Memphis Writer James Kingsley
Had Special Access to Elvis

For the casual Elvis Presley fan, the name “James Kingsley” probably doesn’t ring a bell. However, for the diehard Elvis fan, that name rings two bells. James H. Kingsley (1937-1989) was an Elvis bodyguard and movie stand-in. James D. Kingsley (1929-1995) was a Memphis reporter who probably wrote more articles about Elvis during the entertainer’s lifetime than any other newspaper writer. From a fan’s perspective, James D. was the more important of the two Kingsleys.

In 1929 James Douglas Kingsley was born in East Tupelo, Mississippi, where his family is said to have been acquainted with the Presley family. After graduating from the University of Mississippi in 1953 with a degree in journalism, Kingsley worked for The Commercial Appeal as its Tupelo correspondent until 1960, when he transferred to the newspaper’s Memphis office. His arrival there coincided with Elvis Presley’s homecoming from the army, and Kingsley soon began cultivating close ties with the Memphis music scene, including the Sun and Stax studios and their recording artists.

“I don’t have a better friend than Jim, in or out of the newspaper business,” Sam Phillips would say years later. “Without fear of disfavor, he wrote of the black and white (performers) who made Memphis unique for its unmatched international impact through its music.”

• Kingsley a journalist Elvis felt he could trust

In The Commercial Appeal Kingsley often covered the comings and goings of Memphis’ most famous entertainment figure. By the mid-’60s he had developed such a close relationship with Elvis that the singer considered the reporter a “confidant,” one member of the press with whom he could speak openly without fear of being misrepresented. Perhaps Elvis respected Kingsley’s integrity. “What I did is, I never tried to double cross somebody,” the writer once said. “I wouldn’t take much off the record. I’d tell them, ‘If you can’t tell me, I’ll have to go somewhere else.’”

There’s no telling how many Presley articles by James Kingsley wrote for The Commerical Appeal in the ’60s and ’70s. For every one that carried his byline, a dozen others from his typewriter went without credit attached. His Presley exclusives included the first articles about Elvis’ 1968 “Comeback Special” and the historic 1969 Memphis recording sessions.

For his prolific Presley writings and his scoops on historic events in the entertainer’s career, Elvis fans can be thankful for James Kingsley’s journalistic efforts. However, from the beginning, Kingsley was an unabashed supporter and defender of Elvis Presley, a role to be expected, I suppose, of a Memphis reporter covering the city’s most famous citizen. Unfortunately, perhaps, it also was an attitude that may have kept Kingsley from discerning that all was not as perfect as it seemed behind the dreamlike walls of Graceland.

The fact is that James Kingsley, in addition to being a good journalist, was also a pawn, one of many in the sixties press corps, that Elvis Presley and Colonel Parker used to perpetuate a myth. The image they foisted on the American public was that Elvis lived a flawless personal life and that he was the perfect role model for young men and the perfect mate for young women.

• Kingsley article perpetuated the Presley myth

For instance, check out “At Home With Elvis Presley,” a lengthy Kingsley expose that appeared in The Commercial Appeal Mid-South Magazine on March 7, 1965. For the article, Elvis invited the writer to Graceland for a rare one-on-one interview that lasted over two hours. Kingsley gave Presley plenty of opportunities to sell himself as a role model. Elvis started by referring to his humble beginnings:

“I can never forget the longing to be someone. I guess if you are poor you always think bigger and want more than those who have everything when they are born. We didn’t. So our dreams and ambitions could be much greater because we had so much farther to go than anyone else. I am not ashamed of my background, or the fact that I drove a truck. In fact, I am proud that in America we have the opportunity to fight for a way of life … I don’t regard money or position as important. It is what a man does that is important.”

I’m not suggesting Elvis was being disingenuous with that statement or in similar ones later in the article. There was nothing wrong with Elvis trying to present himself in a positive light, and James Kingsley certainly can’t be faulted for quoting Elvis directly. It was when Kingsley paraphrased or included his own judgments about Elvis’ character that he helped perpetuate the Presley myth. And there are plenty of examples in the story of Kingsley pulling Elvis’ wagon.

“He never dodges questions,” Kingsley noted of the interview, “and hesitates over his answers only when he feels he might be made to appear snobbish. He is troubled by some waspish stories which accuse him of forgetting his fans.”

• Kingsley declared Elvis a “genuinely nice guy”

Elvis knew from experience that he could count on Kingsley to portray him in a positive light; hence the greater access given Kingsley. The writer obviously liked Presley, and examples of his predetermined approval of his subject appear throughout the 1965 article.

“Unlike some other superstars, Elvis is a genuinely nice guy,” Kingsley declared in the story. “He never makes news by insulting people, by brawling, nightclubbing or running with Hollywood status packs. There has never been even a hit of scandal attached to his name. His manners are a source of amazement to those meeting him for the first time. He is almost universally described with such words as ‘polite,’ ‘nice,’ ‘humble,’ ‘sincere’ and ‘thoughtful.’ He is, in short, so well-mannered that he has never even had a traffic citation.” (That last assertion was not true, incidentally.)

Why does such effusion over Elvis bother me? Those who became Elvis fans after his death probably won’t understand. They came to Elvis with his entire career and personal life laid out before them. They took note of his personal flaws and were able to set them aside. For them Elvis’ professional accomplishments and his positive personal qualities more than outweighed the drug use and all the bizarre behavior.

I became an Elvis fan during his lifetime. In my case it was in 1962. I remember reading dozens of articles, such as Kingsley’s cited above, that extolled Presley’s character. I, like millions of other Elvis fans then, bought into the role model myth. Many times I defended Elvis’ character when friends or fraternity brothers spoke disparagingly of him. After his death, when the myth faded away, revealing his personal flaws, I felt betrayed. Obviously, I worked through those feelings and have remained an Elvis fan all these years, but when I come across an article like Kingsley’s, it reminds of the disappointment I felt when I realized I had been duped back then.

• Elvis’ work fair game for critics

Now, in James Kingsley’s defense, I have no problem with his articles praising Elvis’ entertainment work during his career. For example, Kingsley was there on opening night in Las Vegas when Elvis returned to live performances in 1969. By then Kingsley was writing for two publications. His reviews of Presley’s show appeared in both The Commercial Appeal and Billboard, for which he had become the music journal’s Memphis correspondent. Kingsley praised Elvis in his review in Billboard’s August 9, 1969, issue:

“The greatest rocker of them all came and met one of his toughest audiences at the International Hotel showroom … But it was not the Elvis with the rough edges of the middle 1950s on stage Thursday. It was a polished, confident and talented artist, knowing exactly what he was going to do and when. But, it was the Elvis of the past as he ‘Put the feeling into the songs, and let the vibrations of the music have their say, swinging hips, revolving pelvis and moving shoulders.’”

Although I may disagree at times, I respect the observations and opinions of those who reviewed Elvis’ music, movies, and stage shows through the years. All parts of his show biz career were open for everyone to see and comment on. I only wish James Kingsley and his fellow journalists had been able to present a more balanced view of Elvis’ personal life.

James Kingsley worked for The Commercial Appeal for more than 40 years. He retired in April 1995, and five months later he died of congestive lung disease and emphysema at the age of 66. In his career in journalism, he had worked on the copy desk, the police beat, and reported on city and county government. He covered some of the biggest stories of his day, including the integration of Ole Miss in 1962. However, fate dictated that his life intersect with that of Elvis Presley, and like many other people of varied accomplishment, James Kingsley will be forever most remembered for that one association. — Alan Hanson | © May 2011

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