My first meaningful encounter with Elvis was the summer I was sent to bible camp, a Catholic New Orleans boy shunted off for a few weeks of exhausting recreation and incomprehensible Church of Christ indoctrination. I was nine or ten, I guess, so it would have been ‘69 or ‘70. By then Elvis’s flame had already blazed, flickered, and burned out, briefly smoldering again with his ‘68 prime-time TV special. The worst was soon to come: addiction, obesity, the wide-belted jumpsuits, the crippling paranoia, the sweat-soaked handkerchiefs handed off to swooning middle-aged women crowding the stage in Honolulu. By the time I’d made it half-way through high school, he’d be dead.
But that summer Elvis meant nothing to me. I listened to the saccharine music on AM radio—“Sugar Sugar” and “Dizzy” and “Build Me Up Buttercup”—on the transistor by my bed while upstairs in their rooms, my older brothers, aspiring long-haireds, played Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Jethro Tull. In his Lincoln Continental, my father listened to the tape player, a brand new luxury car dashboard amenity, into which he injected cassettes of Pete Fountain, Herb Alpert, and Sergio Mendes as he drove back and forth to his office uptown where he repaired broken bones and hammed it up before the nurses and X-ray technicians with a blitheness he never displayed at home. He did laugh at night when he encountered on TV the minstrel-tinged shenanigans of Louis Armstrong, though I’d bet a million dollars he preferred Al Hirt’s trumpet to Satchmo’s—Al Hirt being, like him, like his father, like my brothers, and like me a few more years down the road, a Jesuit High School boy, a fighting Blue Jay, a soldier in St. Ignatius’s army. My mother, best as I could tell, didn’t have the inclination or time for music—or for any other variety of joy—though I did once accompany her to a Mass at which, in an instance of rare ecumenical largesse, a minister from the African American Episcopal Church was invited to perform, and he sang in a stunning bottom-of-the-well bass the spiritual “Ride On King Jesus” that briefly shook something loose inside us both.
There wasn’t any singing at my bible camp. The Church of Christ folks didn’t go in much for singing, perhaps because, as everyone knows, singing leads to dancing, which the denomination’s dicta resolutely forbade, as it did smoking, drinking, and fornication—a tough row to hoe, it seems to me now, in a city like New Orleans, where all manner of vice provides the rich vein of marble running through the city’s swamp-soaked foundation and where you are as likely to catch your parish monsignor throwing back a Dixie at Mandina’s or sipping a dirty martini at Galatoire’s as solemnly presiding over an eleven a.m. High Mass.
But to the matter at hand: how I first encountered Elvis. Every Wednesday afternoon at bible camp all the kids were loaded onto school buses and transported to the air-conditioned comfort of a nearby theatre for a kid-friendly matinee double bill. The movies were invariably second-run Walt Disney live-action productions, mostly of the lesser animal-themed variety that had their sad heyday in the 1960’s: That Darn Cat! followed by The Ugly Dachsund, The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit paired with Charlie the Lonesome Cougar, Miracle of the White Stallions alongside Moon Pilots (featuring Charlie the Chimp). But the final Wednesday of camp, in some spectacular feat of cinematic miscalculation—or, as I’d now prefer to imagine, an equally spectacular act of impious subterfuge—the movie theatre had scheduled an Elvis Presley double-bill. While the title of the first of the features, Fun in Acapulco, seemed to promise nothing more enticing than a home movie from a family vacation, the second stirred, in my cusp-of-adolescence imagination, thrills the likes of which I’d never known (and wouldn’t for, lo, those many years ahead): Girls! Girls! Girls!
Girls! Girls! Girls!
