That’s All Right

9 Jan

Elvis Presley would have been 79 this week. Can you just picture it – the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll still shaking his hips in his eightieth year? No, neither can I. Sadly I suspect that Bruce Campbell’s take in the excellent Bubba Ho-Tep had it pretty much right – a shade of his former self and shuffling round with a zimmer frame.

No shame in that of course – Sinatra was a shade of his former self at 79 (and dead at 82). Many of Presley’s peers are also long deceased with limited chance to bask in the glory of Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis these days (and why I went to see Chuck Berry in 2007 when he was 80).

I’m 32 now. At this stage in Elvis’ life he was on the verge of a major revival via the NBC TV Special (aka the ’68 Comeback Special). One can only hope that I’m able to adopt something similar, except without the problems of substance abuse and weight gain.

The reissue edition of Rock 'N' Roll we had at home

The reissue edition of Rock ‘N’ Roll we had at home

I got into Elvis as a kid, substituting my LP of Disney classics for a copy of Elvis’ Rock ‘n’ Roll LP which I then played incessantly. Then to a chance arrival of the vinyl edition of Essential Elvis Vol. 3 (still a favourite – packed with cuts from King Creole and related pre-army days sessions), and the discovery of Elvis movies. I never did quite understand what a ducktail haircut was, but I took to slicking my hair back and before I was able to grow them, brushed the hair in front of my ears to form sideburns. I adopted a number of other sartorial choices from Presley’s iconography, probably pinning me among my peers as a little odd.

As a primary school student I wrote a piece which was published in the Strandtown Primary School Magazine (quite possibly my first published work come to think of it) about my “Secret Hiding Place” – which focussed entirely on my bedroom, adorned in Elvis imagery and where I listened to Elvis records. I still remember a boy called Ryan coming up to me and poking fun at me in the playground for my evident near obsessive indulgence.

On the school trip to Edinburgh in 1992 while all my chums were buying cassette tapes of the latest tunes (buggered if I know now what they were, probably Kylie first time out), I picked up a crappy Elvis compilation and a tape of the excellent From Elvis In Memphis. There was a disco in the basement of the hotel as I recall, and I sat in a corner in the dark, afraid to get up let alone go near any of the girls in my group (Elvis would be so disappointed I know). Even the promise that they’d play something from my tapes did nothing for me – though I’m not so sure that my peers really appreciated the sounds of ‘Gentle On My Mind’.

The Elvis tribute project I wrote when I was 11.

The Elvis tribute project I wrote when I was 11.

It didn’t stop me though. The first ‘book’ that I wrote was an Elvis themed project which I compiled as part of my work towards a badge at the Boys Brigade (you know, I’ve a notion there was a prize I was supposed to get for that which I never received…). I called it “Elvis: The Greatest Tribute”, and is 73 pages of facts gleemed from assorted magazines, books and liner notes, alongside photocopied images and some of my own rudimentary drawings, written (I see) between 6 December 1992 and 30 January 1993. I was 11 and just started secondary school. Oh, and I’d read a book called Is Elvis Alive? and was convinced he was.*

Being too young to have caught the man in his prime, I’ve only ever gone to see one Elvis tribute act – and that was a very cold evening in Wesport with my father and his cousin several decades ago to see Frank Chism, the Irish tribute perfromer. I remember being wound up that the bass player insisted on holding his instrument like a gun the whole night.

Oh, and the only time I ever sang in public was when we went to Butlins, Ayr when I was a teenager. I sang ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ one night, and ‘Jailhouse Rock’ the next. Family mythology relates that the compère was slightly derogatory about my chances of doing it, and was suitably silenced when I performed to solid applause. Quit while yer ahead son… I don’t sing anymore.

During my teen years and into my twenties I don’t think friends really appreciated my affection. I was more likely to be found in the art room at school sketching while listening to The Doors or Jimi Hendrix, and by university I had started writing papers to the melodic refrains of Miles Davis and Duke Ellington. But those things you like you can never quite shake, and Elvis was still regularly wheeled out in the privacy of my own home. As an adult I’m not afraid to say, yup, I’m an Elvis fan. And that’s all right. Amazing how accepting we become as we grow – and how comparatively little our peers mock us.

A very rare sight - me singing Elvis circa 1992. I didn't have a jumpsuit, so the shell suit does the job instead

A very rare sight – me singing Elvis circa 1992. I didn’t have a jumpsuit, so the shell suit does the job instead

The Elvis biography is a fascinating tale of rags to riches, albeit compromised by drugs, women, poor management and blackmail – the American dream played out for real. The films are variable. The music now so overshadowed by modern progression. But when you remember that much of it was performed live with the band, the immediacy and professionalism is astounding, and there are some genuine classics there. Especially in the 50s. Its a shame we lost him at 42 – there was so much more he could have given.

Of course, now in my 30s the country-infused material of the late 60s and 70s, with the tales of broken love, broken families and regret also have resonance. But for me, more often than not the music takes me back to my youth and revitalises me, and that voice was unique. Curiously, listening to his records and making my own compilation cassettes (its what we did before iPod playlists, youngsters) I first became aware of cataloguing, running times and different edits – all things that would obsess me through my professional career to date.

A few years ago I queued up every week with a select group of others to pick up the vinyl and cd versions of the re-released singles for the Elvis 18 UK No. 1s box set. A needless indulgence, but demonstrated the music still held a place of importance for many. One wonders what sort of impact will be felt next year when we mark the 80th birthday – particularly outside of the US. If anyone wants to buy me airfare and hotel so I can visit Memphis in person, you know where to find me.

Happy birthday to the definitive icon of the 20th century.

* On that note – I’m still of the opinion that Elvis quite possibly faked his death in 1977. But chances are that he died some time ago. My brother and I were once convinced we saw him in a castle in Britanny in the 1990s though. Same day we saw a UFO. The two are almost certainly related.

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