a sample from ELVIS: Music | Movies | Myth
It’s midnight-thirty and I should have been in bed thirty-one minutes ago. The extra work was worth it, though, as I just submitted the paperback file to Amazon for the Elvis Biography. Ordinarily I would have waited until this weekend to work on it, but my mother asked…
and who can say no to their mother?
The Kindle version is available now, but within a few days the print-version will be ready to buy.
Here’s a sample, taken from the book’s opening chapter, entitled “1953.” Every chapter corresponds to a year of Elvis’ life, with all the highs and lows chronicled and discussed. It had to start somewhere, and for Elvis it began in a little house in Tupelo…
Today, Tupelo, Mississippi, is a happy little town in love with Elvis Presley. In 1935, however, things were much different. The town, like all towns during the great depression, was a struggling one. It was a cotton town, whose textile mill provided most of her residents with only-meager employment. The town only acquired electricity a few months before Elvis was born.
Like the rest of the 1930’s south, Tupelo was poor and her poor residents had few opportunities to rise out of their poverty; most were just happy to have a roof over their head. It was Elvis’ grandfather who built the now-famous two-room house, in preparation for Elvis’ birth.
His birth came with tragedy, however. A twin brother, to be named Jesse, was delivered stillborn a half-hour before Elvis entered the world. As a result of their suddenly having an only child, Elvis’ parents—Vernon and Gladys—were especially overprotective of him, and he grew up very close to them (especially to his mother).
His father Vernon never was able to hold down a job, and the family suffered one near-disaster after another for the first decade of his life. There was a tornado that nearly wiped out the town in 1936, and there was a winter of unemployment in 1940 where Christmas dinner was some bread and eggs provided by a neighbor. In between, Vernon spent eight months in jail for check kiting, trying desperately to keep his family afloat.
Though he was an average student, Elvis showed an early talent for music and was encouraged by teachers to enter competitions. He did, hoping to make a little prize money in so doing, but rarely ever reached higher than third place.
On his eleventh birthday he was gifted a guitar and the promise of playing lessons to be given by his uncles. What he really wanted was a rifle, but he took the lessons anyway and became just good enough to let his playing supplement his high tenor voice. He made friends (one of his few) with the younger brother of Carvel Lee Ausborn (a prominent disc jockey in the area who went by the name Mississippi Slim). Ausborn offered Elvis the chance to perform on his WELO radio show. On his first attempt, stage fright got the better of him and he was unable to utter a sound. He found the courage on his second try and played the song that was his go-to in those days, a ballad about a dog called Old Shep (a song he would later record for his second RCA album).
By this point, music was Presley’s passion, not hobby, and when not singing or sleeping, Presley was usually found with his ear pressed to a speaker, listening. He was never formally trained, and he never learned to read music, but his ear was always open and he learned enough by observation. Fortunately for him, the Presleys moved to Memphis in 1948 and Elvis found himself in the heart of a city already bursting with musical culture.
A new school did not improve Elvis’ grades, and he even received a C- (below average grade) in music. His teacher now-infamously told him “you have no aptitude for music, Mr. Presley.” He returned to class the next day with a guitar in and a song (“Keep them Cold Icy Fingers Off Me”) to prove her wrong. Before playing, the rebellious Presley explained that his poor grade was just because she didn’t like his kind of singing. After his impromptu performance, she agreed.
He ended up with a C+ in music to end the year.
In his free time Elvis would grease his air up and stroll through legendary-Beale Street, taking in the various jazz and blues sounds and flirting with the local waitresses. As his age increased so did his confidence and by the early 1950’s he was dressing flashier, acting sassier and singing wilder than anyone around him.
Meanwhile, entrepreneur Sam Phillips started up the Sun Studios recording booth and record label. It began in 1952 (but was the second attempt by Phillips’ to run a recording company) as a small and struggling business, offering anyone the chance to record and potentially sign a recording deal (whereupon Phillips would nearly kill himself driving across the southern-United States trying to pawn the records off to Disc Jockeys).
A few famous black musicians (B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf) recorded for Sam, but it was of all things a prison band named—I kid you not—“the Prisonaires”—who scored Phillip’s label its biggest hit to date, “Just Walkin’ in the Rain” (which would later be covered to greater success by Johnnie Ray). The Prisonaires’ success earned Sun Studios a write-up in the local Memphis Press-Scimitar newspaper.
The newspaper coverage of the song and its label motivated Elvis to seek out Sun Studios to cut a record.
Elvis did well-enough on the recordings for Sam Phillips to instruct his secretary to take down his name and address. She did, adding “good ballad singer” to the note. Phillips went on his way and so did Elvis. 1953 ended with neither of them knowing that it would be the last year either of them would be the opposite of household names.