His Own Jukebox

Elvis Presley's career, beginning and end, depended on his extraordinary gifts as a mimic  

In Peter Guralnick's new book, Last Train to Memphis, the first half of what will be a two-volume biography, we read that as a teenager, Elvis Presley used to sing along with the groups at the all-night gospel meets he would take a girlfriend to hear. This embarrassed Presley's girlfriend, particularly his habit of "trying to hit the low notes with the bass singer [and] the high ones with the lead tenor," though we can guess that she also found this irrepressible urge of his rather endearing. Even if this is just one detail in a book that vibrates with them, it caught my eye, because it reminded me of a similar moment on what has become my favorite Presley recording—one Presley himself probably never heard.

I found a copy of the recording in a Boston record shop in 1984, seven years after Presley's death. Then available only as a bootleg, it has since been released through legitimate channels, most recently on compact disc as The Million Dollar Quartet (RCA 2023-2-R). It was recorded on the sly by Sam Phillips, of Sun Records, in his fabled studio on Union Avenue in Memphis, on December 4, 1956, during what was supposed to have been a session by Carl Perkins, a rockabilly and guitarist whose version of "Blue Suede Shoes," a song he had written, had preceded Presley's up the charts earlier that year. As luck would have it, Jerry Lee Lewis was also at Sun that afternoon, sitting in with Perkins's band on piano. Johnny Cash, yet another of Phillips's contract artists, showed up just long enough to pose with Perkins, Lewis, and Presley, who had dropped by ostensibly to say hello, for a picture that ran in the following day's Memphis Press-Scimitar, above a paragraph describing a jam session by this "million dollar quartet." In truth, all that made the gathering newsworthy was Presley's part in it. The most Icarus-like of Phillips's discoveries wound up instigating an old-fashioned singalong. And Phillips, though he had sold Presley's contract to RCA Victor a year earlier and could no longer release new material by him, had the foresight to order an engineer to roll the tapes, strictly for posterity.

THE music begins with a gospel medley, on which Lewis's boogiewoogie piano and the hepcat yowls during Perkins's guitar solos sound only slightly incongruous. Denounced as heathens by that era's guardians of public morality, Presley and other early southern rockers tended to view themselves as God-fearing men—one of the contradictions that made early rock-and-roll so fascinating. At one point Elvis launches into a version of Ernest Tubb's country gospel tune "I'm With a Crowd, But So Alone," and his hillbilly whine draws a groan from one of the other musicians. This reaction is affectionate and a little nervous, not derisive. The music is the sort these young men grew up with, and you can tell that this is what the others suspect they must sound like to northerners.

Presley goes on to sing spirited versions of tunes made popular by Pat Boone, Chuck Berry, Hank Snow, Faron Young, and the Ink Spots, among others. All these are great fun, no matter how off-key both the instrumental backing and the vocal harmonies tend to be. But the moment I treasure comes about thirty minutes in, when Presley tells the others about an unnamed singer he heard in Las Vegas, who did "a thing on me"' on "Don't Be Cruel." Noting in passing that the singer was "a colored guy" and praising his interpretation of the song as ,'much better than that record of mine,'" Presley remarks that "he had it a little slower than me"—and then proceeds to demonstrate. Prefacing each chorus with an explanatory "he said," he halves the tempo and gives the song a big finish, as Jerry Lee Lewis gamely pumps away behind him.

But this "Don't Be Cruel" doesn't end there. For the next few minutes Presley keeps breaking into the song every time there's a lull. He gets laughs with his imitation of the black "Yankee" singer's attempt to give the words of the song what the singer must have thought was a genuine southern pronunciation ("tellyphone!" Perkins—or someone-shouts in amused disbelief). He describes how the singer grabbed the microphone on the last note and slid all the way down to the floor, how on certain lines he shook his head back and forth admonishingly, and how he had his feet turned in "and all the time he's singin', them feet was goin' in and out both ways, slidin' like this." Through all of this you just know that he's illustrating the story by swooping to the floor himself, shaking his own head, and swiveling his own feet.

The unidentified singer who so enthralled Presley (and whom he sounded nothing like) was Jackie Wilson, soon to have hits himself. A month later, as if to prove that imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, Presley concluded one segment of an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show with a rendition of "Don't Be Cruel" that, Guralnick tells us, owed everything to Wilson's, "from finger rolls to his pronunciation of 'tellyphone' to the big pumped-up ending."

