The King At 84

On Elvis Presley’s birthday, a reassessment of his untimely demise

Elvis Presley with a bazooka.

Somewhere, Elvis Presley is celebrating his 84th birthday, with a big ole 84-candle chocolate cake with lots of frosting. Or, maybe not. Me, I’m gonna go with the official account despite that McCartney-esque clue on his gravestone, his middle name spelled AARON (wrong, maybe) …

In 2017, I interviewed his widow, Priscilla, and said, “I’ve got to ask, because this has been around since his funeral: There are people who think he faked his death.”

“Well, I was there,” she answered, “And many people were. It was an open casket. There’s no doubt that that was Elvis Presley. But there were many people who couldn’t believe it, people who didn’t want to believe it. Yes, there’s that myth out there, but I can only say I know he’s passed and it would be ridiculous for him to have faked his death.”

What a death it was. Death rarely occurs with dignity, but Elvis Presley’s worldly exit on August 16, 1977 took the cake. You know what happened and you know the one-like joke that popped up immediately; The King died on the throne.

Elvis’s inglorious demise happened about one month after Elvis: What Happened? came out. That mass-market paperback was a searing tell-all book by three former members of Elvis’s inner circle – sculpted by Aussie muckraker Steve Dunleavy – and it painfully detailed the King’s decline and fall. I read it; hell, I devoured it.

It depicted some of what we suspected – the pills, the food binges, the gunplay, the petty abuse of power, the crushing isolation and palpable paranoia. It showed how extreme fame – and a bunch of stuff, related to extreme fame – put the pampered Elvis in a cocoon that led to the grave. It made me think of John Lennon’s comment years earlier that though the Beatles had achieved massive fame, he never, ever wanted to become “Elvis Beatle.”

There was a bitter irony in that Elvis, at 42, was reportedly trying to get himself in playing shape. Some say he responded to the book, where the question. “What happened?” seemed directed at much at the subject as readers.

Elvis: What Happened? by Steve Dunleavy

The feeling was the coming road swing would be Elvis’s latest comeback tour. It was slated to start August 18 in Portland, Maine – near enough where I lived – and I been considering going. I was working as music director at the University of Maine student radio station, WMEB-FM. I was pretty sure Don DeLacy, my RCA promo guy, could have scored me a pair. The problem was this: I didn’t really want to go. As much as I loved what Elvis done as a youth, I’d hated what he’d become. I’d been anti-Elvis for some time. What Sonny West, Red West and Dave Hebler had told Dunleavy, was the nail in the coffin. Or so I thought at the time.

One of the best, most chilling (and, yes, kinda comic) Elvis stories was told to me by the Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis, in 1987. We were backstage at the Channel club in Boston. He told me that in a drunken/drugged up stupor, he drove up to Graceland when Elvis was very much a rival and was stopped by Elvis’s security people … who found a handgun in the glove box, and turned him away. I asked what his intentions were. “What the hell do you think I was gonna do?” replied Jerry Lee. “I was gonna kill him.” (That would have changed history a bit, no?)

Elvis Presley Separate Ways, RCA

When Elvis died, WMEB, of course, broke into our regular radio programming and played a lot of Elvis – we were a modern rock station, but we could suspend that for a while. I remember also combing the news wires for celebrity comments on his death. Two acerbic ones I remember best: The Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten and John Lennon. Rotten said, “Good riddance to bad rubbish,” and Lennon said, “Elvis died when he joined the army.” Keep in mind, this was during the heyday of punk rock and that’s where I lived a lot of the time, too. I can’t say I didn’t understand where Rotten and Lennon were coming from.

Let’s skip ahead. Posthumously, Elvis has sold more than a billion records. Graceland remains a major tourist attraction. We still seem to care about Lisa Marie and Priscilla.

Here’s how I came back to Elvis. I was covering something called “The Ultimate Elvis Show” near Boston earlier for the Boston Phoenix and saw two Elvi – Donny Edwards as the young Elvis and Shawn Klush as the Vegas Elvis. Klush – who’s been doing Elvis for nearly two decades – had been named the “Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist of 2000” during an Elvis Presley Enterprises-sponsored contest in Memphis. Edwards, who’s been in the Elvis biz five years, finished third.

 

 

They both rocked the house, playing with the Boston band Velvet Elvis – and featuring drummer DJ Fontana who started playing with Elvis in 1954. The show, well, it kind of knocked me out – these two very passionate performers ripping through “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” “All Shook Up,” “Burning Love,” “Suspicious Minds” and many more. You suspended disbelief and cynicism – banished those “Elvis is still alive” tabloid stories from your mind – and let yourself be carried back in time; all of it made fresh in front of you. It wasn’t kitsch. It wasn’t hokey. This wasn’t the indoor equivalent of the parachuting Elvis act.

Edwards told me he relentlessly studies Elvis tapes to get his act down. “If you don’t take it seriously,” he said, “you’re gonna be at some cheeseball birthday party.” (The singers who do Elvis are called ETAs – Elvis Tribute Acts.)

 

 

Fontana said Elvis would have loved all this … because he always had. Sometimes – say when he was staying in a hotel that had an Elvis impersonator show in the lounge – he would sneak in the back with his posse and watch. Never, though, did he join in. Why? We all know Elvis was a bit of a prankster. “The Colonel wouldn’t let him,” said Fontana, referring to the domineering manager Col. Tom Parker, whose goal was complete control.

Edwards and Klush both enjoyed poking a little fun, when appropriate. The like to be cut-ups. As did Elvis, said Fontana. “Elvis was very interactive,” he said.

 

 

Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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