Why Elvis Presley and His Music Still Matter
Forty years after the death of the king of rock and roll, fans pour into Memphis — higher costs and all
As many as 50,000 fans are expected to flood into Memphis, Tennessee, this week to mark the 40th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. The king of rock and roll died at age 42 on August 16, 1977, at Graceland, his beloved home in the Whitehaven section of the Bluff City.
Each year around this time, Presley’s most ardent followers make the trip to this musical mecca from all around the globe, which is one reason Graceland is the second-most visited private residence in America, after the White House.
The cost to get there and stay for what has come to be known as Elvis Week (August 11-19) means that many have to save up for months. And save they do. Understandably, they chafe at the rising ticket prices to tour Presley's home and outlying exhibits, or to check into the estate's newish four-star, 450-room hotel, the Guest House at Graceland.
And this year, in a controversial move, the estate is charging fans $28.75 to visit the Presley family's graves during the traditional candlelight vigil, an event that has always been free. Ostensibly, this was necessary for security purposes, given that last year Black Lives Matter protesters threatened to "shut down Graceland."
The backlash over the surcharge has been fierce. But still, the fans come and pay whatever it takes to enjoy the full Elvis experience.
They come, of course, for a variety of reasons: to pay their respects, to bond in community with other like-minded fans, and to say, in effect, that Elvis still matters to them, the country — and far beyond.
Much of the fan contingency is European. Unlike Americans, who tend to think of Presley — a patriot who served his country in the Army and wrangled a private audience with President Richard Nixon in 1970 — as a nostalgia act, or worse, as a bloated cartoon, European fans have a much more sophisticated appreciation of him. They understand full well why Elvis still matters, beginning with the fact that he was a truly great artist — standing alone in the pantheon of seminal rock stars — and still is, 40 years after he sang his final note.
Last year, "The Wonder of You," the follow-up collection of Presley's orchestral recordings with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, debuted at number one on the U.K. Albums Chart. That certified him as the solo artist with the most number-one albums in U.K. history.
Today, then, while he's had some help from repackagers and arrangers, Presley continues to be what he always was: the most quintessentially American of singers, an innovator, a master of reinvention, and the premier voice of individualism.
For Ernest Jorgensen, the Danish record producer, compiler, and researcher who artfully preserves and packages Presley's catalogue, including the new "A Boy From Tupelo: The Complete 1953-1955 Recordings," Elvis is "probably the most important star of all time."
There is no arguing that Presley not only changed but directed the course of music and culture in the 1950s. He did so with his recordings, dance moves, clothing (the oversize zoot suit jacket giving way to androgyny that foreshadowed the glam-rock movement of later decades), and hairstyle — the heavily pomaded, and imitated, ducktail. (And everybody knows about the sideburns.)
You could make a good case, in fact, that with the help of his wily manager, Colonel Tom Parker — a Dutch alien who spent his early life in America in the netherworld of carnivals and went on to market his client in ways not done before — Elvis brought to full bloom a burgeoning youth culture that his idol, James Dean, laid at his feet.
Frank Sinatra had his bobby soxers in the 1940s, but they didn't want to change the world. In Presley's time, however, emboldened, rebellious, and independence-minded teenagers demanded and got their own clothes, music, and movies apart from that of their parents. Ka-ching!
"In America, it seems, the young will always have to fight to defend their culture," Wired magazine once observed, "which may be the strongest link between Elvis then and life now."
The music, of course, delivered in concert with Presley's now-famous, highly sexualized hip thrusts, is what sold it all, and what it unleashed was powerful. Arriving in the staid, button-gloved Eisenhower era, which was dominated by the bland orchestras of Mantovani, Hugo Winterhalter, and Percy Faith, Elvis introduced a rhythmic sound heavily saturated with African-American blues, red-dirt country music, and earnest Southern gospel (his favorite genre, for which he won three Grammy awards). He synthesized them naturally and effortlessly.
When he sang, he had no real concern with class or race.
He did that for one absurdly important reason: When he sang, at least, he had no real concern with class or race. That decision was not likely one that resonated consciously. It just was. By introducing black musical sounds and black lingo to a larger white audience, Elvis became the great unifier, class be damned. And it's spanned the ages.
Quick: What do Muhammad Ali (1984), Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (2006), and Princes William and Harry (2014), have in common? They all visited Graceland.
And it seems that none of us can get enough of Elvis. In 2016, the king of rock and roll occupied the number-four slot on Forbes' well-known Top-Grossing Dead Celebrity List — pulling in $27 million.
That number is actually down from previous years. Yet in 2017, Presley's influence goes beyond tacky T-shirts and the sales figures of the latest box set of recordings. The fact that Elvis was open to just about any kind of music, including Dean Martin's schmaltzy ballads and opera, liberated every musician and singer who came after him — from the Beatles to Justin Bieber — and allowed them to explore any possible musical fusion, re-mix, and recasting, including that of Presley's own works.
For so many reasons, then, "Elvis swims in our minds, and in the emotions, all through time," ﬁlm director and "Twin Peaks" creator David Lynch offered in the 2007 documentary "Viva Las Vegas." "There's the word icon, and I don't think anybody has topped that … Not one single person has ever topped Elvis."
There was a school of thought among music critics a quarter of a century ago that challenged the benevolent use of the word "icon." It went along these lines: When people stopped thinking of Elvis as a singer, and referred only to his second life as a cultural touchstone — a jump-suited figure on a greeting card ("Thankyouverymuch"), or a sleek, young Elvis, reimagined to sell pizza and cars in TV commercials — then he really would be dead.
But if he were capable of a retort today, Elvis might paraphrase the famous words of one Mark Twain, aka Samuel Clemens: "The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."
The crowds in Memphis surely bear that out.
Alanna Nash, an award-winning journalist based in Louisville, Kentucky, is the author of seven books, including four on Elvis Presley.