Hustling Elvis

Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley; drawing by David Levine

Having aspired to be as famous as Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (a gut-bucket singer and songwriter well known only to blues devotees), Elvis Presley surpassed his early ambitions by a factor of about a zillion, and after a few years the enormity of his success began to weigh upon him. He struggled to grasp how he—a poor boy from East Tupelo, Mississippi, who had failed music in high school—could become the most popular recording artist in history, an idol to young people all over the world, and a movie star. “Why am I Elvis?” he wanted to know. “Why was I plucked out of the millions and millions of lives to be Elvis?”

At the suggestion of his confidant and hairdresser, Larry Geller, Elvis started reading inspirational texts and popular books on mysticism and Eastern thought, such as Paramahansa Yogananda’s The Autobiography of a Yogi, Vera Stanley Alder’s The Initiation of the World, and The Impersonal Life (by “Anonymous”).1 He took this spiritual inquiry so seriously that he considered devoting the rest of his life to it by becoming a monk.

Elvis would never find the answers he sought, though, because he was looking in the wrong place. Turning inward, as he was, he could presumably have learned something about himself and the music he created; but to understand how he became Elvis, the phenomenon, he would have had to study a different person: his manager (and something more), an outsized mystery man who went by the name of Thomas A. Parker and insisted upon being called “the Colonel.”

Before Parker laid siege to the twenty-year-old Presley and assumed control of his career, early in 1955, Elvis had been a regional sensation—a big story, but local news. Performing an erotic transmutation of black rhythm and blues, white gospel, and country music (with strains of cornball humor and Tin Pan Alley schmaltz), Presley had roused Southern girls to hysterics at county fairs, and local demand for the first few records he made for the Memphis-based Sun label, beginning with a fiery rendition of Crudup’s “That’s All Right” and a rocked-up version of the country ballad “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” overtaxed the small company’s pressing facilities. Distributed mostly in the South, the records Presley made for Sun Records never made the national pop-music charts.

Rock and roll was in the air; Elvis did not invent it. Teenagers, black and white, had been dancing to hard-driving “jump blues” records by black groups such as Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats’ “Rocket 88” (commonly regarded as the first rock song) since the early 1950s, and white “hillbilly cats” and western-swing musicians such as Bill Haley and Billy Jack Wills were combining elements of African-American music with commercial pop and country-and-western styles around the same time. In fact, Haley had begun to make a career out of retooling black musicians’ hits like “Rocket 88” for…

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