“Presley’s record [“That’s All Right”] besides launching his career, looked forward to the modern world as we know it: the outrageous commerce in celebrity and image; the movement of sex from private to public commodity; the explicit play of white and black music; the question of theft.”
— John Leland, Hip: The History
During the last 20 years or so, Elvis’s image has been increasingly solidified in the popular consciousness as the cartoon-like, camp-icon Elvis — i.e., the bloated, bacon-eating, drugged-up, jump-suited, TV-shooting, karate-kicking Vegas burnout. Certainly this is the version of Elvis that’s been emphasized in many movies, played up by Elvis imitators, and written about in muckraking essays and biographies. Paul Simpson’s trusty Rough Guide to Elvis, while packed with rare photos, trivia and fun factoids, provides some substantial biographical counter-revisionism in a reverent, witty, but not uncritical survey of everything Elvis.
Simpson meticulously covers all the significant events in Elvis’s 42-year existence: his first post-natal moments, the first classic recordings for Sun records, his dramatic 1950s rise, his 60s “fall and rise”, and the tragic 70s self-destruction. And there’s even a look at Elvis’s busy post-mortem years: You know, the afterlife in which the King resides in a desert-island hideout with Jim Morrison, but is occasionally spotted in the dairy section of your local supermarket.
With Elvis’s 70th Anniversary having just passed, he’s currently being honored via the hospice-ready Broadway musical (All Shook Up) and yet another mediocre Elvis TV special. Comparatively, Simpson’s guide makes admirable strides in rescuing Elvis’s legacy from the culture industry’s facile biographical whitewashings, and challenges the contemptuous elitism of critics like Albert Goldman and Nelson George: sensationalist Goldman portraying Elvis as little more than a lecherous, nasty, semi-literate, drug-loving hillbilly at the mercy of his handlers; while purists like George predictably slap Elvis with what Hip: The History author John Leland refers to as the “white boy that stole the blues” charge. To George and others, Elvis is simply another meretricious white rip-off artist who stripped the blues of their authenticity and degraded an otherwise inviolate art form.
Rather, Simpson’s micro-biography chooses much the same middle-ground as more sympathetic Elvis biographers like the moderate Pete Guralnick (although Simpson believes even Guralnick’s account isn’t definitive), and pretty comfortable with the notion that Elvis wasn’t just some exploitive redneck racist. He grew up in poverty-ridden Tupelo in a cultural crossroads, where dirt-poor blacks and dirt-poor whites intermingled, and inevitably so did their respective indigenous musical forms. With Simpson’s broad layout of Elvis’s influences, there’s no reason to believe that Elvis’s love of blues-belters La Vern Baker and Arthur Crudup wasn’t respectful and genuine — equal to his love of Bill Monroe and Ernest Tubb, not to mention crooners Roy Hamilton, Mario Lanza and Dean Martin.
So if Elvis is controversial for “stealing” the blues, we learn that he pilfered hillbilly mountain music and blasphemed Irving Berlin in the same manner: Elvis’s supercharged version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” initially drew criticism from Bill Monroe for its irreverent arrangement, while his raw rendering of “White Christmas” provoked Berlin (who, ironically, was often accused of “stealing the blues” himself) to call radio stations asking them not to play the Elvis version.
Major sections in the guide include an in-depth look at Elvis’s major rivalries — with Sinatra ranking first, the Beatles a close second. He shared a perfunctory visit with the Beatles at Graceland, but the Elvis vs. Sinatra rivalry is the most prolonged and complex; their relationship reveals many commonalities, and plays out as a something of an instinctive ongoing competition. To wit, Elvis had his entourage dubbed ‘the Mafia’ and Sinatra’s entourage was the Mafia. They both had flings with actress Juliet Prowse. Both men were threatened by the 60s trend toward self-reliant songwriters — both Elvis and the Chairman being song stylists doomed to constantly adapt and interpret other people’s material. Sinatra looked down upon Elvis and the first rock ‘n’ roll generation as “cretinous goons”. In turn, Elvis was dismissive of the Beatles and Dylan, realizing they were a threat to his top-dog status. Once, Elvis and Sinatra even competed over the same Stutz Blackhawk (The car was sold to Elvis).
Simpson cites Elvis’s major musical influences from country, folk, ballads, blues, rock, and gospel. And these assertions are backed by the sample glimpse you get of Elvis’s record collection, revealing amazingly catholic tastes (Lanza, Enrico Caruso, The Ink Spots, Jackie Wilson, and, weirdly, Peter Paul and Mary, among others). Simpson gives more evidence of Elvis’s curious mind by listing selections from Graceland’s library: Classics like Melville’s Moby Dick, and St. Augustine’s City of God, could be found alongside religious hokum like The Scientific Search for Jesus’ Face.
As a singer, Elvis at his worst sounded like “one of his own imitators”, according to Simpson. At his best, Elvis could sell a song like few others. Simpson takes on the chore of picking Elvis’s 50 most important songs, and gives an illuminating behind-the-scenes history of each, from the first Sun single “My Happiness” in 1953 (Simpson: “The performance may be as close as any fan can come to hearing the non-famous Elvis”) to 1977’s impassioned rendition of “Unchained Melody”, (in which “his voice soared with a freedom by then heard all too rarely in the studio”).
Not content with being the world’s first Rock Icon, turns out Elvis had lofty ambitions as an actor: in fact, according to Presley it was his “greatest ambition”. But he couldn’t muster the willpower to free himself from the grip of glorified pimp Tom Parker. Parker turned down a number of serious co-starring roles for Elvis in favor of top billing in B-Grade flicks — movies in which Elvis sang about everything from Yoga to shrimp. Here, Simpson bravely reviews all the Elvis movies so, thankfully, you don’t have to: from his 1956 screen debut in Love Me Tender, to dreadful schlock like Charro! and Stay Away Joe. While Simpson’s witty, evocative descriptions of the Top 50 recordings impel you to revisit these old hits, the generously annotated, comprehensive movie listings should prompt you to avoid Cinema Elvis whenever possible.
And assuming you do believe that Elvis no longer walks among us, Simpson gives serious consideration to all the rumored causes of Elvis’s death: from murder, to drug overdose, to suicide (the Goldman theory, naturally). Simpson, however, sides with the more rational diagnosis of heart failure brought on by years of steady drug abuse, high stress, and overindulgence in junk food.
But of course, if you’re the sort that would rather skip the serious stuff and lose yourself in Elvis memorabilia and related ephemera, Simpson goes as far as to list Elvis-related items up for purchase on eBay and elsewhere: say, mister, how about a piece of wood from the fence at Graceland for $175?