It’s that time of year again in Memphis. Fans of Elvis Presley from around the world are flocking in to attend the Elvis Death Week festivities.
I’ll admit that I’ve never understood the devotion. I like his music— Don’t get me wrong. But as big an Eric Clapton fan as I am, if he passed away, it would never occur to me to stand outside his home with a candle every year on the anniversary of his death.
But you know what? I don’t have to understand. I hope they have a great time. If you’ve come here expecting something akin to Shatner’s famous anti-Trekkie rant, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
For 51 weeks of the year, Elvis is the entertainment. But for this week, his fans are the entertainment.
Four years ago, I stepped outside of my office and saw a man that was clearly one of the Elvi. Although he certainly didn’t carry the girth of the latter day Elvis, he had the hairstyle down perfectly as he stood in a purple suit, cowboy boots, giant belt buckle, black shirt, and sunglasses. Something did look slightly off though, so I found an excuse to walk closer and see that it was.
When I was ten feet away, I noticed what was different. It was a tabbed clerical shirt— The devoted Elvis fan standing before me was, in fact, a priest.
How can you see something like that and not smile?
Two years ago, as I was joining the Catholic Church, I thought about that priest and what an incredibly cool guy he was. And as much as I like my own priest, I can’t help wishing I attended a church presided over by Father Michael.
And I thought of him again this morning as I read The Memphis Flyer’s wishful thinking obituary of Elvis, “1935-2007“, masterfully written by Chris Herrington and Greg Akers, which examines what Elvis’s life might have been like had he survived the 1977 overdose.
There’s only one flaw I can see with it: Many of the accolades that ended up being bestowed on Johnny Cash, BB King, Frank Sinatra and others late in life would have been bestowed on Elvis instead. And I do take issue with that theory.
It is my theory and likely will forever be that Elvis’s musical legacy was cemented by his premature death at age 42. And I believe that it was the musical choices he made later in his life that would have taken away any legitimacy he might have had when it came to future comebacks.
It’s easy to admire Frank Sinatra enough to look at him at age 65 and think “Man, I’d like to do a number with him on the Duets album”. He did it his way beginning to end. There was no period where Frank did rock and roll and then ended up sounding like Sinatra.
Johnny Cash never toured with a forty piece band performing bloated arrangements that made his early hits unrecognizable to his fans. He didn’t ask his fans to accept “Walk the Line” with a twenty piece orchestra and a platoon of backup singers.
And when BB King did “Three O’Clock Blues” with Eric Clapton a few years ago, it sounded like an only slightly more polished recording than his original version.
These artists remained true to who they were.
Elvis unfortunately made a different choice. He’s far from alone in this— My personal belief, forever cemented by listening to “Touch Me”, is that Jim Morrison is headed in that direction too.
Imagining Presley’s career track had he survived might well be done better by looking at Elton John’s career track. While Elton always did softer material, he did some bona fide rock and roll in his early career as well. For every “Your Song”, there was a “Saturday Night’s All Right For Fighting”. For every “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, there was a “Funeral For a Friend/ Love Lies Bleeding”. The other night, I was talking to a young woman only eight years younger than myself, and when I mentioned that he used to do rock and roll, she was surprised.
Sadly, this would probably be a more accurate picture of where Elvis would be had he survived. Bono would not be calling him up to duet on a version of “Return To Sender”. Thirty more years of Vegas Elvis would have destroyed what little rock and roll fan base he had.
I will never be glad that he died. But had he continued on the career track he was on when he passed away, Elvis fans would not only be a rare breed, but they would have to resort to saying things like “But he was doing some groundbreaking stuff fifty years ago.”