I never considered myself a big Elvis Presley fan. My primary connection to him was that I was born the same year he took the rock and roll world by a storm via his first couple of singles released by Sam Phillips’s Sun Records. I liked many of his rock tunes as a kid and even bought the singles “In the Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds” when they came out in the late 1960s. Despite my lackluster appreciation of the man, I can recall exactly what I was doing when I heard he had died.
A friend and I had hitched up to West Virginia from where we were staying in Wheaton, MD. We arrived in a town about thirty miles east of Morgantown to wait for a friend who was going to take us mushroom hunting the following morning. Psilocybin mushrooms to be exact. After waiting until dark and there still being no sign of our friend, we headed back to suburbia. My traveling partner and I parted ways in Silver Spring. I put my thumb out as I walked along Georgia Avenue, not really caring if I got a ride, when a guy in a VW bug pulled over and opened his passenger door. I hopped in. As we drove along I realized the radio was playing nothing but songs by Elvis. When I mentioned this, the driver told me Elvis had died that evening. I didn’t expect to, but I felt a bit of a loss. After pulling into the parking lot of a strip mall that housed my favorite dive bar of the moment—Fred & Sully’s—the driver asked me if I wanted to drink a couple pitchers of beer—his treat. We drained three or four pitchers while the guy at the bar played Elvis songs well into the night. As time progressed, it became clear that Elvis died because of his drug abuse. This fact was hard for many of his fans to swallow, but actually seemed to give him some street cred among rock music fans like myself, whose tastes were considerably less mainstream.
Historian, professor and author Joel Williamson begins his newly released biography of the King with a detailed description of Presley’s death. The book, titled Elvis Presley: A Southern Life, is richly detailed and covers the entirety of Elvis’s short and largely-lived life. Although not a musical study, it is quite complete in its coverage of his musical and recording career. Likewise, even though it does not depend on or repeat gossip, the text is perhaps the most complete look in existence of the man’s familial and other relationships. Very few names are spared when it comes to Presley’s endless parade of women in his life, but neither are details dwelt on that are unnecessary to the telling. The same can be said about Williamson’s stories about Elvis’s circle of friends and body guards known as the “Elvis mafia”—men who not only protected Presley from would be assailants, but also helped him procure the aforementioned women and keep the press out of his private life. As Williamson tells it, sometimes this required a mere suggestion; other times it took money or physical violence.
Elvis Presley: A Southern Life is not just a biography of Elvis. As its title implies, it is a biography that places Presley’s life and career in the context of his upbringing as a working class white youth in the US South. His parents were often quite poor and moved frequently, in part because his father Vernon had a hard time holding down a job. In addition, Vernon also did almost two years in Mississippi’s Parchman Farm State Prison for forging a check. His father’s absence intensified an already strong bond between Elvis and his mother. In terms of his musical interest, Williamson describes Presley’s love of gospel music and his forays as a young teen into the honkytonks and blues clubs of Memphis’ Beale Street as substantial influences. It seems that Elvis was determined to become a popular singer after winning a talent show in junior high. Little did he know that he would become one of the world’s most popular singers ever, while also becoming known as the king of a new and world-changing music called rock and roll.
In its own way, this is also a study of Elvis’s fans, their obsession, and Elvis’s manipulation of it—conscious and otherwise. When he first hit the stages of the county fairs and theaters he played early in his career, girls and young women went crazy. Their screams and ululations were but audio evidence of other eruptions taking place inside their newly sexualized bodies. Elvis and his management knew this and played to it. At the same time, the older generation and other more conservative elements of Southern society demanded Elvis and his band change their act. That only happened after Presley’s new manager Colonel Parker (who would be his manager until Presley’s death) figured out how to make even more money by providing a tamer Elvis able to reach a broader audience. Parker may have been the first rock and roll manager to understand how easily its audience could be manipulated. He certainly understood how to make a lot of money.
Elvis Presley: A Southern Life is a rich and complex biography of a man who has had hundreds of thousands of words written about him. Thoughtfully researched and factually vast, the narrative is engrossing, engaging and agreeable, yet not fawning in the slightest. If I was to recommend one and only one book about Elvis Presley, this would be the one.
Ron Jacobs is the author of a series of crime novels called The Seventies Series. All the Sinners, Saints, is the third novel in the series. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground . Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. His book Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies will be published by Counterpunch. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.