That Old Feeling: Happy Birthday, Elvis

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Elvis stage in '56: 'Wigglin' his ass and singin' 'Hound Dog''

Does Elvis go online? Computers were the size of 18-wheelers in 1977, when the King "died"; the World Wide Web was 15 years in the future. Today is his 68th birthday, and if he were to type "Elvis Presley" into a search engine, he would find 794,000 links on Google, 872,589 on AltaVista. That's about 856,000 more than my name elicits, and I've kept pretty busy the past 25 years with the writing thing. The Hillbilly Cat has taken it easy since his supposed demise.

Then again, why should he work? He was a showman who had 18 great months, from early 1956 through "Jailhouse Rock" in 1957 — a year-and-a-half of musical artistry and social impact rarely matched in pop culture — followed by 20 years of treading water in a gold pond. Followed by 25 years, the dead years, in which his reputation is restored. His estate earns 10, 20 times more than he did when he was alive. His albums, as we used to call them, often sell better. In his first miracle year, 1956, America's hottest star received 282 teddy bears as Christmas presents from fans. But that's nothing compared to the thousands of pilgrims in 2003 who are offering the greater gift of their time and effort: visiting Graceland to wish him happy birthday. And, so far as we know, he isn't even home.

He's not in the studio either, though you'd hardly notice. This week four reissues, all newly remastered from originals, hit the racks: "Elvis 56" (documenting his miracle music year), "Heart and Soul" (a collection of ballads), "Can't Help Falling in Love" (numbers from Elvis' movies) and "Great Country Songs." These follow the September release of the CD "Elvis: 30 #1 Hits," which ruled the Billboard chart for weeks — Presley's 10th top-ranked album in 47 years! OK, so in 1987 RCA issued "The Number One Hits," and that one contained only 18 songs. So they had to raid other lists besides Billboard's to pad it out. So who's going to kvetch about 12 free songs?

Make that 13. Last year the Dutch DJ Junkie XL (Tom Holkenburg) slapped a ferocious backbeat on "A Little Less Conversation," a sassy but obscure Mac Davis-Billy Strange composition that Elvis recorded in 1968. The Presley Estate sharply agreed to let Junkie apply his remix to a Nike commercial, on the Ed Sullivan from-the-waist-up condition he change his name to JXL. The result: a #1 single in 22 countries, and the singer's first chart-topper of the 21st century. The cut is included on "30 #1 Hits," and most Presley fans approve.

With one prominent exception. On the page devoted to the single, a ringing negative comes from a correspondent who ID's himself as "Elvis Presley's Gap-friendly Ghost." And this King is pissed. "As I return from the grave," he writes, "I hunger for a new approach to my music, but seriously, this is going a bit far." He adds, with sepulchral sarcasm, "Please, drown out my vocals and produce a video that blasphemizes my ?Jailhouse Rock' dance sequence. No, I'm begging you. Please, make me into a joke as you fill your pockets. I'd really appreciate it. I really want this tacked on the end of my legacy."

Calm down, O Ghost of Elvis Past, and think of the old days. Thanks to Colonel Tom Parker and the suits at RCA, you didn't have that much to say about your music when you were alive. Don't expect final-cut privileges now that you're "dead."

Some folks believe that Elvis never died, though they can't explain how one of the world's most recognizable people could remain incognito all these years, or why he'd want to. But let's assume for a second that the Big E is still around. Why, this very evening, perhaps in Argentina at a reunion of nonagenarian Nazis, or in Bin Laden's cave, or deep in Area 51, some thoughtful soul will stick 68 candles into a Twinkie and lead a chorus of "Happy Birthday, Dear Elvis." You can join in from afar.


Elvismania transcends the usual devotion to a white-hot celebrity, even one who has died before his time. Rudolph Valentino, Will Rogers, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Bob Marley — these stars may have left indelible niches in the hearts of their fans, but few built shrines to them. Rumors of their survival rarely blossomed into testimony of posthumous visitations. Nor did their homes become cathedral theme parks. Yet each year Graceland, Presley's residence in Memphis, welcomes more than half a million Elvisitors, and many are true believers: call them Presleyterians. Like the Christian liturgical calendar, the Presleyterians' has two crucial dates. Today, the star's birthday, is their Christmas; and August 16, his death date, is their Good Friday. A star may have died, but something is being born. Maybe the Church of Elvis.

Fine, but why Elvis? Not just because he was rock's first superstar, but also because as the pawn of Parker his manager, he was the last pop idol who did not control his own career. In 1956 he released his first million-seller, "Heartbreak Hotel," and became the biggest music idol since Sinatra, and loads weirder. Then, too soon, he was devoured by Hollywood's make-over machinery, steered into a rut that would lead to nearly three dozen low-mediocre films. Parker's determination to slip Elvis into the old showbiz mainstream effectively neutered the emperor of sexual and musical threat.

By 1964, when the Beatles conquered America, Presley was still in his 20s but already an anachronism. When he was 33 (Jesus' age at His death), Elvis made his comeback (resurrection?) with the NBC concert in 1968. But that was a false rebirth, for in his later, Vegas years, he often looked the pathetic, self-parodying porker. He was a prisoner of his own eminence — the King in exile.

All this was essential to the creation of a cult religion. Presley had to suffer in the only way a celebrity can, through self-humiliation. This soldered the bond between a onetime poor boy from Tupelo, Miss., and his blue-collar, blue-haired or red-white-and-blue fans. He was both beyond and beneath — above them and one of them. And if Elvis didn't die, how could he come back to life, in the Resurrection of the one true King?


There was something feminine about Elvis. His mouth formed the pout of a sullen schoolgirl; his hair was swathed in more chemicals than a starlet's; his hips churned like a hooker's in heat. Presley was manly too, in a street-punk way. For him, the electric guitar was less an instrument than a symbolic weapon — an ax or a machine gun aimed at the complacent pop culture of the 50s. Performing his pansexual rite to a heavy bass line, Elvis set the primal image for rock: a man and his guitar, the tortured satyr and his magic lute. He also established the androgyny of the male star. Who needed girl singers, when a guy could provide his own sexual menace, long hair, coquetry and falsetto singing?

Decades after the fact, John Lennon remembered the impact Elvis had on kids in the 50s, who naively turned on their TVs and saw "a guy with long, greasy hair wigglin' his ass and singin' 'Hound Dog'." The weirdness was watching not just a white kid who sang black, but a man who moved like a antsy woman. And sometimes sang like one. Around his 19th birthday, a year before he hooked up with Sam Phillips' Sun Records, Elvis did a demo tape he recorded a noble-masochism ballad called "I'll Never Stand in Your Way." (The cut appears on RCA's four-CD, 100-song set "Platinum: A Life in Music.") Here his voice is thin, nasal, with an attack of naked innocence and, yes, a feminine vibrato.

Male or female, man or child, he sounds great on the early RCA sides. The record company brass was frantic that Elvis' first session produced only "Heartbreak Hotel," a slow 12-bar blues. But he knew that — with a verse requiring some robust tenor work, a chorus in the "lonely" baritone register and a cool segue allowing for sexy filigree work — the song would be a swell showcase. He also knew its melodrama and eroticism in the song, because he'd been there when he performed it.

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