The boy, by the age of 21, was so famous he was popularly known by his first name only: Elvis.
He was also known by a number of other names, the most often-repeated to me as well as the most short-sighted: Elvis the Pelvis. I hate that name. Elvis did, too. It embarrassed him.
His favorite music was gospel. One of his first purchases after earning fame was a white Cadillac he had painted pink for his Mama. He worshipped Jesus and his Mama above all else. How could he face Jesus and Mama with every major newspaper in the country calling him that terrible name?
Then some journalist dubbed him The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. It wasn’t as bad as the name that referred to his groin, but it was still an embarrassing moniker for a young man who could still remember his Mama working herself half to death just to keep a roof over their heads.
In school, he was an average student. He was never popular with girls or with boys, never singled out for talent or greatness by teachers. In fact, he got picked on a bit — for his skinny build, his pimply complexion and his long hair, which he wore heavily oiled.
“King” implied the best and Elvis never thought he was the best at anything. Some accused him of claiming to invent rock ‘n’ roll. He certainly never pretended that he was responsible for the advent of an entire genre of music. In fact, whenever he was given the opportunity, he credited the performers who influenced him. But those opportunities were rare.
All too soon, at the age of 42 — the age I am as I write this (shiver) — Elvis Presley died. He died at the beginning of a new concert tour, at the beginning of what he had hoped would be the next phase in his career.
But I’ve already written about the aftermath of Elvis’ death in a previous column. And I’m sick of all the focus on his death, anyway. It’s time we celebrated his life.
“Before anyone did anything, Elvis did everything.” So goes the promotional slogan for RCA-BMG’s “Elvis: 30 No. 1’s” CD, and so goes the story of Elvis’ career.
Elvis had no formal musical training. He couldn’t even read sheet music. In the beginning, his music and appearance offended adults and enraptured teenagers. He was a trendsetter in musical style and performance, in fashion and hairstyle.
He worked his audiences into a controlled hysteria. He didn’t just sing in front of them, he sang to them, he sang for them. He grinned at them, made goo-goo eyes at them, touched their hands and kissed their cheeks (women only).
He joined the army and moved to Germany, then came back after two years to success even greater than before. He starred in some of the biggest money-making movies of the ‘60s, transitioning smoothly from ‘50s rebel to ‘60s screen idol. He married and had a child.
Then a return to concert performances revitalized the City of Las Vegas. Although he was no longer setting musical trends, his approach to the concert sound — a rock band backed by a full orchestra and a chorus of more than a half-dozen singers, male and female; combined with his flashy, glitzy jumpsuits — set the bar for ‘70s concerts. He began passing out scarves to his female fans, and continued his ‘50s tradition of touching and kissing them. He made his fans feel that everything he did, he did for them.
That, I think, is his greatest legacy. Before Elvis, no entertainer made such a deep and lasting personal connection with audiences. An Elvis fan is an Elvis fan for life.
America mourned when he was drafted and when his mother died; cheered when he wed Priscilla and when Lisa Marie was born. And, of course, people from all over the world watched his funeral procession, either on TV or in person.
Today, fans still feel a connection with Elvis when they listen to his music, watch his movies and concert videos, and travel to Graceland to visit his home. This connection continues to make millions happy.
Now that is something to celebrate.
— By Kelly O'Toole, Tribune community columnist