Thursday, January 8, 2015

Elvis at 80: 10 Things You Might Not Know About Him


There are sports references in this post, believe it or not.

January 8, 1935, 80 years ago today: Elvis Aaron Presley is born in Tupelo, Mississippi. The world won't know it for many more years, but the world will never be the same.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Elvis Presley

You might know these things. But if you don't, you should.

1. Elvis had a twin brother. He was named Jesse Garon Presley. But he died at birth. This always troubled Elvis. Like a lot of people who lose family early, he eventually developed an interest in the occult, and wondered if were possible to talk to him.

What would have happened to him -- or to Elvis -- if he'd lived? Maybe the Presley Twins would have become a double act. Maybe teaming with a living Jesse would have sent Elvis in a different direction: He still might've become a star, but not "The King of Rock and Roll." Maybe Jesse wouldn't have also become a star, and Elvis would have still gone on as a soloist.

One thing is for sure: Assuming Jesse didn't die some other way (car crash, murder, combat in Vietnam), Elvis wouldn't have felt so alone in his later years. Who knows, maybe Jesse would have been the one to find a way to make "Colonel" Tom Parker get lost, and put Elvis' life and career back in order. Who knows, both of them might have still been alive today, at age 80.

2. Elvis played football. That shouldn't surprise you, seeing as how he was a Southerner. But he mainly rode the bench on the varsity team at L.C. Humes High School. Elvis was not about to be playing in front of 46,000 people at the University of Tennessee's Shields-Watkins Field. (Now named Neyland Stadium, and holding 109,000 people.

Elvis remained a big sports fan. When he was growing up, Memphis was home to a St. Louis Cardinals farm team, the Memphis Redbirds. The Cards are still the closest big-league team, and so the area is still Cardinal country to this day. One time, in the 1960s, Elvis made a phone call to Harry Caray, then the voice of the Cardinals (hard to believe for anyone who only remembers him as the voice of their arch-rivals, the Chicago Cubs), and told him how much he admired Harry's announcing.

Like President John F. Kennedy -- although, as a Frank Sinatra fan, I doubt that he would've appreciated being called "the Elvis of Politics" -- there is plenty of home movie footage of Elvis playing touch football. His love of sports may also have led to his interest in martial arts.

In 1974, Memphis got its first sports team that could have been called "major league": The Memphis Southmen of the World Football League. They played at the Liberty Bowl, and Elvis attended the 1st game. The legend that he sang the National Anthem at this game is not true: It was sung by Charlie Rich, a country legend who was still in the glow of his pop Number 1 hit from late the previous year, "The Most Beautiful Girl." Elvis told him, "That's a tough song," and Rich replied, "It ain't no 'Behind Closed Doors'!"

3. Elvis' big musical hero was Dean Martin. While he loved white country singers, black blues singers, and gospel singers of both races, his first idea of himself as a singer was to be a crooner like Dino. It's not hard to imagine Dean singing "Love Me Tender" or "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" Nor is it hard to imagine Elvis singing "Memories Are Made of This," one of the few Number 1 songs of 1956 that wasn't sung by Elvis.

In 1964, a down year for Elvis (at least musically -- his movies were still making big box office), Dino hit Number 1 with "Everybody Loves Somebody." And he sent Elvis a telegram: "If you won't stop the Beatles, I will!" So, apparently, Dino didn't appreciate Elvis as much as Elvis appreciated him.

4. Elvis' hair was naturally brown. At some point, somebody (perhaps himself) decided it should be dyed black. His 1956 Hollywood screen test is in color, and shows his natural hair color.

Instead of acting out a scene, his screen test consisted of him singing his current hit song, a cover of Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes." (Incidentally, Perkins never held it against Elvis that he recorded Perkins' biggest hit: His own version was already coming down the charts, and, as the songwriter, Perkins made more money because of it.) The guitar is a stringless prop. And, like many Hollywood props, it's smaller than normal size, so as to make the actor look bigger. (Hollywood sets are frequently made 90 percent of normal size.)