"It seemed like he had a photographic memory for every damn song he ever heard," Phillips told Guralnick. The venerable music critic Henry Pleasants once characterized Presley as a "naturally assimilative" stylist with a "multiplicity of voices"—that is, a gifted singer with an instinct for mimicry, whose music incorporated gospel, country, rhythm and blues, operatic airs, vaudeville recitation, and sticky early-fifties pop of the sort that rock-and-roll ultimately savaged.

Pop music as it has evolved alongside audio technology has resulted in what I think of as aural culture—similar to but finally distinct from the oral traditions on which folk music once depended. Aural culture takes the form of teenagers' uninhibitedly singing along with records (if only in the privacy of their bedrooms) and imitating the sounds on them. Rock-and-roll has been aural culture from the beginning, and the Elvis captured that afternoon at Sun—already famous, already in movies, perched at No. 1 on the pop charts for the fourth time that year, but still only twenty-one—sounds like a kid emulating the vocal mannerisms of his favorite singers, less for the delectation of anyone who might be listening than for the thrill it gives him to hear those familiar voices vibrating in his own throat. He's his own jukebox.

Although he emulated other singers' styles, Presley was no impersonator. His own personality emerged whether he was singing country, rhythm and blues, or pop. The key to his originality may have been his enthusiasm for so many different kinds of music and his refusal to distinguish among them.

At the time of the Sun session Presley's star was still on the rise, but the world was already beginning to close in on him. Earlier that year he had made his Las Vegas debut, on a bill with the comedian Shecky Greene and the dance-band leader Freddy Martin. This unlikely booking had been arranged by Tom Parker, the former carny hustler and honorary Louisiana colonel who had become his manager and who was determined to expose him to adult audiences. Most adults at that time didn't know what to make of Presley, except to wish he would go away. The engagement had been a fiasco, with Newsweek crowing that Presley was as out of place in Las Vegas as "a jug of corn liquor at a champagne party." In the stunned silence that greeted Presley's first number on opening night, the guitarist Scotty Moore and the bassist Bill Black realized that this was the first time in months that they were able to hear what they were playing behind him. To their horror, they were badly out of tune.

Presley had reached a point where he was being upstaged by his screaming female fans. In Memphis, his home town, it was becoming virtually impossible for him even to leave the house without causing a near-riot. There had been teenage idols before—notably Frank Sinatra, little more than ten years earlier. What made the Presley phenomenon different was the specter of juvenile delinquency. He was being denounced in the editorial pages and from the pulpit for fostering it with his voice, his sideburns, and his hips. His ascent had been so swift that it must have seemed like a dream to him, in danger of ending at any moment. In a way, he was a creature of the recording studio. Before he cut his first commercial recording, in the Sun studio in the summer of 1954, he had performed in public only a few times—for instance, Red Foley's "Old Shep" at a Mississippi state fair when he was ten, and Teresa Brewer's "Till I Waltz Again With You" at his high school talent show. Returning to Sun must have been like returning to the womb. This would be the last time he would sing there, and he would never again sound so unguarded.

The reaction of Presley's fellow musicians to his performance is amusing. They go along with him at first, but after a while you can almost hear them wondering why he's making such a fuss. They're a little bit like that girlfriend, though not so much embarrassed for him as puzzled.

THE Presley phenomenon continues to puzzle most of us, which may be why Presley is the subject of so much literature. Books have been published about his relationship with his mother, his Army years, his mostly dreadful movies, the final days of his life, kitsch collectibles bearing his image, and posthumous sightings of him. The books published about him in the past year or so have included one containing his favorite recipes and one about his acts of philanthropy. Before Guralnick' s there was only one cradle-to-grave biography that I know of: an attempted harpooning by the late Albert Goldman, who went after the latter-day jump-suited pharmaceutical mutant of Graceland as vengefully as Ahab pursued his great white whale.

