I love Elvis. Sure, over the years I've made some sardonic remarks, often over a microphone from the bandstand. But that was in my capacity as an entertainer. Truth be told, if there were no Elvis, there would be no me. I never would have picked up a guitar or formed a band or have been signed to Sun Records and produced by Sam Phillips: one of my life's proudest accomplishments. Like a million other children of the Fifties, I went Elvis crazy as soon as I heard him on the radio. As soon as my fingers were strong enough to press the strings down on a guitar neck, I started playing. I didn't just want to be like Elvis, I wanted to be Elvis. Those who became Elvis fans after his death, or even after he returned from the army, will never know the joyous exuberance that accompanied the emergence of the "Hillbilly Cat" or the line of demarcation Elvis created between the Mouseketeer generation and their parents, who loathed him. After Elvis, nothing was the same.
I wish I were precocious enough to say I heard Elvis' Sun records on the radio, but I was only 7 at the time. I do, however, distinctly remember the night in 1956 that Dewey Phillips introduced "Heartbreak Hotel" on his radio show. I listened to Red, Hot, and Blue every night, even if it meant putting the radio right next to my ear so my parents couldn't hear. I loved the voice before I saw the singer.
Elvis' photograph appeared in the morning paper with his shirt collar up and his hair formed into a shiny, immaculate pompadour. I had to inform my big sister that Elvis was a greaser. One night, my sister came home from a teenage party at the Hotel Chisca in a state of euphoric bliss. Elvis had been at the WHBQ radio studios visiting Dewey, and when asked by an enthusiastic chaperone, he strolled into the party of giggling girls just to say hello.
Where I differ with some devoted Elvis aficionados is that I think his earliest recordings, like Sam Cooke's, were his greatest. I've made a personal "E" mix-disc that I listen to when I'm in need of cheering up, and the pure joy that exudes from Elvis in songs like "I Don't Care If the Sun Don't Shine" works every time. All the songs in my mix are from 1955 to 1958. He recorded great songs after that, but instead of working with genius songwriters like Otis Blackwell or Leiber and Stoller, who wrote his earliest hits, the weaselly Colonel Parker hooked him into making that series of silly movies where studio hacks and friends of the Colonel got first crack at Elvis, with tunes like "He's Your Uncle, Not Your Dad," "Do the Clam," and "No Room To Rhumba in a Sports Car."
When Elvis lost his edge, I lost interest in him as a musical influence. He never regained the infectious, gravel-throated vocal power that made him the King of Rock-and-Roll. Elvis had the world's greatest set list, yet in concert he would breeze through his greatest hits in a medley, often mocking the early material as if it were not consequential. The Colonel cheated us out of the best of Elvis. Rather than making musical progress with each album, like the Beatles, who idolized him, Elvis regressed with each half-hearted effort to fulfill his contractual obligations to his record label. It was a sad descent and sadder still to imagine what might have been.
My great regret was never getting to meet Elvis. I suppose I could have imposed upon someone like George Klein for an introduction, but that would have been very un-Elvis-like of me. Sam Phillips might have finagled something, but I came to Sun 10 years after Elvis and Sam didn't exactly pal around with him anymore. My dentist was Elvis' dentist, but I had to be satisfied with the tales of Elvis' after-hours visits. The only time I received an offer to go to Graceland was from Dewey Phillips, but Dewey was no longer on good terms with Elvis, and in an adventure that I recounted in an article for Memphis magazine, poor Dewey was turned away at the gate, and by proxy so was I.
Even in later years, I might have crashed Elvis' annual Christmas party by tagging along with a musical pal, but I didn't. There's one thing I always wondered, and it's total vanity on my part. When I was making records for Sun and having them played on the radio and appearing on George Klein's Talent Party on Saturday afternoon TV, was Elvis ever aware of our little band? Probably not, but there's no one left to tell me. As an adult, I tried to write songs for Elvis, but I had no hope of reaching him.
It was puzzling to me why Elvis felt it necessary to seclude himself inside Graceland. In the mid-Seventies, you'd often see Jerry Lee Lewis out on the town, surrounded by his entourage. Jerry took a liking to a club in Overton Square called the Hot Air Balloon, where he could be found jamming after hours, and no one ever bothered him. I thought if Elvis would just get out a little, people in his own hometown would give him a similar break.
I retained that opinion until one day when I went with my parents to the airport to greet a relative. I was struck by the appearance of a man walking toward me, and I was certain that he was an old friend whose name I couldn't recall. He was with a group of happy people, and I was taken by his familiar look and unusually large facial pores. When I caught up with my mother, she asked cheerfully, "Did you see Elvis?" I immediately wheeled and sprinted the length of the terminal and through the double doors. He had just closed the passenger-side door of a white Cadillac when he looked up at me. "Hey, Elvis," I uttered lamely. He nodded and said, "How you doin' man?" and he was gone. I realized that if even I chased after Elvis like a teenage girl, perhaps it was wise that he not go out in public after all. With due deference to Jerry Lee, the thousands of pilgrims who come to Memphis in August, year after year, prove that Elvis was never meant to be just one of the guys.
Randy Haspel writes the "Born-Again Hippies" blog, where a version of this column first appeared.