Elvis: What Becomes a Legend Most? 

Elvis: What Becomes a Legend Most?

Here & Beyond

Artist, icon, or cult figure?

How to keep Elvis' legacy alive.

Elvis Presley died 25 years ago this month at the age of 42. He was 19 years old when he cut his first record at Sam Phillips' Sun Studio. So Elvis' posthumous career has now lasted longer than his actual one. Elvis would be 67, were he alive. That means that his first group of fans are either at or nearing Social Security eligibility. So, while more than 50,000 Elvis fans will pour into the city this week for the 25th anniversary "death week," there is concern that the Elvis industry could be on its last legs.

During the last Elvis-related anniversary -- the week of birthday celebrations in January -- the forecast was rather glum. A general post-9/11 tourism drought cut heavily into Graceland's business, in large part because of the King's massive popularity overseas. As a result, Elvis Presley Enterprises laid off 50 of its 350 employees. And this came on the heels of the disappointing performance of homegrown EPE businesses such as Elvis Presley's Memphis and Heartbreak Hotel.

But what a difference a few months make. The Elvis industry seems in the midst of a rebirth: There's the inclusion of Elvis songs and images in Lilo & Stitch, an animated Disney film aimed at the grade-school set. There's the unexpected international success of "A Little Less Conversation," a remix of a mostly forgotten late-'60s Elvis single by Dutch DJ Junkie XL (shortened to JXL on this release, per the request of EPE and RCA, Elvis' record label), which has hit number one in several countries, including England, Australia, and (on the sales chart) the U.S., after appearing in a multimillion-dollar Nike ad campaign. And in September comes the biggest attempt yet at reintroducing Elvis: RCA's 30 #1 Hits, a single-disc compilation that seeks to duplicate the success the Beatles had with last year's 1, a similar collection.

But the question remains: On the eve of this year's Elvis Week activities, does all this herald the dawn of a new era in Elvis' reign, or is it merely one last hurrah for postwar America's greatest cultural icon? What follows are three ways of judging the Elvis legacy and of handicapping its future.

Elvis As Artist

Elvis Presley is rare among American musicians of his stature (a small club, granted), in that the music, his greatest artistic contribution to the world, is not the music for which he is best known.

"With the 30 #1 Hits album, we wanted to make the one CD to own if you want to know about Elvis," RCA general manager Richard Sanders told the Los Angeles Times recently. And while many of the familiar pop hits collected there do indeed transcend their time ("Don't Be Cruel" and "Suspicious Minds," in particular, still sound magnificent), any music scholar, rock critic, or record geek with half a clue would tell you that the one Elvis record you need to own is The Sun Sessions, in whatever configuration you can find it.

Of course, this doesn't mean that a repackaging of those still-startling Sun recordings (released a couple of years ago as the two-disc Sunrise), combined with all the hype that 30 #1 Hits will receive, would have any better chance of duplicating the success (33 million worldwide sales and a massive embrace by younger U.S. consumers) of the Beatles' 1. In purely musical terms, Elvis is caught in a trap (and he can't walk out, no matter how much he still loves us, baby): To young ears, the Sun sessions invariably sound ancient and rural. They may have signaled a cultural transformation at the time, but submit any 22-year-old to a listening test and he or she will likely feel as distanced from them as he or she would from Hank Williams or Son House. All but the greatest of the more modern RCA singles on 30 #1 Hits are likely to sound a little hokey to those ears.

Elvis and his fellow first-generation rockers may have gotten the party started, but it is the music's second generation -- the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and James Brown -- that has truly formed the template for modern pop music, which is why the prime recordings of those artists win new acolytes and directly inform new musicians each year. The music of the first batch of rock-and-rollers still sounds like another generation's music to most young listeners. But, even in that context, Elvis stands out. In retrospect, he seems less the first rock-and-roller than a missing link between musics -- as much the last of a great chain of pop singers that includes Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Billie Holiday as he seems an artistic contemporary of Chuck Berry or Little Richard.

After years of indiscriminately releasing and rereleasing Elvis product in an attempt to wring money from the faithful while they're still around, RCA and EPE seem to finally be embarking on a sounder, more careful strategy for promoting and preserving the catalog. But however much they may want to get new generations excited about Elvis as an artist the way young listeners have been about the Beatles, it looks like an uphill battle.

Prognosis: sketchy but incomplete, pending the success of 30 #1 Hits.

