“Fake News” … It’s a term that recently has entered the American political lexicon. Wikipedia defines it as, “a type of hoax or deliberate spread of misinformation, be it via the traditional news media or via social media, with the intent to mislead in order to gain financially or politically.” I would add that it is supported, if it is supported at all, by “alternative facts.”
Of course, during Elvis’ career “fake news” was often used to promote him, with its greatest purveyor being Colonel Parker. When he fed phony information to the press, though, he didn’t call it “fake news.” Instead, Parker referred to it as a “snow job.” He even formed a “Snowman’s Club” and inducted into it others complicit in the strategy. His favorite "snow jobs" involved promoting Elvis by grossly inflating numbers, including crowd sizes, record sales, fan club members, and Christmas cards Elvis received.
The biggest “snow job” Parker ever pulled off was the preposterous claim that a billion and half people had watched the satellite broadcast of Presley’s 1973 “Aloha From Hawaii” concert. That whopper has been passed on as fact ever since, to the point that it’s now crystalized in the annals of “Fake Elvis History.”
The concept of “Fake Elvis History” was on display in an article I read recently. Scanning the magazine section at my local supermarket, my eyes halted on a small headline in the upper right corner of one cover. “Did Hollywood kill the king?” it asked, and then teased the reader to “Discover the shocking downfall of Elvis.”
The magazine was the February 2017 issue of All About History, published in the UK. The slick, well-illustrated magazine seemed legit, containing articles on varied subjects, including Queen Mary, Fidel Castro, and Roman mystery cults. But then I turned to the article on Elvis. “THE END OF ELVIS” the headline blared above a spurious lead-in: “When the rock and roll star emerged from the US army, he would face a foe closer to home, one that would destroy his self-respect, morals, fanbase and, eventually, his life: Hollywood.”
The byline credits “Frances White,” whoever that may be, as there is no blurb included to identify the author and to provide credits. The six-page article is nicely illustrated and includes some fancy graphics. Unfortunately, the opening paragraph undermines the author’s credibility concerning Elvis.
Fake Elvis History News #1: “Fears were rife among Elvis Presley’s management team when he joined the US Army in 1958. His career was at an all-time high—Elvis hadn’t just broken records, he had smashed them by speaking to a disenchanted and broken young generation. However, the king of rock and roll firmly believed his stint in the military would be his undoing.”
Elvis’ young audience in the late fifties may have been “disenchanted,” but it could hardly be characterized as a “broken young generation.” Teenagers then weren’t on the verge of revolution. They were just looking for an outlet to express their individuality in an era that stressed conformity. And Elvis didn’t “firmly” believe the army would end his entertainment career. He “feared” that two years out of the spotlight would affect his popularity, but he was far from throwing in the towel on his career. Finally, I suppose it’s picky to point out that Elvis did not “join” the army; he was “drafted” into it.
White then chose to delve into some exaggeration, the degree of which would have made Colonel Parker proud.
Fake Elvis History News #2: “When Elvis was honourably discharged and returned to the United States on 2 March 1960, his train was mobbed the entire journey, and to prevent his adoring fans from rioting, the singer agreed to appear at scheduled stops along the way.”
The real facts are these: On March 6, 1958, after his discharge, Elvis boarded a train in Washington, D.C., for the trip home to Memphis. Wearing his army uniform, he did, in fact, appear at all stops to greet crowds hoping to see him. However, the train was not “mobbed the entire journey.” Teenagers didn’t crawl all over the train trying to get at Elvis. And there was never any fear that riots would occur. “Rioting” conjures up images of destruction of property, police lines, fire hoses, and arrests. No riots occurred at any Presley appearance anywhere during his entire career. In 1957 Elvis had travelled on trains between concert cities and didn’t appear at stops along the way. Those assembled crowds were disappointed, but never rioted.
In discussing Elvis’ movie career in the sixties, White again played loose with the facts.
Fake Elvis History News #3: “For his comeback movie, Elvis chose a tribute to his army brothers, a chirpy musical-comedy called GI Blues … dancing but without those signature hip shakes , and singing but without the rock and roll edge that had made him famous … Although this wasn’t the meaty acting Presley aspired to, he reasoned that Brando too had done a musical early in his career, and it would be a bridge to more serious roles.”
For starters, I don’t recall Elvis dancing in GI Blues, but that’s a minor point. The main thing the author didn’t understand here is that Elvis had no control over the movie roles he played. Elvis didn’t choose GI Blues; Hall Wallis did. Presley never had script approval for any of his movies. Did Elvis really “reason” that GI Blues would be a “bridge to more serious roles?” He may have “hoped” so, but he knew the contracts he signed gave him no control over his film roles.
White continued to misrepresent Elvis’ control over his own films.
