Elvis Week Day 4 – Elvis 101

By Jon Waterhouse

Somebody get me my cap and gown. I think I just graduated from the College of Elvis Knowledge.

Yesterday morning I bee-lined to the Main Stage at Graceland for Elvis 101. Some of the top Elvis scholars on the planet, including author Peter Guralnick, Dr. Charles Hughes from Rhodes College, and John Jackson and Ernst Jorgensen from Sony, dispensed a wealth of information on the king of rock ‘n’ roll.

l to r, Ernst Jorgensen, Jon Waterhouse and Peter Guralnick

l to r, Ernst Jorgensen, Jon Waterhouse and Peter Guralnick

I like to think I know my Elvis trivia more than the average roustabout. However, I don’t hold a candle, heck, not even not even a 50-cent lighter to these dudes. While hanging backstage, I asked several of the guys to give me some information I probably didn’t know.

Elvis was self aware

1charles
Dr. Charles Hughes, director of the Memphis Center at Rhodes College and professor of the course “Elvis Presley and America,” says Elvis clearly understood the part he played among our cultural landscape.

“If you go back and listen to Elvis Presley in 1968 and ’69,” Hughes explains, “he’s talking about himself the same way we’re still talking about him in 2016. I think he was very conscious, and it was a sign of just how smart he was about himself, and how much he understood his own place in musical history and in a culture. In a sense, he was actually a really wonderful historian of himself. During the “’68 Comeback Special” era, the Vegas period and the touring period of the early ’70s when he was reintroducing himself to live audiences, he was doing so in a way that would help us not only appreciate him, but understand him to this day. He talked about his youth, he talked about his musical journey, all of those things. It was really striking to see just how conscious he was of setting himself into a story in a way that I think is still very important today.”

The “Hound Dog” controversy

2sony
John Jackson, the vice President of A&R and content development at Sony Legacy Recordings, oversees all audio, visual and packaging for releases, including those involving the king. Jackson’s hands touched the recently released “Way Down In The Jungle Room,” the ultimate collection of Presley’s final recording sessions. Backstage at Elvis 101, he had this about Elvis’ controversial 1956 TV performance of “Hound Dog,” which hadn’t even hit vinyl yet:

“You think about when Elvis got in trouble doing ‘Hound Dog’ on ‘The Milton Berle Show’,” Jackson said, “and sort of had to apologize and (sing to) the dog on ‘The Steve Allen Show.’ He hadn’t even recorded that song yet. So he was on TV basically promoting doing this song. He doesn’t record until after ‘The Steve Allen Show’ and no one even hears it or has a 45 single of it until after that. So that’s pretty fascinating that the whole controversy happened even before you could buy the song.”

The Christmas card

1PETERwithsamandelvis
Author Peter Guralnick, a music journalist and author known for his exhaustive research and meticulous attention to detail, didn’t release Elvis biographies, “The Last Train to Memphis” and “Careless Love,” until 1994 and 1999, respectively. Yet, he actually received a response from Elvis Presley himself years before.

“This all started when I wrote to Elvis originally in 1967,” he explains. “I got a Christmas card back from him with (the Graceland return address.)”

 

Q & A WITH PETER GURALNICK

1petertalking

For my money, Peter Guralnick serves as the Dean of the College of Elvis Knowledge. If enough evidence can’t be found in the amazing one-two punch of “The Last Train to Memphis” and “Careless Love,” then take a look at his latest Bible-thick project, “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll,” chronicling the life of the maestro who discovered Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Elvis and others.

Guralnick graciously spoke with me for nearly an hour. Soak up some of our conversation’s greatest hits:

On meeting Colonel Tom Parker:
The first Elvis birthday event I attended was in 1988, I believe. I was just at the start of working on “The Last Train to Memphis.” I went, because Colonel Tom Parker was going to be there, which I think was a first for him. Lots of people were there, including Lisa Marie and the director of the “’68 Special,” Steve Binder. I was sitting with Sam Phillips and walked over. Sam hadn’t seen the Colonel in many years and decided it was time to say “hello.” I went over with Sam, who introduced me to the Colonel. Later on, I wrote to the Colonel, and that was the beginning of a relationship that was very significant. The Colonel helped me out a great deal by introducing me to a lot of people. He never did a formal interview; he didn’t believe in them. The most eye-opening thing that happened in the middle of writing the biographies, which I wrote over the course of 11 years between 1988 and 1999, Jack Soden (CEO of Elvis Presley Enterprises) opened up the archives to me. It was after “The Last Train to Memphis” came out. The archives were then housed in a warehouse. It’s an astonishing archive of papers, especially the Colonel’s, first of all. And then Graceland, mostly in Vernon’s office, provided me with insights that I don’t think I would otherwise have had and never would have had if it had not been for Jack Soden’s help.

On the art of handling his interview subjects:
It’s about showing respect to people in whatever it is you do. You can’t go into something with a sense of entitlement or feeling that someone owes you a favor. It’s not like the minute you walk in the door everyone is going to drop what they’re doing and say, “It’s so great! You finally showed up!” They’re doing me a favor in terms of talking to me (for my books.) Just in human relations, people don’t owe you anything, but you owe them respect. And hopefully they’ll give that respect back. I don’t think that anything I’ve done has come easy, and I don’t think it should, either.

On what impresses him about Elvis Week:
At the Elvis Weeks that I’ve attended, you’re always impressed with the sense of commonality the fans have. You have a whole bunch of people from a lot of different backgrounds, many geographic areas, many of whom might disagree with each other on political grounds and all sorts of grounds. But they’re all drawn together by the common enthusiasm and fervor. This community of people with a common interest is formed.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *