A surprisingly worthwhile addition to the groaning shelf of Elvis books, emphasizing the historical and cultural context for his music and celebrity.
Ponce de Leon (History/SUNY Purchase) makes good use of scholarly material, rock criticism and Peter Guralnick’s definitive two-volume biography (Last Train to Memphis,1994; Careless Love, 1999) to write a short but cogent analysis of Presley’s significance as a musician and a star. He’s particularly good on the transformations in American society that enabled “Elvis the Pelvis,” viewed in the 1950s as a race-mixing, near-juvenile-delinquent—adored by rebellious teens and respected by African-American record buyers, but anathema to conventional adults—to have become by the ’70s the epitome of patriotic values, beloved by conservative, white country-music fans. The author of a previous book on celebrity (Self-Exposure, 2001), Ponce de Leon also offers valuable comments about the ways in which Presley’s unprecedented fame, which in the late ’50s made it impossible for him to appear in public, shaped a weird lifestyle that ultimately contributed to his artistic decline and drug abuse. The story of his career trajectory, from groundbreaking music through mediocre movies to late-life touring, is the same one related in dozens of previous books, but the author retells it well, with respect for his subject and the working-class Southern culture that produced Elvis. He’s considerably more sympathetic than many pundits toward the singer’s manager, Tom Parker, paying tribute to the Colonel’s amazing promotional abilities and acknowledging that his business strategies were in line with Presley’s desire for mainstream success. It’s a balanced assessment, acknowledging that the precipitous decline in the quality of the movies was Elvis’s responsibility as much as Parker’s, but also noting that the Colonel’s decision to limit record releases to soundtrack albums cut the singer off from his musical inspiration, the source of his self-confidence and “the wellspring from which everything else had come.”
Nothing revelatory here, but a thoughtful synthesis of the most intelligent writing on the Presley phenomenon.