In memory of Judge John H. Mason (1945-2004), who loved the King
Here’s something to make us feel a little older: Elvis Presley would have turned 80 tomorrow. (Former English students, note the use of the future perfect subjunctive.) I remember, in the fall of 1956, watching his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan had said only three months earlier that he’d never have Elvis on his show, calling him “unfit for family viewing” and suggesting he wore “a Coke bottle” inside his pants. But 60 million viewers changed his mind. Among them were my sister and I. She was 13, I was 11. Elvis had barely warmed up when my sister emitted a little squeal. I think she even startled herself. Then she lost complete control. “I can’t help it,” she said apologetically, as she screamed at our small black-and-white TV. I was just disgusted.
Not for the last time did I find myself on the wrong side of history.
Elvis went on to sell 600 million records before he died, a prescription-drug-addicted zombie His last years were enormously sad. He made terrible movies and shallow songs, becoming a bloated, bespangled caricature of a star. He seemed so old. He was 42. But his early music lives, not just in the songs he recorded, but in all the diverse influences he absorbed into it and then sent out in completely new forms. Some resented him for usurping and profiting from black rhythms; others for mongrelizing white country. But he embodied both in a respectful but revolutionary way, one that empowered his music to transcend his biography.