“Elvis Presley was the greatest cultural force in the 20th Century. “He introduced the beat to everything and changed everything–music, language, clothes; it’s a whole new social revolution–the ’60s come from it.” – Leonard Bernstein (Legendary composer
“He changed not only the music that we make but social norms and the way we looked at each other.”
– Tim McGraw (Country Music superstar)
“For 19 years … I did not get one single phone call for an Elvis Presley photograph, but from that moment (Presley’s death in 1977), the phone hasn’t stopped ringing.”
– Alfred Wertheimer (New York-based photographer who captured the early Elvis rise)
“Elvis is Titanic” – — Unknown Iraqi English Student
“The only possible explanation is that Elvis was from another planet.”
– Lester Bangs (Rock critic extraordinaire)
Among the Believers
Circa Fall 2022, we recently took in The Elvis festival. It was held for five days in the sleepy little Florida hamlet called Mount Dora.
The city has festivals every weekend, or so it seems. There are good restaurants in Mount. Dora, you can walk everywhere. The Elvis festival is also one of many around the country. There’s one in Arizona, a few in Texas, then Oklahoma, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and of course, Florida, which hosts several. It’s important to note that these gatherings are annual affairs, not one-offs.
We went to the 2 PM concert (there were five, which is how you are awarded a lanyard by paying for five performances in advance.) Unfortunately, we didn’t qualify for the coveted lanyard, but we had a blast. The people came from far and wide to attend. The genuinely faithful gathered from Ponte Vedra, Florida, to Atlanta, Georgia. The performers were Elvis impersonators, and I’ll explain the facts of this absolute phenomenon. And, to put it in layman’s terms, Elvis lives!
Indeed, more than 45 years after his passing, Elvis is still going strong.
Baz Luhrmann just released his superb film, Elvis, which stars Tom Hanks as the redoubtable Colonel Tom Parker and Austin Butler as Elvis.
Elvis’ home, Graceland, welcomes over 500,000 visitors each year and is one of the five most visited home tours in the United States. It is the most famous home in America after The White House. In 1991, Graceland was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2006, it was designated a National Historic Landmark. Now, get a load of this fact.
There are approximately 400,000 to 500,000 Elvis impersonators on every continent.
He is the world’s most widely impersonated human, and it’s not even close.
Elvis fan clubs number around 600 hundred world-wide.
The largest is The Official Elvis Presley Fan Club of Great Britain, with over 20,000 members. Next is the French club called Elvis My Happiness. The show we saw sold out, as were all the other performances.
People and Billboard Magazine named Presley, hailed as the ‘King of Rock n Roll,’ the best-selling music artist of all time. Elvis Presley sold an estimated 1.5 billion records to date. Most of them after his death in 1977. Think about that!
How about his little nugget of bizarre behavior. When he first broke through, his female fans were so zealous that a Hollywood record store had to keep copies of Elvis’ debut album under the counter. Every inch of the albums left in the display rack had been covered with lipstick.
The answer to that question has riddled writers for years. Going to the Elvis festival and seeing first-hand the mesmerizing effect his persona has on audiences gave me a clue.
The people gathered in Mount Dora were holding tight to a legacy of a great, transcendent talent who personified a more innocent time in history. Elvis was a gentleman who never forgot his roots or the humble circumstances from which he sprang. He represents, as Greil Marcus points out, America itself, with all its faults, flaws, warts, and all. The assembled crowd was there to celebrate his talent, good fortune, and theirs. We’re alive. Hallelujah!
Elvis Brought the Masses To Sin City
In his excellent book, Elvis In Vegas: How the King Reinvented The Las Vegas Show, Richard Zoglin tells us that before he played there, Las Vegas wasn’t a mecca for the working class. Elvis changed all that. Celine Dion, Wayne Newton, Liza Minelli, Lady Gaga, Donnie, and Marie Osmond all owe their extended stays in Las Vegas to Mr. Presley. Fans started building their entire vacation around going to Vegas for the Elvis performance. Before Elvis Presley entertained at the International Hotel, Las Vegas was a rather quaint, upper-class place where Los Angeles entertainers and assorted professionals performed and let their hair down.
Rock Critics and intellectuals Came Around Big-Time to Elvis.
