The King and I

Christine King, a lifelong Elvis devotee, takes us on an autobiographical journey signposted by the songs and life story of the rock'n'roll icon

August 13, 2009

All Shook Up (released in 1957, top of the US charts for eight weeks)

We first met, Elvis and I, when I was 14. I was in a cafe in Glasgow - the ends of the earth for a Pompey girl. Of all the cafes in all the world ... his music was playing on the jukebox and I was wearing blue. He changed my life.

Back in Portsmouth, I converted my best friend to Elvis-worship. My mum made us matching full-circle green felt skirts with his name and guitars glued on in pink. We wore them only occasionally as we were saving them for when we finally met him face to face. There was no question that we would. The only question was, which one of us would he choose? Going to university presented a real challenge. I didn't know anyone who had been, and thought that I would be made to listen to classical music and that rock'n'roll would be frowned upon. I took my Dansette Major record player and my complete LP collection with me. I survived, as did my devotion to Elvis.

How's the World Treating You? (released in 1956, from the album Strictly Elvis)

Then, in May 1967, the news broke - Elvis had married 21-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu. Decades before Facebook, the phone calls between friends were instantaneous. "She's not right for him. It will never last." Nor did it.

I had married a jazz player and dutifully wore maxi dresses and sandals and grew my hair very long. We went to Roland Kirk and John Coltrane concerts and I carried trays of beer to the band in smoke-filled "jazz and poetry" evenings in the upper rooms of pubs. There were those who thought I was cured.

Elvis and Priscilla's marriage was not the only one to come to an end. Heartbroken but free from the need to listen to saxophone practice, I could be open about my musical tastes once more. I joined the UK branch of the Elvis Presley Fan Club.

Crying in the Chapel (released in 1967, side 2, track 7, How Great Thou Art)

And then, on 16 August 1977, he died. Where were you that fateful day? The phone lines were screaming. People were crying. Old friendships were renewed in shared memories and the stark realisation that time was passing. Radio Luxembourg cancelled its commercials and played Elvis all night. I sat up and kept vigil.

In recent years, Britons have become accustomed to witnessing public expressions of grief. We see bouquets at the roadside. We recall what happened after the Hillsborough disaster and the amazing response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Back then, the outpouring of public grief when Elvis died was shocking - many people had never seen anything like it. His death mattered because when Elvis died, so we, his fans, faced the fact of death - for some people, for the very first time.

For others, his passing brought back memories and inspired deep feelings of loss. For all serious fans, for many who once had been and for others who were merely admirers from the sidelines, something unspeakable had happened. Tributes flooded in from all over the world. The press captured the meaning of it all in a headline: "The King is dead and an era ends."

Any Way You Want Me (released in 1958, reached number 20 in the US charts)

I have subsequently contributed to the canon of literature discussing the historical and spiritual meaning of the departed King. Greil Marcus' book Dead Elvis takes us deep into an underworld where he is an icon of mystery, of sacrifice and sometimes of salvation. Elvis is a design symbol par excellence. The cult of Elvis had been born.

Love Me Tender (released in November 1956, the title track to the original soundtrack recording for the 20th Century Fox film of the same name)

Elvis, in death, became more accessible. Now fans could walk through the gates of Graceland, which had previously been tightly guarded, and pay homage.

For three consecutive summers, I travelled there with an ever-grumpier boyfriend who didn't like Elvis and who, by the third summer, decided he didn't like me. Once more, I survived. I briefly considered booking into Graceland's own local Travelodge - naturally named Heartbreak Hotel - but decided instead that it was more a case of Return to Sender.

Being in Memphis during International Tribute Week, which commemorates the anniversary of Elvis' death, was an experience never to be forgotten. The fan club is given the freedom of the Presley Graceland Estate for this solitary evening on 16 August every year, when tourists become pilgrims and there are no entry fees.

Late in the hot Tennessee evening, we gathered in Elvis Presley Boulevard at the gates of Graceland. We all carried candles and there was a hushed atmosphere of excitement.

A large cop patrolling on an even larger motorcycle, and wearing a huge "I love Elvis" badge, wept. People of every age and nationality joined the pilgrimage reverently waiting to progress along the path of Graceland and past Elvis' grave.

Quite a number were dressed as Elvis at various stages of his career, from black leather to bejewelled white jumpsuit. A significant number of the so-called "Elvii" were children. The appeal of Elvis to the young, particularly those from "non-Elvis" families, is always a cause for wonder among the faithful.

People carried flowers and wreaths and some wore garlands, all left at the graveside. Fan club officials called for silence. After words of prayer, Elvis' voice soared through the dark evening air, drowning out the call of the crickets. We all instinctively looked up to greet the sound as it echoed over our heads. The impact of that voice on that crowd was incredible. All around me, people were moved to tears.

On occasions such as this, I am never sure whether it is or isn't a joy to be an academic. I am a historian of religion and I saw that evening patterns of pilgrimage, echoes of Canterbury and Lourdes. All around me, people gained affirmation and meaning from being there. Indeed, within a few years of my visit, journalists would regularly refer to Graceland as a shrine and its visitors as pilgrims.

The candlelight procession past the graveside lasted into the early hours. The crowd slowly broke up. Some climbed into their tour coaches; others, like me, made their way back to hotels and motels. We all promised to meet "next year at Graceland".

