The Memory of Elvis Presley Lives On
Since his death, the fans' desire to get close to Elvis is gratified through visiting Graceland, where the events of his personal life unfolded. The echoes of Elvis' past linger in the rooms and halls of his private retreat.
On the anniversary of Elvis' death, thousands of fans brave the sweltering August heat in Memphis to remember their idol. They have organized a week of tributes and memorials that includes visiting Graceland, Sun Records, and other Presley haunts. The week culminates in a candlelight ceremony.
On the evening of August 15, fans gather in front of the Music Gate. They sing some of Elvis' songs and swap Elvis stories. At 11:00 p.m., two or more Graceland employees walk down to the gate with a torch that has been lighted from the eternal flame.
As the Music Gate swings open, the fans, with their lighted candles, climb silently and reverently up the hill behind the house, where they walk single file past the gravesite. The procession often takes as long as six hours to pass through the Meditation Garden. It is not only a gesture of respect for Elvis and what he represents, but also it's proof that Elvis' fans are as faithful after his death as they were during his lifetime.
The almost continuous release of biographical information keeps Elvis' name in the news and fuels the phenomenon. Professional writers and scholars have published books about Elvis. Rock-music historian Dave Marsh's eloquent and insightful Elvis, published in 1981, concentrated on the singer's contributions to popular music and culture. Peter Guralnick, a noted music historian, wrote two perceptive biographies titled Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis.
Members of the Memphis Mafia also published books about Elvis. Jerry Hopkins wrote Elvis: The Final Years, and Marty and Patsy Lacker collaborated on Elvis: Portrait of a Friend. Both books confirm the stories about Elvis' drug use and destructive lifestyle related in the controversial Elvis: What Happened? by Red and Sonny West.
Subsequent biographies by members of Elvis' family acknowledged his bad side but most often balanced these stories with anecdotes about his generosity. The most awaited biography was Priscilla Beaulieu Presley's account of her relationship with Elvis, titled Elvis and Me. Published in 1985, the book offers no revelations about his career but does provide some much-needed insight into his secluded lifestyle during the 1960s.
The Touch of Two Kings by Elvis' stepbrother Rick Stanley, who is now a minister, recounts Stanley's experiences with his famous relative. Elvis: We Love You Tender by Elvis' stepmother Dee Stanley is a compassionate look at his ups and downs during the 1960s and 1970s.
In 1987, to mark the tenth anniversary of Elvis' death, a reappraisal of his musical contributions began to appear in the popular press. After years of negative publicity, the career of Elvis Presley was finally being reevaluated. This appreciation was short-lived, however, because rumors surfaced that Elvis was still alive, undermining any credible assessment of his career.
Initially, the rumors that Elvis Presley had faked his own death served to discredit his standing as an important cultural figure. Fueled by Gail Brewer-Giorgio's self-published book, The Most Incredible Elvis Presley Story Ever Told, the "Elvis is alive" rumors escalated in 1988 with reported sightings of Elvis in fast-food restaurants in Michigan. Giorgio's book was retitled Is Elvis Alive? to take advantage of the media attention surrounding the current surge of interest in Elvis. Included with each book was an audiocassette of Elvis' voice discussing events that occurred after he died. Later an Elvis soundalike came forward, asserting that he had made the recording for a project that never materialized, a claim Giorgio denied.
Ultimately, the authenticity of the tape mattered very little, because the rumors and the way they were handled in the press added another dimension to the Elvis Presley phenomenon. The frequency of books, newspaper and tabloid articles, and programs on radio and television indicated that many people -- whether or not they believed the rumors -- were interested in keeping Elvis Presley "alive."
Bumper stickers that sentimentally declared, "Elvis lives in my heart," were replaced with the more emphatic "Elvis Lives." But it was not the historical Elvis Presley who was resurrected -- it was Elvis the icon of American popular culture.
The "Elvis is alive" stories and the massive amounts of publicity that surrounded their circulation helped refigure the historical Elvis into an American folk hero endowed with as much symbolic significance as Davy Crockett or Wyatt Earp. As an icon, Elvis Presley can evoke any number of ideas, including rebellion, success, excessiveness, and the glory and pitfalls of fame. As a folk hero, he inspires the telling and retelling of anecdotes and stories that are exaggerated and manipulated to illustrate any of these ideas.
In the years since his death, Elvis Presley has been highly honored and sharply criticized. At times a powerful symbol of revolution and at other times a national joke, through it all he has remained the King of Rock 'n' Roll. His crown is intact, only slightly tarnished by the criticism, exploitation, and hype. It is a fitting title because it embraces the breadth of an extraordinary career and because it reminds us of the music -- his true legacy to American culture.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Doll holds a Ph.D. in radio, television and film studies from Northwestern University. She is an instructor of film studies at Oakton Community College and a writer of film and popular culture. A sought-after expert on the works and life of Elvis Presley, Susan has appeared on The Joan Rivers Show and National Public Radio to discuss the King and other topics related to popular film. She is the author of numerous books on popular culture, notably Elvis: A Tribute to His Life, The Films of Elvis Presley, Marilyn: Her Life and Legend, Elvis: Rock 'n' Roll Legend, Best of Elvis, Understanding Elvis, Elvis: Forever in the Groove, Elvis: American Idol, and Florida on Film.