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Peter Guralnick demonstrated in his definitive history of Soul music, Sweet Soul Music : Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, that he has a nearly unique grasp of the singular way in which popular music and the political culture intersect in American society.  Along with Robert Palmer (Deep Blues) and Greil Marcus (Mystery Train), he has helped to craft a still pretty slender body of literature which takes pop music and its impact seriously, but also places it within a larger societal context.  Now, in his two part biography of Elvis Presley, he has set out to strip away both the mythology (Volume One) and the demonology (Volume Two) that obscure Elvis and to restore some reasonable sense of perspective on the man and his music.  In so doing, he offers us a new and useful opportunity to understand the personal and societal forces that converged to make him into The King, one of the genuine cultural icons of the 20th Century, and to trigger the Rock & Roll Era.

There are several main factors that Guralnick cites, which appear to have had a particular influence on how events transpired.  First is the city of Memphis itself, which served as a nearly perfect crucible for forging the blend of Gospel, Country, Blues and Rhythm & Blues that made up Elvis's sound.  A southern city, but not Deep South, there was at least limited interaction between the white and black worlds.  But most importantly for this story, the city was saturated with music.  Second, Sam Phillips, owner of his own fledgling Sun Records operation, was on the scene looking for a white act that could bring the black sound to a mass audience:

    Sam Phillips possessed an almost Whitmanesque belief not just in the nobility of the American
    dream but in the nobility of that dream as it filtered down to its most downtrodden citizen, the
    Negro.  'I saw--I don't remember when, but I saw as a child--I thought to myself: suppose that I
    would have been born black.  Suppose that I would have been born a little bit more down on the
    economic ladder.  I think I felt from the beginning the total inequity of man's inhumanity to his
    brother.  And it didn't take its place with me of getting up in the pulpit and preaching.  It took the
    aspect with me that someday I would act on my feelings, I would show them on an individual,
    one-to-one basis.'

 Finally, there was the man, actually he was more of a boy at the beginning, Elvis Presley.  And Elvis was himself the product of several forces.  There was the impoverished kind of white trash milieu from which Elvis came and which gave him a sense of alienation and otherness.  As Phillips said of him:

    He tried not to show it, but he felt so inferior.  He reminded me of a black man in that way; his
    insecurity was so markedly like that of a black person.

Then there was his mother, Gladys, who--in addition to raising him to be polite, respectful, humble, even deferential--also gave him unconditional love, bordering on worship, which he returned in kind.  These forces combined, as so often seems to be the case, to make him insecure on the one hand, particularly in the manner in which he approached and dealt with people, but, on the other, left him burning with an inner certainty that he was special and was meant to accomplish great things.

All of these forces combined into a volatile mix in the Sun recording studios on July 5, 1954.  Phillips had brought Elvis in to work with a couple of local musicians, Scotty Moore and Bill Black, because he wanted them to do some ballads and Elvis had done some demos there, which Philips was not overwhelmed by but he thought Elvis had some potential as a ballad singer.  The session was pretty desultory, if not downright unsuccessful, until that inevitable, now mythical, moment when during a break Elvis started fooling around doing Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's old blues tune "That's All Right [Mama]".  Phillips, initially shocked that this quiet white mama's boy even new the song, immediately recognized that this was just the type of thing that he had been looking for and got them to record it.

All of the tumblers had clicked into place.  It was the nature of Memphis that Elvis and Sam had been exposed to, more like drenched in, the music of the black community.  Sam happened to be looking for someone who could transport that music and, most importantly, the style and atmospherics of the music, into the white community.  And in walks Elvis, that quintessential hybrid of insecurity and manifest destiny.

If success did not come overnight it did come quickly and Guralnick masterfully charts the meteoric rise that took them up the charts and took Elvis to television and then to Hollywood.  This first volume also sees Colonel Parker take over from Sam, the purchase of Graceland, the eventual breakup of the original band, the death of Elvis's mother and his induction into the Army.  Guralnick makes it all seem fresh and exciting, carrying the reader along on the tide of events.  An incredible number of famous names stud the narrative and prove to have significant roles to play, including:  Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Snow, B.B. King, Sammy Davis, Jr., Eddy Arnold, Bill Monroe, Steve Allen, Milton Berle and, of course, Ed Sullivan.  This is a great biography, one that should especially appeal to folks whose only image of Elvis is the fat, sweaty, drug-addled lounge lizard of popular caricature.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Peter Guralnick (2 books reviewed)
Music Literature
Peter Guralnick Links:
-INTERVIEW: Tom Teicholz interviews Peter Guralnick : Telling the Damn Truth (Tom Teicholz, January 23rd, 2016, LA Review of Books)

Book-related and General Links:

Other recommended books by Peter Guralnick:
    -Sweet Soul Music : Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom

    -The King Of Rock 'N' Roll: The Complete 50's Masters
    -Artist Of The Century
    -Elvis Recorded Live On Stage In Memphis
    -Memories: The '68 Comeback Special