A Little Less Conversation (originally released in 1970 on the album Almost in Love, and remixed and re-released as Elvis vs JXL in 2002, reaching number 3 in the UK charts)

Back to Britain and, for me, a move up the management ladder. I was still usually the lone woman in the boardroom in those days and I often felt like an outsider, particularly away from the university.

In order to make connections and to better understand the culture of the meeting to follow, I searched for topics of conversation as we gathered over coffee. Elvis always broke the ice.

It felt risky because it is so easy to stereotype popular culture as lightweight, but one of those conversations led to a sponsored jive marathon to Elvis music. It was fun, we raised money and never again did I struggle to find a common topic of conversation during those pre-meeting gatherings.

As any devotee will tell you, being an Elvis fan, as with any shared belief system, is a great leveller. In the most unlikely circumstances, fans will find each other and confess their faith. Like any set of believers, we all know of the famous fans: Bill Clinton (who was said to have used "Elvis" as his Secret Service code name), Mikhail Gorbachev, the Duchess of Devonshire, and so on.

Are You Lonesome Tonight? (released in 1960, recorded at RCA Studios, Nashville, 4 April 1960)

The cult, born at his death, began to grow. For many years there were stories that Elvis was still alive, that he had faked his death to escape the public eye, especially given his poor health and drug habit. He was spotted all over the world (but not in my chip shop). Some hoped he would one day reappear, slim and restored to his former beauty, to perform again and reclaim his crown.

Walk a Mile in My Shoes (released in June 1970, recorded at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, for the album On Stage)

The number of Elvis impersonators has grown in the years following his death, hailing from every nation and each phase of his career.

Among the most famous are the Mexican Elvis, El Vez; the Chinese Elvis, a London restaurant owner; a Sikh Elvis; and a female Elvis. Many make their living from their tribute performances.

The majority are very serious about the responsibility of their mission. One impersonator I spoke with explained that there was too much "Elvisness" to be contained in one person, hence the need for a worldwide army of impersonators.

I have met some amazing people through Elvis, such as Joni Mabe, the American installation artist who comes from a travelling medicine-show family, and who toured with her tribute exhibition to Elvis, depicting him in a trinity with Martin Luther King and Jesus.

Her prize exhibit is what she believes to be a wart from Elvis' finger - an echo of medieval relics, where the purported body parts of saints became sacred and valuable objects. I was fascinated to meet a group of people who lead tours to the Holy Land with a devotional commentary composed from Elvis gospel songs. Some see Elvis as a god: others as a pathway to God.

Don't Be Cruel (recorded in 1956, reached number 1 in the US country charts)

I have been accosted publicly many times about Elvis: often by strangers, sometimes angrily and always passionately. I have been challenged about Elvis and race. Was he the white man who paved the way for black music to enter the charts, or did he hijack a pure musical form? What of the fans who sport the Confederate flag of Bible-Belt, racist America? What of Elvis and drugs, or Elvis and his relationship with his mother? Which Elvis is best, the younger or the older? Do I think he is still alive? We mourned Elvis' death over 30 years ago. Isn't it time to move on?

The Wonder of You (released in 1970, reached number 9 in the US pop charts)

A few years ago, a travelling show was constructed from cleverly edited film footage of his concerts accompanied by live performances from an orchestra, a choir and Elvis' former backing singers, the Sweet Inspirations. It filled Wembley Stadium and large concert centres all over the UK. There he was, larger than life, telling us that we were "a wonderful audience", and we screamed and clapped and sang all over again.

As the show ended, we were told, as was the case at the end of every Elvis concert, that "Elvis has left the building". We sighed but knew that, as the bumper stickers read, "Elvis Lives" - at least for his fans.

Don't Ask Me Why (B-side to Hard Headed Woman, released in 1958)

Can I define the King's magic? Clearly from my point of view, it is partly about being young and a member of the generation that witnessed the advent of the teenager. There are memories of cancan petticoats, rides on the back of motorbikes, beehive hair and the end of the Perry Como era. There is something, too, about contradictions, which fascinate and challenge me wherever I find them.

"Elvis the Pelvis" (a title he reportedly hated) was censored for being too sexual and too revolutionary. When Elvis first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in September 1956, he was initially filmed only from the waist up. Worthy people, in his early years, described him as "demonic". Although times changed, something of this stuck. At the same time, his gospel music was always sung from the heart.

I have to admit, however, that for me, the primary attraction is Elvis' amazing voice, his sheer beauty and his sexual power.

Alan Bleasdale, the writer of the hugely successful BBC TV series Boys from the Blackstuff among others, described Elvis as "the only Greek god of the 20th century". I love the opposites the King expresses - soft and hard, rock and romance. He is a Valentino in black leather.

I need to add to the mix my fascination with the Elvis myth: Elvis as an embodiment of the American Dream; Elvis as martyr; Elvis as saint; Elvis as hero. I enjoy all his music and his films. While I am not uncritical of the "form" (especially of most of his films), it is wonderful to allow myself to be a fundamentalist, just for a little while.

As Long as I Have You (from Elvis' fourth movie, King Creole, released in January 1958)

Becoming a vice-chancellor didn't cure my passion for Elvis, although maybe it should have. I am, of course, not alone in my devotion. Recently, a large group of fans drawn from across Staffordshire University and the local community came together to hear our stunning and talented local King, Mark Clay, perform as Elvis.

We screamed, we sang, we jived, we joined hands and sang An American Trilogy, and we shouted for more. We raised a lot of money for the Alzheimer's Society, too. He's coming back soon. Elvis lives!

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