Oh, how I would love to report that my soul was indeed set free, my heart shaken, my loins stirred, by the lascivious scenes I witnessed in the darkened theatre that summer day so long ago, but as anyone who knows—as everyone does—the sad story of Elvis bungling his way through Hollywood under the misguidance of his infamous manager, Colonel Parker, these movies were so bland and formulaic, the songs so corny and inconsequential, that they managed to rob Elvis of nearly every shred of the magic, charisma, and sexual energy he possessed. There was indeed lots of singing and drinking and smoking, which must have made the Church of Christ camp counselors squirm; there were girls in halter-tops and high-waisted bikinis; there were intimations of intimacy, fade-outs as Elvis’s lips met another’s, but these scenes all seemed so lifeless that they might have well been meant as moral instruction: You’re looking for trouble, you came to the wrong place. In the end, these films do nothing more with Elvis’s characters—the psychically scarred trapeze artist in Acapulco and the poor fisherman in Girls!—than bask in their innocuously wholesome all-American light.
And yet, even so, there is a moment—or at least there was for me in that theatre—when a glimmer of the true Elvis somehow emerged, the Elvis in which the friction between propriety and carnality threatens to ignite. The scene itself is nothing special, the song “Return to Sender,” though one of Elvis’s biggest hits, merely two minutes of cleverly packaged candy.
And yet. And yet. Elvis’s character has found himself, as he so often does in his movies, thrust up onto a nightclub stage. He is dressed in a black suit, a black shirt open at the collar, his shiny black hair swept perfectly back from his forehead. He offers the audience a sheepish smile. He begins to sway his hips, snap his fingers. Then he sings.
He sings, and this is where I find myself at a loss for words. I have neither the technical training nor the lyrical gifts to adequately convey the precise power of the quavering richness of Elvis’s voice. I can say that, like the minister singing “Ride Home King Jesus,” it breaks something loose inside me. All of it, everything, is there in Elvis’s voice—beauty and desire, comfort and danger, honesty and deceit, lust and innocence.
How exactly can a human voice possess all of that? Yet it does, and it did, and every bit of it was there from the very beginning. Go back to the first record, Elvis Presley, with the cover whose design the Clash would borrow for their London Calling LP. The album was released in 1956 when Elvis was twenty-one years old, still a kid, though he’d already made a name for himself on the Louisiana Hayride tour, on local radio broadcasts. He’d already had a string of hits; droves of adolescent girls had already begun to swoon at his very appearance; and the first album was just thrown together, really, from different recording sessions from 1954 to 1956, songs with different writers from different genres: country, rockabilly, old-time bluegrass, rhythm and blues. Some of the songs were already well-known, already great: Ray Charles’s “I’ve Got A Woman,” Little Richard’s “Tutti Fruitti,” Carl Perkins’s “Blue Suede Shoes,” Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters’ “Money Honey,” the old 1940’s Rodgers and Hart standard “Blue Moon.” RCA Victor was calculatedly cashing in on the latest craze, and the calculation worked: the first rock ‘n’ roll album to earn a million dollars, to sell a million records in a single year.
Rock ‘n’ roll? There’s no true rock ‘n’ roll on that first Elvis LP—except, of course, to the extent that the form was busy inventing itself, fusing a variety of genres into something new, the same thing the bands my older brothers listened to—Led Zepplin, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles—were still doing more than a decade later. On this first album and for the rest of his career, which was the rest of his life, Elvis is always a chameleon, always becoming something else. Elvis’s versions of these songs on his first album aren’t better than the versions that preceded his; they’re simply all so fully his own, representing one facet of who he is. Sentimental, snarling, sexual, sacred, urbane, unrefined, comedic and, ultimately, tragic.
It is all there when he sings. It was there on that first album, and it was all there to the very end. If you’ve never seen it, you need to watch the concert video of Elvis singing “Unchained Melody” two months before his death. He mumbles out the song’s introduction, barely coherent, his face bathed in sweat, his body bloated. He sits down at the piano, says he’s not sure he remembers the chords. He flashes a sly smile, shuts his eyes tight, as if he’s in anguish, which indeed his body is, his heart enlarged and failing.
Then he sings. My God, how he sings.
—John Gregory Brown