Nearly 500 pages, Last Train to Memphis ends with Presley's transport to Germany as a private first class in September of 1958, a month after the death of his mother, Gladys, whom he adored and the loss of whom took some of the life out of him and his already rather passive father, Vernon. Guralnick's edge over his competition isn't simply a matter of his book's greater thoroughness. His previous books, which have included a history of soul music, a meditation on the life of Robert Johnson, and two collections of sensitive profiles of musicians, have won him such credibility that his was assumed to be the definitive Elvis biography the moment it was announced. Guralnick's sources, I think, sensed that this was going to be the last word on Elvis Presley, and opened themselves up accordingly.

This first volume isn't the sort of book commonly referred to as a "critical" biography. Despite a wealth of information about Presley's stage shows and recording sessions, and about the role played by Memphis disc jockeys in exposing white youths of Presley's generation to black rhythm and blues, there isn't a great deal of musical analysis here. But Last Train to Memphis is clearly the work of someone who spent much of his adolescence looking for himself in the records he heard on the radio, just as Presley did. This empathy Guralnick feels for his subject permits him to use his research as a springboard.

"He likes the company of women, he loves to be around women, women of all ages," Guralnick writes about Presley at the age of fifteen or sixteen, in an extended passage that conveys something of the book's texture and vibrato.

His aunt Lillian notices it: "He'd get out there at night with the girls and he just sang his head off. He was different with the girls—I'm embarrassed to tell, but he'd rather have a whole bunch of girls around him than the boys—he didn't care a thing about the boys." The women seem to sense something coming out of him, something he himself may not even know he possesses: it is an aching kind of vulnerability, an unspecified yearning; when Sam Phillips meets him just two or three years later, in 1953, he senses much the same quality but calls it insecurity. "He tried not to show it, but he felt so inferior. He reminded me of a black man in that way; his insecurity was so markedly like that of a black person." Bathed in the soft glow of the streetlight, he appears almost handsome—the acne that embarrasses him doesn't show up so badly, and the adolescent features, which can appear coarse in the cold light of day, take on a kind of delicacy that is almost beautiful. He sings Eddy Arnold's "Molly Darling," Kay Starr's "Harbor Lights," Bing and Gary Crosby's "Moonlight Bay," … in a soft, slightly quavering voice, and then, satisfied, takes his comb out of his back pocket and runs it through his hair in a practiced gesture clearly at odds with his hesitancy of manner.

All Guralnick's major themes are woven together here: Presley's ability to mimic whomever he heard on the radio, the hint of mother love and the role his own girlishness played in his attraction and appeal to women, his insecurity as a result of having grown up dirt poor (the Memphis housing project he lived in as a teenager was a step up for the Presleys, who are described by a former neighbor in Mississippi as a family who moved whenever their rent was due), the "blackness" that his first record producer and others sensed in him, and the extent to which the Elvis Presley who exploded on America in 1956 was a teenage misfit's successful attempt to reinvent himself as the most popular boy in class.

Professional musicians sometimes like to give the impression that theirs is the best job of all in that they're being paid to do what they would be doing just for fun. Stardom is frequently a variation on that theme. But to Presley's way of thinking, becoming a star was the only alternative to the role of total nonentity to which his family's low social standing and his own shyness might otherwise have doomed him. ("If you picture him," Guralnick advises us early on, "picture someone you might have missed: a wideeyed, silent child scuffling his feet, wearing overalls.") This is someone who acquired what must have looked like a stage wardrobe long before setting foot on an actual stage. Though various classmates remember him as a "loner," "a sad, shy, not especially attractive boy," some also remember him as something of a peacock, who would show up for classes at Humes High School in bolero jackets and dress pants with stripes down the sides that made him look like a carhop (not the effect he intended). Guralnick notes that when Presley started making movies, he eschewed acting lessons, because "I want to be me." But in being just Elvis Presley he was already in character.

Presley bought the wild duds that Guralnick identifies as one of the first manifestations of "his determination to be himself—his determination to be a different self " from a clothing store on Beale Street, Memphis's black hub. Presley's debt to black culture is another of the book's recurring themes, as well it should be—it's the aspect of Presley that is still the most controversial.

"Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me," Chuck D, the lead singer and ideologue of the rap group Public Enemy, ranted on the group's 1989 song "Fight the Power," which was featured in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. Some people are always going to assume that because Presley was a white southerner who rose to fame around the time of the Montgomery bus boycott and the murder of Emmett Till, he was "a straight-up racist ... simple and plain," as Chuck D put it. Some African-Americans are still convinced that Presley once said, "The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes"—a rumor of the late 1950s which Guralnick convincingly demonstrates had no basis in fact.

