As both a historian and an Elvis Presley fan, I have little patience with falsehoods, exaggerations, and misinformation about Elvis that have been spread and perpetuated primarily through the Internet. On elvis-history-blog.com, any information about Presley that might be questioned or open to interpretation is accompanied by a source reference, usually an article or book written by a credible writer. However, I still apply the same reliability tests to professional journalists and authors that I do to the nut cases who spread garbage about Elvis on the web.
For example, I recently came across an article about Elvis in The New York World-Telegram and Sun from February 1960. At that time many major U.S. newspapers were printing articles speculating on Elvis’ future in the entertainment business following his discharge from the army in March 1960. The World-Telegram’s article was written by Fred Sparks of the “Newspaper Enterprise Assn.” Sparks claimed to have covered Elvis’ career “from truck driver to king of rock ’n’ roll” and said he visited Elvis in Germany to gather information for his article. He sounded legitimate. But was he? Below I’ve listed 9 questionable assertions Sparks made in his story along with my reactions to them.
1. “Have two years of relative military oblivion cooled Presley fans? Can Elvis still fill Madison Square Garden by twitching one knee cap? Has he gone arty, upstage?”
Apparently Sparks didn’t know that Elvis never played Madison Square Garden before entering the army. In fact, the only city in New York State where Elvis appeared during the 1950s was Buffalo on the other side of the state from New York City and its famous arena.
2. “It is true that Elvis wants to be a serious actor, the inevitable transfer from clown to Hamlet, duck tail to long hair. His pin-up is Frank Sinatra, the bread-stick thin crooner who won an Oscar from a meaty role in ‘From Here to Eternity.’”
Elvis may have respected Frank Sinatra, but there’s no evidence he ever considered Sinatra a role model for his career. In fact, in 1957, shortly before Elvis entered the army, Frankie blasted rock ’n’ roll and the “cretinous goons” who performed it. “He is a great success and a fine actor,” Elvis responded to Sinatra’s comments, “but I don’t think he should have said it. … It’s an American development, just like crooning was a few years back.” Frank Sinatra surely never attained “pin-up” status in Elvis' eyes.
3. “Elvis is shopping around for a script that will give him the same chance for a Cinderella-transfer, something simple like ‘War and Peace’ or ‘The Ten Commandments.’”
Elvis never shopped around for movie scripts. His Hollywood contracts gave him no power to approve scripts, not then or ever. As with his first post-army film, G.I. Blues, Elvis was always sent a pre-production script for his next movie so that he could learn the lines already written for him. He may have been disappointed with the scripts he got, but he never had, nor demanded, any creative input in his films beyond his acting work.
4. “When the draft board first tapped him, song and movie manufacturers with dividends at stake won a deferment—time to record 24 Presley songs for monthly release. Elvis, home or abroad, has kept the coins flowing.”
I don’t know where Sparks came up with 24 as the number of songs Elvis recorded during his 60-day army induction deferment. The actual number was 16. All but four of them were recorded for the soundtrack of King Creole. Even if you count five other songs Elvis recorded in June 1958, after he was already in the army, the total number of songs Elvis recorded for release while he was in uniform totaled only 21, and three of them, “Danny,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and “Ain’t That Loving You Baby,” weren’t released until years after Elvis left the army.
5. “Presley is a continuing story for me. I’ve written acres about how the Tennessee truck jockey, an amateur country-style rock-a-billy singer, paid $4 in a drug store to make his first record, ‘My Happiness’ …”
Really now, Mr. Sparks. Even in 1960 everyone knew that Elvis made that first recording for his mother, not in a drug store, but in the studio of Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service.
6. “Elvis … brought side-burns and duck-tail haircuts to every UN nation.”
Sideburns, OK, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture of Elvis with a duck-tail haircut. He may have had one at one time, but he sure didn’t popularize the DA style around the world. Elvis was better known in the fifties for the greasy mop of hair that continually fell down over his eyes while he was performing.
7. “Would they dare show Elvis swiveling his hips, knocking his knees, bumping, grinding? Elvis’ trembling torso was then being attacked as a ‘social menace’ and as invitation to after-school mischief. Caution triumphed. Only his upper half appeared on TV.”
This bit of misinformation continues to live on over 50 years later. Elvis was actually shown only above the waist on one rendition of “Hound Dog” on the Sullivan show. On other Sullivan performances, including “Ready Teddy” and another version of “Hound Dog,” Elvis’ gyrating lower half was in full view.
8. “Censorship and curiosity are the greatest salesmen; Elvis was IN and asked and got $25,000 for singing a few classics like ‘Get Off My Blue Suede Shoes’ and ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’ And, of course, squirming like a wet poodle.”
If Sparks was still referring to the Sullivan shoes, then the facts are that Elvis didn’t sing either of those two songs on any of his Sullivan appearances. I guess he may have been referring to a 1957 Elvis concert. In any event, the first title Sparks listed should have been simply “Blue Suede Shoes.”
9. “Elvis bought Cadillacs by the pair. He got the roller skating bug and rented a rink by the month. He gave small dinner parties—chauteaubriand and grits—for 160.”
I’ll grant the Cadillac thing, but Elvis rented skating rinks, amusement parks, and movie theaters by the “night,” not the “month.” And as for the reference to multiple dinner parties with such a menu and for so many people—Mr. Sparks, you really needed to provide a credible source before you could expect anyone to believe such a ridiculous assertion.
The point of all this is that when a writer includes factual errors in a story about Elvis, it’s difficult to take any part of the article seriously. And when a writer like Fred Sparks, presenting himself as an expert on Elvis, obviously makes stuff up as he goes along, it’s, well, just downright irritating. — Alan Hanson (August 2009)