This month dear Readers it’s time to focus on the King. Regular readers of this column with a very very good memory will recall that in 2013 (in August to be exact) my article focused on Elvis Presley, with a brief history of his life and his legacy. Well this month I’m going to start telling you much more comprehensively about the story of the King. This will include some of the events in his life which are less well known. It’s a gripping and exciting life to re-tell, with some surprising facts and details. So let’s start from the beginning – Elvis’ early life. Some of the photos you can see are those taken during his early years.
Plus you can also see photos taken at a special concert at the Esse Café in Moscow on 13th April, to commemorate the King. I booked another legend, in the World of Russian Rock’n’Roll, to perform for us. The icon in question is Denis Mazhukov and there is no bigger name currently in Russian rock’n’roll than Denis. I have written about him in previous columns in this magazine, including his reputation as the Russian “Killer” because of his wonderful rock’n’roll style akin to that of the great Jerry Lee Lewis.
His concert on 13/04/19 with his band was a fitting tribute to the King. This event was the first of a series of concerts at the Esse Café which will have an “Elvis” theme, including music dedicated to him.
So like I said, let’s start from the beginning. Elvis was born in 1935 to a dirt poor family in Tupelo, Mississippi. In fact he had a twin, Jessie, who was stillborn when he arrived into the World about half an hour before Elvis. Throughout his life, Elvis continually had nightmares involving him sucking the oxygen from his twin brother in order to survive. After this tragedy to Jessie, his Mum Gladys was very protective towards Elvis as the surviving twin, particularly in view of the fact that Elvis was a frail and sickly child. He was also very shy and small for his age. Here is how Elvis described it, “My mama never let me out of her sight. I couldn’t go down to the creek with the other kids.” Every day she would walk him to and from school, even into his teenage years. Since neither she nor her husband had had much schooling at all, she was determined that would not happen to her son.
As Mississippi was “Deep South”, this was the Bible Belt in America and naturally Elvis’ family were church goers. The music he heard in church was probably his very first musical influence. In 1945 Elvis received a guitar as his birthday present, apparently disappointed that it wasn’t a bicycle or a rifle. Two of his uncles gave him a few guitar lessons and Elvis described it this way, “I took the guitar and I watched people and I learned to play a little bit. But I would never sing in public. I was very shy about it.” But a year later, he was bringing his guitar to school on a regular basis. In addition to church music, or gospel, there was already another musical influence in his life. The writer Randy McNutt described it this way, “In Tupelo, the Presley family lived in an integrated neighbourhood, where many front-porch bluesmen strummed their lives away.” In other words, black blues music was also a part of his musical upbringing.
One of his elementary school teachers in Tupelo, Miss Grimes, later described the impression he made at school, “Sweet, sweet and average. I didn’t think Elvis would ever amount to much, of course.” The family left Tupelo for Memphis when the young boy was still in his early teens. The decision had been forced on them. Here’s the story:
The consensus was that Elvis’ father Vernon was basically a bit of a lay-about who tried to avoid a good day’s work whenever he could. He was convicted of a financial felony and sent to prison for eight months. As a result of this the family lost their home and Elvis and Gladys had to move in with relatives. When Vernon was arrested for a second time, on this occasion for selling illegal moonshine whiskey, the local authorities gave him an ultimatum to avoid him going to prison again – leave town within two weeks.
Thus the family moved to Memphis. This move of course proved to be pivotal to Elvis’ future career. But initially the tough times continued for him and the family. The main cause was Vernon’s continuing errant behaviour, which included heavy drinking and extra-marital affairs. Gladys knew how to defend herself and there were regular fights between the mother and the father. Through all this Elvis remained very close indeed to his mother. But although always closer and much more devoted to his Mum, he still retained affection towards his Dad. In later life Elvis was proud of the fact that after he achieved fame and riches, he enabled his Dad to retire at the ripe old age of 42. It is true to say they were a close family.
When in high school, his already acquired style of dressing stylishly and flamboyantly made him the attention of school bullies. But he was fortunate in acquiring the friendship of a school mate, Red West, who was already a tough and strong American football player. With Red’s help, he was able to defend himself from the bullies. An interesting follow-up to this story is that Red went on to become Elvis’ chief bodyguard for most of the rest of his life.
This was 1940s America in the Southern States, so needless to say Elvis’ school was segregated and all-white. Also an incident occurred at his school which resulted in his social standing amongst his peers rise considerably. He won a part in the Senior Class Minstrel Show. Elvis recalled, “Boy, I was sure popular after that.” While still in his early teens, he scored only a “C” grade for music on his school report. His music teacher informed him he had no aptitude for singing !
But what happened next is a foretaste of the Elvis that was to come. He came to school the next day and with his guitar sang a recent hit entitled “Keep them cold icy fingers off me”. Later a classmate of his recalled that the teacher “agreed that Elvis was right when he said that she didn’t appreciate his kind of singing.”
In 1950 he began practising the guitar seriously and was taught by Jesse Lee Denson, one of his neighbours. There was a small group of fellow musicians also being taught by Denson and along with Elvis they often played together in the local area. Now here’s the thing – two members of this group were none other than Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, two brothers who were to become rockabilly legends in their own right.
So the above is basically how it all began for the King. Next month we’ll move on with the story, to explore another period before he became famous; when he acquired more musical influences which were to be crucial towards his unique genius and fame. Hail to the King of Rock’n’Roll !