    -Elvis Presley's Graceland (official site)
    -Elvis Presley Online
    -Elvis Lives
    -Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Elvis Presley 1986, Performer
    -Time Warner Author Bookmark: Peter Guralnick
    -REVIEW: of Deep Blues by Robert Palmer (Peter Guralnick, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW: Peter Guralnick  Interview (a.d. amorosi, City Paper Philadelphia)
    -REVIEW: of LAST TRAIN TO MEMPHIS The Rise of Elvis Presley. By Peter Guralnick (Stephen Wright, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of LAST TRAIN TO MEMPHIS The Rise of Elvis Presley By Peter Guralnick (MARGO JEFFERSON, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: Luc Sante: The Genius of Blues, NY Review of Books
       Nothing But the Blues: The Music and the Musicians edited by Lawrence Cohn
       The Land Where the Blues Began by Alan Lomax
       King of the Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Charlie Patton by Stephen Calt and Gayle
       Searching for Robert Johnson by Peter Guralnick
       Love in Vain:A Vision of Robert Johnson by Alan Greenberg
    -REVIEW: of SWEET SOUL MUSIC. Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom. By Peter Guralnick (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of CARELESS LOVE The Unmaking of Elvis Presley By Peter Guralnick  (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Careless Love The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. By Peter Guralnick (Gerald Marzorati, NY Times Book Review)
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One of Careless Love
    -REVIEW: Careless Love: It  keeps  right  on  a-hurtin': In his masterful account of Elvis Presley's decline, Peter Guralnick has written an American tragedy with a rock 'n' roll beat (CHARLES TAYLOR, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Careless Love (Alden Mudge, Bookpage)
    -REVIEW: of Careless Love (Michelle Goldberg, MetroActive)
    -REVIEW: Caught In A Trap  Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Gary Marshall, Spike)
    -REVIEW: Peter Guralnick: the chronicler of all things Elvis completes the task (Jon Johnson, Country Standard Time)
    -REVIEW: Downward spiral  In Careless Love, a god crumbles (Ted Drozdowski, Providence Phoenix)
    -REVIEW: Second volume puts the King's fall in tragic context (MICHAEL BEZDEK -- Associated Press)
    -REVIEW: Elvis searches for a savior Peter Guralnick continues his study of the King and his quest for true freedom  (Joel Williamson, Raleigh News & Observer)
    -ESSAY: Sound of freedom Peter Guralnick's American music saga (Jon Garelick, Boston Phoenix)

    -DISCOGRAPHY: Elvis Presley Singles and Albums Page
    -WEBRING: TCB Ring (Elvis's motto--Taking Care of Business in a Flash)
    -LINKS: LookSmart: Elvis Presley
    -My Graceland--Sights and Sounds of the King
    -REVIEW: Mark Crispin Miller: Where All the Flowers Went, NY Review of Books
       The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll edited by Jim Miller
       All You Need Is Love: The Story of Popular Music by Tony Palmer
       Rock, Roll and Remember by Dick Clark and Richard Robinson
       The Rolling Stones: An Illustrated Record by Roy Carr
       What's That Sound? edited by Ben Fong-Torres
       John Lennon: One Day at a Time by Anthony Fawcett
       Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music by Greil Marcus
    -REVIEW: Luc Sante: Relic, NY Review of Books
       Elvis by Albert Goldman
       Private Elvis photographs by Rudolf Paulini and edited by Diego Cortez
    -REVIEW: Mark Crispin Miller: The King, NY Review of Books
       The Private Elvis by May Mann
       My Life With Elvis: The Fond Memories of a Fan Who Became Elvis's Private Secretary by
       Becky Yancey and Cliff Linedecker
       Elvis: A Biography by Jerry Hopkins
       Elvis: What Happened? by Red West, Sonny West, Dave Hebler, and as told to Steve

    -THE ROUGH GUIDE TO  ROCK (ultimate online rock guide - the careers and recordings of more than 1200 bands and artists)
    -REVIEW: Garry Wills: A Reader's Guide to the Century, NY Review of Books
       The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 by Eric Hobsbawm
       Modern Times, Modern Places by Peter Conrad
       A History of the World in the Twentieth Century by J.A.S. Grenville
       The Century by Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster
       The American Century by Harold Evans, with Gail Buckland, and Kevin Baker
       The Oxford History of the Twentieth Century edited by Michael Howard and William Roger
       The Columbia History of the Twentieth Century edited by Richard W. Bulliet
       Why the American Century? by Olivier Zunz
       The Twentieth Century: A World History by Clive Ponting
       Our Times: The Illustrated History of the 20th Century edited by Lorraine Glennon
       Chronicle of the 20th Century edited by Clifton Daniel, John W. Kirshon, foreword by Arthur
       M. Schlesinger, Jr., and An updated edition will be published in November.
       National Geographic Eyewitness to the 20th Century by National Geographic Society