Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, by Peter Guralnick *****

lasttraintomemphis I belong to the generation that came about a decade after Elvis was king, and so for a lot of years I tended to avoid his music. It was not my music. And that was my mistake.

Whether or not you are an Elvis fan, this biography is best read with internet access to his music, and better still with access to film footage of him performing (and it does exist). It is hard to understand much of what Guralnick writes about unless you can see the body language in the performance. Even if Elvis’s work has served as background music that you’ve never listened to very much, a review is in order to understand any of the tumult that his work created.

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and garnered other awards and praise as well. It is justified. So much research, so many interviews, so much data has been crammed into an easy-flowing, readable narrative that he makes it look almost easy. Almost.

Presley was not a song writer, he was a performer. It was the style with which he interpreted songs that were already popular and well-known, such as Blue Moon Kentucky, as well as to lesser-known hits that came from the Black community, that rocketed him to fame. It’s hard to get a bead on the man, even with everything the writer has ferreted out from all possible sources. A pair of musicians he worked with referred to him as an “idiot savant”. If he were alive today, he might be diagnosed as OCD (my own conclusion); though his family was poor enough to qualify for the first public housing, he has his very own plate, his very own knife, and his very own fork, and if anyone else had used it, no matter how many times it had been washed, he would not eat. His closer-than-average relationship with his mother probably was the saving factor here. She accommodated this and more, and between this and the fact that there were no other children in the family (apart from his twin, who was stillborn), no diagnosis was necessary. He was ostracized at school, but found his greatest love was not in the halls of academia anyway. He began with a child’s guitar that his mother scrimped and saved to buy for him, and worked his way up the ladder. (He later said that he had found some of his ideas by sneaking out of the church his parents took him to on Sundays and sneaking over to the “Negro” church service, where he could listen at the door. He went for the music.)

His dance style had never been seen  by any wide audience. His hair and clothing, while fodder for a whole lot of jokes up the road, had found their time and place. Somehow he knew exactly what would work, and those who worked with him also said that he was always aware of what individual components of his act resonated with his audience, and which fell flat. He wore makeup on stage to enhance his features before any other known male American musician did; some of his fellow musicians wondered what that was about. Someone else asked him why he put glop in his hair; he said it was so that a lock of it would fall forward in a particular manner when he snapped his head. Once he got the opportunity to make a movie–an opportunity he actively sought–he spoke with hairdressers about its color. One of them told him black would look wonderful on film against his pale skin tones, and so he dyed his blond hair black from then on. (I had always thought that was his natural hair color.)

As a young woman, I often heard about how tragic Elvis Presley’s life had been. I was not yet twenty, clerking in a convenience store nights to augment my student financial aid, when the newspaper delivery van came with the evening newspaper and there was the headline. Elvis–the older, heavier Elvis–was dead. I was young enough that most adults seemed pretty ancient, but I mused, “Huh. He wasn’t THAT old yet.” My boss came over to look, and was surprised also.

But in reading this biography, I am more struck by how many dreams came true for this young man. He got to do exactly what he wanted to do for a living, and he loved having fans scream out his name. He wanted a Cadillac; he had half a dozen of them. He was able to provide well for his parents, and he built his dream home, complete with a real soda fountain. He had women on his arm everywhere he went.

…and he scared conservative America half to death! Oh, the panic! “New York congressman Emmanuel Celler, chairman of the Antitrust Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee” labeled Elvis Presley and his “animal gyrations…violative of all that I know to be to good taste.” He and several other prominent politicians managed to work some racist demagogy into the mix as well. Elvis later let everyone know exactly what he thought of that by showing up at the fairgrounds in the Jim Crow south on the one day of the month designated as ‘Colored Day’ and buying a ticket. He was the only white boy at the fair. He was allowed to attend and widely welcomed, though there was some push-back later in the local Black press complaining that too many young ladies at that same fair had been screaming after him instead of young men of their own skin tone. Ah well.

This marvelous book is volume one of two. It ends when he is drafted and goes to Germany (a peacetime draft that his agents decided it would look bad for him to avoid). Maybe it is just as well. We send young Elvis off to Europe still full of youth, joy, and hope. (Your reviewer confesses that she has ferreted out the second volume, gently used, from her personal book temple, Powell’s City of Books, and will read it when time allows.)

Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys biographies of famous musicians. I loved it!

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