The large amount of information about Elvis that has appeared in print form and on the Internet actually makes it difficult to get a clear picture of Elvis Presley. Some of what has been written in recent years is just downright false. Other sources mix half-truths and bias to distort, on both the positive and negative sides, the real legacy of Elvis Presley.
Let me support that contention by giving a couple of examples. Let’s start with what I call the “Elvis myth-makers.” These are Elvis fans on steroids. They bombard us with testimonials of Elvis’ talent and generosity (and I’m certainly not denying that he had a lot of both), and they neither offer nor want to hear a word of criticism directed toward him. They seek to exalt Elvis and to raise him up to a level of hero- worship. (One well-known Elvis fan even predicted that someday Elvis would be revered in the music world on the same level as Beethoven.) Some Elvis fan web sites and fan magazines purvey this kind of sanctified and distorted image of Elvis. And I must say that, in general, the younger generation of Elvis fans is most prone to believe it.
• Bias in Elvis book leads in inaccuracies
Most often this hero-worship is offered openly, but sometimes the Elvis mythmakers work subtly. For example, consider the 1995 book, Did Elvis Sing in Your Hometown? This book, which is still widely available (I bought my copy at Graceland in 2006), contains lots of information about Elvis’ stage shows in the 1950s. I found the book useful in a number of ways while I was writing Elvis ’57. Unfortunately, it also contains a lot of inaccurate information, and its tone reveals the author’s bias toward Elvis despite his pretense to be fully factual.
For instance, the author claims that many Elvis concerts were sell-outs, when they were not. In Chicago in 1957, he claims “thousands of fervent fans made a mad dash for the stage,” when, in fact, only several dozen young girls surrounded the stage. He goes on to say that a dozen women climbed on the stage, “effectively putting an end to the show.” The truth is that not a single fan got on the stage in Chicago, and Elvis performed his full show before leaving. Simply taking the time to review archives of the Chicago newspapers at the time reveals the facts to anyone interested in accuracy.
The book also claims that in Portland in 1957, fans staged a riot that forced Elvis to leave the stage after just fifteen minutes. However, in their editions on the following day, both Portland newspapers reported that not a single person in the well-behaved crowd left the seating area as Elvis gave his complete forty-five minute show. The book also offers exaggerated attendance figures and refers to “thousands” of fans threatening police and so forth when the terms “dozens” would be more accurate.
• The Presley legacy gets distorted
So what’s wrong with getting a few facts wrong? What’s wrong is that the cumulative effect of the inaccuracies, misinformation, and exaggeration throughout this book, and others like it, misrepresents Elvis, and in doing so, does historical damage to his legacy. Instead of the exciting entertainer that he was, such distorted accounts depict him as a freak, who instigated riotous and bizarre behavior wherever he went. (I even read one article that claimed some girls were so out of control that they went down on the ground and ate dirt after Elvis’ 1957 concert in Tacoma. Give me a break!)
But it isn’t just the sometimes-misguided fan press that needs monitoring for accuracy. Sometimes Elvis’ most respected biographers get it wrong too. Take Peter Guralnick, author of the accepted definitive two-volume Presley biography. For starters, Guralnick cites Did Elvis Sing in Your Hometown? in the source notes of the second volume of his biography. As a result, some of Guralnick’s information is necessarily false, it having come from a tainted source.
• The Johnny Rivers incident
Also, consider the story about Johnny Rivers included in Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. Guralnick reported in the book that Rivers musically sucker-punched Elvis by rushing out his version of “Memphis” in 1964, when he knew Elvis planned to release the same song as a single. Guralnick had interviewed Rivers and knew his side of the story, but chose to believe some of Elvis’ “boys,” who claimed Rivers had blindsided Elvis.
After Elvis heard Johnny’s version of “Memphis,” Guralnick claimed that Elvis said he “didn’t want to see Johnny anymore.” When Careless Love was published in 1999, an angry Johnny Rivers quickly reacted. “Elvis and I were friends for years,” he stated, “and I am personally offended and outraged that Peter Guralnick has joined the ranks of writers who have tried to profit from Elvis’ downfall by taking a cheap shot with information that was not accurate.” Producer Lou Adler, Larry Geller, James Burton, and even Chuck Berry, the song’s writer, issued statements supporting Johnny’s contention that he had not stolen the song from Elvis.
In my eyes, at least, the incident made Guralnick’s entire biography a little less definitive. If he got this story wrong, how many other stories in his books did he also get wrong? When he came across conflicting stories, instead of guessing which was right, a better philosophy would have been to either leave the story out or present both versions and let the reader make a judgment.
• Always beware of what the “boys” say
Guralnick may have erred in giving too much credibility to the testimony of Elvis’ “boys.” One would think that the various members of Elvis’ entourage, having worked and socialized closely with him for years, would be convincing sources of information. However, over the years several of the “boys” have proved themselves far from reliable when recalling their times with Elvis. Back in 1977, Red West, Sonny West, and Dave Hebler’s book, Elvis: What Happened?, was filled with bias and inaccuracies, Lamar Fike was a main conduit of misinformation for Albert Goodman’s deeply flawed 1981 Elvis biography, and Byron Raphael’s article about Elvis’ sex life in a 2005 issue of Playboy is completely spurious.
Of course, not all those close to Elvis have proved unreliable. Joe Esposito and Jerry Schilling are two who seem to have told their stories about Elvis with honesty and balance. The lesson here is that when reading these “I-was-there-books,” the reader must keep an open mind when it comes to accuracy, honesty, and bias.
In the end, I’m not suggesting we should all be cynical about everything that has been and will be written about Elvis. And I don’t think there is anything to be gained by arguing over isolated facts. However, the legacy of Elvis should be important to all of his fans. And if it takes setting the record straight once in awhile, then sign me up for the crusade. | Alan Hanson (March 2008)