Elvis As Historical Icon/Talisman

If Elvis' cultural cachet as recording artist has stalled in recent years, his status as a subject of study has only increased. If Dylan, the Beatles, and James Brown are more alive on stereo systems across the land, Elvis has carved out space on the printed page. RCA and EPE may struggle to indoctrinate a new generation of listeners, but new generations of critics and academics interested in discussing the King are in full supply. This phenomenon was chronicled by critic Robert Christgau in a 1997 Village Voice piece, in which he wrote, "Inexorably, [Elvis] has become a literary hero, his meaning defined at least as much by the texts he's inspired as by those he's created."

And, indeed, there are plenty of artists over the last century of American popular music who have left behind catalogs as rich as the one Elvis gave us: Louis Armstrong, Hank Williams, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Bob Dylan, etc. But no one has inspired so many compelling texts.

Elvis is an endlessly mutable cultural signifier. What separates him from the other great American musical artists is that no one else embodies so much of American history and culture. No one else is tied as closely to so many of the fault lines on which American life has been transformed. Race (Jim Crow, intermarriage, civil-rights-era integration, white appropriation), class (the rise and acceptance of the white Southern working class, the Horatio Alger-style American dream), sex, the emergence of teen culture, Fifties consumer culture, and intersections of all of the above are played out in Elvis' life and art to a degree unrivaled by any other figure in American pop culture. And as instrumental a figure as Elvis can be in explaining so many historically specific transformations, his rise and fall also travel the arc of classic literature, from Greek tragedy to Faustian bargain.

Prognosis: until the Union crumbles, one of the quintessential figures in American culture.

Elvis As Kitsch/Cult Figure

The keepers of the Elvis kingdom may be reluctant to admit it, even as his estate profits from it, but to the extent that Elvis is alive and well for new generations, it's as a kitsch figure. Just as countless people own Marilyn Monroe paraphernalia without having seen Some Like It Hot, people everywhere own pieces of Elvis kitsch without having once heard "Good Rockin' Tonight" or seen the '68 "comeback" special.

And the two latest examples of a new-found Elvis craze do nothing to confound this perception. The use of Elvis songs in Lilo & Stitch is a top-down attempt to instill love of the King into the Barney demographic. (I eagerly await the sequels in which Lilo teaches Stitch about how Chuck Berry and James Brown are also "model citizens.") The effectiveness of this strategy can't be measured yet.

And then there's "A Little Less Conversation," the Fatboy Slim-style party remix of one of the King's more forgettable singles that has unexpectedly become an international smash. It's total fun and a total novelty. A fluke hit that takes advantage of Elvis' status as a kitsch figure rather than altering that perception, "A Little Less Conversation" sounds like a perfect background for one of those production-number sequences on the '68 TV special.

At some point, you'd think that Elvis' status as pop-culture icon would diminish, but he is, after all, "one of the most powerful brands in pop culture," as an EPE official recently told The Dallas Morning News. And as some celebrity-for-celebrity's-sake icons begin to lose their luster (how many college dorm rooms are still decorated with Bogie posters?), we should expect Elvis to be the last to go.

But if Graceland has a long life ahead as casual tourist destination (a place to check off the list, along with the St. Louis Arch and Hoover Dam), the intensity of Elvis' cult is likely to wane as his contemporary fans thin out.

Prognosis: a marketing bonanza for the foreseeable future but with a lot less crying in the chapel (or Meditation Garden) as time goes by.

Elvis Has Left the Building

But his old home in Lauderdale Courts remains in the spotlight as part of the new Uptown development.


The sink and bathtub in Elvis childhood apartment may be original.
When, in 1996, the Memphis Housing Authority announced plans to "de-densify" most of its public-housing projects -- tear down some buildings, renovate others -- few people paid much attention. But Georgia King, a member of the Elvis Presley International Fan Club, noticed that one of the structures scheduled for demolition was located downtown at 185 Winchester Avenue -- which just happens to be the apartment building where a youngster named Elvis Presley lived with his parents Vernon and Gladys from September 1949 to January 1953.

And so the fight to save "the Elvis Building," as it came to be known, began.

