“Before Elvis, there was nothing.”
John Lennon's frequently quoted tribute to the King of Rock and Roll is an exaggeration. Before Elvis, there was the girl, name unknown, who won first prize in the talent program at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show on October 3, 1945. Ten-year-old Elvis Aaron Presley won second place singing 'Old Shep,' a heartbreaker about a boy's love for his doomed dog. Years later, with characteristic modesty, Elvis would remember finishing fifth or even seventh in the contest, but no matter. He won the competition that counts.
Today, you can visit any record store and search the bins in vain for even one recording by the first place winner. But, as a song by Mojo Nixon declares, Elvis is everywhere.
For his performance at the fair, Elvis won five dollars and a free ticket to all the rides. With stardom, the five dollars multiplied into millions, and Elvis still had a ticket to all the rides, including the chemical kind that most reports indicate were in his system on the afternoon of August 16, 1977 when his lifeless body was found at Graceland, his estate in Memphis, Tennessee.
There are those who maintain that drugs were not a factor in his death, that the original autopsy citing an irregular heartbeat was correct. But the conflicting reports about the cause of his death are just another part of the mystique of the man for whom even the word "superstar" always seemed inadequate.
This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, and some fans remain convinced he did not die at all, but fabricated his demise to escape the burdens of fame. Silly as these true believers often seem, you can't blame them. In a sense, Elvis is more alive than ever.
Although none of his 33 movies earned Oscar nominations, three of 1994's Best Picture nominees (Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, and Quiz Show) refer to him, as have too many movies and TV shows to count. There are songs about him and enough books examining his legend to stock a special Elvis section in a large bookstore or library. Greeting cards bear his likeness, as do collector plates, and virtually any product that has room for his portrait.
He's been officially recognized by the United States Postal Service with a stamp in his honor, and his gaudy estate earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places several decades earlier than the rules allow, simply because its place in history is a foregone conclusion. Even the announcement made at the end of his concerts – “Elvis has left the building” - has taken on a new life. It's an exclamation point now, a way to describe an exciting moment, such as the winning touchdown in a football game.
The Beatles idolized him, as did former U.S. president Bill Clinton. It could be argued that the wavy-haired Clinton might not have been elected to the Oval Office if not for the social revolution that Elvis started in the Fifties. Before Elvis, the 20th century's presidents were old and often bald. “(Elvis) introduced the beat to everything,” said Leonard Bernstein. That included hairstyles. Presley paved the way for Clinton's presidential pompadour.
His unrivaled popularity, even in death, is proof that talent and charisma are more important to stardom than marketing or management. Elvis had the worst manager of them all in the form of Colonel Tom Parker, a con man to whom many give undue credit for Presley’s success. But Parker latched on to Presley only after the star had conquered the South in ways unseen since the Civil War. Parker rode Presley’s coattails to glory while creating hurdles that his client had to overcome. The long string of mindless movies that wasted the star’s talent for almost a decade were Parker’s idea. And if Parker had his way, the 1968 TV special that rescued Elvis from Hollywood’s manipulative and destructive claws would have been a cozy, mild-mannered hour of Christmas carols rather than the dynamic showcase for Elvis’s talents that it became.
Nor did RCA Victor, the record company that bought his contract from Sun Records, provide him with much support. The label treated its biggest star as little more than a steady source of predictable profits. Knowing his records would always sell a minimum number of copies, the company rarely gave his albums and singles the promotional push that would have increased his existing fan base. Until his death, his RCA contract required him to crank out three albums a year at a time when major artists were considered prolific if they released only one in the same time period. With Presley product flooding the market, it’s little wonder that after 1972’s “Burning Love,” his singles consistently failed to crack the top ten and his albums stalled below the half million mark needed for gold certification.
But if his management and record company let him down, his voice never did. Bob Dylan compared the experience of hearing Elvis for the first time to "busting out of jail." No one led more jailbreaks than the sharecropper's son from Tupelo, Mississippi. "It was like he came along and whispered some dream in everybody's ear, " Bruce Springsteen said, "and somehow we all dreamed it." And down at the end of lonely streets all over the world, late at night in rooms illuminated only by the glow of the radio dial, he's still whispering that dream, inspiring more broken-hearted lovers to bust out of jail. The dream may only last a moment, but its memory can live a lifetime and beyond. Twenty-five years after Elvis left the building for a final time, his voice still echoes, and so does the dream it carried.