“Being Elvis: A Lonely Life”
Author: Ray Connolly
Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation
Price: $27.95 (Hardcover)
Peter Guralnick is considered by many to be the best commentator on American popular music, with books on Sam Phillips, Sam Cooke, Robert Johnson and others.
His massive and authoritative two-volume study—“Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley” (1994) and “Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley” (1999), totaling 1300 pages—pretty much said it all about Elvis. Understandably, however, not everyone wants to move through 1300 pages and it has been 18 years since the last volume. Connolly’s one-volume biography is tidy and contains some information not available to Guralnick.
After covering the well-known childhood poverty in Tupelo, the move to Memphis where Elvis was shy and lonely and the sudden rise to fame with the early records cut at Sun Studio, Connolly focusses on a few particular aspects of Elvis’ life.
First, he is explicit about the ambiguous, even sinister role so-called Colonel Tom Parker played. Parker knew nothing about music, trends, tastes, history, nothing. He was a promoter who managed to become Elvis’ manager and got the naïve boy and his naïve father to sign contracts in which Parker got a disproportionate share of the earnings and for the longest time committed Elvis to sing only songs that brought Parker publishing royalties. It was not until 1969 that Elvis sang a Burt Bacharach song.
Elvis loved movies, was knowledgeable about them and had ambitions to be a serious movie actor, but Parker signed Elvis to movie deals in which money was the only consideration, nixing possible projects like “A Star is Born” and, although it was a far-fetched idea to think of Elvis opposite Natalie Wood in a musical by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, the role of Tony in the movie version of “West Side Story.”
Aside from perhaps a few movies—"Jailhouse Rock” or “Blue Hawaii”—the scripts were terrible, the songs were second-rate, and Parker didn’t care. Elvis was paid half a million for each. He sang “Petunia the Gardener’s Daughter” in “Frankie and Johnny,” “Song of the Shrimp” in “Girls, Girls, Girls” and “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” in “Double Trouble.” This from a singer who had brought the young people of America to a frozen halt with the first chords of “Heartbreak Hotel” or “Don’t Be Cruel” only a few years earlier.
Elvis sometimes made three movies a year, with shooting lasting only five weeks. “Kissin’ Cousins” was shot in 17 days. Nobody remembers “Spin Out” or “Tickle Me,” and that’s a good thing.
Not a good thing is that Elvis, who loved his interactions with a live audience, did not sing in public for eight years, then, after his comeback, moved to Vegas where he performed two hour-long shows a night.
Why such greed? It turns out Parker was a gambling addict who lost millions—literally millions—at the tables in Las Vegas and had Elvis working, hurting his voice, when he should have been resting.
Why did Elvis not just say no? Fire Parker and regain control of his own career? Connolly believes Elvis and Vernon, his dad, were just plain afraid. Poor people, unsophisticated people, they feared that what had come to them so suddenly, overwhelmingly, could just as suddenly disappear—maybe The Colonel knew best.
The “Colonel”—an honorary title bestowed by the governor of Louisiana—was even more mysterious than he seemed. Elvis had millions of fans around the world and wanted to have concerts in London, Paris, Tokyo, but Parker kept talking him out of it. Connolly saves this bit for the end, but I cannot resist. In 1981 it was confirmed that Thomas A. Parker was actually Andreas Cornelius van Kuijk, an illegal alien who had jumped ship, entered the U.S. from Holland in 1929 at the age of 20, had no passport and was afraid if he left the U.S. he would not be let back in.
Elvis was very young when fame hit him and was, to say the least, unprepared. He felt he could no longer eat in a restaurant or even go to the movies without causing a ruckus, and he was dismayed when he would return home to the house on Audubon Avenue he had bought for his parents and find a gaggle of fans in front.
Elvis bought Graceland, had the gates installed and, essentially, incarcerated himself in space and time, hanging out almost exclusively with his high school buddies.
He was rarely in public after that.
Elvis’ insecurity took several different forms. Guralnick had written that when Elvis was stationed in Germany during his Army stint, he and the other soldiers were given amphetamines to stay alert on maneuvers (Elvis was, in fact, a tank driver) or night patrols. Connolly traces his drug addiction back further even than Guralnick did, to Elvis’ use of his mother’s diet pills and amphetamines even before the army. In his 30s Elvis was on several substances all the time. (Fourteen drugs would turn up in his autopsy.)
His behavior was erratic, with mood swings from rage and depression to wild generosity and manic spending. Elvis loved cowboy movies and decided, on a whim, to buy a 160-acre ranch in north Mississippi for $450,000. He called it “The Circle G” after Graceland. It came with a herd of cattle. Elvis bought a herd of horses for himself and the “guys,” then saddles and bridles, western wear for the guys and their wives, complete with boots and chaps, then eight pick-up trucks and house trailers for everybody so they could all be there at the same time. This stuff added up to another $98,000. Elvis lost interest in all this in less than a year and the ranch and everything else was sold.
Elvis had enormous singing talent, a 2 1/2 octave range, and inexplicable charisma. One of the most famous people in the world, he became a lonely recluse and feared being forgotten. In fact, since his death he has become a cult figure, Graceland a kind of shrine. Record sales continue.
His life has been minutely studied and the conclusion is a sad one. It wasn’t easy being Elvis.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.