Whoever it was who said that dying is a great career move was clearly on to something, and must surely have had at least half an eye on the popular-music business – at least, its commercial side. Such had been the case with the premature deaths of Buddy Holly, Jim Reeves and Jimi Hendrix, in 1959, 1964 and 1970 respectively. In the months and years after each performer passed over, sales of their records rose considerably, and to an extent that they hadn’t experienced when they were alive. The same was always going to be true, therefore, of The King himself when he finally Left The Building for good.
Elvis Aaron Presley died on 16 August 1977, after a two-decade-long recording career, album- and singles sales numbering in the hundreds of millions, countless live performances across the United States even in his less healthy years (thanks to his cold bloodsucker of a manager in Colonel Tom Parker), nearly two-dozen appearances in insipid Z-movies, and goodness knows how many hamburgers and prescription drugs. Put simply, his much-abused body had finally had enough when his ticker gave out as he was sitting on his toilet. To quote the BBC broadcaster Mark Radcliffe…
[I]t was a death that shook the world – and Graceland’s plumbing… The King had, quite literally, died on his throne.
As for the increasingly outlandish theories concerning Elvis having faked his death, and not all of them courtesy of the Sunday Sport, they can only be explained by a simple wish, shared by millions of his fans, not to let go of a man they considered to be their hero. Similar stories had, after all, been circulating around Britain at the time of Lord Kitchener’s death in June 1916. Even among the majority of his fans who have accepted that he has gone, the wish not to let go has certainly manifested itself in ways very beneficial to the Presley estate: one journalist in 2009 estimated his global record sales as topping the 600 million mark. He was the single biggest star of the 20th Century, an enormous cultural and musical icon. Other popular-music giants who followed him acknowledged their debt to the King:
He was an integrator. Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn’t let black music through. He opened the door for black music – LITTLE RICHARD
Without Elvis, none of us could have made it – BUDDY HOLLY
Before Elvis, there was nothing. Without him, there would be no Beatles – JOHN LENNON
Praise indeed. What’s more, fewer people are prepared to accept John Lennon’s later dismissal of his idol as having “died in the army”. Unquestionably, on his return from West Germany in 1960 his output did become more easy-listening-like, with numbers like The Girl of My Best Friend and His Latest Flame proving radical departures from his ’50s rock ‘n’ roll numbers like Don’t Be Cruel and I Need Your Love Tonight. His would be a career with several peaks and troughs, to be sure, but to trash his post-1959 work is to miss unfailingly beautiful ballads such as Can’t Help Falling in Love, Anything That’s Part of You, and Crying in the Chapel. It’s also to forget his 1968 Las Vegas comeback, after which he would alternate between social-conscience-tuggers like If I Can Dream and In The Ghetto, as well as concert-storming numbers like Suspicious Minds and The Wonder of You.
It’s important, however, to remember that Elvis was in many respects lucky as well as talented. His rise to global super-stardom coincided with the rise of television as a communication medium, not to mention the explosion in radio ownership across the United States and much of the rest of the Western world. He was therefore fortunate to live in an era in which his singing style and charisma could reach millions around the world for the very first time, and Colonel Parker and the rest of his entourage weren’t slow to take full advantage of the cards at their disposal. (By a curious coincidence, the day Elvis walked into Sam Phillips’s Sun Records studios to record his voice for the first time – 5 July 1954 – was also the same date the news was televised in Britain for the very first time)
Another way of looking at the Elvis Presley, of course, is to see it as a cautionary tale about the excesses of fame. Either his consistent success and sales got to his head, or were transparently abused by his entourage (known as the Memphis Mafia), but the result was that the young, dashingly handsome movie idol ultimately turned into a grotesque, overweight long-haired, jump-suited caricature by the time of his death, as the constant touring and abuse of prescription medication would ultimately take their toll. His marriage to Priscilla Beaulieu collapsed after six years as he transparently allowed his career to come before anything else, even a decent family life with his wife and daughter. As the writer Margaret Nicholas put it…
Many believed that Elvis had been killed by an overdose of fame, by sycophantic friends who would not make him face the truth, by isolation amidst the rich trappings that his career had brought him. It was the sort of tragedy that could only have happened in the era of pop culture
Going back, though, to the original point of death being a “good career move”, the Elvis Presley money-spinning machine predictably whirred into life as the singer was being lowered into his Graceland crypt. Way Down, his last single, had barely registered on the charts at all, but the news of the King’s demise quickly propelled it to No 1 in the UK Top 40, as well as in the US and Canadian Country Charts. Additionally, accompanying the continuing healthy sales of his music is the phenomenon of Elvis impersonators, in virtually every country around the world – which surely makes him the first popular-music icon to spawn tribute acts. Whichever of his career peaks we prefer, Elvis Presley remains the idol of millions across the globe, and while the comedian Fred Allen had a point when he observed that ‘A celebrity is a person who works hard all his life to become known, then wears dark glasses to avoid being recognized‘, the rags-to-riches-and-plenty-besides story exemplified by the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll continues to be an inspiring reminder that, if a shy school dropout from humble beginnings can make to the very top of the world stage, then, at least theoretically, any of us can…