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The King: Still Making Waves

For someone whom Forbes magazine recently cited as “one of the 20th century’s biggest cultural forces,” Elvis Presley appeared sporadically in The Saturday Evening Post during his brief lifetime.

A quick glance in the Post Archives shows the fledgling King of Rock ‘n’ Roll as the subject, at least partially, of seven articles, beginning with Pete Martin’s “I Call on Bing Crosby” interview in the May 11, 1957, issue and concluding with “There’ll Always Be an Elvis” by C. Robert Jennings on September 11, 1965.

About halfway through the Bing Crosby article, pals Martin and Crosby got on the subject of those crazy teenagers and their awful music (at least according to Martin). When Martin tries to get Crosby to agree with him, Crosby—much to his friend’s (and probably his fans’) chagrin—doesn’t take the bait. “He sings in tune and he’s got good rhythm,” Crosby says of Presley. In Martin’s “I Call on Dick Clark” interview from 1959, interviewer and interviewee locked horns over the merits of both Presley and the entire genre in which he is considered the king. “Personally, I think [Elvis is] handsome and has nice features,” Clark is quoted. “He is quiet, well spoken and fairly intelligent.”

Presley is also mentioned in a June 1960 article called “Big Gamble on the Stars,” about the insurance policies movie studios took out on their stars; when Elvis broke a tooth on the set of 1957’s Jailhouse Rock, his studio collected nearly $3,000. And in October 1963’s “Pop Music: The Dumb Sound,” his name makes a one-sentence cameo when his latest hit (“[You’re the] Devil in Disguise”) gets lumped alongside tunes and artists the author considers amateurish.

It took William Saroyan, writer and fellow rebel (notorious for winning—and refusing—a Pulitzer Prize when Elvis was just a five-year-old in Tupelo, Miss.), to capture the true spirit of the man, and his music, in a Post essay entitled “It’s Me, O Lord” (April 18, 1964). Nearly ten years have passed since Presley’s first Sun Records single came out, and Saroyan—by now living as an expatriate—finds himself one morning sitting in a bar nursing a brandy. Suddenly, someone plays “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” on the jukebox:

“The singer was Elvis Presley, one of the greatest of the singers, although much-maligned. After singing the first verse, Elvis Presley does something like a recitative, … and one of the things he says to this girl is, ‘Honey, you lied.’ Elvis Presley says these few words, these banal and unacceptable words, with so much earnestness, so much astonishment, pain, honesty, and art that the words are suddenly not banal at all, but magnificent, and not unacceptable, but welcome. He says them … as if he is talking to the verities, the enormities, the unverifiable verities, and the very probably terribly small enormities. And so I had to have the jukebox play the song six more times before I was willing to say good night and go on down the hill to my ice-cold house in Paris.”

As of mid-2008, the Library of Congress’ online catalog listed more than 600 “hits” (books, films, recordings, and so on) dedicated to Elvis Presley. Of those “hits,” Elvis, The Last 24 Hours by Albert Goldman (1991) makes a compelling case that Presley killed himself in 1977, partly because of his finances (he seriously considered filing for bankruptcy) but also because of health problems due in no small measure to his prodigious drug-taking and eating habits. A damning book was just published about him, and he was facing an upcoming concert tour, forced to perform in increasingly backwater areas of the country for significantly lower fees.

But thirty years later, the King’s legacy reigns restored and intact. Annually, thousands of fans flock to Graceland, and Presley, according to Forbes magazine, hit a high note as the top-earning deceased celebrity in 2007, raking in $49 million. Despite the entertainer’s often-turbulent life, the world continues to cherish his music and celebrated moments.

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