5. Elvis rarely traveled outside the U.S. because his manager was an illegal immigrant. Colonel Parker was Dutch, and his real name was Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk. He was born in Breda, the Netherlands in 1909, and, at age 18, he left his job as a carnival barker, got a job on a ship heading for America, and jumped ship when it arrived. Supposedly, he had been planning on going to America for over a year, but there were also whispers that he was a person of interest in a murder case, which may also have stopped him from applying for a passport.

Like Elvis, he entered the U.S. Army (although he enlisted instead of being drafted) -- and took the name of the recruiter who interviewed him, Tom Parker. But he complicated things by going AWOL, and ended up confined to a psych ward. This led to his discharge. When the Alien Registration Act of 1940 became law, he could have become a legal U.S. citizen, but, thinking of how exposure of his Army record might ruin his burgeoning entertainment management career, he didn't take the chance, and stayed illegal until he died in 1997.

Parker was so contemptuous of his own past that he didn't know his mother had died until his brother had visited a few years later, and didn't know that his sister had died until a Dutch TV station contacted him for an interview.

At any rate, aside from 5 shows in Canada in 1957 -- 2 at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, 2 at the Memorial Auditorium in Ottawa, and 1 at Empire Stadium in Vancouver -- Elvis never played a formal concert outside the United States. Until 2009, crossing the U.S.-Canada border did not require a passport. As far as is known, the only other time he left American soil was when he served in the U.S. Army from 1958 to 1960, serving in Germany (an experience which was fictionalized as the film G.I. Blues).

6. Elvis' first concert stand in Las Vegas was an unmitigated failure. On April 23, 1956, still early in his career, Elvis began a 3-week stand at the Frontier Hotel. He did 2 shows a night, at 8:00 and midnight. Putting aside his already-present nicknames of "Elvis the Pelvis" and "the Memphis Flash" -- "The King of Rock and Roll" would come later in the year -- and with Nevada's nearby atomic tests in mind, he was billed as "The Atomic-Powered Singer."

He was just 3 months past his 21st birthday, barely old enough to be allowed onto the casino floor. And most of his fans ranged from only a little older to considerably younger. They literally weren't allowed to see him, by law, no matter what their parents said. And grownups, stuck in their Sinatra-era preferences, weren't prepared to like him. Throw in the ticket prices for Las Vegas shows -- which, then as now, were exorbitant -- and attendances were not good. So, on May 7, after 2 weeks, the Frontier's management decided to cut their losses: They paid Elvis for the full 3 weeks, and sent him home.

When he got back to Memphis, he saw his former Sun Records labelmate, Carl Perkins, then riding high with "Blue Suede Shoes." In an interview a few years before his own death in 1998, Perkins recalled Elvis saying, "Someday, I'm going to be the highest-paid guy, ever, on that Strip." And, in the present, Perkins said, "I have had so much respect for him: He did that very thing."

In 1969, while the International Hotel was still under construction -- it became the Las Vegas Hilton and, just last year, was renamed the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino -- Elvis signed a contract to receive the highest performance fee in Vegas history. His record would be broken by Liberace, and eventually Wayne Newton. But by 1969, he was 34, and his original fans were well into adulthood. And lots of older people had heard their favorite singers praise him, and had seen him serve in the Army without public complaint; as a result of these factors, they had changed their minds about him, hence the "blue-haired ladies" jokes about his audience. Until he died on August 16, 1977, Elvis never played to an unsold seat in any Nevada casino -- not in Las Vegas, not in Reno, not in Lake Tahoe.

Today, Vegas casinos provide big sums to plenty of entertainers in residence. Newton is still alive and performing, Elton John goes out there once a year, Celine Dion is now said to own the town, and even Britney Spears has a standing Vegas show. Yes, Britney: She's 33 now, only a little younger than Elvis was when he took the town by storm, and has been having hits for 16 years -- 3 years longer than Elvis had when he arrived. She's not only "not that innocent," she's not a kid anymore. And, unlike Elvis, she appears to have conquered her demons. (That doesn't mean I like her music, but I'm glad she appears to be all right.)

7. Elvis had a hit song with a baseball reference. "I Feel So Bad" hit Number 5 in 1961. It's not one of his better numbers, but it is the only one of his 100-odd Top 40 hits to mention baseball, in the first verse:

I feel so bad.
Feel like a ballgame on a rainy day.
I feel so bad.
Feel like a ballgame on a rainy day.
Guess I got my raincheck.
Shake my head and walk away.

