In the extraordinary Last Train to Memphis: the Rise of Elvis Presley (Little, Brown, $24.95), writer Peter Guralnick has done the impossible: He has brought a freshness, an innocence, and a seriousness to the life of Elvis Presley. By now, 17 years after Presley’s death, the singer is so many things to so many people, he’s become a kind of free-floating American id: venerated hero and national joke; all-purpose icon representing sex, drugs, and rock & roll, as well as artistic genius and pathetic excess.
Guralnick, author of first-rate collections of musician profiles such as Lost Highway and Feel Like Going Home, notes that what he wanted to do in Last Train to Memphis was to ”rescue Elvis Presley from the dreary bondage of myth, from the oppressive aftershock of cultural significance.” To accomplish this, he interviewed scores of people, plowed through the mini-industry of Presley publishing, and then wiped the slate clean: Guralnick gives us a life of Elvis as if it had never been told before, and in a sense, it hasn’t, not this way.
Guralnick’s Presley is a much-loved, pampered only child (his twin brother, Jesse Garon, died at birth in 1935), raised in desperately poor conditions by his parents, Gladys and Vernon Presley, in East Tupelo, Miss. Vernon was a victim of his class-widely considered a shifty layabout in East Tupelo, he shocked few people when he was sentenced to three years in prison in 1938 for forging a $4 check (he served eight months).
This crippling sense of social inequality was passed on to Elvis, even as he matured into a teenager unusually determined to make it as a professional singer. The man who produced Presley’s first recordings, Sun Records’ Sam Phillips, made a striking comment about the young Presley: ”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.” This is the great subtext of Guralnick’s book: that Presley and the people who first brought him to the attention of a mass public were intensely interested in African- American music-blues, R&B, jazz-to the point where they personally identified with blacks as an oppressed people.
What excited Phillips most about the young Elvis’ talent was that it combined so many different styles of music. Brad McCuen, an RCA rep, is quoted regarding a Tennessee record dealer named Sam Morrison and the phenomenon of Presley’s first single, ”That’s All Right,” in 1954: ”This one particular time, Sam grabbed me and said, ‘There’s something very interesting here, it’s really weird I’m selling at least a box (of these singles) a day.’ I was amazed, but I said, ‘It’s just a normal rhythm and blues record, isn’t it?’ He said, ‘No, it isn’t, it’s selling to a country audience.”’ Before Presley, this sort of crossover was unthinkable.
Last Train is filled with great stories both large and small. These range from meticulous re-creations of Elvis’ early recording sessions-scenes illustrating that Presley, possessed of an enormous natural talent, was also a self-conscious artist well aware that he was creating revolutionary popular music-to the singer’s succinct endorsement of Adlai Stevenson for President in 1956: ”I don’t dig the intellectual bit, but I’m telling you, man, he knows the most.”
True to its subtitle, Last Train to Memphis stops in 1958, when Presley has risen to unprecedented prominence—”He was a recording star, he was a movie star, he was a servant of the Lord and the master of his own destiny,” writes Guralnick. He was also just drafted into the Army. Guralnick plans to write the rest of Presley’s life-though since Last Train took a decade to produce, don’t look for it any time soon. It’s reasonably certain that the fall of Elvis Presley will receive just as much care and acuity as his rise has here. A+