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Guest Commentary / September 13, 2022

Elvis Presley: An American Tragic Hero

Only Elvis can answer whether the price he paid for his fame was worth it.

By Mark Fowler

“But possessions bring friends, I admit that. But false ones and it provides them not for you but for itself.” —Erasmus of Rotterdam

Elvis Presley died 45 years ago last month. His end was tragic, but so typical of rock and roll musicians. In poor health; addicted to a deadly cocktail of prescription medicines; betrayed by friends, his physician, and business manager; and overcome and consumed by his fame and fortune, he lost his way in the later years of his life. Human existence is confounding and difficult for those born in poverty or besieged by loss. Elvis suffered from both of those. Elvis was born in 1935, the sixth year of the Great Depression, to parents who were poorly educated and ill prepared to cope with the fame that followed Elvis’s success. His mother appears to have been somewhat neurotic, obsessed with the death of Elvis’s twin brother, and ever fearful that she would also lose Elvis. No doubt this affected her relationship with him and affected his perception of the world as well.

Elvis and his parents had a hardscrabble life. His father was found guilty of altering a check and spent some time in prison, which must have been yet another shock to the fragile psyche of the three-year-old boy. When in Mississippi, the Presley family lived in a largely black neighborhood at a time when segregation was de rigueur. Moving from Tupelo, Mississippi, to Memphis, Tennessee, they lived in a housing project in the poorer part of Memphis.

His parents gave him a guitar at age 10, but by age 13, his music teacher told him he had no talent as a singer. Elvis was a bit odd as a teen, bullied by some at Humes High School for his odd ways, including dying his hair black. His family attended the Assembly of God church, where he learned to love Gospel music and must have been influenced by black spirituals.

Elvis was unnaturally close to his mother, and one of his early songs, “That’s all right Mama,” was dedicated to his mother. Her premature death in 1958 left a gaping hole in his life.

Fate brought Elvis to Sun Studios in Memphis, where his iconic sound launched his career. In 1954, Elvis appeared at the Louisiana Hayride and his meteoric rise to fame began. His commercial breakout was “Hound Dog” appearing on “The Milton Berle Show.” Like Buddy Holly, Elvis infused his music with what was considered “negro” rhythm and a thinly concealed exuberant sexuality, which offended many sensibilities. Ed Sullivan would only broadcast him from the waist up. Steve Allen forced him to sing in a tuxedo and tails so he could not gyrate.

Elvis’s success and his downfall were delivered by Col. Tom Parker, a Dutch expatriate and, for lack of a better phrase, a scoundrel. Capable of extreme manipulation and governed by considerable greed while retaining a shrewd business sense, he guided Elvis along the path to success. During the early part of his career, while being assailed for overly suggestive sexual conduct, Parker arranged for Elvis to join the U.S. Army for the purpose of burnishing his character. What remains unanswered is how well Elvis might have done without Parker.

In the extraordinarily brilliant movie “Elvis,” the love-hate symbiosis between Elvis and Parker is portrayed with remarkable skill by Austin Butler, playing a very believable Elvis, and Tom Hanks, delivering a powerful portrayal of Parker. An intensely human side of Elvis is revealed in this movie. His naivete about Parker evolves into gullibility. He becomes seduced by and then overwhelmed with the burdens of fame, fortune, access to women, and controlled substances. One senses a deep chasm of emptiness in Elvis and his powerful drive to fill that emptiness with his performance. He lived to satisfy and relate to his audience with an energy that can only be driven by ferocious intensity. Emptiness is the source of his drive, his success, and his downfall.

Elvis’s descent into depravity was his own but aided and abetted by Col. Parker’s self-serving delivery of fame and fortune, by the sycophancy of his friends, and by the betrayal of his physician, Dr. “Nick” Nichopolous, who administered a cocktail of drugs to sustain Elvis’s lifestyle. I had always thought that Elvis was fundamentally decent, with a kindness and vulnerability that was revealed in his interviews. Colin Powell mentions Elvis in his memoirs as a decent, trustworthy soldier. Ed Sullivan praised his decency on air. Elvis paid an enormous price for his success, not the least of which was this decency.

At the end of his life, he had largely, but not completely, lost his way. Recognizing that his lifestyle was unhealthy, he tried to change. It was too late. He died of a heart attack at age 42. It was a tragic end and a waste of talent and life. On the other hand, Elvis might not have aged well at all. He feared not being remembered, and as time passed his talents would no doubt diminish, leaving him irrelevant.

Elvis was the bestselling solo music artist of all time, selling 500 million records worldwide over his career.

Only Elvis can answer whether the price he paid for his fame was worth it. One hopes it was to him. And we can find a clue in a clip of his last performance. While playing “Unchained Melody,” he appears unhealthy. He trembles. He can barely stand. Yet he brings the same power and emotion he had always brought to his performances. And at the last stanza there is a brilliant expression of joy on his face that tells you he is complete.

Thank you for sharing your gifts with us, Mr. Presley. Rest in peace.

Mark W. Fowler is a board-certified physician and former attorney. He can be reached at [email protected]

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