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The King and I

The King and I

Since his death, Elvis Presley has been reduced to the shorthand of iconography. Ray Connolly remembers meeting the man

Since his death, Elvis Presley has been reduced to the shorthand of iconography. Ray Connolly remembers meeting the man

September 11th 2013

Elvis Presley changed my life. I’m old enough to admit it now. Actually he changed a lot of lives. That’s the point about him, the reason why we hear his name and see his face so often, why his record company still releases two or three albums of his songs every year, why his best work can still be given away with a newspaper looking for a sales boost, and why he is recognised by his first name as easily as anyone in the world. He’s been dead for 34 years, yet everyone knows about Elvis.

I first heard him in March 1956. I was 15, a schoolboy in a small town in Lancashire. He was like nothing on earth: nothing in my world, anyway. The word “teenage” barely existed. Once you were fully grown, you were expected to dress and talk and think like a younger version of your parents. In that austere, cautious, know-your-place moment, the sound of Elvis singing “Well, since my baby left me, well I’ve found a new place to dwell” struck like a lightning bolt. His voice was stark, ghostly, echoing. Paul McCartney still talks of that record, “Heartbreak Hotel”, as being musical “perfection”. Culturally it was something else—a birth cry, perhaps, although we didn’t yet know what was being born. Whatever it was, I was determined to be included.

“Heartbreak Hotel” was not the first rock hit in Britain. Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” had come out the previous year and started riots when it rang out in the film “Blackboard Jungle”, or so the papers said. Maybe, but not in the cinema I went to. “Rock Around the Clock” was sung by a pleasant, chubby, 30-year-old man with a chessboard jacket and a kiss curl who had stumbled on board a new trend. Entertaining as his Comets were, Haley’s music was beamed through a prism of early-onset middle age.

And then came Elvis, just 21, with his puppy-dog face, obscenely long hair for the time, and all the confidence of the idiot savant who had sucked in half a dozen musical styles, mixed them together and unwittingly created an idiom of his own. He even had a strange name: Elvis. We’d never heard of anyone called Elvis before. His detractors, which is to say just about everyone out of their teens, declared immediately that he was a flash in the pan who couldn’t sing.

It was more a case of them not being able to hear,because if Elvis could do nothing else he could sing—anything and everything. An untrained tenor with a pleading, urgent quality, he had an innate gift for musical communication. Over a billion records sold now attest to that. Before him, popular singers had been mainly bland and polished—variations on a theme of Perry Como, dressed in light-orchestral string arrangements. Elvis, backed by blue-collar, do-it-yourself instruments—guitar, bass and drums—sang with operatic emotion distilled through the blues artists he had heard on black radio stations in the South in the 1940s. His first musical ambition had been to join a gospel quartet: as a teenager in racially segregated Memphis, he stood in a visitors’ porch at a black church just to hear the singing.

To an English boy who was just discovering John Steinbeck and William Faulkner, Elvis’s story was almost melodramatically romantic. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1935, he was a surviving twin whose stillborn brother had been buried in a cardboard box. When he was three, his father went to jail for doctoring and cashing a cheque from his landlord to pay for a pig. At 18, having never performed in public, he went into Sun Records in Memphis, a small company that did a sideline in private recordings, and paid $3.98 to make an acetate disc of “My Happiness”. Sun’s owner, Sam Phillips, saw his potential. Less than three years later, wearing sideboards which made him look like a trooper in the American civil war, Elvis was the most famous young man in the world.

By 1956, he was a regular on Sunday-night American television as “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Don’t Be Cruel”, “Hound Dog” and “Love Me Tender” dominated the world’s charts. But those programmes weren’t shown in Britain. I’d read that girls screamed whenever he appeared, but it never struck me that he was good-looking. The sound was the thing: the lean raw squawk of an electric guitar and that immediately identifiable two-octave, soaring, sobbing voice, carried by a haphazard signal from Radio Luxembourg or the American Forces Network stations in Germany. The BBC was still a decade away from having a pop station, and had decided that Elvis could go only on the “restricted play” list of its already meagre ration of popular music. I still have the 10-inch shellac singles I bought at five shillings and sixpence each (about £4.79 in today’s money). Cracked and chipped, with no machine left in the house to play them, they are totems of my rites of passage.

So it was with many other boys that year. A few miles south, in Liverpool, John Lennon’s record collection was driving his Aunt Mimi to distraction (“Elvis is all right, John, but not morning, noon and night”), while in Dartford, Kent, Keith Richards taught himself to play guitar listening to Scotty Moore, the lead guitarist on Elvis’s first LP. “I heard ‘Heartbreak Hotel’,” Richards told his ghostwriter in 2010, “…when I woke up the next day, I was a different guy.” In Duluth, Minnesota, a 15-year-old called Robert Zimmerman began a career in high school imitating the man he would later, as Bob Dylan, call the Gypsy, and in New Jersey a younger boy, Bruce Springsteen, watched the man they called the King on TV and began to dream. As Buddy Holly would say, “Elvis made it possible for all of us.”

As the Fifties went on, Elvis continued to deliver big hits that were also great records—“All Shook Up”, “Jailhouse Rock”, “One Night”. He had a momentum that could not be stemmed, whether by his mother’s death in 1958 or his two years’ national service. We came to see what the birth pangs of “Heartbreak Hotel” had foretold: a cultural revolution, with rock’n’roll as its international language. It needed reporting, and eventually it became part of my job to write about it.

Revolutions, however, seldom come in single spasms, and by the Sixties a second convulsion was already brewing. In those days movie success was seen as the summit of achievement in entertainment. And soon, guided by his manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, Elvis headed for Hollywood. Artistically this was a huge mistake. By 1963 his films were not just taking precedence over the music but infecting it with their vacuity. Elvis, the great innovator, was turning into a plump pudding of banality. It was a gift to his former disciples, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, who had no difficulty leap-frogging him.

I watched from afar, in despair. At one point Elvis was offered the lead in the movie of “West Side Story”, but Tom Parker went for “Girl Happy”, “Harem Holiday”, “Paradise, Hawaiian Style” and much other nonsense instead. Knowing nothing about either music or cinema, Parker went for what he understood: quick money from cheap movies that would take no more than three weeks to shoot, with the songs all owned by Elvis’s publishing companies.

In this arid environment, the hits dried up and, before long, to say that you liked Elvis became downright embarrassing. Occasionally it would seem he remembered what he’d started, and would return to Nashville to record a Bob Dylan or Chuck Berry song with the magic of old—but the results would be hidden as “bonus” songs on otherwise desultory soundtrack albums. At 32 he was, it seemed, the biggest has-been the world had ever known.

Then in 1968 he got a lucky break, though Parker probably didn’t see it that way. The films stopped making money. Hallelujah! A new start was needed and a television special was filmed. It included a new hit, “If I Can Dream”, written and recorded a few weeks after the murder of Martin Luther King. Elvis was suddenly back in the charts and relevant again. Returning to Memphis, he recorded some of the biggest hits of his life, “Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto”.

By now I was writing about music for the London Evening Standard. One day I got a telephone call from a publicist friend, Chris Hutchins, to whom the Colonel had taken a shine. “Would you like to go to Las Vegas and interview Elvis?” You bet I would.

Elvis met me at Las Vegas airport in July 1969 in the shape of a plastic cut-out saying “Live at the International Hotel”. His voice was in the taxi, too, on a radio commercial; there was a giant reminder of him on the hotel front and other little memos in all the suites, bars and restaurants. He was going back on stage for the first time in nine years to play at the International, recently opened and still smelling of new paint, twice a night for a month, and not a soul in that baking, twinkling, grubbing oasis of a town could have been unaware of it. It was a hoopla event, all right, but for me, a musical snob when it came to rock’n’roll, a hotel dining room hardly seemed the place for a King’s comeback. What if some guests were still eating when he took the stage? No, that wouldn’t be right.

Money, however, had talked. Elvis would get half a million dollars (about $3m today) for his four-week stint, and the hotel would use him as the draw to fill their casino. Elvis as a carrot, was what it seemed to me as I waited for that night’s performance with my pal Hutchins, together with a Daily Mirror journalist, Don Short, and the photographer Terry O’Neill. There had been a free show the previous evening for invited starry guests who had flown out en masse from Hollywood, but I had missed it when my plane from London had developed undercarriage problems. No matter: tonight’s show in front of real people was the important one.

