Elvis at 75: The King Goes Platinum

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Elvis Presley would have turned 75 on Jan. 8

The year Elvis Presley died, Fleetwood Mac's Rumours was the best-selling album, and the top single was "You Light Up My Life," released the day of Elvis' death. Annie took the Tony for best musical. J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion topped the best-seller lists, followed by The Thorn Birds. The favorite TV shows were Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley. Rocky won the Oscar for Best Picture that year (over Taxi Driver, Network, All the President's Men and Bound for Glory), and Star Wars, episode IV, was the highest grossing movie. The Shah ran Iran, Water was the only -gate, and a pack of cigarettes cost 45 cents. Most of my bosses at TIME hadn't started school yet. I'm saying, it was a while back. Given the fleeting span of celebrity, Presley's 15 minutes or years of fame should have ended by now.

Jan. 8 would have been Elvis' 75th birthday — his platinum anniversary — assuming, for the moment, that Presley really did pass away on Aug. 16, 1977. More than three decades after his death, he remains one of the few figures besides Jesus whose birth and death dates are known to, and celebrated by, tens of millions of people. The faithful are marking this sacred day in various ways: perhaps by purchasing an Elvis Presley Jailhouse Rock doll from Mattel's Barbie Pink Label collection or buying Zippo's full set of Elvis 75 collectible lighters. (I'm not sure the King smoked.) They might go to Las Vegas, the town Elvis made his own, and catch the new Cirque du Soleil show "Viva Elvis," which we'll get to in a few weeks.

But considering that Presley has sold more albums since his death than he did in his life, that the remix of his "A Little Less Conversation" was a worldwide hit in 2002 and that three of his 1957-60 singles went to No. 1 on the U.K. charts three years ago, I'd say the best way to remember Elvis is by playing his music. Picking up the new four-CD set Elvis 75: Good Rockin' Tonight would make an excellent votive offering.

Seventy-five is not so very old; Lewis Lapham, the longtime editor of Harper's, was born the same day, and he's still going strong. But Elvis' death at 42 was a punch in the gut to his family and fans and, as one Hollywood savant said the night of the star's passing, a "great career move." It certified his stature; early death made him a pop immortal. Michael Jackson lived eight years longer, JFK four years, Bobby Kennedy just a month less. Elvis spent half his life in the glare of the pop-icon spotlight, starting with his breakout as a sexy rocker in 1956. So he'd been around long enough to provide a dramatic structure to his public life. And he didn't keep doing the same thing, decade after decade, à la Mick Jagger; Elvis was a man on the move, from Memphis to Hollywood to Las Vegas and Memphis again.

Any screenwriter could appreciate the Presley career contours: out-of-nowhere star, early brilliance, coasting through 31 Hollywood musicals, then the parody-resurrection as a Vegas star — the first Elvis impersonator — and the bloat and decay and death. Had he survived the drugs and junk food, he might have enjoyed an elder-statesman period or endured a Crazy Heart phase. Instead, like Lenny Bruce — another pop-cultural Satan-angel who didn't live past his early 40s — Elvis collapsed in his bathroom, died and left his epitaph to hagiographers. Within two years, there was a biopic (with Kurt Russell, directed by John Carpenter); the night the show aired, it outdrew Gone With the Wind on another network.

All these years later, the Church of Elvis thrives. Yet there is something warmer than necrophilia in the devotion of believers. Aside from his roles as a movie actor, concert headliner and societal flash point, Presley was a singer. It's instructive to return to the métier that made him famous, on the Elvis 75 CDs — 100 songs, beginning with a recording of "My Happiness" he made for his mother in July 1953. The 18-year-old is unsure of tempo; his primitive guitar accompaniment cheats on some chords. But the power is there. Anyone listening would have known the kid was a comer.

He learned quickly: two years later, signed by Sun Records' Sam Phillips, he'd mastered both the sullen baritone he applied to ballads and the pig-squeal tenor he used for what became known as rock 'n' roll. It was said at the time that he sang like a black man and moved like a bad woman. He had the background of many a rock star, black or white, blues or country: a Southern tradition where God's music and the devil's might differ only in the location (juke joint or church), the time (Saturday night or Sunday morning) and the rewriting of lyrics. One style of music was all about sin, the other about absolution. As Rasputin might have said, Sing so ye may repent. That's what Elvis did: in his first few years, along with the great rock 'n' roll, he recorded one album of spirituals, another of Christmas songs. He lent the same fervor to "Peace in the Valley" and "How Great Thou Art" that he brought to "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock."

You could say that in this set, the essential Elvis is all on the first disc, where "That's All Right," "Mystery Train," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Don't Be Cruel" and a couple dozen other classics reside. I've got my own list of seminal Presleyana, just from 1957, that was excluded: the artful rave-ups "Baby I Don't Care" and "Got a Lot o' Living to Do," and the sing-and-talk ballads "That's When Your Heartaches Begin" and "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" (with its escalation from whisper to clarion climax — fortissimo Elvissimo). Also missing from the holy 100 is the late-Elvis rendition of "My Way," a generational bridge between Frank Sinatra's version and Sid Vicious' spastic deconstruction of it.

Like Sinatra, Dean Martin and many other crooners before him — but few after — Elvis traced a career journey from hit records to Hollywood and Las Vegas. In 1964 the star who had set viewership records when he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show watched as the Beatles eclipsed his luster on Sullivan. To put it a little too boldly, he was washed up before he was 30. (The ebbing of Presleymania could be dated even earlier, to 1958, when he was inducted into the Army.) But the middle-period Elvis, in the smartly chosen selections on this set, had a precocious maturity of feeling and articulation. The 1963 "I Need Somebody to Lean On" — written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman (who also did "Viva Las Vegas," with a superb reading by Elvis) — has an after-the-saloon's-closed, one-for-my-baby mood — the kind of gem you find deep in an album and keep replaying in your mind.

His 1968 "comeback" TV special had a joking intimacy with just a few sidemen; it was the first unplugged musical show. But soon Elvis was revving up for Vegas. His songs became more declamatory, in his approach and the arrangements. "If I Can Dream" boasts a lady choir and a horn section, and his voice goes gravelly in the higher octaves as he strains for transcendence. It's a triumph of showmanship over singing, as he tried both to rediscover his original appeal and to fill a Vegas stage with vocal spectacle. Not to ignore his early, startling presence, but '50s Elvis is all about the music, what he did to and for it. To discuss the '70s Elvis is to plumb star pathology, as it touches the performer and his audience. Both had created the Elvis legend; now both were obliged to perpetuate it.

As much as he changed things — well, everything — in midcentury music, Elvis was closer to earlier pop stars than to later ones. He allowed himself to be steered into safe song choices and pabulum movies. Vegas was the playground of people older than he: often, he was singing to his fans' parents, the ones who, a decade or two before, had thought him a menace. And when he sang that Sinatra number, its lyric was a lie. Colonel Tom Parker and the Hollywood producers said, We'll take control of your career, and he said, I'll do it your way. That's what makes this 75th birthday an occasion for pity as much as celebration. He lived, and died, a King chained in his castle.

But, dammit, the prisoner could sing.