Person of the Week: Elvis Presley

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ELVIS LIVES... in Roger Baker's field in Ellenville, N.Y.

Wise men say only fools rush in
but I can't help falling in love with you.
Shall I stay
would it be a sin
If I can't help falling in love with you?
—Elvis Presley, "Can't Help Falling in Love"

Twenty-five years to the day after his death at the age of 42, Elvis Aaron Presley's name fairly droops under the weight of its acquired cultural significance. Briefly tagged a teen idol, the King of Rock and Roll swiftly transitioned into category-defying superstar. Today, college professors devote whole careers to examining Elvis's influence on America's cultural mores, his impact on American sexuality and most of all, our apparently unflagging passion for his music.

Even in death, Elvis's commercial success is unparalleled; he's sold more records (1 billion worldwide) than any other artist in history, and his estate is priceless. Given his spectacular popularity, it's easy to forget that when he first came on the national scene in the 1950s, Elvis was considered highly subversive.

Middle America was flummoxed by his singing, which didn't fit with the era's squeaky-clean bill of fare. It wasn't just his lyrics; it was what he introduced vocally — appropriating the blues and gospel styles of the African-American South, he brought "black" music to white Americans. Then there was the matter of his stage presence. Elvis Presley, the performer, was all about sex — it may have only been the suggestion of sex, but it was there all the same, in the sneer, the gyration, the raised eyebrow. And that unfettered sex appeal represented everything American parents wanted to suppress in the mid-1950s. Wanted to — but couldn't.

Born in 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi, Presley showed an early aptitude for music. By the time he was 19, he was recording his own music, and at 21 he was an international star.

You ain't nothin' but a hound dog cryin' all the time
You ain't nothin' but a hound dog cryin' all the time
Well, you ain't never caught a rabbit and you ain't no friend of mine.

-"Hound Dog"

In 1956 and '57, Elvis appeared several times on television variety programs hosted by Ed Sullivan and Milton Berle. During his second appearance on the Berle show, he sang "Hound Dog" and engaged in a bit of his trademark hip swiveling. The broadcast generated shock nationwide, and sparked a flurry of hysterical press.

In 1957, the famously stiff Ed Sullivan, who'd once vowed never to have Elvis on his show, was so thrilled by his guest's effect on the show's ratings that he announced on camera, "I wanted to say to Elvis and the country that this is a real decent, fine boy." Such sentiments did not keep the network brass from issuing an historic decree to the cameramen: Elvis was to be shot strictly from the waist up.

The Elvis revolution was on — and as parents around the world quickly realized, the sultry crooner wasn't just a temporary distraction. As the singer's popularity exploded, his risque dance moves sent girls into paroxysms of excitement and his slightly suggestive half-snarl made mothers everywhere a little bit nervous.

Much as he loved music, Elvis also wanted to be an actor — a serious actor, like his idols, James Dean and Marlon Brando — but producers and directors kept sending him puff scripts. He appeared in 33 films, and while all of them were profitable, only a few (the mega-hits "Jailhouse Rock" and "King Creole" included) truly satisfied their star.

Well, since my baby left me,
I found a new place to dwell.
It's down at the end of lonely street
at Heartbreak Hotel.
—"Heartbreak Hotel"

The end came for Elvis during the 1970s, a time when no worthwhile American Dream stumbled to a halt without first exposing its dark side. Elvis, despite his tremendous success, is generally believed to have been a depressive, even, it has been suggested, manic-depressive, or bipolar. When he died in 1977 from a cardiac arrhythmia, his finances were in wild disarray, he was overweight and (it is believed) he had been abusing alcohol and prescription drugs for years. His private life was also a mess; his marriage to Priscilla Presley had hit the rocks four years earlier.

It is testament to Elvis's appeal that none of the less-than-glamorous trivia of his final years and death has marred his sheen. If anything, in fact, it's the excruciatingly human details of Elvis's sad last days that has endeared him to so many fans. It makes him more like one of us: life-size, even vulnerable. It even enhances the pleasure of listening to his music, reminding us that the voice that brought us all those heartbreakingly beautiful tunes belonged to a person who ached and longed and lost.