Elvis, then aged 34, walked out from the wings in a flared black karate suit, his face and body thinner than we’d seen in years, the famous sideboards dyed into black slashes down the sides of his face. He had an air of shyness; you couldn’t tell if he was nervous, but I certainly was. This, I remember thinking, is the man who changed everything. I hope he doesn’t let us down.

He didn’t. As Phil Spector said at the time: “There’s no substitute for talent.” But Elvis did race through several of his biggest hits as though bored with them, and the kung fu moves used to dramatise some of the songs were plain silly. Not that the audience cared: they didn’t seem the kind of people who had spent their schooldays studying the matrix numbers and dates of his early Sun recording sessions. I was, I’m pretty sure, the only Elvis anorak there.

It wasn’t just the chance of seeing him on stage that had drawn me to Vegas, it was the prospect of an interview too. For three days Parker kept us all waiting, hanging around the coffee shop, making us afraid to leave the hotel in case the call should come. In the evenings I went back to see the show a couple more times as Elvis changed some of the songs.

Suddenly, between performances, as I was beginning to give up hope, I heard an announcement. “Would Mr Hutchins please pick up a house phone.” The message was to the point: “Elvis will see you now.” There was no time to go back to my room for my tape recorder, or for Terry O’Neill to fetch his camera. We took the lift to the 30th floor and were ushered into a small, featureless sitting room. Four or five young men were sitting in a circle—the minders and gofers popularly known as the Memphis Mafia—and in the middle, suckling on a bottle of 7-Up, was Elvis. He was wearing his stage suit with diamond-clustered rings on his fingers. A silver bracelet bearing his name dangled from his wrist. It struck me as funny that one of the most famous people on earth needed a bracelet to remind him who he was.

Quickly polite, nervous maybe, he leapt from his Spanish sofa to greet us. His retinue got to their feet more lethargically. Because I was introduced by Hutchins as “your greatest fan”, I was seated next to him. The Colonel stood behind us all, watching and listening carefully, both genial and suspicious, like a warder overseeing a prison visit. He didn’t tolerate creative people in the form of songwriters or film directors getting too close to his boy, nor did he want any nosy, trouble-making reporters giving Elvis ideas about himself or what he should be doing with his career. For that reason, there had never been, nor would there ever be, any ruminative conversations with the singer in Rolling Stone magazine. And, in truth, what I got that night was more an audience at court than an interview.

At first the conversation was general, jokey and congratulatory about the show and how slim he was. “I lose weight easily,” he smiled. Then there was the telegram from the Beatles that was taped to the dressing-room door. He was clearly pleased about that, and I decided not to mention that it had actually been sent by their road manager, Mal Evans, at my suggestion. Instead, and wanting to move the conversation on to records, which was all I cared about, I asked if he had any favourite Beatles tracks. His hands went up to play an imaginary guitar. “I like that one, ‘she was just 17, you know what I mean’,” he said, beginning to sing “I Saw Her Standing There”. It had been the opening track on the Beatles’ first British album, written in Liverpool. It wasn’t a single in Britain, but in America it was on the flipside of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and a top-20 hit in its own right. Paul McCartney should be here at this moment, I thought.

With the ice broken, the conversation went on to some jokey reflections about how Hutchins had engineered a summit meeting between Elvis and the Beatles in LA three years earlier. Then I ventured to ask why he had made all those films.

Elvis glanced up at the Colonel before answering. “Well, I wouldn’t be being honest with you if I said I wasn’t ashamed of some of the movies I’ve made and some of the songs I’ve had to sing in them,” he began, quietly. “I’d like to say they were good, but I can’t. I’ve been extremely unhappy with that side of my career for some time. But how can you find 12 good songs for every film when you’re making three movies a year? I knew a lot of them were bad songs and they used to bother the heck out of me. But I had to do them. They fitted the situation. How can you enjoy it when you have to sing songs to the guy you’ve just punched up?”

That brought an overloud laugh from the chorus of the Memphis Mafia, although they had undoubtedly heard him make the same excuse before. They were good at laughing at his jokes: that was partly what they were paid to do.

I pursued him gently on why there’d been so many movies, which triggered another look towards Parker. “Well, I was in a rut. I’d signed a lot of contracts when I was in the army. But we’ve now completed all the deals I made then. From now on I’m going to play more serious parts and make fewer films.”

That was good news. Was Elvis a gambler, I asked next, wondering if we’d ever see him downstairs in the casino, where Parker would sit every night. He shook his head. “No.” It didn’t interest him, he said. What about the fee for the month’s engagement?

“We didn’t decide to come here for the money, I can tell you that,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve been wanting to perform on stage again for the last nine years. It’s been building up inside of me until the strain became intolerable. I got all het up about it, and I don’t think I could have left it much longer. The time is just right. The money…I have no idea about all that. I just don’t want to know. You can stuff it.”

At this point Parker intervened, sharply, saying he had nothing to do with Mr Presley’s finances. “That’s all done by his father, Mr Vernon Presley, and his accountant. He can flush all his money away if he wants to. I won’t care.”

The sharpness of his tone was surprising. It made the meeting slightly uncomfortable, but I thought little of it. What I didn’t know then was that the King and the Colonel were locked together by a desperate need for money—Elvis because he had his hangers-on, paid for everybody and everything and just loved to give it away, and Parker because he was addicted to gambling.

None of this was mentioned as Elvis enthused about his plans. I said I had liked his rhythm-and-blues album “Elvis Is Back”, which was the closest he had got to the music he’d been making at the beginning of his career. He nodded: he’d liked that one too. “We were just talking about doing another one like that,” he said. When his Las Vegas season ended, he was thinking of doing a world tour. “I know I’ve been saying for years that I must visit Britain. And I will, I promise. The fans there have been fantastic to me. But at the moment there are personal reasons why I can’t go.”

Don Short made the mafia laugh when he mentioned a girl on the opening night throwing her panties at Elvis, who had mopped his brow with them and then thrown them back. When someone mentioned the Hollywood crowd who had come to see him, Elvis shrugged and said almost dismissively, “I guess I’m just a boy from the South. I’ve never been connected with show people. I have my own friends.” The salaried gofers and minders glowed.

At that moment, Parker abruptly ended our meeting, although it felt as if Elvis would happily have gone on chatting. It hadn’t been what I’d hoped for, but it was Elvis, and at least the guy who had started the revolution seemed to have reclaimed his musical soul.

The next morning I was having breakfast in the hotel coffee shop when Parker unexpectedly joined me. “I won’t pick up your breakfast tab because I don’t want you being beholden to me,” he said over his ham and eggs. Then he explained why an overseas tour wasn’t likely to happen soon. Mrs Parker was not well enough to travel and he couldn’t leave her to go abroad with Elvis. This, I would discover later, was a lot less than the truth.

I left Las Vegas the next day and flew to New York. Bob Dylan, who had been recovering up in Woodstock ever since a motorcycle accident three years earlier, was soon to appear at the Isle of Wight pop festival and I called his manager, Al Grossman, on the off-chance of an interview. I was surprised to be invited straight down to Grossman’s office, and even more surprised when he suggested that I interview Dylan on the phone there and then. Within a couple of minutes, Dylan was on the line. Normally interviews were planned, but with this one sprung on me, I hardly had a question in my head. So I told him I’d just been to see Elvis.

“Really! I read the review in the New York Times. Was he good? Really good? Who was in the band? Were the Jordanaires with him? And Scotty Moore on guitar? What did he sing? Did he do ‘That’s All Right, Mama’ and the Sun Records stuff?” The questions poured out. As it happened neither the Jordanaires, who had been backing singers on all Elvis’s early records, nor Scotty Moore had been there. But he had sung “Mystery Train” from the Sun sessions.

A couple of days later I was back in London and had to ring John Lennon about something. I told him, too, that I’d just met Elvis. “Was he good? What did he sing? Was Scotty Moore with him? And the Jordanaires? Did he do his early songs?” Lennon asked the same questions as Dylan, almost word for word. I realised something during those two phone calls: no matter how big and successful a star might have become, he’s always a fan of someone who went before him. And, when it came to Elvis, with Dylan and Lennon I wasn’t a journalist, I was a fellow fan, a fellow 15-year-old.

