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Remembering Elvis Presley

January 8, 1935-August 16, 1977

Ari Surdoval
|
08.17.2007
Elvis!

Elvis Presley was the king of rock and roll, and anybody who says otherwise doesn’t know much about the music—how it exploded like a hurricane out of the South, made up of gospel, country, and blues, and blew the roof off the whole world. Elvis was the eye of the storm. With each leering, aww-shucks shake of his hips, the Whites Only water fountains and luncheonettes, segregated buses and balconies, back alleys, front rows, and neighborhoods of the whole country weakened. It would take many years of struggle before they crumbled, but that doesn’t lessen what happened in Memphis in June of 1954. Just over a decade later, rock and roll would be dully championed as important, with all the smugness and self-satisfaction that came with that title. But for a few jaw-dropping years in the mid-'50s—when they heard the news, there’s good rockin’ tonight, and nothing was ever quite the same again—it was truly revolutionary.

To this day, Elvis Presley’s Sun Records singles sound like the musical equivalent of man walking on the moon—surreal, stark, beautiful, and unprecedented. In Peter Guralnick’s brilliant Last Train to Memphis, there is a depiction of a nervous teenage Elvis cupping his hands over his eyes to block out the Memphis sun as he looked into the window of Sun Studios for the first time. He did this many times before he ever worked up the nerve to walk in the door under the ruse that he wanted to record a song for his mother’s birthday. Even Elvis Presley was once just a scared kid with his face pressed against the plate glass of destiny, thinking, maybe, just maybe...

What happened to Elvis in the years afterwards reveals a lot about fame and money and the corrupting, irrational bizzarro world they shape. And it also reveals a lot about Elvis as an individual. Because that is what he was, until the bitter end. An individual. A man alone. Loved by millions, surrounded by friends and family and hangers-on, but alone. Elvis’ terrible, self-inflicted isolation was the lonesome flipside of his sheer force of will and individuality. With the world for his having, he stayed locked in his home, wondering who could possibly relate to him or understand his life. Today, there are thousands of people from all over the world holding candles outside of Graceland in Memphis, paying tribute and quietly telling him, We can.

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Here, the great Scotty Moore—the guitarist on the Sun Sessions, whose musical influence
equals Elvis’ cultural influence—remembers his earliest days with Elvis.
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