Who He Was: Again, as was the case with earlier superstar entries in this series like David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac and Neil Diamond, I suspect that if you’re culturally literate enough to read my website, then you know who Elvis Presley was. Hell, even if you’re completely culturally illiterate and have lived in a remote Unabomber cabin in the mountains of Montana for the past 50 years having had no contact with the outside world, ever, then I still suspect that you know who Elvis Presley was.
When I First Heard Him: Infancy, obviously, just given his cultural ubiquity, and my age. His music would have been everywhere when I was a babe, but my first active, conscious appreciation of his oeuvre would have come in something of a counter-intuitive fashion, in Albemarle, North Carolina, in the late ’60s and early ’70s. My grandfather (who, after three heart attacks, was infirm throughout my sentient time with him, spending most of his days with feet propped up in an easy chair, when he wasn’t sneaking sniffs of whiskey and floating in an alcohol-mellowed haze in his bedroom, which we were forbidden to enter, ever) had Elvis’ three brilliant gospel albums on eight track tapes, and he played them incessantly at his house in the Piedmont parts of Deep Cackalacky, when he wasn’t watching Hee Haw. (Which I used to watch with him, and which I loved, despite myself, then and now). I know and adore Elvis’ gospel albums deeply and dearly from that early inundation, and I still spin them regularly. The King was a pop culture phenomenon, of course, but he was also a deeply religious man (in his own time, and in his own ways), and he certainly loved to sing great gospel music, which I always adore. You can’t find a lot of places online in these too-cool-for-school modern times where the King’s love for Jesus is openly acknowledged and celebrated, but my wise friend in virtual space, Thoughts on the Dead, gets it like few others do. If you do a search on his site for “Elvis + Jesus,” you get 60 (!) pages of results. I think you should read them all, and then hit the Donate Button while you’re there, before it hits you first.
Why I Love Him: Well, it’s his voice, of course, first and foremost. Elvis could sing like nobody’s business, and when you strip away all of the hype and histrionics associated with his face and body and weight and loves and cheesy films and moves onstage, you’re still left with one of the greatest vocalists of the past century, hands down. I remember when he died, clearly and distinctly, in large part because he was scheduled to perform at Nassau Coliseum the week after his passing, so my (then) neighborhood at nearby Mitchel Field was hyper-aware of his pending arrival on our doorsteps. I was at an awkward age with edgy post-punk-inspired tastes at that point, so I am sure I would have fallen into the de rigueur “Fat Elvis” ha-ha-ha type response to his passing, which is what would have been expected in the social circles within which I moved at the time. But compared to my Long Island peers in those days, as a native Southerner raised in a praise-oriented church-music tradition, I probably did have a different experience of Elvis’ work and catalog when he died than did most folks around me, so I was most likely being disingenuous about the real, personal impact that the King’s leaving this and every other building actually had on me. For the record, I apologize for that insincere callousness, all these years on. His loss was just devastating and sad, personally and culturally. While Elvis’ posthumous musical impact has come to carry ever-deeper critical cachet with regard to his early rock and roll records, I still find his gospel works to represent his greatest achievements. I also like a lot of cuts from his (deeply uncool) Hollywood film scores, and from his latter-day recordings with his incredibly tight Las Vegas show band, and (later yet) from the various ensembles and studio endeavors he and his management cribbed together in his final days, hunting for those ever-more-elusive late-career hits, wherever they might be found. There was nobody like him, at bottom line. He was, and remains, worthy of veneration accordingly. Can I get a witness? Amen!
#10. “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” from Blue Hawaii (1961)
#9. “Milky White Way,” from His Hand In Mine (1960)
#8. “I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby,” from Good Times (1973)
#7. “Marie’s The Name (His Latest Flame),” from “Marie’s The Name” single (1961); later reissued on Something for Everybody (1961)
#6. “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues,” from Good Times (1973)
#5. “Promised Land,” from Promised Land (1975)
#4. “Suspicious Minds,” from “Suspicious Mind” single (1969); also appeared live on From Memphis to Vegas / From Vegas to Memphis (1969)
#3. “You’ll Be Gone,” B-side of “Do The Clam” single (1965); later reissued on Girl Happy (1965)
#2. “Run On,” from How Great Thou Art (1967)
#1. “I, John,” from He Touched Me (1972)