Last Train To Memphis - Elvis Presley Book by Guralnick Peter | Paperback
Peter Guralnick demonstrated in his definitive history of Soul music, Sweet Soul Music : Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, that he has a nearly unique grasp of the singular way in which popular music and the political culture intersect in American society. Along with Robert Palmer (Deep Blues) and Greil Marcus (Mystery Train), he has helped to craft a still pretty slender body of literature which takes pop music and its impact seriously, but also places it within a larger societal context. Now, in his two part biography of Elvis Presley, he has set out to strip away both the mythology (Volume One) and the demonology (Volume Two) that obscure Elvis and to restore some reasonable sense of perspective on the man and his music. In so doing, he offers us a new and useful opportunity to understand the personal and societal forces that converged to make him into The King, one of the genuine cultural icons of the 20th Century, and to trigger the Rock & Roll Era.
There are several main factors that Guralnick cites, which appear to have had a particular influence on how events transpired. First is the city of Memphis itself, which served as a nearly perfect crucible for forging the blend of Gospel, Country, Blues and Rhythm & Blues that made up Elvis' sound. A southern city, but not Deep South, there was at least limited interaction between the white and black worlds. But most importantly for this story, the city was saturated with music. Second, Sam Phillips, owner of his own fledgling Sun Records operation, was on the scene looking for a white act that could bring the black sound to a mass audience:
Sam Phillips possessed an almost Whitmanesque belief not just in the nobility of the American dream but in the nobility of that dream as it filtered down to its most downtrodden citizen, the Negro. 'I saw--I don't remember when, but I saw as a child--I thought to myself: suppose that I would have been born black. Suppose that I would have been born a little bit more down on the economic ladder. I think I felt from the beginning the total inequity of man's inhumanity to his brother. And it didn't take its place with me of getting up in the pulpit and preaching. It took the aspect with me that someday I would act on my feelings, I would show them on an individual, one-to-one basis.'
Finally, there was the man, actually he was more of a boy at the beginning, Elvis Presley. And Elvis was himself the product of several forces. There was the impoverished kind of white trash milieu from which Elvis came and which gave him a sense of alienation and otherness. As Phillips said of him:
He tried not to show it, but he felt so inferior. He reminded me of a black man in that way; his
insecurity was so markedly like that of a black person.
Then there was his mother, Gladys, who--in addition to raising him to be polite, respectful, humble, even deferential--also gave him unconditional love, bordering on worship, which he returned in kind. These forces combined, as so often seems to be the case, to make him insecure on the one hand, particularly in the manner in which he approached and dealt with people, but, on the other, left him burning with an inner certainty that he was special and was meant to accomplish great things.
All of these forces combined into a volatile mix in the Sun recording studios on July 5, 1954. Phillips had brought Elvis in to work with a couple of local musicians, Scotty Moore and Bill Black, because he wanted them to do some ballads and Elvis had done some demos there, which Philips was not overwhelmed by but he thought Elvis had some potential as a ballad singer. The session was pretty desultory, if not downright unsuccessful, until that inevitable, now mythical, moment when during a break Elvis started fooling around doing Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup's old blues tune 'That's All Right [Mama]'. Phillips, initially shocked that this quiet white mama's boy even new the song, immediately recognized that this was just the type of thing that he had been looking for and got them to record it.
All of the tumblers had clicked into place. It was the nature of Memphis that Elvis and Sam had been exposed to, more like drenched in, the music of the black community. Sam happened to be looking for someone who could transport that music and, most importantly, the style and atmospherics of the music, into the white community. And in walks Elvis, that quintessential hybrid of insecurity and manifest destiny.
If success did not come overnight it did come quickly and Guralnick masterfully charts the meteoric rise that took them up the charts and took Elvis to television and then to Hollywood. This first volume also sees Colonel Parker take over from Sam, the purchase of Graceland, the eventual breakup of the original band, the death of Elvis' mother and his induction into the Army. Guralnick makes it all seem fresh and exciting, carrying the reader along on the tide of events. An incredible number of famous names stud the narrative and prove to have significant roles to play, including: Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Snow, B.B. King, Sammy Davis, Jr., Eddy Arnold, Bill Monroe, Steve Allen, Milton Berle and, of course, Ed Sullivan. This is a great biography.