Mike Freeman and Cindy Hazen, co-authors of the book Memphis Elvis-Style and owners of Elvis' later home at 1034 Audubon Drive, led the battle. They posted the news on their Web site, kept followers up to date on MHA plans, and urged visitors to write letters to protest the demolition. "When we were gathering research for our book, it seemed like so many of the important places that we were going to write about had been demolished," Freeman told Preservation magazine in 1998. "So we drew the line at Lauderdale Courts and said we were going to fight this."

The MHA probably never realized just how important the building was to Elvis fans. On Freeman and Hazen's Web site, Elvis-style.com, Laura Kalpakian, author of the novel Graced Land, observed, "Lauderdale Courts is not a stage set (as Graceland has come to be) but a place that, for all its disrepair, has a vitality and a significance in American history. There is a warm and living quality to Lauderdale Courts."

The Memphis Landmarks Commission agreed, observing that "the three-story building in the northwest corner [of Lauderdale Courts] represents a significant era of an individual who has probably given more positive attention to Memphis than any person in the last 50 years, and perhaps ever. Its protection and maintenance will represent an important reminder and symbol to public-housing residents that hard work, coupled with good fortune, can lead any of them to successful careers."

For it was here, so the stories go, that Elvis first learned to sing and strum his little Gene Autry guitar. He would walk to Humes High School, to the gospel shows at Ellis Auditorium, and to the pawnshops and nightspots of Beale Street. "Everything that influenced him is in a four-block area from his apartment building," Judith Johnson, former director of Memphis Heritage, told Preservation. "This is the last place where he was normal."

Despite all the attention paid to the site, the fact remains that Lauderdale Courts -- built in 1938 as one of the city's first public-housing projects -- was in terrible shape. A visit to the Presley family's former apartment several years ago revealed warped and rotten floors and mud-colored paint peeling off in flakes the size of maple leaves. Windowpanes were broken, the frames were rusted through, and water leaks had turned plaster and woodwork in the bathroom into a rotten mess. Hundreds of tenants have occupied the ground-floor apartment since the Presleys moved out, so there is nothing even remotely Elvis about the place -- no faded "TCB" logo painted on a bedroom wall, no musty jumpsuit hanging in a closet.

Nevertheless, the letters and postcards poured in, and thanks to the efforts of Freeman, Hazen, and others, in 1999, MHA finally dropped its plans to demolish Lauderdale Courts. Developers Henry Turley and Belz Enterprises have included the entire 66-building complex in their ambitious Uptown project, a $150 million undertaking designed to revitalize large areas of downtown and North Memphis.

Although 185 Winchester has been saved, at the moment, plans for apartment 328 are still uncertain.

"Lauderdale Courts is being renovated into a mixed-income apartment development, and the best and most appropriate future uses for the former Elvis apartment are still being explored," says Scott Bojko, vice president of development with the Henry Turley Company. "Whereas the remainder of the community is being reworked to make the apartments larger, we are going to preserve the original floor plan of this one, keeping it in its present configuration.

"So, right now, we are still in the exploratory stage," he continues, "but we are trying to be respectful of its history."

Twenty-five things every person should know about Elvis.

1. Elvis was born on January 8, 1935.

2. Elvis died on August 16, 1977.

3. Elvis is dead.

4. Elvis is alive.

5. Elvis may have faked his death to escape fame and become a trucker.

6. Elvis may have faked his death because he failed to meet his end of an endorsement contract with Slim-Fast by not losing weight.

7. Elvis had blue eyes.

8. Elvis once stayed overnight in the hospital for a broken finger.

9. Redd Foxx attended Elvis' wedding.

10. Elvis' favorite board game was Monopoly.

11. Elvis' last concert was in Indianapolis.

12. Elvis appeared in 31 feature films and two documentaries.

13. Legend Edith Head was costume designer for nine of those films.

14. The soundtrack for G.I. Blues stayed on the Billboard chart for 111 weeks.

15. Elvis' jumpsuits were made by the same person who designed costumes for the Ice Capades.

16. Elvis had a pet monkey named Scatter.

17. Elvis' last meal was ice cream and chocolate-chip cookies.

18. Elvis and Priscilla were married from 1967 to 1973.

19. Elvis planned to produce a movie about karate.

20. Elvis loved his mother.

21. Elvis won three Grammys, all in the gospel category.

22. Elvis once accidentally shot Dr. Nick with a ricocheting bullet.

23. Elvis was generous to a fault.

24. Elvis has sold more than 1.5 billion records.

25. Elvis was the king of rock-and-roll.

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