Elvis Presley died on August 16, 1977, a Tuesday, the day I received a call that changed my life. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this.
I was living in Mesa, Arizona, and I was looking for a teaching job after my adjunct position ended at Arizona State.
I was called by a department chair and offered a full-time position at what was then a college in downtown Denver. I accepted over the phone, and then turned on the television.
Presley died at his home in Memphis, Tennessee. He was only 42.
I didn’t know what to think. As a musician, Presley was AWOL during my formative years of music awareness, the ones after he returned from military duty, and I mostly dismissed him.
By the 1970s he had become a caricature.
Impersonators now generally appear as the older, flamboyant Presley, the one I strongly dislike.
He was taking a lot of prescription drugs, he had gained a lot of weight, and he was wearing capes and rhinestones.
He was forgetting lyrics on stage.
I am not sure where or when I heard about the recordings he made at Sun with Sam Phillips in Memphis, but they turned around my opinion. They continue to be the only ones I listen to.
There’s a new two-part Presley documentary that I initially watched with reluctance. However, it’s very well made and honest, and doesn’t swoon over Presley’s life.
Several voice-overs are provided by music producers and critics, and performers, like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Robbie Robertson and Emmylou Harris. The comments by the performers are especially meaningful, because they are very insightful about, among other things, the control manager Colonel Tom Parker had over Presley.
I never knew that Presley deplored the movies he made as much as I did.
Before he left for duty, Presley made a couple of decent films, but when he returned he was given mediocre scripts, mediocre budgets, and mediocre songs to sing.
The actors and actresses he worked with were rarely notable, except for Ann- Margret, and when the Colonel saw all of the attention she received after “Viva Las Vegas” was released, he made sure Presley didn’t work with her again.
I also didn’t know that Parker refused to permit Presley to perform outside of the United States, and he never did. Why? Because Parker was not a U.S. citizen, and thought he might not be allowed to re-enter.
Parker managed the career of one of music history’s most important individuals, and treated him like a brand.
As Petty says near the end of Part II, Presley had become “Elvis”; he was no longer Elvis Presley.
Presley’s breakthrough years happened before I owned a radio, and by the time I caught up with him he was singing songs that didn’t do anything for me.
Springsteen said he couldn’t wait for Presley’s televised comeback special on June 27, 1968. Presley looked and sounded great, and he re-established himself as a significant performer again overnight.
But then, he began years of servitude in Las Vegas, and in less than 10 years he was dead.
It’s unimaginable what a life like Presley’s would be like. What it would do to an artist’s soul, and Presley had one.
Get yourself Presley’s Sun recordings. Hear?
Craig Marshall Smith is an artist, educator and Highlands Ranch resident. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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