Fake Elvis History News #4: “Now Elvis had got his family-friendly money-spinner out of the way he decided to focus on really stretching his acting talents with some ‘serious’ movies … in Flaming Star, despite urges for Elvis to sing four songs in the movie, he stood by his convictions and refused to sing them all.”
As with the scripts, Elvis had no say about the songs he sang in his movies. The song “Summer Kisses, Winter Tears” was included in the original edit of Flaming Star. Elvis sang it while sitting around the campfire in an Indian village. When MGM previewed the film for a target audience, some audience members laughed during the scene. The studio decided to pull the song from the final cut. Elvis’s “convictions” had nothing to do with it.
Fake Elvis History News #5: “Wild in the Country actually lost money.”
White called Wild in the Country a “disaster,” and claimed it lost money. Again not so. The budget for the movie was just under $3 million. For her book Elvis: Behind the Legend, Trina Young did extensive research on the performance of Presley’s movies at the box office. She lists the “total box office earnings” for Wild in the Country as $5.5 million. So where did Frances White get the idea that the movie lost money?
Fake Elvis History News #6: “When Elvis was offered a gritty role in Robert Mitchum’s Thunder Road, he was forbidden from taking it by the Colonel. The role that could have changed the entire focus of Elvis’s career slipped through his fingers.”
Robert Mitchum’s attempt to interest Elvis in his 1957 film Thunder Road is well known. Colonel Parker reminded Elvis that at that time in 1957 he was under contract with Paramount and MGM. He didn’t have the legal option then to do a film with United Artists, the studio that produced Thunder Road. If Elvis felt that the role of a lifetime had “slipped through his fingers,” it’s because those same fingers had signed the Paramount and MGM contracts.
Fake Elvis History News #7: “Behind the scenes, Elvis had found a way to cope with his professional disappointments: abusing prescription drugs to get him through one humiliating act to the next.”
It’s been well established that Elvis’ abuse of prescription drugs began while he was in Germany serving in the army. They helped him get through the sleep deprivation and stress of field exercises. If White had any evidence that Elvis popped pills to get through movie scenes, he should have provided the source of that assertion. It’s that lack of attribution that is the underlying problem with White’s entire article.
Fake Elvis History News #8: “In his free time, he held wild parties with literally hundreds of girls, many of them only teenagers, fulfilling his every whim with fantasy, while he overate and indulged himself in every excess his massive wealth brought him.”
No one disputes that Elvis engaged in some unhealthy activities during the latter half of the 1960s, but, again, without attribution, “parties seven days a week” with “hundreds of girls” by all accounts is a gross exaggeration.
Fake Elvis History News #9: “During filming (of Clambake), high on pills, Elvis had fallen, cracking his head on a bathtub, and had to be revived by a doctor with an oxygen machine.”
The facts are that on the night of March 6, 1967, before filming on Clambake began, Elvis fell in his bathroom in Hollywood. A doctor called to examine Elvis determined that he had not sustained a fracture. Elvis did not “crack” his head; neither did he have to be revived.
Fake Elvis History News #10: “In an effort to shock Elvis into understanding how his fame had dwindled, (Steve Binder) walked with the singer down Sunset Boulevard, and rather that being mobbed, not a single person recognized the king of rock and roll.”
OK, I’ll admit I don’t know everything that happened in Elvis Presley’s life, but I seriously doubt that he ever took such a “walk of shame,” to borrow a term from “Game of Thrones.” Clearly Binder, the director of Elvis’ 1968 NBC-TV special, reminded Elvis that he had an opportunity to regain some of the relevance he had lost in the music industry, but what would have been gained by embarrassing Elvis in public? Furthermore, it’s beyond credibility to think that many people on Sunset Boulevard would not have recognized Elvis Presley, even at that low point in his career.
Well, there are other examples of “Fake Elvis History News” in White’s article, but here’s the point. Nearly 40 years after his death, Elvis’ followers should beware of something Elvis himself learned way back in 1956—don’t believe everything you read about him. Certainly, Elvis had weaknesses and failings, and there’s nothing wrong with reporting about them, provided they can be backed up with valid evidence.
That goes not only for negative articles about Elvis, but also positive ones. Insist on sources and attribution when processing information put forth about him. That’s particularly important in these days of rampant social media. When “Fake Elvis History News” is not challenged, it can morph into truth. Just consider Colonel Parker. He’s probably still laughing in his grave over that “billion and a half viewers” snow job that he pulled off in 1973. — Alan Hanson | © April 2017
Sources of “Real Elvis History:
• “Elvis Day by Day” by Peter Guralnick and Ernest Jorgensen
• “Last Train to Memphis: The Making of Elvis Presley” by Peter Guralnick
• “Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley” by Peter Guralnick
"Elvis’ followers should beware of something Elvis himself learned way back in 1956—don’t believe everything you read about him."