“The army can do anything it wants with me,” remarked Elvis Presley upon leaving for basic training in 1958. “Millions of other guys have been drafted, and I don’t want to be different from anyone else.” But Elvis was not like anyone else.
He wore sideburns and greasy long hair in the crew-cutted fifties. He played black music in the segregated South. He appeared in foppish fashions — ascots, satin pants, pink shirts — in t-shirt-and-jeans Memphis. As a teenage steady remembered, “I knew the first time I met him that he was not like other people.”
This did not sit well with other people. Classmates cut the strings to his guitar. Other kids pitched rotten fruit at him. The coach kicked him off the high school football team, and a boss threatened to fire him, for refusing to get a haircut. “I felt really sorry for him,” noted a classmate, who had defended Elvis from bullies. “He seemed very lonely and had no real friends. He just didn’t seem to be able to fit in.”
Elvis never fit in. He stood out. Greatness isn’t about meshing with the crowd. Greatness requires the courage to stand apart. In an era derided as conformist, Elvis was an individual. He dared to be different.
One gleans just how much of a pariah the guitar-strumming teenager was from reading Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley. If the 20th century’s most popular singer appeared as a show-business cliché at his death 35 years ago today, he projected so eccentric an image in his pre-fame Memphis days that the idea of him conquering the entertainment world would seem as bizarre to Memphians as Elvis appeared to them. If Elvis doesn’t strike us today as outlandish, it is because we live in the world that Elvis made.
The individual who initially threatens the crowd eventually pleases the crowd. Mockers became imitators. “What he did,” Grand Ole Opry member Jimmy “C” Newman told Guralnick, “was he changed it all around. After that we had to go to Texas to work, there wasn’t any work anywhere else, because all they wanted was someone to imitate Elvis, to jump up and down on the stage and make a fool of themselves.” Thirty-five years after his death, the high school outcast remains the world’s most impersonated person.
“I don’t sound like nobody,” the inner-directed Elvis, to borrow David Riesman’s famous fifties phrase, told Sun Records. His unique style extended from his dress to his art. The postwar star defied categorization. Critics labeled his music bebop, hillbilly, folk, country, and r&b, until finally settling on rock ‘n’ roll. Like his classmates, they sneered like snobs. The New York Times judged, “Mr. Presley has no discernable singing ability.”
America disagreed. By late 1956, the phenom sold two-thirds of RCA’s 45s. Between “Heartbreak Hotel” hitting #1 in April of 1956 and the induction of recruit #53310761 in March of 1958, the King reigned atop the singles sales charts for more than a year. Only a force as powerful as the U.S. Army could stop him.
Rather than overthrowing the American social order, Elvis was a product of it. Before his singing career, he mowed lawns, served as a theater usher, worked as a machinist, and drove a truck. He repeatedly affirmed his love of God and belief in the Bible. In these early years, he steered clear of drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes — but not food or practical jokes. And even though girls literally ripped the clothes off his body, he generally stopped short of doing the same with his many dating partners. Above all, he loved his parents, lavishing a pink Cadillac and a mansion upon his mother before her death. The journey from the Lauderdale Courts housing project to Graceland was the American Dream on steroids.
Elvis enthralls 35 years after his death in part because of his contradictions. A mama’s boy/rebel, the loner amidst the entourage, and the painfully shy performer who confidently commanded audiences remains an enigma. Thirty-five years from now, the world will still be talking about, imitating, and singing along with the King.
Americans loved Elvis because he was unique. Americans loved Elvis because he was America.