First off, I am pleased to hear that things have “opened up” a bit for you UK rock’n’rollers socially, Covid-wise. As I advised in my last two columns, over here in Russia we are in the fortunate position of having opened up some time ago. Let’s all make the most of it and actively savour and participate in our great rock’n’roll culture !
Before the long Covid break, in this column I began telling you the story of the King of Rock’n’Roll, Elvis Presley. The first article covered his early years and the second his move as a young man with his Mum and Dad to Memphis, Tennessee. We reached the point where Elvis made his first big hit at Sun Records, “That’s Alright, Mama”. What followed was the greatest period in his life, in terms of his performance and achievement. It was the King at his Greatest. So let’s continue with the incredible story of Elvis Presley.
We celebrated once more the King’s achievements with an Elvis-themed event on 17th July this year . I booked Valery Setkin along with the Aleksey Fetisov Rock’n’Roll Trio to perform for us at the Esse Jazz Café in Moscow. Regular readers of this column will know about this combined Russian band. They are simply brilliant and again put on a great show for us on 17/07/21, playing fantastic classic rock’n’roll. Some of the photos you can see were taken at the concert.
I mentioned in a previous column about Elvis that the impact of those early concerts, while he was with Sun Records, can hardly be over-estimated. For example, his very first gig after he signed to Sun was in July 1954, at an open-air theatre in Memphis. Whilst waiting to go on stage, Elvis was terrified and told Sam Phillips, “Man, I’m so glad to see you, Mr Phillips. I-I-I-I just didn’t know what I was going to do.” Re-assured by Phillips, Elvis got on stage and proceeded to sing, shake those hips and do all the things that were to become legendary. The audience reaction was explosive. They went wild, especially the young women. Even Presley and his backing band were taken aback and at first didn’t understand why the audience were so wild. Later Elvis said, “I was scared stiff. Everyone was hollering and I didn’t know what they were hollering at.” When Elvis came offstage he asked his manager, “What did I do ?” His manager explained it was the way he was “wiggling” his legs that caused all the excitement !
This period was Elvis at his greatest. He truly took the World by storm. No other pop or rock star could come close to him at that time, in terms of impact and popularity. It is also true to say he made the most of this success and his life style was rather the opposite of the public image he portrayed outside of his concert performances. He was highly active sexually and took full advantage of his new found fame. Here’s Scotty Moore, a key member of his backing group, describing it, “Elvis was like a young stud at a rodeo. They could have named him Man o’War”. As part of his new image, Elvis took to wearing eye make-up and mascara in his performances. This led to some rubbish rumours about him being bi-sexual. Scotty Moore pointed out the nonsense behind these rumours, “He’d have been the first to lay someone out if a man made an advance on him, I can tell you that. If he was prejudiced about something, that was it.” Interestingly, despite his excessive sexual appetite, in other ways he was a model young man, a non-smoking tee-totaler. It was only a bit later that his excessive use of pills really kicked in. And it was the pills that ultimately killed him.
It is hard to over-exaggerate the impact rock’n’roll made in the mid-fifties in its early days in America and the Western World. And it was Elvis who was in the forefront. He was at the front of a new youth culture that for the first time really did belong to young people and was not just a modification of what had gone before. The reaction was extreme on both sides. For example here is what Frank Sinatra, as someone whose massive fame was kind of side-lined as a result of the rock’n’roll revolution taking place, had to say, “Rock’n’Roll is played and written for goons, for the most part by goons. Rock’n’Roll is the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression – sly, lewd, in fact, dirty – a rancid-smelling aphrodisiac and the martial music of every side-burned delinquent on the face of the Earth.”
Meantime, Elvis’s life moved on. In 1958 he got his call-up papers for the US Army (conscription was still in force then, as it also was then in the UK for national service). A tragic event occurred just after his call-up: His mother Gladys died after being unwell for some time. Elvis was devastated, he had been closer to her than anyone else in his life and took it very, very badly. He had by then acquired the mansion at Gracelands and his mother was laid in state there, prior to her body being moved to a funeral home. Before doing so, Elvis held her lifeless body and said to her, “Good-bye, darling, good-bye. I love you so much. You know how much. I lived my whole life for you. Oh, God ! Everything I have is gone.” Later in his life, his Aunt Lillian observed, “After Gladys died, he didn’t seem like Elvis ever again.”
Army life for him was hardly onerous; the US Army made sure they looked after their super-star conscript. But it must be said he did all the basic training that all recruits had to go through. Plus he did all the army jobs that were required of him. His main job was as a jeep driver. During his main tour of duty in Germany, unlike his military peers he didn’t live in barracks. He rented rooms for himself and the entourage that went with him from the States, namely his Dad, his maternal grandmother and two of his buddies from America, both of which would later be part of his “Memphis Mafia” at Gracelands. One of them, Red West, described part of the life-style for Elvis in Germany, “He really developed that professional country-boy act with women. We were routing them through his bedrooms two and sometimes three a day.” Before his army service ended he was made a sergeant and was honourably discharged in 1960.
Some other events occurred during his military service which are also worth mentioning. In Germany he met the fourteen year old Priscilla Bealieau. After a long courtship of over seven years, she was eventually to become Mrs Priscilla Presley. Also in Germany a sergeant introduced him to amphetamines: Elvis was impressed by their effects. This unfortunately was to turn into a lifelong usage of pills by Elvis, which over time was to prove fatal. Before his induction into the Army, Elvis had already switched from Sun records to the much larger RCA label. Basically Sun could not cope or handle the huge demand for Elvis’s records and Sam Phillips had agreed a deal with RCA to release Elvis, as well as sell recordings that he had cut at Sun and still not released. As a result of this, Elvis had many number one hits in the music charts during his time in the army.
My next article about the King in the future will look at how, in addition to more big TV appearances, Elvis really joined the Hollywood movie business in earnest, with a string of big box office hits. He had already appeared in some movies before entering the army, but it was after his military service that his film career really took off.
And let’s acknowledge that for all his personal faults Elvis was truly the King. More than anyone else he made rock’n’roll what it was.