January 8, 2015
I was in first grade in a small rural school just an hour and half’s drive from Graceland when Elvis burst onto the music scene. Of course my daddy was horrified at the way Elvis shook his leg while he sang, and I was way too young to see his movies which revolved around girls, guitars, and cars. But my older cousins played his records endlessly, and his music inundated the airwaves. It was hard not to hear the latest Elvis song wherever you went. “Teddy Bear” “Heartbreak Hotel” “Don’t Be Cruel” spilled from every car radio and jukebox in the county.
Much later I did see most of his movies. Mindless entertainment. And I was sad to read an interview with Elvis in which he said he hated them.He wanted to be taken seriously as an actor, and you just can’t be, when you are dressed in nothing but a pair of tight white swim trunks and singing, “Slicin’ Sand.”
Maybe his discontent with his career fueled his desire for the prescription drugs that would later kill him. Or maybe it was the relentless insistence of his manager, Tom Parker, that Elvis continue to perform when he was clearly in trouble and needed help. Elvis lived the life of a recluse, surrounding himself with only a small cadre of trusted friends nicknamed the Memphis Mafia, and after his divorce, with a series of girlfriends, some of whom were young enough to be his daughter. In his final performances he looked bloated and pasty, and he occasionally forgot the words to songs he had sung thousands of times. But even then,his unmistakable voice, and his gentle, self-deprecating humor never left him.
I was a young married woman living in Dallas when I learned of his death in August of 1977. I hadn’t been back to Tennessee since leaving there as a teenager, But the day he died, I felt a piece of my own history slipping behind the veil of time, and a sadness that a young man with so much talent and promise died alone at age 42, in his gated fortress in Memphis.
In a newly published autobiography, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis’s greatest rival for the title of king of rock and roll explained the difference between the two: “There was a beauty in Elvis that men didn’t understand.”
Today Elvis would have turned 80 years old. I imagine him, still beautiful and vigorous at 80, playing with his great grandchildren on the broad, grassy lawn at Graceland. But it was not to be.
As Elton John wrote about another American icon gone too soon, the candle burned out long before the legend ever did.