The King and Us

This week marks the anniversary of the death (?) of Elvis Presley, a transformative cultural figure of the twentieth or any other century. If you have memories of that afternoon in 1977, you perhaps recall what you were doing when news of the King’s demise shook our primitive, pre-digital media. I, for instance, was on the way to football practice. When one of the other kids in the car made a joke about Elvis, his dad reached back and thwacked him one but good.

Greil Marcus called Elvis’s life The Presleyiad. The arc of it remains a part of our collective history: the rise from Tupelo poverty; the supernova of Sun Records music that changed it all; years in the army; celluloid slavery in a hundred awful movies; the brief, transcendent 1968 comeback that provided a too-short-lived taste of an alternate reality where the mature Elvis was scared enough to put forth the effort necessary to create art; the crash and burn of that dream in Vegas; tabloid notoriety; death; life everlasting.

Not surprisingly, a figure as epic and American as Elvis has long inspired analysis, reflection, and scholarship. Scholarly presses have participated in the ongoing project to make sense of the King and his effect on his world. The University of Arkansas Press published a book of Elvis poetry! Today, we call your attention to Elvis books, a genre that even in its depths—and they are murky depths—provides more entertainment than any Elvis film.

bertrandDepending on where you stand, Elvis ripped off African American music or brought it to a new (white) audience. You could even say he did both and find takers. In a narrative peppered with the colorful observations of ordinary southerners, Michael T. Bertrand argues that appreciating black music, even as sung by a white man, made possible a new recognition of African Americans as fellow human beings.

Bertrand documents black enthusiasm for Elvis and cites the racially mixed audiences that flocked to the new music at a time when adults expected separate performances for black and white audiences. He describes the critical role of radio and recordings in blurring the color line and notes that these media made black culture available to appreciative whites on an unprecedented scale and helped working-class whites orient themselves in new, unfamiliar urban settings by enlisting black music and culture in their own self-identification.

cantorBeginning in 1949, while Elvis Presley and Sun Records were still virtually unknown—and two full years before Alan Freed famously “discovered” rock ‘n’ roll—Dewey Phillips brought rock ‘n’ roll to the Memphis airwaves by playing Howlin’ Wolf, B. B. King, and Muddy Waters on his nightly radio show Red, Hot and Blue. The mid-South’s most popular white deejay, “Daddy-O-Dewey” is part of rock ‘n’ roll history for being the first major disc jockey to play Elvis Presley (and subsequently to conduct the first live, on-air interview with Elvis).

Dewey and Elvis illustrates Phillips’s role in turning a huge white audience on to previously forbidden race music. His zeal for rhythm and blues legitimized the sound and set the stage for both Elvis’s subsequent success and the rock ‘n’ roll revolution of the 1950s. Using personal interviews, documentary sources, and the oral history collections at the Center for Southern Folklore and the University of Memphis, Louis Cantor presents a very personal view of the disc jockey while arguing for his place as an essential part of rock ‘n’ roll history.