Do you remember where you were on the afternoon of August 16, 1977? I do. I was lying on the couch in my parents’ house watching a rerun of Gilligan’s Island on the superstation, WTCG. (This was about a month before Ted Turner got the rights to TBS so that his planned superstation would rhyme with CBS.) Back before Ted Turner got serious about news with CNN, the SuperStation’s news was delivered on an irregular basis by local funnyman Bill Tush. But on that sweltering summer day when Bill Tush interrupted Gilligan’s Island with a news flash it was serious.
Elvis Presley had died.
Amazingly, it has been thirty years since that news was announced. Thirty years in which Elvis’ reputation was besmirched, belittled, forgotten and resurrected. Thirty years later and Elvis Presley’s early music still seems groundbreaking. Nobody that came after Elvis Presley in rock music doesn’t owe him a debt of gratitude, whether they think so or not. When rappers spout filthy four-letter words because they don’t possess the intelligence to use any other language, they are the inheritors of Elvis Presley’s frightening appearance to establishment America in the early 50s. When Britney Spears strips nearly naked onstage she is the inheritor of the man who introduced raw sexual energy into pop music. Don’t think so. Consider who Elvis’ ancestors were and compare them to today’s stars: Sinatra, Perry Como, Bing Crosby. Still think it was Mick Jagger or Prince or Eminem who make music sexy?
What fools these mortals be.
It was all too easy in the decade following Elvis’ death to turn him into a joke. Yes, he died bloated and drug-addled on the toilet. Yes, he had turned into a Las Vegas lounge lizard by his death. Yes, his later movies are almost painful to watch. But then Paul McCartney married a $3,000 a night hooker (allegedly), Michael Jackson doesn’t have a nose, and Justin Timberlake is…Justin Timberlake. As lousy as Elvis went out, no other single individual in rock history even comes close to approaching him. Take another listen to Jailhouse Rock. Seems like a typically tame 1950s rock song right? Have you ever caught onto the fact that some of the lyrics that Elvis was singing in the 1950s was about one male inmate finding another “the cute little jailbird” he’d ever seen? Elvis’ music of the 1950s still retains the power to make you get up and shake, rattle and roll. From “Hound Dog” to “Little Sister” to “Heartbreak Hotel” it is difficult to not to appreciate the incredibly powerful presence-and voice-of the kid from Tupelo. (One of my grandmother’s most prized possessions was a twig from a tree she picked up from the yard in front of the house in Tupelo where Elvis grew up.) Such was Elvis Presley’s range of talent that he is the only man to current lay in state (figuratively) in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
But this is personal tribute. What Elvis Presley meant to be growing up in the South had far more to do with his accomplishments as a singer. I don’t remember the first movie I ever saw, but I do not this: It was either a Walt Disney movie or an Elvis movie and my money is on Elvis. In our house Elvis was a god. Well, okay, maybe not a god, but at least a demigod. He was one of the few role models that a kid from the southeastern United States could look up to. In fact, there were really only two: Elvis and Joe Namath, and Namath was only a visitor to the south when he played quarterback for Bear Bryant.
My mom took me and my cousins and her own young brother down to the Florida Theater on Palafox Street every time an Elvis movie opened. I still have vivid memories of watching Clambake. That is not one of Elvis’ greatest or most often remembered movies but it sticks in my mind because of that sequence where Elvis sings “Confidence” to a bunch of kids on a playground. Maybe it because I was a very little kid, but watching that scene convinced me that Elvis loved kids and would be a great friend. As a result, I was truly devastated by his death.
Two years later my favorite baseball player Thurman Munson died. A few years after that Andy Kaufman died. It was bad half seven years. Fortunately, Elvis will live on forever in his music; Andy Kaufman finally got the due he deserved with the Man on the Moon biopic and even Thurman Munson has turning up on ESPN’s The Bronx is Burning miniseries. Heroes don’t really die anymore. And the fact that twenty-something years later I know I shouldn’t idolize musicians, comedians or baseball players doesn’t diminish my appreciation for what Elvis, Andy and Thurman contributed to the man I am today.