The King

The Private Elvis

by May Mann
Pocket Books, 294 pp., $1.95

My Life With Elvis: The Fond Memories of a Fan Who Became Elvis's Private Secretary

by Becky Yancey and Cliff Linedecker
St. Martin's, 360 pp., $8.95

Elvis: A Biography

by Jerry Hopkins
Warner Books, 448 pp., $2.50 (paper)

Elvis: What Happened?

by Red West and Sonny West and Dave Hebler, as told to Steve Dunleavy
Ballantine Books, 332 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley; drawing by David Levine

In the Fifties, Elvis Presley appalled his elders and delighted his fans by singing about sex with evident pleasure. No matter what the lyrics said, Presley seemed to change them as he sang them. His vast success depended equally on the adulation of teenagers and the revulsion of their parents, for it was Elvis’s seeming promise of forbidden things that began all the excitement. This violent national ambivalence was inspired largely by television, because Elvis had to be seen to be believed, or believed in. After gaining a big following, mostly in the South, on the strength of concert tours through 1954 and 1955, he appeared on several television programs in 1956, just after the release of “Heartbreak Hotel,” his first million-seller. (He might have appeared the previous year, on Arthur Godfrey’s “Talent Scouts,” but failed his audition.) Thousands of young viewers were ecstatic, having discovered someone who could tap and reciprocate their own energy. On the other hand, various clergymen and columnists made outraged statements about the imminent decline of American culture.

Today it is difficult to understand the reactions of the righteous, who hadn’t seen anything yet. A later generation of rock stars would do everything but pull their own heads off onstage; Elvis just got worked up. His act was uncomplicated. He was backed by drums, string bass, and lead guitar, and haphazardly slapped out a sort of rhythm accompaniment on his own guitar, which he used primarily as a prop. Wearing baggy pants and what looked like a very fat person’s sportcoat, he wriggled and jerked as if trying to undress without using his hands. He made teasing faces; his smile had a leer built into it. Ed Sullivan tried to mitigate the erotic impact by televising Presley from the waist up (which naturally made the area from the waist down seem doubly intriguing), but this made little difference: the girls in the studio audience screamed, nearly drowning out Presley’s voice, a collective display of pubescent desire that made a lot of viewers nervous.

As Elvis drew bigger and more demonstrative adolescent audiences over the three-year period of his stardom in the Fifties, the nervousness also increased, finding a good deal of incoherent expression: Elvis was “morally insane,” “a whirling dervish of sex,” his music “a sort of nightmare of rhythm.” What Elvis’s shrill detractors failed to understand, aside from the English language, was the fundamentally symbolic character of those hysterical concerts. Elvis sang and shook all over, the girls wept and squealed, then everybody went home. The libido was getting a lot of bad press (if any) in the Fifties, a situation which Elvis’s fans seemed to intuit. It has become a cliché of rock criticism that Elvis was a liberating figure, a pop Henry Miller, who allowed his fans to express themselves sexually. It would be more accurate to say that Elvis provided a lot…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.