“He stood for rock ‘n’ roll at a time when rock ‘n’ roll was rebellion, but I think Elvis stood for so many more things than that,” said John Covach, a professor of music theory at the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music. “He was a southern kid, so he came from very humble roots. He became very popular and very rich and very famous. In this country, that’s the American Dream. And that’s the Elvis story.”
A more controversial aspect of his story is the influence of rhythm-and-blues and gospel on his style, and the extent to which his fame came from his covers of hits by black musicians who weren’t widely accepted by the white mainstream in the 1950s. These persistent questions of cultural appropriation are baked into Elvis’s legacy, and they’re core to the nation’s identity. It makes sense, then, that so many people reported seeing Elvis in places that are overwhelmingly American.
In Kalamazoo, Michigan, in the late 1980s, an account of Elvis ordering a Whopper at Burger King set off a rash of sightings. And in the nearly four decades since his death, people have claimed to see him at grocery stores, 7-Elevens, shopping malls, and fast-food chains, ordinary places frequented by regular folks—not the sort of setting where you might expect to bump into a rock star.
Elvis was, however, known to have had some of the eccentricities that superstardom encourages. My father, who worked as Elvis’s security detail at what was then a Hilton hotel off the Las Vegas strip in the early 1970s, remembers hearing of hotel staffers carrying a replacement television set to the rock star’s hotel room—after Elvis put a bullet through the screen of the television that was already there. Apparently he didn’t like what was being broadcast. His nickname—the King—was a reminder that Elvis was extraordinary, not just among regular Americans but among other musicians, too. And yet he was able to stay relatable in a way that other celebrities could not.
The items he famously insisted be stocked at all times in his Graceland kitchen, for instance, sound like things you’d find at a Fourth of July barbecue in the 1950s. On that list, according to a 1993 Associated Press article: hamburger buns, pickles, ingredients for meatloaf, brownies, vanilla ice cream, chocolate ice cream, mustard, peanut butter, Juicy Fruit gum, bacon, Pepsi.
Elvis may have been a sensation, but he was able to retain the boy-next-door quality that made it seem natural for a nation of fans to call him by his first name. He was an international heartthrob, sure, but still the nice boy from a small Mississippi town who grew up and served in the Army. In the popular imagination, the disconnect between rock star and regular guy helped stoke the eventual conspiracies about what happened to him. Today, these questions of identity are inextricable from the larger cultural idea of Elvis—so much so that you can't really talk about Elvis without, in the same breath, talking about not Elvis. There’s the man who died, and the man who faked his death. There’s the man who became a star, and the legions of fans who pretend to be him.