I never saw Elvis again, and though it felt like an act of betrayal, my interest in him gradually began to wane. For a few years he had a kind of resurgence, in popularity at least, as he played Las Vegas twice a year, and became the first rock star to do a global satellite TV concert, wearing his white silk rhinestone-studded romper suit—the overblown image that thousands of Elvis tribute artists assume today. But although he had many more hits, even two or three good ones, he never made the R’n’B album he had mentioned to me, and it became clear that in leaving beach movies for live residencies, he had just swapped one treadmill for another.

As the Seventies progressed, and especially after his divorce from Priscilla, the 14-year-old girl he’d fallen in love with while in Germany with the army, Elvis’s behaviour became erratic. Whispers of ill-health and dependency on prescription drugs began to surface. Eventually he was no longer a carrot for punters in Las Vegas, and he was reduced to criss-crossing America on tour after tour to ever smaller cities. One day in August 1977, on a beach in Corsica, I saw his face on the front of a German newspaper, and worked out what it was saying. He had been found dead on the bathroom floor at home in Memphis. He was 42, and so bloated that the paramedics didn’t recognise him. I was saddened, but not very surprised.

But what happened? What about the ambitious plans he told me about eight years earlier? After his death the truth seeped out as the Memphis Mafia sold their stories and the biographers turned over the stones. He didn’t, as he told me, “lose weight easily”. He put it on easily and had pills to take it off again. But then he had pills for everything. It was true he’d wanted to do a world tour, but Tom Parker had a problem. It wasn’t his sick wife—it was that he didn’t have a passport. A Dutch illegal immigrant and former fairground con man, he had spent his life afraid that if he left America, he might not get back in. Not only was he not a colonel: he was not a Tom or a Parker. His real name was Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk. Elvis never knew, although he is said to have been puzzled by the Colonel’s not-quite-American accent.

And the good parts he hoped to play? There weren’t any. In 1971 Barbra Streisand asked him to appear alongside her in the remake of “A Star is Born”, and Parker vetoed the project on the grounds that Elvis had to have top billing over her. But there was something else. The upfront money being offered wasn’t enough. It was easier to pick up big cheques in Las Vegas. For Parker Vegas was ideal: it combined his two interests in life, roulette and quick money. He took 50% of everything Elvis earned, not 15 or 20 like other managers.

But why did a man with the talents of Elvis Presley never stand up to his manager? A friend from Memphis explained. “Elvis was always terrified of ending up where he started out—dirt poor,” he said. He trusted Parker because he’d taken him from regional celebrity to fame and millions. Insecure in himself, he was afraid that without Parker it would be all over for him.

By the time he realised his and Parker’s mistakes, it was too late. He was a drugged-out caricature of himself and his one great gift was betraying him. Wrecked by the strain of a thousand concerts in eight years, his voice became deeper and coarser. The rumour in Nashville, where he’d made so many of his hits, was that he was afraid to go into the studio, and when he did he was distraught to find that he could no longer sing one of his favourite songs, “Danny Boy”, in the key he wanted. Always proud of his vocal range, he couldn’t reach the high notes any more.

At one of his last concerts in 1977, filmed for TV, he even apologised before singing a song he’d first recorded at 20. His voice, he said, had been a lot higher then. It must have been a bleak moment of self-realisation. That lightness of touch he’d once enjoyed, the way he’d been able to soar and dip effortlessly, often bestowing on a song more mellifluousness or passion than it might have deserved, was gone.

John Lennon, always a shrewd observer, once said to me: “It was bad enough for us Beatles. But there were four of us to share the burden. There was only one Elvis. It must have been impossible for him.” Impossible is what it turned out to be. Cocooned inside his wall of paid friends, he died with little grasp of the change in which he had played a vital role.

I’m still a fan. I’ll never lose that, though not particularly of the fat guy with the white suit and big hair, who, ghost-like, now tours the world and plays the arenas on archive film, with a live retinue of now-elderly musicians and backing singers. No, my Elvis is hardly more than a boy, a boy who came from a racial crossroads and led my generation, and others that followed, in a completely new direction. I can’t tell you how exciting it was to be 15 when Elvis arrived.

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