Psychiatrists will tell you that sex is in the head. One look at Elvis and who needs a psychiatrist? Come-and-get-it eyes, down-comforter cheeks, self-basting lips—you bet sex is in the head. On one famous Sunday night in 1956, premier TV variety host Ed Sullivan wouldn’t let his cameras show this kid below the hips. What was Ed thinking? Had he ever looked at Elvis above the neck?
So Elvis Aron Presley would have been a sex symbol even if he hadn’t done what else he did: flex the first muscles of rock and roll, burn the bridges between the 1950s and every decade before it, shake your mama, goose the national libido, sell more than 250 million records and send perhaps a billion fans down the steep chutes melted by the lava of his voice.
He’s also a postage stamp. He’ll love being licked.
Elvis didn’t just reach the top. As rock critic Greil Marcus once observed, he created “a whole new sense of how big the top was.” Yet this sleepy-eyed boy started near the bottom, growing up poor, first in Tupelo, Miss., then in Memphis. But Elvis had his mother, Gladys, a woman with strong ambitions for her only child, and Memphis had music. Gospel, country, crooning—but above all it had the butt-shaking, butt-kicking sound of the black radio stations that played B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf. Though Elvis couldn’t read a note, he knew enough to love the sounds around him and to press them into a compound that no one had heard before.
“Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Hound Dog”—for a few wild years in the ’50s every record he cut became a national sensation. At a time when the charts were filled with the lullabies of Perry Como and Pat Boone, Elvis hiccuped, shouted and purred out a mixture of head-banging guitar and a deep, well-lubricated voice that rooted around in some ticklish zones of the group unconscious. When he sang, you heard the war whoops of religious ecstasy and the carnal growls of another kind of ecstasy altogether. And when he moved, with his jack-hammer jerks and orbiting hips, all the planets twirled. “In my kind of music,” he explained, “you just go out there and go crazy.”
So he was the King all right, sometimes the King of Hearts, sometimes King Leer. His fans leered back, many of them poised between girlhood and what comes next. At the end of one early concert, when Elvis jokingly told the crowd he’d see them backstage, hundreds of fans stormed out of their seats. By the time the police arrived, Presley was climbing the walls of the locker room and his pink Cadillac was covered with girls’ names scrawled in lipstick. This is what made him a red flag to the preachers and writers who thought rock and roll was just juvenile delinquency with a sound track. “They said we were corrupting America’s youth,” recalls George Klein, an old friend. “Elvis would say, ‘What the hell are they talking about? I’m singing about a hound dog and a teddy bear.’ ”
OK; things you like to pet and squeeze.
But his canny lifelong manager, Col. Tom Parker, a hustler who once painted sparrows yellow to sell as canaries, didn’t want Presley’s career to depend on the hormone-crazed teenage market. Parker steered him toward sappy ballads and Hollywood, where Elvis starred in 33 movies, most of them froth. In the late ’60s, after years of turning out room-temperature albums, Elvis came back to rock and live performances. Maybe it was too late. By the early 70s he felt most at home in front of the dinner crowd in Las Vegas. His belly tumbled over his belt line, and he lost himself in a haze of prescription drugs and hangers-on. On Aug. 16, 1977, he died—a bloated 42.
That was the Elvis we’d sometimes like to forget. Here’s to the Elvis we always want to remember. The supple cat in the green silk jacket and the pink shirt. The hot rod in long sideburns. The pioneer. The Pelvis. The King.