Our “Sonic Reducer” blogger tucks into a meal with The King.
By Carl Hanni
Like some previous postings here at for my BLURT blog “Sonic Reducer,” this one is considerably after the fact; this mighty book about the early life of Elvis Presley was first published in 1998, so it’s got 18 years of hair on it, but don’t let that take any of the shine off; it’s still as fresh and impossible to put down as the day it was published.
Last Train to Memphis tracks the life and career of Elvis Presley from his birth in 1935 until his induction into the army in 1958, at the early peak of his career. A second book, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, picks up the story where this one left off, up until Presley’s death in 1977.
All celebrities of Presley’s caliber – a highly select and finite group – should be as lucky as Presley to have a writer of Guralnick’s caliber take such a sympathetic and comprehensive look at their life and work. The scope of the book is staggering – 488 pages on the first 23 years of Presley’s life. That kind of coverage allows for literally a day by day (or even hour by hour) exploration of a life that few biographies can match. Last Train to Memphis (and presumably Careless Love, which I haven’t read) is a masterwork of research that will likely stand for all time as the definitive book(s) about Elvis Presley; it’s impossible to imagine anyone topping it in any fashion.
With Last Train to Memphis, Guralnick takes on the super-human task of humanizing Elvis Presley and trying separate the man from the myth. This is no easy task; Presley may be the single most iconographic American figure of the 20th Century, a person whose image has so over-saturated the culture that it’s hard to see him as anything more than a series of images, some vital and vibrant and others sad and embarrassing. Guralnick goes into this knowing full well that to many Presley was a joke, to others an outrage and to others something akin to a deity. No matter what you feel about Elvis Presley going in, you’re almost bound to come out of it feeling differently after reading his book.
Guralnick – the author of other highly acclaimed books on American culture and music like Lost Highway, Feel Like Going Home and several others – is a writer of unnatural skill and grace. The narrative flows in a way that is so natural that it borders on the aquatic. His gifts for evocation brings the past alive in a way that is so pronounced that you can practically smell it and feel it. This is particularly true of Elvis’s teenage years in Memphis, where his family moved from Tupelo, MS, in 1948, when Elvis was thirteen. Guralnick lays out central Memphis street by street, then moves Presley, his family and friends around in it over several years before his sudden, wildly improbable rise to super-stardom. He follows Presley on his forays to Hollywood and Las Vegas, and on his numerous tours around the South and East, and right on into the army. Always, they return to Memphis.
It’s unlikely that Elvis Presley would have existed as he did without Memphis, and without his earlier upbringing in Tupelo. As a dirt poor, post-World War II child of the South, Elvis was raised in an environment where poor blacks and whites rubbed shoulders with each other, and where music – gospel, blues, hillbilly, country and later R&B – was everywhere. Memphis – along with Nashville and New Orleans – was one of the great bastions of Southern music, with powerful and influential radio stations (and radio personalities, like Elvis’ early booster Dewey Phillips), night clubs and concert halls, jamborees, gospel revivals, record stores, local musical legends and local labels and recording studios. And where, as the story has been told over and over, local studio owner and fledgling label owner Sam Phillips, saw something in a oddball kid who kept hanging around his Sun Studios and let him cut a couple of tracks. The rest is, indeed, history.
The big picture facts of Elvis’ life during this time are public record, but no one has gotten into the miniature of it in the way that Guralnick does. He seems to have spoken to everyone who ever encountered Presley, and recaptures their memories with sparkling detail and clarity. But much more importantly is how deeply he digs into, and peels back the layer of Presley’s personality and reveals the young man underneath. What he finds, and conveys with infinite care and sympathy, is fascinating and eye-opening. Young Presley emerges as a fairly simple, straightforward guy; but of course he’s also infinitely complex. He’s completely devoted to his parents, especially his mother (to the point of being a classic mama’s boy, really). He’s an oddball in school, especially high school, but still has a local gang in the Memphis housing project that he spent his high school years in that he’s loyal to. He starts cultivating an image as a young teenager that eventually becomes a look and an attitude that sets American culture on its ear. He shows so little promise as a musician as a young man that his eventual stardom floors everyone who knew him. He seems completely racially color blind. He’s neither a natural leader or a follower, really a sort of perpetual outsider that somehow became one of the biggest selling, most controversial and polarizing, and then most famous entertainers of his time.
The whole story is wildly improbable, but Guralnick makes it plausible by breaking it down day by day and showing EXACTLY what happened. Elvis meets Dewey Phillips; Elvis meets Sam Phillips, finally convinces him to let him record something; Dewey Phillips plays it on WHBQ; it takes off like wildfire, and within a year local misfit Elvis Presley is the hottest thing in ’Hillbilly’ music in the region. Then the whole South. Then the country. Then Hollywood beckons.
No one had ever seen anything like it. And, with the exception of Beatlemania a few years later, ever did again, or likely ever will. Talk about being the right guy at the right place at the right time; Elvis Presley uncovered a need that no one knew existed until it rolled over the top of them. He struck a chord in the teenage psyche of the country that (apparently) was just lying there waiting to be struck, and it unleashed a culture changing floodgate of hysteria that’s hard to understand today. To fully comprehend it, check out the earliest footage of Presley that you can find; the best I’ve ever seen are a few short clips that are featured on the excellent “History of Rock & Roll” series that Time/Life put together several years ago, and I covered in considerable detail in a previous Sonic Reducer. It’s mind-boggling: Presley is a man possessed and the action from the crowds has to be seen to be believed.
Aside from the story itself and the look into Presley’s psyche, the other greatest virtue of Last Train To Memphis is the way that Guralnick illuminates multiple aspects of American culture in the 1940s and 50s. It’s most likely hard for anyone considerably younger to understand how fundamentally different America was when Presley first broke in the mid 1950s. It many ways it really was a far more innocent (or perhaps naive) time. Reading about Presley and his pals is like stepping into an episode of “Happy Days:” kids (at least these kids) went out on chaste double dates, went to the movies or the park, sipped Cokes, obeyed their parents, went to church on Sundays, played football, gathered around the radio to listen to the Grand Ole Opry and Louisiana Hayride (this was the south, after all). Sure, there were a few hoods and greasers, a few teen pregnancies, always the possibility of the draft and the threat of The Bomb (and if you were black, the KKK); but seriously, reading the day by day of this era is not unlike a Dixie-fried “Mayberry RFD,” the difference being that Presley and his pals were poor, and just around the corner was Beale St., the beating heart of Memphis’ black culture.
Presley was devoutly religious and ascribed his talent to being ‘a gift from God.’ He would just as soon sing spirituals around the piano with family and friends, much to the dismay of a young Natalie Wood who came out for a four day stay and only lasted two, bored and discomfited by all the homeliness. Herein lays the contradiction of Elvis Presley: the seemingly lascivious, dangerously sexy character who really DID induce mass sexual frenzy amongst his teenage fans was just a homeboy at heart, who REALLY wanted nothing more than to please his mother and make her proud. The public Elvis was known for his gyrations, outrageous clothes and cross-over music; but the one thing that literally everybody who ever met Elvis even in passing first says is how polite and humble he was. Elvis (at this point anyway) didn’t drink, smoke, use drugs, forbid profanity in front of women, donated to charities, sent flowers, tirelessly signed autographs – stopped and helped strangers change tires, for Christ’s sake. Of course he also screwed his way through Hollywood, Las Vegas and Memphis, but also seems to have kept genuinely chaste relationships with at least most of the numerous young women he dated (sometimes 2 or 3 at a time) during this time. You know, the good girls. The ones you marry.
Finally, and just as full of insights, stories and lore, Guralnick gives us indelible portraits of seemingly everyone in Presley’s orbit from the time he was born. His dad Vernon and prematurely sad mother Gladys (she just couldn’t stop worrying about Elvis), his extended family, all of his neighbors and high school pals, his shape-shifting Memphis posse (including several cousins) and his later posse additions from Las Vegas and Hollywood are drawn in sharp relief. Of course much ink is spilled on Col. Tom Parker, the former carny turned promoter who grabbed Elvis and ran with him all the way to Hollywood and to the bank. Several banks, really. But also every DJ, record producer and engineer, A&R man, local promoter, RCA Records staff member who ever worked with him, session musician and every soda jerk or car hop who ever served Elvis seems to have been interviewed by Guralnick and included in the book. It should be exhausting, but it’s not; it’s exhilarating.
As he should, Guralnick pays special attention to the three folks that really played the most in forming Elvis Presley: Sam Phillips and Elvis’ original two band-mates, guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black. It’s entirely possible that the phenomenon of ‘Elvis Presley’ never would have happened without Scotty and Bill; if he was the look and the voice, they were the sound. Their two-person, hopped-up combo of hillbilly twang and blues punch had never quite been heard before, and they lit the fire under Elvis that blew up with such a startling roar. It’s incredibly sad to see them slowly but surely marginalized, then squeezed out of the picture altogether, and as generous as Elvis could be he never seemed to realize that he wasn’t taking care of these two fellas from the neighborhood that made it all happen. There’s more than a few warnings in their story for anyone contemplating a life in the music business.
Sam Phillips was the guy who really made the young Elvis Presley and boy does he know it. A world class character, self made man and kingmaker for Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Ike Turner’s ‘Rocket 88” and others in addition to Elvis, Phillips is a true American original, the guy who molded the key to the kingdom of rock & roll. Fortunately for us all, Phillips was as color blind as Presley, and between the two of them they kicked started a cultural revolution that is still winding out today.
Really, no kidding. Read it to believe it.
Carl Hanni is a music writer, music publicist, DJ, disc jockey, book hound and vinyl archivist living in Tucson, AZ. He hosts “The B-Side” program on KXCI (streamed live on Tuesday nights 10-12 pm at KXCI.org) and spins around Southern Arizona on a regular basis. He currently writes for Blurt and Tucson Weekly.