On this day, Elvis Presley would be eighty-one years old. The truck driver from Tupelo, Mississippi, became one of the world’s most popular singers when he was twenty-one years old. He began his singing career in taverns and high school dances in the cities and towns of Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas. His television appearances made him a star over much of the world. Eclipsed in the 1960s, he made a bit of a comeback in the 1970s. His sudden death in Memphis in 1977 solidified his claim to fame for years to come.
I am too young to remember Elvis at the peak of his career. The only Elvis I remember is the 1970s Elvis, out of shape, no longer relevant, and practically a joke to my generation of music fans. For most of my life, I have been a Beatles fan, and I must respect Elvis because the Beatles respected Elvis. His music in the 1950s helped to inspire their music, and his movie career led them to want to make movies too. His performances, and the response they evoked from the crowds, preceded Beatlemania. If there had been no Elvis, there might also have been no Beatles.
Andy Kaufman made Elvis impersonations part of his standard act. Pretending to be a foreign man with little understanding of American comedy, Andy would do several bad imitations of celebrities. Then, “last but not to be the least,” Andy would offer to imitate Elvis Presley. In a matter of seconds he would transform into the very image of Elvis, not only in hair and costume and music, but also in nuanced mannerisms. Elvis Presley himself is reported to have said that Andy Kaufman’s impersonation was the best imitation of Elvis he had seen.
Elvis sang a lot of number-one songs, but he did not write many number-one songs. In that category, the Beatles far outrank Elvis. The magnetic public personality of Elvis meant far more than his song-writing ability. Some people achieve massive fame in a single year, and then never repeat their success: Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Bruce Springsteen come to mind. Only a few become icons for an entire generation: Elvis, the Beatles, Michael Jordan, and Bill Clinton, for example. The affection and loyalty they inspire in millions of fans far transcends their actual accomplishments.
Many of his fans were unwilling to accept the fact that Elvis died. Even today a few people cling to the hope that Elvis faked his death to escape the limelight and is living his retirement years in relative comfort and obscurity. Rarely has one person meant so much for so many people. I hope you are able to find a favorite Elvis song or two and listen to them today. J.