I wish I were precocious enough to say I heard Elvis' Sun records on the radio, but I was only seven at the time. I do, however, distinctly remember the night in 1956 that Dewey Phillips introduced "Heartbreak Hotel" on his radio show. I listened to "Red, Hot, and Blue" every night, even if it meant putting the radio right next to my ear so my parents couldn't hear. I loved the voice before I saw the singer. The flip side, "I Was the One," sounded so different that I thought it was another of Dewey's favorite Doo Wop groups from the northeast until he proclaimed that it was Memphis' own Elvis Presley. Elvis' photograph appeared in the morning paper with his shirt collar up in the back and his hair formed into a shiny, immaculate pompadour. I had to inform my big sister that Elvis was a greaser. One night, my sister came home from a teenage party at the Hotel Chisca in a state of euphoric bliss. Elvis had been to the WHBQ radio studios visiting Dewey, and when asked by an enthusiastic chaperon, he strolled into the party of giggling girls just to say hello. Photographs were printed with my sister and a tousled Elvis. Years later, when I asked her about the photo, she said there were never any pictures taken. I was adamant that I had seen it. My sister had her hair in a tight curl and Elvis was standing next to her, looking cool and draping an arm loosely over her shoulder. Only then did I realize that the picture I had seen and carried with me had been developed in the darkroom of my imagination for my scrapbook of Elvis memories.
Where I differ with some devoted Elvis aficionados is that I think his earliest recordings, like Sam Cooke's, were his greatest. I've made a personal "E" mix-disc that I listen to frequently when I'm in need of cheering up, and the pure joy that exudes from Elvis in songs like "I Don't Care If the Sun Don't Shine" works every time. All the songs, however, are from 1955-1958. He recorded great songs after that, but instead of working with genius songwriters like Otis Blackwell or Leiber and Stoller, who had written his earliest hits, the weaselly Colonel Parker hooked him into making that series of pointless, silly movies where studio hacks and friends of the Colonel got first crack at Elvis with tunes like "He's Your Uncle, Not Your Dad," "Do the Clam," and "No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car." When Elvis lost his edge, I lost interest in him as a musical influence. During his spangled jumpsuit years, he never regained the infectious, gravel-throated vocal power that made him the King of Rock and Roll. Elvis had the world's greatest set list, yet in concert he would breeze through his greatest hits in a medley, often mocking the early material as if it were not consequential. The Colonel cheated us out of the best of Elvis. Rather than making musical progress with each album like the Beatles who idolized him, Elvis regressed with each half-hearted effort to fulfill his contractual obligations to his record label. It was a sad descent. It was sadder still to imagine what might have been.
My great regret was never getting to meet Elvis. I suppose I could have imposed upon someone like George Klein for an introduction, but that would have been very un-Elvis like of me. Sam Phillips might have finagled something, but I came to Sun ten years after Elvis and Sam didn't exactly pal around with him anymore. My dentist was Elvis' dentist, but I had to be satisfied with the tales of Elvis' after-hours visits. The single time I received an offer to go to Graceland was from Dewey Phillips, but Dewey was no longer on good terms with Elvis, and in an adventure that I recounted in an article for Memphis Magazine, Poor Dewey was turned away at the gate, and by proxy, so was I. Even in later years, I might have crashed Elvis' annual Christmas party by tagging along with a musical pal, but I didn't. There's one thing I always wondered, and it's total vanity on my part. When I was making records for Sun and having them played on the radio, and appearing on George Klein's Talent Party on Saturday afternoon TV, was Elvis ever aware of our little band? Probably not, but there's no one left to tell me. As an adult, I tried to write songs for Elvis, but I had no hope of reaching him. I always believed that he was one song away from recapturing the fire of his early career.
It was puzzling to me why Elvis felt it necessary to seclude himself inside Graceland. By the mid-seventies, you'd often see Jerry Lee Lewis on the town surrounded by his entourage to keep the nasty drunks away, and he seemed almost approachable. Jerry took a liking to a club in Overton Square called the Hot Air Balloon, where he could be found nights jamming after hours, and no one ever bothered him. I thought if Elvis would just get out a little, people in his own home town would give him a similar break. I retained that opinion until one day at the airport. I had come with my parents to greet the arrival of a relative back in the days when you could walk right up to the gate without being molested by strangers. Suddenly I was struck by the appearance of a man walking toward me and I was certain that he was an old friend whose name I couldn't recall. He was with a group of happy people having obviously just met an arriving passenger, and I was taken by his familiar look and unusually large facial pores. When I caught up with my mother, she asked cheerfully, "Did you see Elvis?" I immediately wheeled and sprinted the length of the terminal and through the double doors. He had just closed the passenger side door of a white Cadillac when he looked up at me. "Hey Elvis," I uttered lamely. He nodded and said, "How you doin' man?" and he was gone. I realized that if I had just chased after Elvis like a teenage girl, perhaps it was wise that he not go out in public after all. With due deference to Jerry Lee, the thousands of pilgrims who come to Memphis in August, year after year, prove that Elvis was never intended to be just one of the guys.