Being Elvis: a Lonely Life by Ray Connolly

Born in 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis Aron Presley came into a rural Southern world of little money, Pentecostal religion, and unbreakable family loyalty.

He had a twin, Jesse Garon, who was stillborn. It could be that the lifetime bond between Elvis and his mother, Gladys, had its genesis when she looked at her babies and decided to devote her life to the baby who was alive.
Presley performing live at the Mississippi-Alabama Fairgrounds in Tupelo, Mississippi, September 26, 1956

According to author Connolly, Elvis had an unremarkable childhood up until his family moved to Memphis when he was a young teenager. With no discernible talent, a bad case of acne, and sharp clothes bought from a store that catered to stylish black men, Elvis made up his mind to be a star. He chose a singing career, though he hoped, like Frank Sinatra, to migrate to movies. And with persistence and determination, he became a singing sensation in dull, staid 1950's America.

The next decades are covered in great detail by Connolly, who builds a case that Elvis was a decent but dependent man who let his manager, Colonel Parker, make the decisions that morphed Elvis from teenage heart-throb to plump balladeer in movies like Blue Hawaii and GI Blues. Elvis hated many of the uninspired songs he performed, but was forced to use material that funneled through Parker's business empire of partnerships and kickbacks. 

Presley and Colonel Tom Parker, 1969

I'm about half-way through the book and enjoying it more than I expected. Elvis was a Liberace-like Vegas performer by the time I was old enough to notice him in the 60s; he was not my musical taste at all. The British Invasion and Motown, along with classical music by Bach and Mozart, were what I listened to. My mother loved Elvis and played his older songs, but I just didn't get on board with his music.

But Being Elvis: a Lonely Life is more than a simple biography. Connolly has added two strands to his analysis of Elvis' life: 1) the social history of the time and place where Elvis got his start, and the huge changes in the US in the 1960s and 2) an examination of Elvis' psychological and spiritual life.

My mother was born in rural Kentucky into a family much like Elvis': little money, Southern religion, and the idea that what happens in the family can't be talked about to anyone. She admired Elvis for his great success, and also would have said that he was fundamentally a gentleman, a good boy who didn't stray too far from his mother's rules.

It's hard to defend all parts of Elvis' life: an avalanche of women, constant use of amphetamines and prescription drugs, tremendous spending sprees, and outbursts of emotional fury when he was thwarted. But I am willing to believe that he stayed true to his most basic roots: love your family, be generous when you can, and don't go out of your way to hurt people. I look forward to the second part of Connolly's biography.


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