O'TOOLE: It's time to celebrate Elvis Presley's birthday

Seventy-nine years ago, on Jan. 8, 1935, a baby boy was born in a two-room house in the poorest section of Tupelo, Miss. The house was popularly called a “shotgun shack” because you could fire a bullet from the front doorway and the bullet would fly out the back without hitting anything.
Jan 7, 2014

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

Comments

Former Grandhavenite

It's funny how just the way he swayed his hips was considered scandalous in the '50s. He was the right man for the right era and if he hadn't been there to introduce black culture and music in a way socially acceptable to white people, someone else would have done it eventually. He deserves credit as one of the most influential musicians of all time, although not one of the greatest in my opinion.

Lanivan

This brings to mind a wonderful memory of my sister, mother, and me watching Elvis' iconic 1973 Hawaiian concert together. He managed to work not only my sister and me into a frenzy of dancing and singing along, but even inspired my mother to join us - as only Elvis could. Talk about jaw-dropping!

Wolverine49457

I've never cared for Elvis's style but sure he was naturally talented and charismatic.

Ltilgh

I am a fan and was blessed to have seen Elvis perform numerous times - in concert arenas and in Las Vegas. I have always had a hard time explaining what the experience was like and why I will be a fan forever, words alone do not capture the experience of seeing him live, but your explanation of why a fan is a fan for life comes close. I have seen a lot of performers since, and while talented and great, nothing that compares to a live performance by Elvis. I look back with happy memories and am thankful that I got to see what I consider to be the greatest entertainer of all time. Happy birthday E!

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