The first celebrity I ever had a crush on as a kid was Elvis Presley. And when I say “as a kid,” I mean young. My earliest memories are from third grade recess, huddled against the school building with my best friend Kay VanSkike, flipping through the latest movie magazines — Photoplay, Modern Screen — borrowed from our mothers’ stash.
This was in 1972, 1973. Kay and I sighed over nostalgic pictures of the young and handsome Elvis with his beautiful child bride Priscilla, and clucked our tongues at more recent tales of his dissipated escapades with various and sundry models after he and Priscilla split up. We never gave up hoping that the “real” Elvis — dressed head to toe in black leather and smoldering with sex appeal — would make a reappearance, banishing the pudgy white-jumpsuited modern version forever.
Early in fifth grade I moved with my family out into the country, changing schools and losing touch with Kay. We hadn’t seen each other or even spoken in months when Kay called me the following summer to break the news that Elvis had died. It was August 16, 1977; I remember standing in the doorway between our dining room and living room, phone cord stretched to the limit, sharing the news with my mom. It was the first time someone I “knew” had died, and it didn’t seem real. Not much later, my oldest brother would die unexpectedly, and I’d experience again that same stunned disbelief, but Elvis was the first.
After that, I went through a period of consuming every bit of information I could find about Elvis’ life. I read long magazine articles that examined his proper place in the pop-culture pantheon; Albert Goodman’s trashy biography; Priscilla’s autobiography Elvis and Me. I watched made-for-TV movies and practically wore out my mom’s Elvis LPs, especially the Blue Hawaii movie soundtrack and the classic 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t be Wrong, with its multiplicity of images of a sexy young Presley in a dazzling gold lame suit. Everyone who’d ever served Elvis so much as a milkshake wrote a tell-all book after he died, it seemed, and I devoured them all indiscriminately.
All of this is by way of establishing that I thought I knew pretty much everything about Elvis, from his birthplace (Tupelo, Miss.) to the company for whom he was driving a truck when he first walked into the Sun Studios in Memphis (Crown Electric) to the woman who was waiting in his bed as he expired on the toilet in the adjoining bathroom (Ginger Allen). But tonight, on the 75th anniversary of Elvis’ birth, I learned something new when I listened to The Story on NPR. Dick Gordon interviewed Gene Doucette, the guy who designed those bedazzled white jumpsuits that have become synonymous with latter-day Elvis. (Click on the link to hear it for yourself; it’s the second segment.)
It’s easy to make fun of the caricature Elvis became by the end, with his bloated physical appearance, his mutton-chop sideburns and oversized smoke-tinted aviator glasses, and his over-the-top stage shtick, tossing sweaty scarves to swooning septuagenarians. But the interview and its accompanying music clips inspired me to dig out some old CDs (I still have the LPs but no turntable, alas). And you know what? There’s a reason that long before Michael Jackson, Elvis was the King: