Elvis Presley fans waited in a long line to make a slow, solemn walk up the drive way of his home, Graceland, to pay their respects to the late singer on the 40th anniversary of his death. (Aug. 16) AP
MEMPHIS — He lived an unprecedented life — the poor boy who shook the world, the star who became a king, the cultural icon not even death could stop.
Forty years after his death on Aug. 16, 1977, at age 42, Elvis Presley’s life stands as one of the most examined in American history, and we aren’t near exhausted with the subject. Four decades on, books are still being written, movies made and songs sung about this singular life, and afterlife.
What follows is one version of the Elvis story, from glorious rise to Greek-worthy tragedy, in 40 quotes.
Sun rise and shine: The 1950s
“ ‘Get yasself a wheelbarrow load of mad hogs, run ’em through the front door, and tell ’em Phillips sentcha,’ screamed Dewey, wired from his usual combination of uppers and corn liquor. ‘This is Red Hot and Blue comin’ atcha from the magazine floor of the Hotel Chisca. And now we got somethin’ new gonna cut lost, DEE-GAWWWW! cut LOOSE! Good people, this is Elvis Presley … .’ ”
— WHBQ DJ Dewey Phillips, introducing the music of a 19-year-old Elvis to the listeners of his “Red, Hot & Blue” show in 1954, as recounted in Colin Escott’s book, “Good Rockin’ Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
“Presley is a potent new chanter who can sock over a tune for either country or R&B markets.”
— Billboard magazine, in 1954, reacting to Elvis’ first Sun record, “That’s All Right” backed with “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
“Out of Tupelo, Mississippi, out of Memphis, Tennessee, came this green, sharkskin-suited girl chaser, wearing eye shadow — a trucker-dandy white boy who must have risked his hide to act so black and dress so gay. This wasn’t New York or even New Orleans; this was Memphis in the Fifties. This was punk rock. This was revolt. Elvis changed everything — musically, sexually, politically.”
— U2’s Bono, in Rolling Stone.
“He was not quite a hillbilly, not yet a drugstore cowboy. He was a Southern — in that word’s connotation of rebellion and slow, sweet charm — version of the character Brando created in ‘The Wild One.’ Southern high-school girls, the ‘nice’ ones, called these boys ‘hoods.’ You saw them lounging on the hot concrete of a gas station on a Saturday afternoon, or coming out of a poolroom at three o’clock on a Monday afternoon, stopping for a second on the sidewalk as if they were looking for someone who was looking for a fight.”
— Writer Stanley Booth, casting back to the 1950s in his Esquire magazine article “Situation Report: Elvis in Memphis, 1967.”
“Sugar didn’t know exactly what he was going to say about Elvis Presley’s voice. That it made you visible to yourself and invisible to others.”
— From the novel “Music of the Swamp” by Lewis Nordan, a native of Forest, Miss., which also produced blues singer Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, whose song “That’s All Right” was Elvis’ first Sun single.
“The memory that stands out most in my mind is the first time I saw that face, the face that was soon to be the most recognized face in the world: the deep-set eyes that would make girls scream and cry; the full, pouting lips that would make them swoon. I’ll never forget the first time I saw that face: the flawless face of Elvis Presley.”
— Early Elvis girlfriend June Juanico, in her book, “Elvis: In the Twilight of Memory.”
“Before Elvis, there was nothing.”
— John Lennon
“Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.”
— Bob Dylan
“Elvis Presley played at our high school, Messick, and it’s the first time that I’d ever heard girls scream at anybody they weren’t mad at.”
— Musician Don Nix, in Memphian Robert Gordon’s book, “It Came From Memphis.”
“I got to see Elvis twice. The first time he played the Catholic Club, which was like a gymnasium at the local Catholic high school. Elvis and Scotty Moore and Bill Black — a three piece. He was hot. He wasn’t famous yet but he was hot. I think he had put out, like, three records that I had heard. The girls were there, too. You couldn’t really hear because they were starting to act up.”
— Levon Helm, Arkansan and drummer for The Band, remembering a 1955 Elvis show in an interview with Entertainment Weekly.
“What I’m showing everybody up on the stage is that those boys out there in the audience want to do a lot more than just kiss those girls. And when the girls start screaming like that, they’re letting everybody know that they know what those boys are thinking about. So I’m telling everybody’s secret. But you won’t tell any of my secrets, will you, Momma?”
— An imagined conversation from music historian, producer and writer Samuel Charters, in his novel, “Elvis Presley Calls His Mother After the Ed Sullivan Show.”
“The first thing you think of is his cool charisma, his electric personality, the larger than life thing that all those figures embody. But there’s also that little wide-eyed, innocent, naive country boy that is as much a part of it as anything. Elvis embodied both of those.”
— Drive-By Truckers’ Mike Cooley, talking about Elvis in an installment of the “Birthplace Sessions,” filmed on the front porch of the Presley home in Tupelo, Miss.
“I don’t remember the controversy he stirred up because everything he did seemed so natural and real, and he was one of us, a country person who spoke our language.”
— From author Bobbie Ann Mason’s biography, “Elvis Presley.”
“I’ve never seen anybody connected like Elvis and Gladys were. It was just amazing.”
— Lamar Fike, member of the Memphis Mafia, talking about Elvis and his mother in author Alanna Nash’s book, “Elvis Aaron Presley: Revelations from the Memphis Mafia,” an oral biography.
“… Elvis saw his parents as his babies. He called his mother his baby.”
— Mafia member Marty Lacker, in the same book.
“After the brief graveside rites at Forest Hill, Elvis leaned on the casket and said, ‘Oh God, everything I have is gone. Goodby, darling. Goodby, goodby … .’ ”
— Former Commercial Appeal reporter Charles Portis, a decade before the publication of his novel “True Grit,” covering the funeral of Gladys Presley on Aug. 15, 1958.
Movie star in search of something more: 1960s
He starred in thirty-one movies, which ranged from mediocre to putrid, and just about in that order.”
— Pauline Kael, New Yorker film critic.
“Kael was the Elvis Presley of movie criticism.”
— The Boston Globe
“Two or three times we were up in Hollywood, and he had sent some of the Memphis Mafia down to where we were to bring us up to see Elvis. But none of us went. Because it seemed like a sorry thing to do. I don’t know if I would have wanted to see Elvis like that. I wanted to see the powerful, mystical Elvis that had crash-landed from a burning star onto American soil. The Elvis that was bursting with life. That’s the Elvis that inspired us to all the possibilities of life. And that Elvis was gone, had left the building.”
— Bob Dylan, in Rolling Stone, on why he turned down chances to meet Elvis during the King’s “Sixties movie period.”
“Well, the films, I think that was just the seven stations of the cross for him. It was something he got himself into.”
— Leonard Cohen, on the British radio program “The Night is Young.”
“By the mid-sixties, his interest in religion and the occult had gone beyond late-night bull sessions, gazing at the heavens, and tours of the Memphis morgue, where he whipped off the sheets covering corpses just to hear his dates squeal.”
— Memphis Mafia member and Elvis road manager Joe Esposito, in his book, “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” subtitled, “Twenty Years on the Road and on the Town with Elvis.”
“I can never forget the longing to be someone.”
— Elvis, in a 1965 interview with The Commercial Appeal, just months after turning 30.
“There is something magical about watching a man who has lost himself find his way back home.”
— Music critic and record producer Jon Landau, in Eye magazine, on Elvis’ career-reviving ” ’68 Comeback Special.“
“By 1969, with his movie commitments over and the famed ‘Comeback Special’ behind him, Elvis was ready to get back to serious recording. As it happened, the hottest band, producer and studio in the world were right in Presley’s backyard.”
— The Commercial Appeal’s Bob Mehr, writing about Elvis’ 1969 sessions with Memphis producer Chips Moman and his American Sound Studio band.
“It can be difficult to reconcile for those of us who still delight in Elvis’ Sun sides, but sometimes modern ears struggle to hear that music clearly, as more than a time capsule. Not so ‘Suspicious Minds,’ which is Elvis’ most modern hit. … Elvis built his legend fusing country, blues and gospel — you know, helping create rock and roll — but this tempest of longing and recrimination (first line: ‘We’re caught in a trap’) is a grown-up soul music all his own. You want an Elvis song a room of people are most likely to respond to today, free of irony? This is it.”
— The Commercial Appeal’s Chris Herrington on “Suspicious Minds,” one of many highlights of the American Sound Studio sessions.
On Lonely Street: 1970s
“I asked him why he didn’t do more gospel numbers, and he said the Colonel told him people don’t want to hear church music.”
— Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn, from his book, “Corn Flakes with John Lennon (and Other Tales from a Rock ‘n’ Roll Life).”
“Sometimes Elvis put on a knit cap and sunglasses and drove a garbage truck around Memphis so as not to be recognized.”
— Memphis-born journalist Linton Weeks in his book, “Memphis: A Folk History.”
“My dad’s friend Wally used to ride motorcycles with Elvis back in the day in Memphis. And Wally got into a wreck. Some chick pulled out in front of him, and he busted his head on the windshield. Elvis had a chick on the back of his bike, that, I guess, she didn’t want any press. So he had to take her back, to wherever. And Elvis came back, man, and apparently put his leather jacket under Wally’s head. It actually made the paper. So that’s Wally’s Elvis story, so therefore that’s my Elvis story.”
— Singer-songwriter Adam Faucett, in an installment of “Birthplace Sessions,” filmed on the front porch of the Presley home in Tupelo, Miss.
“Elvis wasn’t bombed all the time. I’d say maybe 40 percent of the time in the sixties. It got worse in the seventies — probably 60 percent of the time.”
— Billy Smith, Elvis’ cousin and Memphis Mafia member, in “Elvis Aaron Presley: Revelations from the Memphis Mafia.”
“More overweight than he’s ever appeared in Las Vegas … it’s Elvis at his most indifferent, uninterested, and unappealing.”
— A review by the Hollywood Reporter of a 1973 show.
“The Colonel had little doubt he could keep the show going if given the opportunity, but one question continued to nag at him, refusing to go away: Was Elvis willing, or even able, to go on?”
— The state of things at the end of 1974, from volume two of Peter Guralnick’s Elvis biography, “Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley.”
“Singer Elvis Presley privately observed his 40th birthday yesterday in self-imposed seclusion at his Graceland Mansion on Elvis Presley Boulevard.”
— From The Commercial Appeal, Jan. 9, 1975.
“I went down to the bar at the hotel where we were staying and ordered a Jack Daniel’s, straight from Tennessee, just like Elvis Presley’s first 45s.”
— Author Greil Marcus, remembering his reaction to news of Elvis’ death, in his book “Dead Elvis,” subtitled “A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession.”
“A smart career move.”
— A reaction in Hollywood to news of Elvis’ death. It’s unknown who spoke the words, but they’ve been attributed to talent agent Sue Mengers.
“I was glad. Just another one outa the way. I mean, Elvis this, Elvis that. What the —- did Elvis do except take dope that I couldn’t git ahold of?”
— Jerry Lee Lewis, when asked for his thoughts on the death of Elvis, as recounted in Nick Tosches’ Lewis bio, “Hellfire.”
“That’s what killed him, his diet. Sure is.”
— Sun Records rockabilly act Charlie Feathers, in a 1998 interview with The Commercial Appeal, presenting his theory on what really killed the King.
“It’s like someone just came up and told me there aren’t going to be any more cheeseburgers in the world.”
— Longtime Elvis producer Felton Jarvis, reacting to the King’s death.
“Elvis Presley is one of the reasons that megastardom of the sort he virtually defined is increasingly equated with loneliness, isolation, mental and physical rot — tragedy waiting to happen.”
— Writer Francis Davis, in the article “His Own Jukebox,” in The Atlantic.
“I went to Graceland once. The rest of the band went in, but I stayed out on the curb, smoking cigarettes and feeling sorry for myself. Those last Elvis performances — the ones for television, when he was already sick — I must have watched those clips a hundred times. They’re like crucifixions. I couldn’t bring myself to go inside.”
— Singer Nick Cave, in The New York Times Magazine.
Elvis, AD: The legacy
“ ‘It was like he whispered a dream in our ears, and then we dreamed it,’ the Elvis acolyte Bruce Springsteen once said. What was in that dream was the best of us, the best of the American dream — which by the late 20th century had become a big part of the world’s dream, too. You could declare the dream an impossible fantasy or you could accept it as a challenge, but either way, you knew going that route would cost you as much as you had in you. Reality got in the way for Elvis, just like for you and me. Still, he dreamed that dream, and more than that, he shared it with everyone else.”
— From writer Dave Marsh’s essay “We Are All Elvis!” for a TV Guide collector’s edition magazine, “This is Elvis.”