To some people, white as well as black, Presley is always going to be a sideburned parasite, a white boy who made a bundle by singing and shaking his hips like a black man and never acknowledged his source. In fact he was forthcoming about the black influences on him. "The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I'm doin' now, man, for more years than I know," he told an interviewer in 1956. Guralnick cites this and several other interviews in which Presley uttered similar sentiments. Besides, the young Presley listened to, enjoyed, and copied all manner of performers. Among the early influences on him were a white gospel quartet called the Statesmen, whose members included Jake Hess, an emotive lead tenor described by Guralnick as "a spectacular singer with the kind of soaring tenor and controlled vibrato that Elvis would explicitly aspire to," and Jim Wetherington, a bass singer nicknamed the Big Chief, who stirred up church audiences with his onstage shaking, which some fundamentalist ministers denounced as lewd.

Presley's early muses were radio and records, and much of his exposure to black music came through them. In that way he was no different from many white youths of his day, regardless of where they happened to live. But as a southerner during a time when, despite legal segregation, there was probably more daily contact between the races in Mississippi than anywhere in the North, Presley enjoyed firsthand exposure to black life. Just after the Second World War his family lived for a brief time in Tupelo practically across the street from Shake Rag, the city's most densely populated black neighborhood. Within earshot of what Guralnick describes as the quarter's "tumultuous bursts of song," Elvis was perhaps also drawn to Shake Rag's "sharp flashes of emotion, the bright splashes of color, the feelings so boldly on display." By the time he entered the seventh grade, the Presleys were living in an apartment not near but actually in Tupelo's more "respectable" black neighborhood, albeit in a house understood to be reserved for whites—a distinction that, as Guralnick points out, was perfectly clear to Vernon and Gladys Presley but was probably lost on their twelve-year-old son, who may have recognized something of his own family's values in those of the neighborhood's black strivers.

Blackness does seem to have rubbed off on Elvis Presley, who sang rhythm and blues as unselfconsciously as he sang country music. His first Sun release, in 1954, a version of Arthur Crudup's 1947 blues hit "That's All Right" backed with Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky," was about as perfect an expression as you could hope to find of the unexamined racial double consciousness of a white southerner of his time and social station. This was just one of the curious dualities he embodied. Presley was a studied natural, a well-mannered mama's boy who became a role model for a generation of rebellious youth, a kid who could hit both the high notes and the low ones, a biographical subject whose life almost demands to be examined in two parts. Last Train to Memphis is subtitled "The Rise of Elvis Presley," as if to confirm that volume two will be about the descent—about how the stardom Presley wished on himself ultimately made him captive, increasing his sense of otherness and cutting him off from his original sources of inspiration. Even with the sympathetic Guralnick telling the story, it promises to make for grim reading.

Elvis Presley is one of the reasons that megastardom of the sort he virtually defined is increasingly equated with loneliness, isolation, mental and physical rot—tragedy waiting to happen. Stardom of such magnitude also invites the fantasy that the performer in question might have been happier doing something else with his life, or doing the same thing on a smaller, more life-size scale. Frank Sinatra now usually sings with orchestras in massive sports arenas that make a joke of the implied intimacy with each of his listeners on which his phrasing has always depended, and which is now about all he has left as a singer. Sinatra should be performing with just a rhythm section in tiny cabarets. But he can't, because he's Frank Sinatra, not Bobby Short or even Tony Bennett.

The only time I saw Presley live, in 1971, he was essentially imitating Tom Jones, a crude caricature of Presley to begin with and a far cry from Jackie Wilson. I guess he'd caught Jones's act in Vegas and felt both flattered and challenged. It could have been worse. I had the feeling that for years the only music Presley had listened to closely had been "demos" of tunes written in the hope that he would record them, performed in rough fashion by their composers or by anonymous singers chosen for their ability to emulate him. No wonder he became such a self-parody. Maybe he missed his calling. Given his ability to sing practically anything, he might have been the greatest demo singer who ever lived, a record-industry cult figure, a sane and healthy man. But then he wouldn't have been Elvis Presley—at least not in the way his name will forever imply.