (1994): The first volume of Guralnick’s authoritative Elvis biography.
“Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley,” by Peter Guralnick (1998): This sequel documents the King’s fall into drug abuse, failed relationships and a string of cinematic turkeys.
“Elvis: What Happened?” by Red West, Sonny Hebler and others (1977): Pure tabloid, purely gripping. Elvis’ entourage members write this tell-all about the King’s drug use and eccentricities. Released two weeks before his death.
DID YOU KNOW?
Elvis Presley was a rabid Monty Python fan, often reciting the troupe’s comedy routines from memory. His favorite sketch: “Nudge nudge.”
When Presley bought Graceland, it was already named Graceland - for Grace Toof, the daughter of a previous owner of the property.
Actor Kurt Russell has had a long association with the King in movies: At age 11, he appeared with Presley in 1963’s “It Happened at the World’s Fair,” played Presley in the TV biopic “Elvis: The Movie” (1979), provided the voice of Presley in “Forrest Gump” (1994) and portrayed a Presley impersonator in “3,000 Miles to Graceland” (2001).
He dyed his hair. Elvis was a natural dirty blond but dyed his locks jet-black because he thought it would look better in movies.
Presley met Priscilla Beaulieu, his future wife, when she was 14 and he was 24.
In the midst of a “spiritual quest,” Elvis took LSD with Priscilla and friends in 1965.
Barbra Streisand lobbied fruitlessly for Elvis to play the mentor role in her remake of “A Star Is Born” (1976).
Elvis was an insomniac most of his life.
_His own movies to the contrary, Elvis had great taste in cinema. Favorite films included “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “The French Connection” and his most beloved movie, “Patton.”
Elvis won three Grammy Awards - all late in his career, all for gospel songs and two for the same song (“How Great Thou Art”).
(Sources: “The Elvis Encyclopedia,” by Adam Victor; “Last Train to Memphis” and “Careless Love,” by Peter Guralnick; and “Elvis and Me,” by Priscilla Beaulieu Presley with Sandra Harmon)