8. There is one song that was recorded by both Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. "Tomorrow Is a Long Time." He also recorded 2 songs written by a member of the Beatles. Both by Paul McCartney: "Yesterday" and "Hey Jude."

9. Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite was not broadcast live in the country from which it aired. Canada, Central America, South America and Asia saw it live, on January 14, 1973. Europe saw it the next day. But the U.S. didn't see it until April 4. Why not live? Because Super Bowl VII was scheduled for the same day, and Colonel Parker didn't want Elvis' fans distracted. (The Miami Dolphins beat the Washington Redskins, 14-7.)

The concert was at the 8,800-seat Honolulu International Center, now named the Neal S. Blaisdell Center for the Mayor who got it built in 1964. The network TV Land, which has periodically shown the concert, donated a statue of Elvis which now stands outside.

10. Elvis was nearly bankrupt at the end. Like a lot of entertainers (and a lot of athletes), Elvis had been ripped off by those who should have been looking out for him, including Colonel Parker. While there was always ready cash, the reason he was constantly touring when he should have been resting and not thinking about getting ready to tour (and taking the pills he thought he needed to do so) was that, for all intents and purposes, he was broke.

What millionaire would put his ex-wife in charge of his finances in his will? Elvis did, giving Priscilla a share of ownership of Elvis Presley Enterprises, due to the fact that his estate was going to go to their daughter, Lisa Marie, and that Priscilla was her sole remaining parent. By 1980, due to misguided deals made by Colonel Parker, and to the $500,000 annual cost of running Graceland (even without a living Elvis), the estate had little left, and when Priscilla took a look at the books, she was appalled. She and her advisors pushed the Colonel out, and, having full control on Lisa Marie's behalf, made key moves, including opening Graceland to tours. (This was possible because Elvis' father, Vernon, who had also steered him wrong, had died and was no longer living there.) Over the next 3 years, Elvis made more money dead than he did in the 42 years he was alive.

Bonus: Elvis Presley never gave a concert in the State of New Jersey. Madison Square Garden in New York, yes. The Spectrum in Philadelphia, yes. But never in my home State. Part of the problem was the venues. In the early days, when municipal auditoriums were his usual venue, many didn't want to host a rock and roll revue of several performers, let alone one, especially one whose fans did a lot of screaming. So he never played at Symphony Hall in Newark, the State's foremost concert venue of that era. Nor did he play the War Memorial Auditorium in Trenton.

By the time he started touring again in 1970, the choices of venue were still limited. Symphony Hall seats just 3,500, the Trenton War Memorial only 1,800 (my high school's gym can seat more people than this venue which hosts the Governor's inauguration every 4 years), and the Garden State Arts Center in Holmdel (now the PNC Bank Arts Center) only 5,000 at the time (7,000 now). The 9,000-seat Rutgers Athletic Center was under construction when he died, while the 20,000-seat Meadowlands Arena was just in the planning stage. The closest thing New Jersey had to a major-league-size sports arena during his Vegas Period (1969-77) was the 14,000-seat Convention Hall (now Boardwalk Hall) in Atlantic City. The Beatles had played it in 1964, so there was precedent. But he was never booked there.

*

Around 1990 or so, I was walking out of the Fun-n-Games arcade at the Brunswick Square Mall in my hometown of East Brunswick, New Jersey. (I was a serious video game addict. The space is now occupied by a small Chinese restaurant.) And I saw this couple walk past. The lady looked, as I was, too young to have known Elvis as anything more than a dead icon. The man looked like the icon. He had the face. He had the hair. He had the shades. He had the sneering lip. His clothes weren't bespangled with stuff, but it looked like the sort of "civilian clothes" that Elvis Presley would wear.

I'd seen some pretty convincing-looking Santa Clauses at that mall, but this was the one and only time I've ever seen a guy who made me think that Elvis might not be dead after all.

Elvis would be 80 years old now -- meaning that, even if he hadn't wrecked his health in the 1970s, he might be dead by now anyway.

Bump that. Elvis lives. Martin Luther King and Elvis Presley -- both of whom died in Memphis before reaching the age of 43 -- were the only Kings America ever needed. And, each in his own way, each still lives.

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