The list of writers and intellectuals who were skeptical initially but came around to enjoy the phenomenon that was Elvis is almost too numerous to count. Like the conductor Leonard Bernstein quoted above, many people came to revere Presley. That phenomenon, combined with the coming adoration of the working man and woman, made the Elvis legacy a lasting one.
I’ll close with quotes from various luminaries about perhaps the most misunderstood artist of our time.
“There is something magical about watching a man who has lost himself find his way back home…He sang with the kind of power people no longer expect from rock ‘n’ roll singers.” – -Jon Landau (Bruce Springsteen Manager) Review of Elvis (1968 TV Special)
“It was the finest music of his life. If ever there was music that bleeds, this was it.” – Greil Marcus (Seeing the 1968 TV Special)
“A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man’s music, when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis.” -J-J— Jackie Wilson (Soul Singer and Entertainer Of Note)
“You have no idea how great he is; you don’t. You have no comprehension – it’s impossible. I can’t tell you why he’s so great, but he is. He’s sensational.” – Phil Specter (Legendary Producer)
“Elvis had an influence on everybody with his musical approach. He broke the ice for all of us.” – Al Green
“Elvis Presley was an explorer of vast new landscapes of dream and illusion. He was a man who refused to be told that the best of his dreams would not come true, who refused to be defined by anyone else’s conceptions. This is the goal of democracy, the journey on which every prospective American hero sets out. That Elvis made so much of the journey on his own is reason enough to remember him with the honor and love we reserve for the bravest among us. Such men made the only maps we can trust.” – Dave Marsh, from his book Elvis
“Ask anyone. If it hadn’t been for Elvis, I don’t know where popular music would be. He was the one that started it all off, and he was definitely the start of it for me.” – Elton John
“I remember Elvis as a young man hanging around the Sun Studios. Even then, I knew this kid had tremendous talent. He was a dynamic young boy. His phraseology, his way of looking at a song, was as unique as Sinatra’s. I was a tremendous fan, and had Elvis lived, there would have been no end to his inventiveness.” – BB King.
“No one name says more than his: Elvis. It roars while others whisper.” -Paul Stanley (KISS Guitarist)
“Elvis Presley embodied the promise of the Declaration of Independence: better than nobody, nobody better.”
– Greil Marcus (Author of Mystery Train)
“Elvis is king. Period.” – Gene Simmons
“The most popular thing in American culture… is Elvis Presley. No questions asked. He is the king.” – Kid Rock
“Elvis, to me, is a symbol of tremendous promise and that kind of American hopefulness, where you can come from nowhere and have nothing and build yourself up and chase that American dream.” – Patti Scialfa (Springsteen Band)
“He embodied rock ‘n’ roll; he owned it 100% – he was that.” – David Lynch (Director)
“When I was a kid, I loved Elvis. He was the ultimate in cool. Every guy wanted to be Elvis; me included.” – – Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
“That’s my idol, Elvis Presley. If you went to my house, you’d see pictures all over of Elvis. He’s just the greatest entertainer that ever lived. And I think it’s because he had such presence. When Elvis walked into a room, Elvis Presley was in the fing room. I don’t give a f who was in the room with him, Bogart, Marilyn Monroe.” – Eddie Murphy (Actor)
“…it was like he came along and whispered some dream in everybody’s ear, and somehow we all dreamed it.” – Bruce Springsteen
“He was an instinctive actor…He was quite bright…he was brilliant…He was not a punk. He was very elegant, sedate, refined, and sophisticated.” – Walter Matthau, who co-starred with Elvis in “King Creole,” from a 1987 interview
“…Elvis had a style and panache that come close to pure magic. Lithe, raunchy, the sweat pouring down his face, he now moves with the precision of an athlete, the grace of a dancer…flamboyant and flashy, sexy and self-mocking, he works with the instincts of a genius to give poetry to the basic rock performance.” Elvis was not a “phenomenon.” He was not a “craze.” He was not even, or at least not only, a “singer,” or an “artist.” He was that perfect American symbol, fundamentally a mystery, and the idea was that he would outlive us all—or, at least, live for as long as it took both him and us to reach the limits of what that symbol had to say.” – Dave Marsh (From his book Elvis)
I’ll leave you with a quote that applies to Elvis and all those who blazed a trail that was essential for all mankind.
“Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
All photography by Alfred Wertheimer