The Magazine

Remember Elvis

Thirty years after his death, the Memphis misfit defies explanation.

Aug 20, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 46 • By MARTHA BAYLES
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The sideburns and ducktail haircut, the flashy clothes, the curled lip, the unnerving body language--the deathless image of Elvis Presley in the 1950s was no public relations stunt.

On the contrary, it was his own eccentric creation, based partly on Hollywood movies (he called his hairstyle "a Tony Curtis") and partly on the sartorial panache of the black musicians who played blues and R&B in the nightclubs of Memphis and bought their sharp threads at Lansky Brothers on Beale Street. In 1948, when the Presleys moved from Tupelo, Mississippi, to Memphis, the 13-year-old Elvis had nothing to gain by adopting such an outlandish persona. The men and boys of his social milieu dressed square and paid frequent visits to the barber, so for making himself look like a weirdo, young Elvis got mostly taunts and jeers.

Why did he persist? Why does any high school weirdo persist? Usually because he can't help it. The offspring of a hardworking but ineffectual father and an uneducated but fanciful mother with no other children (Elvis's twin brother was stillborn) who made her surviving son the center of her universe, Elvis was encouraged, even before his fame, to inhabit a dreamworld where everything revolved around his charms and his wishes. The Presleys were dirt poor, moving so often from shack to boardinghouse to rented room, that when they finally got an apartment in Memphis public housing they felt (quoting a neighbor) "like we'd come into the money." In the process, Elvis developed a classic performer's personality: Introverted and shy but also desperate to connect with others. At a tender age he taught himself how to mesmerize an audience.

Between July 1954, when Elvis recorded an ear-catching cover of a mediocre blues called "That's All Right (Mama)" at the Sun Record Company, to September 1956, when he appeared before an audience of 50 million on The Ed Sullivan Show, he didn't just come into the money, he became postwar America's first mega-celebrity. And while billions of words have been spewed about why that happened, it is still hard to fathom. One hostile biographer, Albert Goldman, poses the question this way:

Instead of characterizing Elvis's triumph in conventional metaphors, . . . you are obliged to seek images that suggest speed, violence and, above all, the sheer inadvertence of the man who walks into a room filled with volatile gases, lights a match--and is blown through the ceiling! Clearly, if you want to understand the phenomenon of Elvis Presley or how he 'did it,' you have to start with the powerfully explosive vapors and not with the puny little match.

Three of those vapors can be easily identified: race, sex, and religion. Americans feel quite comfortable discussing these topics, as long as they are kept in separate mental compartments. When they get mixed, though, we feel uneasy--and mix them is exactly what Elvis did. Not only that, but he did so at a time of maximum tension regarding the first two.

The cliché about 1950s rock 'n' roll is that (in a typical formulation from Rolling Stone) it "blew away, in one mighty, concentrated blast, the accumulated racial and social proprieties of centuries." This is absurd--not least because it implies that Elvis was the first white person to perform African-American music. Sticking with Memphis for a minute, that city's musical hybridization dates back at least as far as its founding in 1819, when the white inhabitants were reported to take pleasure in the singing and banjo-playing of slave musicians. The blues historian Robert Palmer reports that, in 1838, white Memphis gave a chilly reception to the Norwegian violinist Ole Bull because he couldn't manage the "nigger fiddle." And throughout its subsequent history, Memphis was a prime venue for minstrel shows, dance orchestras, ragtime pianists, riverboat jazz bands, blues singers, and gospel quartets of every stripe and color.

So it wasn't musical hybridization per se that caused the explosion. It was musical hybridization of a particular kind, in a particular time and place. In the 1950s, proper white southerners condemned blues and R&B (which they called "nigger music") because they associated it with the custom of some white men to go "slipping around" with black women. Often this led to bitter, stoic, or neurotic reactions among white women, who felt painfully excluded from this erotic ritual.