Feature

Why Elvis still lives

Elvis Presley died 25 years ago this week. Why do so many people still care?

What was Elvis’ claim to fame?Elvis Presley was the first major rock ’n’ roll star. He was born into humble circumstances in Tupelo, Miss., in 1936. By his death in 1977, he had recorded 94 gold singles and 40 gold albums, starred in 30 movies that grossed a total of $180 million, and become an international icon. “He was the most influential solo popular artist of our time,” said American Bandstand host Dick Clark. Elvis was, and remains, “the King.”

How did he become Elvis?At age 18, Elvis walked into Sun Records in Memphis and paid $3.98 to make a record. Legend says he was recording a gift for his mother, but Elvis was really trying to impress Sun’s owner, Sam Phillips. “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound,” Phillips supposedly once said, “I could make a billion dollars.” Phillips later denied ever having said this, but either way, he did not immediately recognize Elvis as that man. Months passed before Phillips finally put Elvis in a studio with guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black. At the end of a long, unproductive session, Elvis started wailing a blues song called “That’s All Right, Mama.” “I don’t know what you’re doing,” Phillips said, “but do it again.” That moment altered the course of American pop music.

Did Elvis invent rock ’n’ roll?No, but he was rock ’n’ roll’s indispensable man. All the threads that were eventually woven into rock ’n’ roll—rhythm and blues, gospel, country, Tin Pan Alley pop—preceded Elvis, but he synthesized them into a compelling, original sound. Even more significant, he supplied an ingredient that became a critical part of rock ’n’ roll’s appeal: Elvis was sexy. One fan called him “a great big beautiful hunk of forbidden fruit.” Variety defined his appeal as “simple, unthinking, illiterate sex.” With looks girls loved and boys wanted to copy, he was able to exploit the new medium of television. Elvis was so sexy, in fact, that after two gyrating appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, Sullivan ordered that the cameras shoot him from the waist up. Elvis then parlayed his talent, image, and audience into a contract with a major record label, legitimizing rock ’n’ roll as a genre, and solidifying his primacy among his peers.

Wouldn’t rock have succeeded without him? Not necessarily. Without his great coalescing force, rock ’n’ roll might have become a thriving subgenre existing on the fringe of an unbroken Frank Sinatra era. And without Elvis’ establishing rock ’n’ roll as something for teens to care about, maybe Brian Wilson and John Lennon would have cared about something else.

Was he really that good? He was great. So many have followed in his path that it’s difficult to see the sharp outlines of his footprints. But if you can imagine “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” or “Heartbreak Hotel” not as ancient texts but as new sounds, you can hear Elvis reaching that place where, as Sam Phillips put it, “a soul of a man never dies.”

Then how did he become a joke?By making lucrative but stupid career moves. Everything Elvis did before 1958 was golden. Then he was drafted. By the time he was discharged, Buddy Holly was dead, Little Richard had retired, and Jerry Lee Lewis was embroiled in scandal. Elvis’ shrewd manager, Colonel Tom Parker, did not think Elvis would have a long career making music for teenagers. He wanted Elvis to copy Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, go to Hollywood, and leverage his musical popularity into film stardom. The plan worked. Between 1961 and 1969, Elvis made 25 movies, each with a soundtrack, earning him multiple millions. But unlike Crosby or Sinatra, Elvis made really bad movies—“banal and repetitious,” said Ken Tucker in Entertainment Weekly. And while he wasted his time making frivolous films, society and pop culture were undergoing enormous changes. Elvis was trapped in “a protracted self-parody,” as Jonathan Yardley put it in The Washington Post, insulated by his cronies, drugs, and wealth. Artistically and quite literally, Elvis got fat.

What about his comeback?In 1968, Elvis began to reconnect to his times. Using producers and musicians who had worked with Aretha Franklin and other soul artists, Elvis recorded a set of hits—“Suspicious Minds,” “In the Ghetto,” “Burning Love”—in tune with the social ferment of the era. Unfortunately, he soon concluded that his best move was to become a Vegas act. Again, he made money, and some of his performances were thrilling. But there, Elvis grew isolated and addicted, becoming a bloated shadow of his former self.

How did Elvis die?Shortly after 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 16, 1977, Elvis’ body was found lying on the floor of his bathroom in Graceland, his pajama bottoms around his ankles, his face in a pool of vomit. Next to him was a copy of The Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus. He had no vital signs. Within seven hours, the coroner had ruled that death was “due to cardiac arrhythmia due to undetermined heartbeat”—even though Elvis had no history of heart disease and the coroner had seen no toxicology reports. When those reports were filed, the cause of death was changed to “polypharmacy.” Fourteen drugs were found in Elvis’ system, four at toxic levels.

Why do people think he’s alive?Elvis’ story is a blue-collar, Cinderella myth; for some, the end is too disheartening to acknowledge. On the other hand, if you believe the accounts recorded in Elvis After Life, by Dr. Raymond A. Moody, Elvis has appeared to dozens of people in dreams and visions. One dying woman’s last words, Moody reports, were “Here comes Elvis!”

Elvis, eternally earningNo dead celebrity earns more than Elvis. His estate earned $35 million in 2000, and is poised to top that this year with several new compilations timed to the anniversary of his death. This summer, Elvis enjoyed his 18th U.S. No. 1 hit, a remixed version of “A Little Less Conversation,” a single that peaked at No. 69 when it first appeared in 1968. The new version was put together by the Dutch disc jockey JXL to accompany Nike’s World Cup ad campaign. Presley’s estate had not licensed any of his music for remixing before, but with a new album called Elvis: 30 #1 Hits about to come out, the opportunity to add a fresh hit was too good to ignore.

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