Elvis: The Last Romantic

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Ben Mancuso / Time Life Pictures / Getty

Elvis Presley pressing his nose against mirror in the lobby of the Warwick Hotel.

Correction Appended: Aug. 21, 2007

At a Hollywood party on Aug. 16, 1977, word reached the celebrity revelers that the 42-year-old Elvis Presley had just died at his Graceland home in Memphis. Amid the murmurs of shock, one industry type noted, "Good career move."

Rarely has sarcasm been so prophetic. The dead Elvis — if he did die; some of the faithful still think he's in seclusion, holding out for a second coming — quickly became more valuable as a memory than he ever was as a singer or movie star or Vegas action figure or living proof of the marketability of youthful rebellion. Every year on his birthday (Jan. 8) and death date, new packages of his old music and movies are snapped up as instant relics by his venerable fans, even as they attract kids who hadn't been born when he was just the King on earth.

This year is special — the big three-oh — so the sales pitch is at fever pitch (and that's saying a lot when one considers the marketing schemes in previous years). In addition to an eight-film collection of his early Paramount features, a six-pack of his later MGM movies, and a month of specials on TV Land, Elvis-mongers are offering a colorized silver dollar, "the Elvis Presley 30th Anniversary Silver Eagle 2007," yours for only $39.95;, and an Elvis edition of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups with "a specially formulated peanut butter and banana crème flavor." Presley-philes in a higher income bracket — Jay Leno's — will want one of the 30 Harley-Davidson bikes built as replicas of Elvis' 1957 Black FLH model (Retail price: $58,812; each comes with a painting and sculpture of the King). Tonight some lucky souls will attend the sold-out 30th Anniversary Concert at the FedExForum in Memphis, where giant-screen clips of the singing King will be accompanied live by his old musicians and back-up singers. You can charge it all to your Elvis Visa card ("for takin' care of business").

The commercial hype is appropriate for a singer who made the trip from anonymity to commodity in no time flat. He was an instant sensation with the Jan. 27, 1956, release of his first RCA single, "Heartbreak Hotel." The following night he appeared on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey's Stage Show, flinging rock 'n roll into the faces of a slackjawed TV audience. In August he had the two-sided smash "Hound Dog" and "Don't Be Cruel." By November his first movie, Love Me Tender, was in the theaters. Five #1 singles, a debut album that went gold, and a movie, all in one annus mirabilis — no other entertainers had gone from nowhere to everywhere quite as fast as Elvis had, or with quite the force.

Everybody concentrated on his looks — the sultry, pouting, feminine face, with its unabashed sexual threat — and his moves, cranking those hips like a honky-tonk woman's. As John Lennon said much later, it was an epiphany for kids to see "a guy with long, greasy hair wigglin' his ass and singin' 'Hound Dog'." Elvis was the first pop singer who had to be seen, not just heard, to be appreciated (or condemned). What was ignored at the time was his connection to the two crucial vocalists who had preceded him: Bing Crosby in the 1920s and 30s, Frank Sinatra in the 40s and 50s.

Crosby, no less an innovator than Elvis, was the first to play to the microphone in the recording studio, not to the last row in the vaudeville balcony. With his easy baritone (the top singers of the time were tenors), he introduced intimacy to pop music. Sinatra, whose bobbysoxer fans squealed as ecstatically in World War II as Elvis' would in the Cold War days, added a knowing sexuality to his exquisite reading of a lyric. His voice knew all the angles to any emotion. Sinatra was the citywise predecessor to Presley's Southern teen, hotrodding to the cathouse for the promise of dirty sex.

Elvis wanted to be the full-service, multigenerational entertainer; he was on a mission to convince his fans' parents that he could do more than grind his pelvis. So nearly every Elvis single would have a soft, sentimental tune ("That's When Your Heartaches Begin") on the flip side of a rockin' hit ("All Shook Up"). His movies balanced the uptempo songs with a few mellow ones ("Love Me Tender," "Young and Beautiful," "Blue Hawaii"). Later, some of his biggest hits were emotive reworkings of plaintive folk songs from Italy ("Sorrento" became "It's Now or Never") or France ("Plaisir d'amour" morphed into "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You"). You might guess he was ignoring his core fans to play to their elders. But no, kids liked the slow numbers too, if only because it allowed them to dance body-to-body.

Crosby and Sinatra, of course, became huge film stars as well as singers. Bing was voted the most popular actor of 1944 and 1945, and his Best Actor Oscar (for Going My Way) showed that he'd secured the admiration of his peers. Sinatra, who also had an Oscar (for From Here to Eternity) and a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award of all things, headlined A movies for three decades. These two were the model Elvis had to follow; and if he hadn't wanted to, his protective manager, "Colonel" Tom Parker, would have made him do it. In the 50s, being a mainstream movie star meant scrubbing up the image, turning Elvis from a satyr into a nice guy, the well-behaved boy parents wouldn't mind their daughter dating.

What Presley and Parker didn't understand was the revolution Elvis had created. He had overthrown the empire of nice; now the outlaw was in. Later pop stars, like Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, didn't sanitize themselves for the mass culture. They knew they were the mass culture, and they did films only as a lark. They had seen what indenture to the old Hollywood dream had done to Elvis: a bunch of B movies that betrayed his revolutionary promise, neutered the sneering sexuality of his early live performances. His top-of-the-charts ballads might have enlarged his audience, but these anodyne musical comedies served to demonstrate his irrelevance in a fickle pop culture. The white-hot star at 21 was an anachronism before he was 30.

That's why modern Elvis fans ignore most of his 31 Hollywood movies, except for the 1957 Jailhouse Rock (with its wild and crazy production number for the title song) and the 1964 Viva Las Vegas (where the feral Ann-Margret compels him to unleash some of the old animal urges). Today his most popular DVD titles are the ones that show him in unbridled action: the documentary This Is Elvis and the concert film Elvis: That's the Way It Is. They also allow the faithful to plunge more deeply into the sacred mystery that is St. Elvis.

When Presley gave up movies in the late 60s, and hit Vegas, he reverted to balladeer form: reprising his rock hits but concentrating on the passionate crooning of songs made famous by people like Crosby ("White Christmas") and Sinatra ("My Way"), finally outing himself as rock's first — maybe last — romantic. Sequins and strutting aside, Elvis had become the singers he grew up listening to. Only fatter.

But Bing's name doesn't get 37,300,000 links on Yahoo. Frank's fans don't gather by the thousands at his home on the anniversary of his death to hold a candlelight vigil. They were just great singers and movie stars. Elvis alone rules the kingdom, with the power of his myth, and the glory of a billion dollars in endlessly renewable merchandise.

An earlier version of this story referred incorrectly to Presley's age at the time of his death.