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Long live the King

ANUSHA NARAIN
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Music As Elvis Presley’s birth anniversary passes by, we remember the commoner who became the badshah of the entertainment industry, opened the door to black music and laid the foundation for the swinging Sixties

Elvis has left the building…But his legacy remainsphoto: ap
Elvis has left the building…But his legacy remainsphoto: ap

It was on Tuesday, January 8, 1935 at around 4.35 a.m. that baby Elvis took his first breath. Young Elvis lived with his parents in a shotgun shack, built by his father, in one of the poorest neighbourhood of Tupelo, Mississippi. His father, Vernon Presley, jumped from one odd job to another to support the family. His mother, Gladys, worked as a seamstress, making two dollars a day. The young family moved from town to town for a better life.

 “We were broke, man, broke, we left Tupelo, overnight. We just headed for Memphis. Things had to be better,” he later observed.  

Elvis, who made 4.5 billion dollars (more than any other entertainer in history according to Forbes) in his career spanning 21 years; Elvis, who was named the richest dead celebrity by Forbes, second year in row, in 2008, was indeed a poor boy from Memphis.

How does a man go from having nothing to being highest paid entertainer in the world and the highest single taxpayer in the United States? It must take a very special kind of talent, and a “dream with a V8 engine” to make that giant a leap. Elvis was ambitious; as a child he loved reading comic books because they celebrated power and achievement.  In his acceptance speech for the 1970 Ten Outstanding Young men of the nation award, he said: “When I was a child, I was a dreamer. I read comic books and I was the hero of the comic book. I saw movies and I was the hero of the movie. So every dream I ever dreamed has come true a hundred times.”    

Having known extreme poverty and want in his childhood, Elvis turned into a very hard-working individual. He is known to have started hunting for part- time jobs by the time he was 10 years old. 

In Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley , Peter Guralnick notes, “This drive to escape poverty is what brought Elvis fame and fortune: his determination led him to work harder and longer than most around him. Such diligence let him succeed where others failed. Always known for his perfectionism, Elvis spent hours and hours honing his skills, becoming essentially a workaholic.” Poverty was a boon for the hillbilly cat in other ways as well.

One of the hallmarks of a Presley performance was its raw, uninhibited quality, something that can be attributed to his humble beginnings. “Poor people are devoid of artificiality; not ashamed; just true to their being. Elvis with all his candid simplicity was charming,” says Divya, a die-hard Elvis fan.

Grinding poverty also fills one with rage.

However, the angst and rebellion can be channelled into positive energy.

With his gyrating hips and pelvic thrusts, Elvis shocked the prudes and laid the foundation of the sexual revolution of the Sixties.

He was the first white man to sing the black-influenced music that he picked up on the streets of Tupelo and was instrumental in bringing recognition to the Rhythm and Blues genre.

Singer, pianist Little Richard said of Elvis, “He was an integrator. Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn’t let black music through. He opened the door for black music.”

 Poverty might have made the Elvis’ early years tough but it also made him strong and imbued him with a drive to be great. Phil Spector, an American record producer, sums it up well enough, “You have no idea how great he is, really you don’t, you have no comprehension, it's absolutely impossible, I can’t tell you why he is so great, but he is. He is sensational.”

ANUSHA NARAIN

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